The Making of “An American Conscience” on Dialogue

The Making of “An American Conscience” on Dialogue


ANNOUNCER: PRESENTATION OF “DIALOGUE” ON IDAHO PUBLIC TELEVISION IS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH THE GENEROUS SUPPORT OF THE LAURA MOORE CUNNINGHAM FOUNDATION, COMMITTED TO FULFILLING THE MOORE AND BETTIS FAMILY LEGACY OF BUILDING THE GREAT STATE OF IDAHO, BY THE FRIENDS OF IDAHO PUBLIC TELEVISION, AND BY THE CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING. ANDREW FINSTUEN, PROFESSOR, BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY: IT’S THAT NOTION OF THERE’S NEVER JUST A SIMPLY GOOD THING THAT HAPPENS, AND RARELY IS THERE SIMPLY AN EVIL THING THAT HAPPENS. WE’RE TIED UP IN THAT. MARCIA FRANKLIN, HOST: COMING UP, A CONVERSATION ABOUT ONE OF OUR COUNTRY’S GREATEST PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS: REINHOLD NIEBUHR. THAT’S “DIALOGUE”. STAY TUNED. (MUSIC) NARRATOR, IN “AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE: THE REINHOLD NIEBUHR STORY”: HE MAY BE BEST KNOWN AS AUTHOR OF THE FAMOUS SERENITY PRAYER. REINHOLD NIEBUHR, IN “AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE: THE REINHOLD NIEBUHR STORY”: GOD, GIVE US GRACE TO ACCEPT WITH SERENITY THE THINGS THAT CANNOT BE CHANGED… NARRATOR: BUT AMERICAN-BORN REINHOLD NIEBUHR, A THEOLOGIAN, A CELEBRATED WRITER, AND A PROGRESSIVE SOCIAL THINKER, BROUGHT A DISTINCT AND PROPHETIC VOICE TO SOME OF THE MOST DEFINING YEARS IN AMERICA’S HISTORY. FRANKLIN: HELLO AND WELCOME TO “DIALOGUE”. I’M MARCIA FRANKLIN. YOU WERE JUST LISTENING TO A CLIP FROM A PBS DOCUMENTARY CALLED “AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE: THE REINHOLD NIEBUHR STORY.” IT CHRONICLES THE LIFE AND WORK OF ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST PREEMINENT THINKERS. REINHOLD NIEBUHR, WHO WAS BORN IN 1892 AND DIED IN 1971, WAS A PROTESTANT MINISTER AND A PROFESSOR AT UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY IN NEW YORK FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS. KNOWN AS A “PUBLIC THEOLOGIAN,” HE WAS OFTEN CALLED UPON TO GIVE HIS OPINION ON ETHICAL AND MORAL ISSUES OF HIS DAY. NIEBUHR’S SPEECHES AND HIS PROLIFIC WRITING, WHICH INCLUDE THE BOOKS “MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY,” “THE NATURE AND DESTINY OF MAN,” AND “THE IRONY OF AMERICAN HISTORY,” INFLUENCED LEADERS ON ALL SIDES OF THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM. IN MARCH 2017, I SAT DOWN WITH THE DIRECTOR OF THE DOCUMENTARY ABOUT NIEBUHR, MARTIN DOBLMEIER, AND ONE OF ITS PRODUCERS, BOISE STATE PROFESSOR AND DEAN ANDREW FINSTUEN. WE TALKED ABOUT THE FILM’S GENESIS, AND WHY THEY FELT THE TIME WAS RIGHT TO BRING NIEBUHR INTO THE SPOTLIGHT AGAIN. FRANKLIN: WELCOME TO BOISE. I’M SURE THIS IS FUN FOR YOU, ANDREW, BECAUSE THIS IS WHERE THIS IDEA WAS GENERATED, RIGHT HERE IN BOISE, IN THE “NIEBUHR-HOOD,” SO TO SPEAK, AS YOUR STUDENTS WOULD SAY, BECAUSE YOU KIND OF HAVE A THING FOR NIEBUHR. FINSTUEN: YES. FRANKLIN: AS I UNDERSTAND IT THIS STARTED BECAUSE YOU HAD A BIT OF A FRUSTRATION THAT THERE WASN’T SOMETHING OUT THERE, A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT NIEBUHR. TALK ABOUT THAT. FINSTUEN: RIGHT. ABSOLUTELY. SO, I HAD DONE SOME WORK ON REINHOLD NIEBUHR DURING MY DOCTORAL DAYS AND PUBLISHED A BOOK THAT — HE’S PART OF THAT. AND THEN I WAS JUST THINKING, “WHY DON’T WE HAVE AN “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE”-TYPE FILM OR SOME SORT OF DOCUMENTARY THAT CHRONICLES HIS LIFE BOTH FOR ITS INFLUENCE ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS IN POLITICS, BUT ALSO IN TERMS OF JUST TELLING THE 20TH CENTURY STORY THROUGH THIS FIGURE’S LIFE AND CAREER?” AND I JUST CONTINUALLY GOT FRUSTRATED THAT IT WASN’T OUT THERE. AND SO ONE DAY, I SAID TO INGRID, MY WIFE, I SAID, “I THINK I’M GOING TO TRY TO MAKE IT.” SO I MADE A PHONE CALL TO A FRIEND WHO IS CONNECTED TO ROBIN LOVIN, WHO’S A MAJOR