Elisabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer

A daughter's view of Reinhold Niebuhr

Elizabeth Sifton: “I strenuously did not want this to be a memoir since just about everything in it happened before I was born."
  • Elizabeth Sifton: “I strenuously did not want this to be a memoir since just about everything in it happened before I was born."

The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War

W.W. Norton, 2003; 352 pages; $24.95

FROM THE DUST JACKET: A landmark work on the liberal ideals of the progressive American tradition, reaffirming their relevance for today. In 1943, the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer for a church service in a New England village. Its appeal for grace, courage, and wisdom soon became famous the world over. Here, Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr’s daughter, reclaims the true history of the Serenity Prayer and, in a poignant narrative, tells of efforts made by the brave men and women who, like Niebuhr, devoted their lives to the causes of social justice, racial equality, and religious freedom in a world spiraling into and out of economic depression and war. Recalling her father’s efforts to warn the clergy of the dangers of fascism, and of America’s own social and spiritual crises, Sifton reminds us of what is possible when liberal, open-minded lead-

ers — not zealous fundamentalists or hawkish plutocrats — shape the conscience of the nation. The Serenity Prayer is itself a meditation on the power of prayer in morally compromised, unstable times.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: From Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “Filled with perceptive insights and wry humor...a major contribution to the intellectual history of modernity.’’ From Publishers Weekly. “Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer...has, Sifton notes, the distinction of being the world’s most misattributed text.... [The) eminent book editor and currently senior vice-president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux sets the prayer in the context of her father’s life and work. She traces the prayer’s birth to its origins during summer services in a New England village church in 1943. The prayer clearly reveals Niebuhr’s Christian realism, which asserts that every human effort is tainted with sin or the inevitable human failure to be perfect. Drawing on her memories of her father and her reading of his books, letters, sermons, and prayers, Sifton chronicles her father’s development as a theologian who courageously challenged the facile liberalism of American churches, the complicity of German churches with the Nazis, and the simplistic solutions of Marxism and socialism. Sifton reminisces about many of the major political, theological, and intellectual figures who were a part of her upbringing (Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, W.H. Auden, Felix Frankfurter, R.H. Tawney, Isaiah Berlin) and with whom her father moved shoulder to shoulder in the world.... Sifton offers an intimate portrait of growing up with one of America’s most important theologians and demonstrates the timelessness of Niebuhr’s struggle for justice and mercy in the world.”

ABOUT RE1NHOLD NIEBUHR: Widely regarded as the greatest American theologian of the 20th Century, Niebuhr began his ministry as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, where from 1915 to 1928 he not only led his congregation but became an advocate on behalf of the auto workers. This marriage of Christianity and social justice continued throughout his varied life as a preacher, teacher, political organizer, ecumenical leader, and public intellectual. In 1928 he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, New York, as Professor of Christian Ethics, where he remained until his retirement in 1960. His most well-known books are Moral Man and Immoral Society, and The Nature and Destiny of Man. He was given the Presidential Freedom Award for Distinguished Service in 1964.

THE SERENITY PRAYER

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

  1. — Reinhold Niebuhr

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elisabeth Sifton was born in New York City in 1939. She was graduated from Radcliffe College and attended the University of Paris. After brief service with the U.S. State Department, she returned to New York to begin a career in editing, which ultimately led to several distinguished positions, including editor-in-chief at the Viking Press, executive vice president of Alfred A Knopf, and her current role as senior vice president of Farrar, Straus 8( Giroux. She is the mother of three sons and is married to the historian Fritz Stern.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Almost 30 years ago, when trying to learn how to lead a congregation, I came across a book written by Reinhold Niebuhr titled Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. He wrote it when he, too, was a young pastor, and what he said spoke directly to my mind and heart. So I continued to read his books, carrying on a dialogue with him in my imagination, sometimes arguing with him and always learning from him. But for many of my parishioners it was not his theological and ethical tomes that meant the most, but a few brief lines — the Serenity Prayer. They often recited it and expressed gratitude for it. It seemed to articulate what they, because of pain and confusion and emotional upheaval, could not articulate for themselves; it summarized what they, in their best moments, really wanted from God. For this reason, I eagerly read Elisabeth Sifton’s book, and I looked forward to my conversation with her.

“Why did you write this book?” I asked her. “And why now?”

“This is a book that grew by increments. I first wrote a three-page explanation of why there is a German misattribution of the Prayer. German friends of mine and German readers of these brief pages, which were never published, said, ‘That’s a really interesting story! I didn’t know that your father, a German-American, had written this prayer during the war. You should write more about this.’

“This was about ten years ago. In my spare time, which I don’t have much of, I enjoyed learning more about where the Prayer really came from and how it had come to be. I published an essay about it in 1998. As a consequence, a German publisher said to me, ‘Elisabeth, this material is fascinating. If you double the length of this essay. I’ll publish it as a small book in Germany.’

“Well, I wrote more than double but not quite as much as three times the length of the essay, and that was published in Germany in 2001.1 wasn’t completely satisfied with the text I gave to the German translator, it was too much a story about German-American relations, or about my father’s relations with Germany. I felt the Prayer was an American prayer and that the American background could be more fully developed. When Norton asked me to do just that, I did. So the book grew from a few pages, then to an essay, then to a book for the German market, then to the book you have read. It evolved.”

