Two months before he was fired, FBI director James Comey inadvertently revealed something about his theological leanings that may have pointed to his inevitable fallout with President Donald Trump.
In March, Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg followed a string of clues to the Instagram and Twitter accounts of a user named after Reinhold Niebuhr, who she believed to be Comey. Many of the user’s tweets had to do with the FBI, including one linking to a report about a meeting between Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and a Russian emissary. But what tipped off this particular account was its user name.
While a student at the College of William and Mary, Comey wrote his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr. The Protestant theologian seems to have left an impression, judging from Comey’s references to him in public speeches and from this apparent pseudonym. Within a few days of Feinberg’s article, the owner shut the accounts down, though not before sending one last tweet that seemed to confirm the identification: a link to FBIjobs.gov—perhaps a job offer to Feinberg—and a quote from the movie Anchorman: “Actually I’m not even mad. That’s Amazing.”
Together with my colleague Sylvester Johnson, I published a book about the FBI and religion a few weeks before Feinberg outed Comey’s social media accounts. Our book traces the history of the FBI’s interaction with different religious communities and addresses the beliefs of some of its leaders and agents. I realized that Comey and Niebuhr were a part of the story we were trying to tell.
Niebuhr’s moral pragmatism
As Gene Zubovich notes, politicians caught trying to balance moral idealism and clear-eyed realism often look to Niebuhr, who’s earned the nickname “Washington’s favorite theologian.” Jimmy Carter said that Niebuhr was “always present in my mind” as he confronted the prospect of nuclear war. John McCain highlighted Niebuhr’s moral quandary in his 2007 book, Hard Call. In an interview with David Brooks, Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers; scholars see Niebuhr’s influence in Obama’s tendency to avoid moral absolutes and willingness to acknowledge America’s sins.
How did this particular theologian become so many politicians’ moral and spiritual compass? Niebuhr developed a view known as Christian realism, believing the human ego would undercut our attempts to better the world. According to Niebuhr, people need to shed their self-righteous illusions and perfectionist pretensions to set their sights on more modest solutions. Niebuhr warned that people should never assume they could eliminate evil. In fact, they should be on guard lest their moral ambitions lead them into a self-deluded and destructive pride.
Such views explain why Niebuhr turned from the pacifism of his youth to embrace violence when undertaken in the pursuit of justice, as manifest in his support for the war against Hitler and for America’s struggle against the Soviet Union. For political leaders on both sides of the aisle, Niebuhr’s theology offers a justification for pragmatism, for the use of force, and for the moral compromises that political action imposes.
In an interview with New York Magazine, Comey mentions Niebuhr and his most important work, Moral Man and Immoral Society, as a formative influence. At first, one might think to connect his invocation of Niebuhr to the renewed interest in the theologian after 9/11 when the War on Terror impelled some to look to him for religious arguments in support of the use of force while others saw in him the model of a prophetic critic.
But Comey’s interest in Niebuhr long predates 9/11, and I was interested in what originally drew him to the theologian. With Comey’s role in the Trump drama now unfolding, I tracked down his senior thesis to see what lessons there might be for understanding the FBI director’s run-in with President Trump
Niebuhr, Falwell, and Christian approaches to politics
Submitted in 1982, Comey’s thesis compares Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell. At the time, the televangelist had emerged as a central figure in American politics following the election of Ronald Reagan. Comey’s study was an effort to understand how each man would answer the question: “Why should the Christian be involved in politics?”
Niebuhr and Falwell came from opposite sides of the political spectrum. One, a former socialist and—despite his support for the Cold War—an early opponent of the Vietnam War, believing it an obligation to be critical of American actions that were unjust. The other, a staunch opponent to socialism and a supporter of the Vietnam War.
As the co-founder of the Moral Majority, Falwell espoused the kind of America-first patriotism that Niebuhr condemned. Niebuhr rejected moral absolutes, believing they were beyond reach and that their pursuit could lead humans into sinful pride. Falwell embraced them.
Yet, each claimed Scripture as the source for their political doctrines. Falwell believed the Bible to be infallible whereas Niebuhr was sensitive to the ambiguities. And each believed in a politically engaged Christianity willing to seek power, accept compromises, and risk cynicism and cooptation to achieve justice or avoid moral decay.