NIEBUHR SCHOLAR. ONCE HE WAS INTERESTED IN THE IDEA, THEN I MADE SOME CALLS TO GRANT ORGANIZATIONS, AND THEY PUT ME IN TOUCH WITH MARTIN. AND SO I CALLED MARTIN UP, COLD CALL, AND DESCRIBED THE IDEA TO HIM. AND WITHIN THAT FIRST CONVERSATION, MARTIN WAS INTERESTED, VERY INTERESTED. AND HE SAID, “WELL, NIEBUHR’S AMERICA’S CONSCIENCE.” AND SO WE HAD THE TITLE FROM DAY ONE. AND THE CONVERSATION JUST CONTINUED FROM THERE. FRANKLIN: WHY DID YOU FEEL IT WAS SO IMPORTANT TO HAVE A DOCUMENTARY OUT THERE ABOUT NIEBUHR? FINSTUEN: WELL, AS A HISTORIAN, HE TOUCHES MANY OF THE CURRENTS OF AMERICAN LIFE IN THE 20TH CENTURY, FROM INDUSTRIALIZATION TO THE BLACK MIGRATION FROM THE SOUTH TO THE NORTH AND DETROIT, TO THE COLD WAR, WORLD WAR II — I’M GOING OUT OF CHRONOLOGY, FOR A HISTORIAN — BUT NEVERTHELESS, ALL OF THE STREAMS OF 20TH CENTURY LIFE, HE’S A TOUCHSTONE FOR THOSE. AND HE’S ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS OF AMERICA, AND, MEANWHILE, ALSO A CHAMPION OF AMERICA. SO THAT DIALECTIC, THAT AMBIGUITY OF HIS APPROACH, WHICH IS REALLY RICH FOR, I THINK, HIS DAY, HIS GENERATION AND OURS. SO THAT’S WHY I THOUGHT IT WAS SIGNIFICANT. FRANKLIN: NOW, MARTIN, THIS IS NOT A PERSON THAT WAS UNFAMILIAR TO YOU. YOU, TOO, HAVE APPRECIATED NIEBUHR AND HAVE DONE MANY DOCUMENTARIES ON ISSUES OF FAITH AND RELIGION, SO IT’S ALMOST A PERFECT MATCH, WASN’T IT? MARTIN DOBLMEIER, DIRECTOR: OH, IT WAS IDEAL. AND I HAVE TO SAY, HONESTLY, BECAUSE WE’VE BEEN DOING FILMS, NOW, FOR 30-SOME YEARS, I PROBABLY GET APPROACHED ONCE A WEEK OR TWICE A WEEK, SOMETIMES, WITH PEOPLE WHO’VE GOT FILM IDEAS. AND SO, SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE CALLING UP AND, “OH, YOU SHOULD MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT MY FATHER,” OR SOMETHING. IT’S RATHER CONSTANT. BUT WHEN I — I, ACTUALLY, TALKED TO ANDREW ON THE PHONE, AND IT WASN’T A FILM PROJECT ABOUT HIMSELF. IT WAS AN IDEA THAT RESONATED IMMEDIATELY WITH ME. I’D READ NIEBUHR IN COLLEGE. BUT I READ HIM AS A YOUNG MAN, AND I WAS MUCH MORE IDEALISTIC, IN SOME WAY, AND SOME OF IT REALLY JUST DIDN’T CONNECT. AND THEN GOING BACK AND LOOKING AT NIEBUHR, NOW, MUCH LATER IN LIFE, AND HAVING ALL THE EXPERIENCES OF LIFE AND SEEING HOW ON TARGET HE WAS CONSTANTLY ABOUT HUMAN NATURE AND THE USE AND ABUSE OF POWER AND ALL OF THIS, AND IT RESONATED, SO… I DO REMEMBER THAT CONVERSATION. HE WAS RATHER SELF-EFFACING, ANDREW, AND JUST SORT OF WANTED TO PRESENT THE IDEA AND GET THE CONVERSATION GOING. AND JUST SOMETHING INSIDE OF ME SPARKED, AND I JUST LIKED THE WAY THAT HE PRESENTED THE IDEA, AND IT JUST TOOK OFF FROM THERE. FRANKLIN: NIEBUHR’S LIKED BY PEOPLE ON ALL, ON BOTH ENDS OF THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM. I MEAN PRESIDENT OBAMA LOOKED TOWARDS HIM, BUT SO DID PEOPLE WHO ARE CONSERVATIVE. FINSTUEN: JOHN MCCAIN HAS CITED HIM. DAVID BROOKS, OBVIOUSLY. AND BROOKS MAKES THE POINT IN THE FILM THAT NEO-CONSERVATIVES…NIEBUHR, AND DURING THE RUN-UP TO THE IRAQ WAR, FOR EXAMPLE, SOME OF THE NEO-CONSERVATIVES WERE LOOKING AT NIEBUHR AS SOMEBODY WHO OFFERS A THEOLOGICAL, ETHICAL JUSTIFICATION FOR WAR. ALTHOUGH, NIEBUHR ALSO WRITES THAT PREVENTIVE WAR IS NEVER — AND ANDREW BACEVICH MAKES THIS POINT — IS NEVER APPROPRIATE FOR A DEMOCRACY. SO THERE’S LOTS OF TENSION IN NIEBUHR’S THOUGHT. AND BECAUSE OF THAT AMBIGUITY I MENTIONED A MOMENT AGO, YOU CAN FIND AFFINITY ACROSS THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM. NIEBUHR HIMSELF DESCRIBED HIMSELF AS A POLITICAL LIBERAL AND A THEOLOGICAL CONSERVATIVE. BUT EVEN THOSE TERMS — YOU’LL HAVE ARGUMENTS OVER WHETHER FOLKS THINK HE’S LIBERAL ENOUGH OR NOT, AND THE CONSERVATIVE PIECE ON THE THEOLOGICAL SPECTRUM IS A QUESTION MARK, BUT THAT’S HOW HE THOUGHT OF HIMSELF. DOBLMEIER: AND I THINK PART OF IT, TOO, IS THAT SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO ASK, “WELL, WHICH REINHOLD NIEBUHR?” BECAUSE HE WENT THROUGH SO MANY EVOLUTIONS OF HIS THINKING ABOUT PASSIVISM VERSUS INTERVENTION, SOCIALISM VERSUS, YOU KNOW, HOW THE ECONOMIC WEALTH IS GOING TO BE DISTRIBUTED. SO WHAT’S INTERESTING IS WHEN JOHN MCCAIN SAYS HE ADMIRES REINHOLD NIEBUHR, HE MAY BE ADMIRING A VERY DIFFERENT REINHOLD NIEBUHR THAN BARACK OBAMA IS. FRANKLIN: REINHOLD NIEBUHR WAS KNOWN, IS KNOWN, AS A PUBLIC THEOLOGIAN. HE, THESE WERE RELIGIOUS PEOPLE WHO WERE VERY PROMINENT IN THE, BASICALLY, ’30S THROUGH ’60S, UP TO THE ’60S, WOULD YOU SAY? AND MEDIA WOULD TURN TO THESE INDIVIDUALS TO ASK THEM FOR THEIR OPINIONS ON THE BIG ISSUES OF THE DAY. IN FACT, TODAY, I NOTICED, IS THE 69TH, EXACT 69TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE COVER OF “TIME MAGAZINE” FEATURING NIEBUHR. HE WAS THAT IMPORTANT THAT THEY PUT HIM ON THE COVER FOR THEIR 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF “TIME MAGAZINE.” WHY WERE PUBLIC THEOLOGIANS SO CRITICAL IN THIS TIME PERIOD? AND DO WE HAVE ANY TODAY? FINSTUEN: THAT’S AN EXCELLENT QUESTION, AND WE’RE ASKED IT OFTEN IN RELATIONSHIP TO NIEBUHR. I MEAN, I THINK PART OF IT IS THE ERA OF A MORE CONSOLIDATED MEDIA MARKET, MORE AROUND COMMON LANGUAGE, COMMON VOCABULARY. I THINK AT THE 1950S, IN PARTICULAR, THERE’S THIS NOTION OF AN AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION THAT SORT OF BLENDS TRADITIONAL CHRISTIAN IDEAS AND AMERICAN REPUBLICANISM. AND I’M NOT SURE WE’RE IN THE SAME PLACE WITH THAT TODAY. AND THAT’S NOT NECESSARILY A BAD THING. THERE WAS A WAY IN WHICH THAT ERA IS CALLED THE “ERA OF CONSENSUS,” AND THAT CONSENSUS MAYBE KEPT SOME GROUPS WHO WERE MARGINALIZED FROM ACTUALLY HAVING A VOICE. NEVERTHELESS, THERE’S A KIND OF COMMON VOCABULARY, COMMON MOMENT, AND THE THEOLOGIANS AND ALSO OTHER BIG INTELLECTUALS OF THE DAY ARE ASKING BIG QUESTIONS AND WRITING BIG BOOKS. IT’S A POINT THAT DAVID BROOKS MAKES IN THE FILM, AS WELL. SO IT’S A WHOLE ERA OF — I THINK IN SOME SENSE, ALSO — REEVALUATION OF THE AMERICAN MOMENT. BECAUSE YOU’RE COMING OFF OF WORLD WAR II, AND THE WORLD HAS DRAMATICALLY TRANSFORMED AND CHANGED BECAUSE OF THE DESTRUCTION OF EUROPE, AND NOW AMERICA TRULY IS THE LONE SUPERPOWER, EVEN IF WE HAVE THE SOVIET UNION ON THE RISE, AS WELL. AND SO IT’S A REALLY — IT’S A TIME OF EVALUATION AND REEVALUATION. WHO ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE HEADED? WHAT’S OUR DESTINY? THESE KINDS OF MAJOR QUESTIONS SURFACED. AND I THINK THAT’S PART OF IT. AND AS FAR AS TODAY GOES, THE DIFFUSION OF OUR MEDIA AND INFORMATION, WHETHER WE ASK BIG QUESTIONS. I’LL PICK ON THE ACADEMY, THE UNIVERSITIES. I’M NOT SURE, I THINK WE’VE HYPER-SPECIALIZED TO A POINT WHERE WE’VE LOST A KIND OF NARRATIVE OF OUR OWN AMERICAN EXPERIMENT. DOBLMEIER: I THINK — THAT’S A GREAT RESPONSE, BECAUSE I DO THINK THAT, IN SOME WAYS, REINHOLD NIEBUHR AS A PUBLIC THEOLOGIAN IS SORT OF A MICROCOSMIC LOOK AT HOW AMERICA’S CHANGED OVER THESE LAST TWO GENERATIONS FROM HIS TIME. THE MEDIA, LIKE ANDREW SAID, IS A VERY DIFFERENT PLACE THAN IT WAS BEFORE. IN THE 1940S AND ’50S, WHEN REINHOLD NIEBUHR WINDS UP ON THAT COVER OF “TIME MAGAZINE,” THE MEDIA IS RATHER MONOLITHIC IN SOME WAYS. THERE’S A HANDFUL OF TELEVISION NETWORKS, THERE’S A HANDFUL OF RADIO NETWORKS, A HANDFUL OF MAJOR PUBLICATIONS, AND IF THEY LIKED YOU, AND YOU WERE ONE OF THEIR DARLINGS, YOU WOULD WIND UP A CELEBRITY IN THAT KIND OF ARENA. WE HAVE A VERY DIFFERENT MEDIA TODAY. THERE’S A DIFFERENT WAY THAT THE MEDIA LOOKS AT RELIGION. IT WAS UNDERSTOOD BACK IN THE ’40S AND ’50S THAT RELIGION WAS PART OF AMERICAN LIFE, AND IT WAS GOING TO CARVE OUT A PLACE FOR THOSE KIND OF PEOPLE TO SPEAK ABOUT THAT. MAINLINE PROTESTANTISM WAS THE DOMINANT RELIGION IN AMERICA. FRANKLIN: 90 PERCENT OF THE PEOPLE? DOBLMEIER: IT’S NOT THAT WAY ANYMORE IN THIS COUNTRY, AND ESPECIALLY NON-CHRISTIAN. AND PEOPLE IDENTIFY THEMSELVES NOW AS THE “NONES,” PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE — THEY’RE SPIRITUAL, BUT THEY’RE NOT