But what does this have to do with Comey’s actions today? For starters, Comey’s thesis suggests what may have drawn him to a career in the Justice Department.
Many Christian theologians in Niebuhr’s day embraced love as the solution to the world’s problems. As Comey explains in the thesis, Niebuhr rejected that view. Since human selfishness gets in the way of perfectly emulating Jesus’ sacrificial love, they must instead inject love into the world through justice.
Reading Comey’s description of Niebuhr’s views suggests a theological-moral logic at work in his career as FBI director. A Christian has an obligation to seek justice, the theologian argued, and this means entering the political sphere because that is the realm where one can find the power necessary to establish whatever justice is possible in the world. Comey’s decision to work for the FBI can be understood as a way of fulfilling Niebuhr’s vision of Christianity as a defender of justice.
President Trump’s court
At the same time, however, the Christian commitment to justice can also compel one to behave like a prophet, to speak truth to power, as Niebuhr himself did during the era of Comey’s most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover.
By the late 1960s, Niebuhr had cofounded an anti-war clergy group deemed suspicious by the FBI, and one of his cofounders, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, had been the subject of an FBI manhunt, arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. Niebuhr, a subject of FBI surveillance himself, was no fan of the bureau and felt moved to speak out against it.
In an essay called “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court” published in 1969, Niebuhr rebuked Hoover himself, comparing his spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. to the actions of the biblical Amaziah, a priest who abused the prophet Amos in an effort to suppress his critique.
It is ironic that Comey admires a figure who felt he had to denounce a previous FBI director. What is even more ironic, however, is that the essay anticipates the predicament Comey himself faced when, on January 27—in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn for his contacts with the Russians—he was invited to dinner with Trump and asked to declare his loyalty. At the time he wrote his thesis, Comey could have had no idea that he would one day be summoned to the court of the king and then, like Amos, driven out for not saying what the king wanted to hear.
Niebuhr and the politics of our era
It is tempting to read Comey’s thesis as an explanation for how has conducted himself as FBI director over the last year.
Niebuhr’s writings supply a moral argument for Comey’s aggressive assertion of the FBI’s power—some describe him as the most aggressive FBI director since Hoover himself. His influence also sheds light on another side of Comey’s conduct as FBI director. Niebuhr noted that while humans can’t change the animal nature that makes them so selfish, they can achieve a kind of freedom from their situation by becoming self-conscious, by recognizing the truth about themselves. Comey has sought to institutionalize such self-awareness in the FBI through programs that encourage FBI trainees to learn about Hoover’s mistreatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the complicity of law enforcement in the Holocaust.
But the theologian’s influence potentially sheds light on yet another side of Comey’s conduct as well. For a student of Niebuhr, justice is about using power to balance the power of those not predisposed to recognize any limits on their self-interest. Perhaps this helps to explain why Comey felt he had to criticize Clinton even though he found no reason to pursue a legal case against her. At that time she seemed to be on her way to becoming the most powerful person in the world, and her email troubles suggested someone who did not sufficiently respect limits.
Though there is no way to know what was going through his mind, one wonders whether Niebuhr’s influence was also at work during Comey’s fateful dinner with Trump. This time, if the reports are true, he faced his own moral predicament, asked by the most powerful person in the world to violate what Niebuhr regarded as the core obligation to do justly. Perhaps some day we will find out how Comey viewed his experience in the king’s court.
Whatever one thinks of Niebuhr’s theological views or Comey’s actions as FBI director, to me at least, it’s reassuring to think that for the first four months of Trump’s presidency, there was a high ranking and principled Niebuhrian in the executive branch standing up for justice. But maybe that is giving too much credit to Comey who has been criticized for falling into his own form of pride, what he refers to as the pride of virtue—“a moral pride revealed in self-righteous judgments based on highly arbitrary standards.”
In any case, it does not matter any more: neither “Reinhold Niebuhr” nor Reinhold Niebuhr are there any longer.
Steven Weitzman is the co-editor of the book The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 and a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he specializes in the study of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible.
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