RELIGIOUS. WELL, WHO SPEAKS FOR THEM? I DON’T THINK THEY’RE REALLY OPEN TO THE NOTION OF A MAINLINE PROTESTANT THEOLOGIAN SPEAKING ON BEHALF OF THEIR IDEALS. FRANKLIN: WE’RE TALKING ABOUT “NONES,” N-O-N-E. DOBLMEIER: N-O-N-E, YES, ABSOLUTELY. FRANKLIN: NOT N-U-N. DOBLMEIER: NOT N-U-N-S. AND THEN THE LAST THING, TOO, IS THE WHOLE NOTION OF — WITHIN THE WORLD OF THE MEDIA, JUST THE NOTION OF RELIGIOUS LITERACY. I THINK IT’S NOT QUITE THE SAME AS IT WAS BACK IN THE ’40S AND ’50S. FINSTUEN: WELL, I WOULD LIKE TO ADD, TOO, THE QUESTION ON THE FIGURES, BUT IT’S ALSO A QUESTION OF AUDIENCE. ARE WE — DO WE HAVE AN AMERICAN PUBLIC THAT WANTS TO THE LISTEN AND DIALOGUE — TO PICK UP ON YOUR SHOW — WITH A SUSTAINED ATTENTION TO THESE KEY, BIG QUESTIONS? SO, IN SOME WAYS, THE CONTEXT ISN’T SUPPORTIVE OF A FIGURE THAT CAN — OR FIGURES THAT CONTINUE TO ASK THESE QUESTIONS, HAVE THESE CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES WITHOUT BEING MARGINALIZED EITHER AS ONE STRIPE OR ANOTHER IN THE POLITICAL OR RELIGIOUS SPECTRUM OR SHOUTED DOWN, OR WHAT HAVE YOU. I’M NOT SURE WE HAVE AN AUDIENCE THAT’S REALLY ASKING AND PAYING ATTENTION TO THESE QUESTIONS. FRANKLIN: YOU MENTIONED THAT MAJOR MEDIA ENTITIES WOULD TURN TO NIEBUHR AND OTHERS LIKE HIM, INCLUDING MIKE WALLACE. AND YOU HAVE A VERY INTERESTING CLIP, I THINK, IN YOUR DOCUMENTARY IN WHICH MIKE WALLACE IS INTERVIEWING MR. NIEBUHR. LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT THAT. MIKE WALLACE, IN “AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE: THE REINHOLD NIEBUHR STORY”: DO YOU THINK THAT BECAUSE YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN YOU’RE A MORE VALUABLE MAN IN OUR SOCIETY? OR MORE WORTHY IN THE EYES OF GOD? NIEBUHR: CERTAINLY ANYBODY THAT SAYS, “IN THE EYES OF GOD,” IS PRETENTIOUS. HOW DO I KNOW ABOUT GOD’S JUDGMENT? ONE OF THE FUNDAMENTAL POINTS ABOUT RELIGIOUS HUMILITY IS THAT YOU SAY YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE ULTIMATE JUDGMENT. IT’S BEYOND YOUR JUDGMENT. AND IF YOU EQUATE GOD’S JUDGMENT WITH YOUR JUDGMENT, YOU HAVE A WRONG RELIGION. FRANKLIN: SO THIS, IN SOME WAYS, KIND OF SUMS UP OR GETS TO THE CORE OF WHAT NIEBUHR WAS ABOUT WHEN HE TALKS ABOUT HUMILITY, HUMILITY. HE SAYS, “ONE OF THE FUNDAMENTAL POINTS ABOUT RELIGIOUS HUMILITY IS YOU SAY YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE ULTIMATE JUDGMENT. IF YOU EQUATE GOD’S JUDGMENT WITH YOUR JUDGMENT, YOU HAVE A WRONG RELIGION.” PRETTY BIG STUFF TO BE SAYING WHEN 90 PERCENT OF THE COUNTRY IS PROTESTANT. AND HE’S JUST KIND OF SAYING, “YOU KNOW, YOU MIGHT HAVE SOME FALSE HUMILITY HERE.” FINSTUEN: RIGHT. WELL, I MEAN, AND NIEBUHR WRITES A LOT ABOUT HUMILITY. AND PART OF THE DOCTRINE THAT HE PAYS THE MOST ATTENTION TO IS THE DOCTRINE OF ORIGINAL SIN. NOW, HE THINKS ABOUT IT DIFFERENTLY. I WON’T GO INTO THE FINER POINTS OF HIS THEOLOGY ON THIS. BUT, FOR HIM, THAT IS MORE A DOCTRINE ABOUT HUMILITY. HE ALSO HAS A NOTION OF THE IMAGE OF GOD AND HUMANITY. SO HE WANTS TO AFFIRM HUMANITY BUT ALSO REMIND HUMANITY THAT WE SHOULD THINK OF OURSELVES AS LEVELED; AND THAT, HE SAYS, IS THE SUREST FORM OF HUMAN COMMUNITY. IF WE CAN UNDERSTAND THAT ALL HAVE FALLEN, ALL FALL SHORT. AND CHRISTIANS UNDERSTAND THAT AT SOME LEVEL, BUT THEN OFTEN MOVE THAT INTO A PRIDEFUL KIND OF ARTICULATION: “I’M MORE RIGHTEOUS, MY VIRTUE IS MORE DEVELOPED.” AND NIEBUHR JUST KIND OF CONSTANTLY WANTS TO REMIND AND SAY, “YES, WE HAVE TO MAKE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN PEOPLE IN OUR CIVIL SOCIETY, BUT, ULTIMATELY, WE ARE LEVEL BEFORE GOD,” AND THAT IS WHAT GIVES US POSSIBILITY FOR HUMAN COMMUNITY, BECAUSE IT’S THE RECOGNITION OF THE HUMANITY IN EACH OTHER. FRANKLIN: WELL, AND IT’S A GUT CHECK, ISN’T IT, FOR PEOPLE TO SAY, “OKAY, I ESPOUSE THESE PRECEPTS OR I SAY I FOLLOW THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, BUT AM I REALLY?” I MEAN, HE TALKS A LOT ABOUT THE DUALITY BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL OR THE DUALITY THAT EXISTS IN EVERYONE. EVEN IF YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING GOOD, IT MAY BE TINGED WITH SIN, IN THE SENSE OF, SAY, PRIDE OR HUBRIS, AND TO CONSTANTLY BE CHECKING THAT. DOBLMEIER: AND I THINK PART OF THE REASON WHY HE’S SO SUCCESSFUL AS A PUBLIC THEOLOGIAN, HE APPLIES THAT NOTION OF HUMILITY AND THE GUT CHECK NOT ONLY TO INDIVIDUALS BUT TO SOCIETIES, TO CHURCHES, TO NATIONS. I MEAN, HE’S SPEAKING TO A NATION, NOW, THAT’S COMING OUT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, AND WE ARE THE RANKING NATION THAT’S HOLDING UP THIS WHOLE NOTION OF A CIVILIZATION, WESTERN CIVILIZATION. AND HE WANTS AMERICA TO THINK THAT NOT ONLY DOES THIS APPLY TO INDIVIDUALS, BUT THIS ALSO APPLIES TO THE AMERICA THAT WE’RE CONTINUING TO REBUILD, NOW, AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR. AND SO I THINK THAT’S WHAT GETS HIM ON THE COVER OF “TIME MAGAZINE,” TO SAY THAT IT’S NOT JUST AS INDIVIDUALS WE HAVE TO THINK ABOUT THIS, BUT AS IN A LARGER CORPORATE SENSE. AND HE’S OFTEN JUST AS CRITICAL OF THE CHURCHES. THAT’S WHAT I FIND TO BE REALLY INTERESTING. AND, YOU KNOW, THEN HE WOULD GO OUT AND SPEAK ON A REGULAR BASIS. HE WAS SPEAKING AND PREACHING ALL THE TIME. BUT, OFTENTIMES, THE CHURCHES WEREN’T INVITING HIM TO COME AND SPEAK. THEY WERE ANXIOUS ABOUT WHAT HE WAS GOING TO SAY. IT WAS THE CHAPLAIN AT THE UNIVERSITIES, MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, THAT WOULD INVITE HIM TO COME AND SPEAK, BECAUSE THEY FELT IT WAS MORE OF AN OPEN FORUM FOR HIM TO BE ABLE TO SPEAK AND, SOMETIMES, CRITICALLY ABOUT WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN AMERICA. FRANKLIN: WELL, THIS WAS THE THING, WASN’T IT, THAT HE SAW, EVEN IN HIS OWN PARISH, SAY, THAT PEOPLE WOULD BE LOVELY PEOPLE INDIVIDUALLY, RIGHT, BUT THEN SOMETHING ABOUT COMING TOGETHER IN A GROUP WOULD BRING OUT SOME NEFARIOUS ACTIVITY OR, AT LEAST, A BLIND EYE TO — IN HIS INSTANCE, SAY, WHEN HE WAS IN DETROIT, NOT UNDERSTANDING THE PLIGHT OF THE WORKER — FINSTUEN: RIGHT. FRANKLIN: — AMONG HIS PARISHIONERS, MANY OF WHOM WERE IN MANAGEMENT AT FORD. SO THERE, AGAIN, THIS DUALITY BETWEEN INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP. FINSTUEN: RIGHT. I MEAN, AND YOU’RE OUTLINING VERY NICELY THE ARGUMENT IN “MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY.” INDIVIDUALS MIGHT BE ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH CERTAIN DEGREES OF MORALITY OR VIRTUE; GROUPS IT’S HARDER. BUT LATER IN LIFE — I WANT TO MAKE SURE THIS POINT IS MADE — HE SAYS, “I KIND OF WISH I HAD RETITLED THAT ‘IMMORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY,’ IN THE SENSE THAT MAYBE I MADE TOO FINE A DISTINCTION.” YES, GROUPS CAN TEND TO BE MORE IMMORAL, BUT LET’S NOT FORGET, AS YOU POINTED OUT EARLIER, THAT WE ARE SORT OF DIVIDED WITHIN OURSELVES. WE ARE SINNERS, TO USE HIS LANGUAGE, AND SAINTS SIMULTANEOUSLY. IT’S THAT NOTION OF THERE’S NEVER JUST A SIMPLY GOOD THING THAT HAPPENS, AND RARELY IS THERE SIMPLY AN EVIL THING THAT HAPPENS. WE’RE TIED UP IN THAT. THAT’S KIND OF THE COMPLEXITY AND THE GLORY AND TRAGEDY OF BEING A HUMAN BEING. AND THEN IT’S ABOUT HOW THOSE CAPACITIES GET EXERCISED. HE SAYS, “HUMANS HAVE THE INDETERMINATE CAPACITY FOR GOOD, AND HUMANS HAVE THE INDETERMINATE CAPACITY FOR EVIL, AND, YET, IT’S STILL CONNECTED. DON’T EVER SEPARATE THEM.” AND WHEN YOU TRY TO SEPARATE THEM IS WHEN YOU HAVE TROUBLE. FRANKLIN: AND AMERICANS IN PARTICULAR SEEM TO OFTEN WANT TO HAVE THIS BLACK AND WHITE, GOOD/BAD, YES/NO. AND HE’S SAYING, “LOOK, EVEN WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR OWN COUNTRY…” AT THE HEIGHT OF THE COLD WAR, HE’S SAYING, “GUT CHECK AGAIN. YES, THE SOVIET UNION IS AN ENEMY” — FINSTUEN: RIGHT. FRANKLIN: — “BUT THEY’RE PEOPLE, TOO, AND YOU CAN’T JUST MAKE THIS ARTIFICIAL DIVIDING LINE, THEY’RE BAD, WE’RE GOOD.” FINSTUEN: EXACTLY. FRANKLIN: AGAIN, PRETTY BRAVE THING TO SAY. FINSTUEN: YEAH. AND, IN FACT, WHAT HE’LL SAY IS YOU OFTEN — IF YOU HAVE THAT KIND OF MANICHAEAN — THAT’S KIND OF THE THEOLOGICAL TERM — THAT BLACK-AND-WHITE NOTION, YOU WILL OFTEN END UP REPEATING AND LOOKING LIKE YOUR ENEMY, ITSELF. SO BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU DISTINGUISH YOURSELF FROM ANOTHER, BOTH INDIVIDUALLY, COMMUNITY, AND, AS YOU’RE POINTING OUT, NATIONS. DOBLMEIER: WHEN I’D READ NIEBUHR IN SCHOOL — I MEAN I’D BE READING THEOLOGY IN SCHOOL — I HAD NO IDEA THAT HE’S ON THE FBI WATCH LIST FOR DECADES. SO YOU WERE SAYING A PRETTY BOLD THING FOR HIM TO BE ABLE TO SAY. I MEAN, THINK ABOUT THE NOTION OF A THEOLOGIAN BEING ON THE FBI WATCH LIST. FRANKLIN: AND THAT’S BECAUSE THEY THOUGHT, “OH, HE’S” — WELL, HE ASSOCIATED WITH SOCIALISM — FINSTUEN: RIGHT. FRANKLIN: — BUT WITH THESE TYPE OF COMMENTS, HE’S THINKING, “WELL, MAYBE HE’S A COMMUNIST, TOO.” DOBLMEIER: BUT HE STAYS ON THE LIST. FRANKLIN: UM-HMM. DOBLMEIER: AND, YET, THE IRONY, AS WE TRY TO SHOW IN THE FILM, IS THAT HE’S BEING INVITED INTO THE INNER CIRCLES TO CREATE POLICY WHILE HE’S STILL ON THE LIST. HE’S BEING GIVEN THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM, BY PRESIDENT JOHNSON, WHILE HE’S STILL ON THIS LIST. SO IT’S SORT OF THIS — WELL, HIS OWN LIFE IS SORT OF LIKE THIS INTERESTING DICHOTOMY BETWEEN BEING RECOGNIZED AND CELEBRATED AND BEING A PERSON OF CONCERN. FRANKLIN: ONE THING THAT I FOUND VERY INTERESTING, AS WELL, IS THAT HE DOESN’T SEE MAN AS BEING ON AN AUTOMATIC, AS HE PUTS IT, ESCALATOR TO PERFECTION, THAT WE ARE NOT, NECESSARILY, ALWAYS IMPROVING, WHICH, AGAIN, WOULD BE MAYBE AN AMERICAN IDEAL; THAT WE HAVE THESE DIPS. FINSTUEN: RIGHT. FRANKLIN: WORLD WAR II AND THE NAZIS WOULD BE ONE OF THEM. FINSTUEN: YEAH. FRANKLIN: BUT, AGAIN, THIS IS NOT SOMETHING THAT WOULD BE NORMAL CONVERSATION. THE IDEA WAS “WE’RE GREAT AND WE’RE GETTING EVEN BETTER.” FINSTUEN: EXACTLY. I MEAN, YOU’VE CHARACTERIZED IT VERY WELL. IT’S THE PUSH-PULL OF INDIVIDUAL LIFE, NATIONAL LIFE, GLOBAL. HE USES HISTORY OFTEN TO SAY, “LOOK, YOU BELIEVE IN SORT OF UNMITIGATED PROGRESS. EVEN IF WE SLIP A LITTLE BIT, IF YOUR LINE OF HISTORY GOES LIKE THIS, LET ME GIVE YOU A LESSON IN HISTORY TO DEMONSTRATE THAT IT’S MUCH MORE UNEVEN.” AND SOMETIMES WE’RE TURNING BACKWARDS AS MUCH AS WE’RE TURNING FORWARD, AND THAT THIS NOTION OF PROGRESS IS, ITSELF, A BELIEF THAT HUMAN BEINGS, ESPECIALLY AMERICANS, BELIEVE IN AT WHAT SORT OF JUSTIFICATION AND, ALSO, AT WHAT COST? HE’S, OFTENTIMES, CONCERNED ABOUT THE WAY IN WHICH THAT SORT OF NOTION OF BLIND OPTIMISM OR PROGRESS CAN CREATE THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF DESTRUCTION. OR THINK ABOUT OUR OWN ECONOMIC CRISIS OF SEVERAL YEARS AGO. THIS NOTION, OH, THE ECONOMY — OR THE INTERNET BUBBLE — THE ECONOMY IS GOING TO GROW, WE SEE NO END IN SIGHT, NO LIMITS — WHOOPS, HISTORY INTERRUPTS, AND IT ALL COMES CRASHING DOWN. IT’S NOT TO SAY THAT WE’RE GOING TO PREDICT ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, IT’S LET’S JUST BE CAUTIOUS. FRANKLIN: WHAT WOULD NIEBUHR THINK ABOUT TODAY? TODAY’S POLITICAL ATMOSPHERE? DOBLMEIER: WELL, I TRY NOT TO TALK DIRECTLY TO WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE POLITICAL WORLD RIGHT NOW BECAUSE IT CHANGES ON A REGULAR BASIS, BUT, AT THE SAME TIME, I THINK THAT NIEBUHR’S IDEA OF HUMILITY, GENUINE HUMILITY, THAT WE CAN’T TAKE OUR — ASSUME THAT WE ARE GREATEST NATION ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH. THERE MAY BE SOME SERIOUS SELF-REFLECTION, AS A NATION, THAT HAS TO HAPPEN FOR US TO BEGIN TO CONTINUE TO MOVE IN THAT PROPER DIRECTION. I THINK PEOPLE HAVE A HUNGER TO HEAR THAT. AND I THINK THAT’S GOING TO CONTINUE FOR A WHILE. AND I THINK NIEBUHR’S MESSAGE WILL RESONATE, I THINK, FOR A LONG, LONG TIME TO COME. WE PUT PEOPLE IN THE FILM, MARCIA, INTENTIONALLY, WHO WOULD BE SOMEWHAT CRITICAL ALONG THE WAY OF REINHOLD NIEBUHR, BECAUSE HE HAD HIS CRITICS DURING HIS DAY. BUT HE’S THE KIND OF WRITER AND THINKER WHOSE IDEAS ARE BIG IDEAS, AND I THINK THEY’RE WORTHY OF GOING BACK AND REVISITING. FINSTUEN: AND I WOULD MENTION THE SURPRISES OF HISTORY, WHICH I KIND OF MENTIONED A MOMENT AGO. SO WHATEVER PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THE CURRENT SITUATION, A LOT OF PEOPLE EXPRESS SURPRISE, BOTH THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, BUT OTHER THINGS. AND NIEBUHR WOULD SAY, “WHY ARE YOU SURPRISED?” HISTORY TWISTS AND TURNS ALL THE TIME, AND WE ARE NOT AS CAPABLE OF PREDICTING OUTCOMES AS WE THINK WE ARE. AND ONE OF THE DANGERS IS THAT WE THINK THAT WE CAN FIGURE OURSELVES OUT AND FIGURE HISTORY OUT, AND THAT GETS YOU INTO VERY UNTENABLE POSITIONS. SO HE’S VERY CONCERNED ABOUT THAT TENDENCY TO THINK THAT WE CAN MAP THINGS OUT. SO I THINK THAT WOULD BE PART OF HIS RESPONSE. AND, OF COURSE, ONE OF HIS MAJOR BOOKS, “THE IRONY OF AMERICAN HISTORY,” IS JUST THAT THEME, THE IRONY OF WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW AND WHERE WE’RE HEADED, AND YET THE OUTCOMES, THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES. SO HE HAS A VERY NICE WAY OF FRAMING OUR MOMENT. WHATEVER — HOWEVER PEOPLE FALL OUT ON THE POLITICAL OR ECONOMIC SPECTRUM, LET’S BE A LITTLE MORE CAUTIOUS ABOUT OUR PREDICTIVE POWERS. FRANKLIN: DO YOU THINK THAT HE WOULD ANALYZE THE CURRENT SITUATION AND SAY THAT THERE IS TOO MUCH PRIDE AND NOT ENOUGH HUMILITY AMONG OUR CURRENT POLITICAL LEADERSHIP? FINSTUEN: I THINK HE PROBABLY WOULD HAVE SAID THAT TODAY, YESTERDAY, 10 YEARS AGO, 15 YEARS AGO. I THINK HE’S VERY CONCERNED ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH, BOTH IN HIS OWN ERA, AS MARTIN SPOKE ABOUT EARLIER, THE WAY THAT HE SPEAKS TRUTH TO POWER. HE WANTS PEOPLE TO TAKE A LONG LOOK AT THEMSELVES, FIRST. AND I THINK THAT’S A RARE CAPACITY AMONG INDIVIDUALS TO SAY, “NOW, WAIT A MINUTE, HOW AM I CONTRIBUTING TO WHATEVER THIS MIGHT BE?” OR GROUPS. BECAUSE HE’S GOING TO SAY IT’S ALWAYS GOING TO BE INTENTION. GROUPS, BY DEFINITION, ARE DEFINED AGAINST SOMETHING ELSE, SO LET’S BE COGNIZANT OF THAT. AND SO, YEAH, I THINK HE WOULD BE WORRIED ABOUT IT. AND I THINK, IN SOME SENSE, OUR — I WOULD OFFER — I MEAN, IT’S HARD — HE DIED IN 1971 — IT’S HARD TO SPEAK FOR HIM, BUT I THINK IT’S FAIR TO SAY EVEN IF THERE ARE SOME COMMUNITIES THAT HAVE FORMED SINCE HIS DAY, WE’VE INCREASED IN OUR INDIVIDUALISTIC TENDENCIES. AND I THINK NIEBUHR WOULD WANT TO ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW THAT INDIVIDUALISM EXPRESSES ITSELF, ALSO, IN TERMS OF HUBRIS OR PRIDE. DOBLMEIER: WE HEAR A LOT OF RUMBLINGS IN THE CULTURE TODAY ABOUT ANGER AND FRUSTRATION, DISSATISFACTION, BUT I THINK A LOT OF IT EMANATES FROM FEAR. I THINK THERE’S A GREAT DEAL OF FEAR. AND SO I THINK, IN SOME WAYS, WHAT NIEBUHR MIGHT BE ABLE TO OFFER IS THAT IF WE CAN FIND A WAY TO ACCEPT THAT WE ALL HAVE SOME LEVEL OF FAILING THAT HAS TO BE ACCOUNTED FOR, IN SOME WAYS IT DOES KIND OF EQUALIZE OUR RESPONSE, WHETHER NOT AS TO THE GROWING SENSE OF ISLAMOPHOBIA OR THE HATE CRIMES THAT ARE HAPPENING ACROSS AMERICA, THE RACIAL DIVIDE THAT HAPPENS IN AMERICA. I MEAN, NIEBUHR WRITES THAT THE FEAR IN THE FOE — I’M SORRY, THE EVIL IN THE FOE IS REFLECTION OF THE EVIL IN THE SELF. AND I THINK HE’S REALLY, ULTIMATELY, CALLING US ALL TO REALIZE THAT THERE ARE COMMONALITIES BETWEEN US THAT WE HAVE TO ACCEPT AND HAVE TO DEAL WITH. IT’S NOT SOME SORT OF GRAND IDEA ABOUT “LET’S ALL LOVE ONE ANOTHER, WE’RE GOING TO LOVE OUR WAY OUT OF THIS.” FINSTUEN: RIGHT. DOBLMEIER: THAT’S NOT WHERE HE GOES AT ALL. THAT’S — HE COULD NEVER BE THAT NAIVE. BUT HE’S, ULTIMATELY, SAYING, “WE’RE ALL FAILED, WE ALL HAVE OUR ISSUES, AND WE ALL OPERATE OUT OF SELF-INTEREST.” AND I THINK IF THERE’S ONE THING THAT HAPPENED IN THE ELECTION, EVERYBODY GOES INTO THAT VOTING BOOTH AND FUNDAMENTALLY VOTES OUT OF SELF-INTEREST. AND THAT CAME CLEAR, VERY CLEARLY IN NOVEMBER OF 2016, BUT THAT’S NOT TO BE A SURPRISE. THAT’S KIND OF THE WAY WE ARE AS HUMAN BEINGS. AND IF WE CAN ACCEPT THAT AND FIND A WAY FORWARD, THAT’S WHAT’S GOING TO BE THE POSSIBILITY FOR OUR NATION. FINSTUEN: AND I THINK ANOTHER WAY THAT HE WOULD PUT IT, TO YOUR QUESTION ABOUT OUR CURRENT MOMENT, ACROSS, NOT JUST AT A NATIONAL LEVEL, ARE YOU WILLING TO BE CONSTRUCTIVELY CRITICIZED, AND ARE YOU WILLING TO APOLOGIZE? FRANKLIN: MANY PEOPLE KNOW NIEBUHR, EVEN IF THEY DON’T KNOW NIEBUHR, THROUGH THE SERENITY PRAYER, WHICH SAYS, “GOD GRANT ME THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE, COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN, AND WISDOM TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE.” VERY SIMPLE, BUT VERY PROFOUND AT THE SAME TIME. FINSTUEN: RIGHT. AND THERE’S A WAY IN WHICH THAT PRAYER HAS HIS WHOLE SYSTEM OF THEOLOGY WITHIN IT, RIGHT? THERE ARE THINGS YOU CAN CHANGE. YOU SHOULD HAVE A SENSE OF YOURSELF AND CHANGE. BUT YOU ALSO, THERE ARE THINGS YOU CANNOT CHANGE, AND CAN YOU HAVE THE CENTERED ACCEPTANCE OF THAT AND RECOGNIZE YOURSELF AS A CREATURE AMONG OTHER CREATURES? AND FOR HIM, BECAUSE OF THE DIVINE, WE CAN’T KNOW ALL OF IT. SO THAT KIND OF DIALECTIC, AGAIN, AND THEN THE WISDOM TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE, IT IS, IT’S COMPLEXITY, AND WE NEED TO — IN HIS CASE, WE NEED TO PRAY FOR THAT WISDOM TO COME TO US, TO NAVIGATE THIS DIALECTIC, THIS BOTH/AND NATURE OF HIS THOUGHT. BUT THAT PRAYER REALLY IS A SUMMARY OF WHAT WE’VE BEEN TALKING A LOT ABOUT OVER THIS CONVERSATION: HIS DUALITY, HIS CONSTANT, “IT’S BOTH/AND, NOT EITHER/OR.” DOBLMEIER: I THINK COURAGE IS THE KEY WORD, TOO. I MEAN, WE CALL IT THE SERENITY PRAYER, BUT THAT SECOND PHRASE IN THE PRAYER ABOUT “THE COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS WE CAN.” I MEAN, OFTENTIMES, WE’RE MOST SUSCEPTIBLE OF KEEPING THINGS IN THE STATUS QUO, AND THE COURAGE TO BE ABLE TO GO OUT THERE AND SAY, “NO, THIS REALLY DOES NEED TO BE CHANGED,” WHETHER OR NOT — THE WAY WE TREAT PEOPLE, THE ECONOMIC SYSTEM IN AMERICA, THE POLITICAL SYSTEM IN AMERICA, THAT TAKES A LOT OF COURAGE, AND THERE’S A LOT OF RISK INVOLVED. IN THE OPENING PART OF THE FILM CORNEL WEST SAYS, “I TREMBLE AND SHAKE AT THE COURAGE OF REINHOLD NIEBUHR.” HE PUT HIMSELF OUT THERE ON THE LINE, PUBLICLY, AND SPOKE WITH COURAGE, I THINK, ABOUT THE ISSUES OF THE DAY, AND THAT’S WHAT I THINK THE CHURCHES IN THIS COUNTRY ARE CALLED TO DO, ESPECIALLY. AND PEOPLE WHO REALLY WANT TO SEE A BETTER AMERICA ARE CALLED TO DO THAT EVERY SINGLE DAY. FRANKLIN: WELL, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO TALK ABOUT “AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE” AND ABOUT REINHOLD NIEBUHR. I KNOW, FOR ONE, THAT IT HAS MADE ME WANT TO READ MORE OF HIS WORK, SO I REALLY APPRECIATE YOU TAKING THE TIME TO BE HERE. THANK YOU. DOBLMEIER: THANK YOU. FINSTUEN: THANK YOU. IT’S BEEN A PLEASURE. FRANKLIN: YOU’VE BEEN LISTENING TO MARTIN DOBLMEIER AND BOISE STATE PROFESSOR ANDREW FINSTUEN, WHO DIRECTED AND PRODUCED THE DOCUMENTARY “AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE: THE REINHOLD NIEBUHR STOIRY.” THE FILM PREMIERED ON PBS STATIONS IN APRIL 2017. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT THE “DIALOGUE” WEBSITE. JUST GO TO IDAHOPTV.ORG AND CLICK ON “DIALOGUE.” FOR “DIALOGUE”, I’M MARCIA FRANKLIN. THANKS FOR TUNING IN. [MUSIC] ANNOUNCER: PRESENTATION OF “DIALOGUE” ON IDAHO PUBLIC TELEVISION IS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH THE GENEROUS SUPPORT OF THE LAURA MOORE CUNNINGHAM FOUNDATION, COMMITTED TO FULFILLING THE MOORE AND BETTIS FAMILY LEGACY OF BUILDING THE GREAT STATE OF IDAHO, BY THE FRIENDS OF IDAHO PUBLIC TELEVISION, AND BY THE CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING. [MUSIC] ANNOUNCER: CHECK OUT OUR WEBSITE, BECOME A FRIEND ON FACEBOOK, OR FOLLOW US ON TWITTER.

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