“To be honest,” I said, “I found it an unusual book. It’s not easy to categorize. Is it a memoir? Not really, because you were not even born during much of it. Is it a biography? Not exactly, though certainly there are biographical elements in it. Is it a work of spirituality or self-help psychology? Not at all. So I imagined myself a bookseller, wondering where in my store I’d put it.”

“As a writer, I wanted to evade all the genre rules. I worked at making it a book that could not be easily categorized, because I felt the political and spiritual lives of my protagonists were also more or less unclassifiable according to today’s categories. As an editor and publisher I’ve been worried by, and sometimes bored by, and certainly exhausted by, what I think of as an overabundance of first-person singular narratives, which seem to have hegemony in much of American writing today.

“I strenuously did not want this to be a memoir since, as you rightly point out, just about everything in it happened before I was born or when I was too little to understand it. However, it is true that it’s about people, some of whom I remember very vividly, so it has a tone, or a style, that people might possibly think of as memoiristic. Many people have said to me, ‘Oh, I read your memoir,’ and I shudder a little bit because it isn’t that at all. I have jovially said to friends that maybe what I’ve done is written a spurious memoir. But as to the matter of where you put it in the stores, it’s being sold as history, which is probably the category.”

I continued, “Although your book has interesting things to say about the Serenity Prayer, I’m not sure that’s what it’s really about. After all, you don’t devote many pages to speaking directly about it. I wonder if it isn’t first of all a daughter’s tribute to her father.”

“I never intended it to be that. I intended it to be about the origins of this very famous text, which my father wrote. As I researched it, getting into background of the political and social and ecclesiastical struggles of the time, I came to have an enormous admiration for my father’s colleagues, some of them less well known than he. My father is the author of the Prayer, so there’s a lot about him in the book, but to me, Felix Frankfurter and Bishop William Scarlett and Archbishop Temple and Stafford Cripps are just as important, and I did feel an active sense of tribute to them when I was composing it.

“When I wrote the first little essay that was published, I got many letters from people saying, ‘Oh, thank you for describing these Americans. We never hear about these kinds of people anymore. We never knew about such characters. You’ve saved these people from oblivion. It’s marvelous that you’re talking about them.’ Well, if I’ve done that I’m grateful. These were gigantically significant people. I was surprised that my father’s world, or the world he came out of, had so completely disappeared by the 1990s that nobody knew anything about it. So I did have the intention of paying tribute to this generation of Christian socialists, or social activists.

“I also meant this as much for my secular friends, which are 95 percent of my friends, as well as to believing Christians or Jews or devout people of whatever faith, and I realized that I could not write a book about a prayer without somehow addressing the question of what prayer is and what prayer is for. The more you think about that, the more difficult it is to do. So I wrote into the text stuff about other prayers and other modes of praying which differ from one Protestant denomination to the next, not to mention differing from Protestantism to Catholicism to Judaism. So I think the book becomes a meditation about prayer in general, even though it may be, as you rightly say, specifically about this one prayer.”

“Did you discover things about your father you never knew before?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure.”

“What stands out?”

“I was never particularly well acquainted with the intricacies of the doctrinal debate between him and other theologians or other political activists, and I naturally became better acquainted with some of that. I became more fully acquainted with the actual texts of letters and conversations between him and other Christians, some of whom accused him of not really being a believing Christian. Some said, 'Oh, Reinhold isn’t really a Christian, he thinks the whole thing is a big metaphor. He doesn’t really believe.’ And I read again his responses.

“I came across details of his life that I hadn’t known. For example, I didn’t know that he had met Karl Barth in Geneva in 1946 or ’47.

“Maybe the thing that surprised me most, which I knew but never really thought about, was how amazing it was to become a minister when you’re only 21 years old and walk up into the pulpit to take over your father’s church. And what kind of a person do you become if you’ve done it successfully? I’d never really thought about this before.”

“Did your view of your father change in any way?”

“Not fundamentally. He died 31,32 years ago, and I’ve had a long time to think.”

“The Serenity Prayer has been used in many different contexts, perhaps the most famous being Alcoholics Anonymous. Do you think it’s too often been reduced to a plea for personal help? I get the impression, from your book, that you want us to understand that 'the courage to change,’ as your father understood it, has to do with social concerns, with politics, with economics, with a whole lot more than just the personal dimension. Is that a fair reading of your book?”

“That is certainly fair. I did want to rescue it from the first-person singular and re-establish it as a first-person plural prayer, that is true. I think the singular and plural versions of it are related, however, because you can’t engage in the social action that I think my father had in mind unless your heart changes in a deep, personal, and singular way. So the prayer is rightly thought of in both ways. But I do think it gets simplified and made banal.

“I also wanted to establish the relative complexity of the opening phrase of the prayer, 'God give us grace to accept with serenity that which we cannot change.’ This is a more complicated thing than just asking for serenity. The prayer is about very deep and demanding psychological and spiritual effort.”

“I was interested in the evolution of the wording of the prayer, particularly the way the phrase ‘should be changed’ was modified, over time, to ‘can be changed.’

“Well, that strikes me as just plain stupid, if I may say so. As I say in the book, if you can change something that should be changed, do it! I mean, that’s not a big issue. That’s plainly a mistake, a dumbing down of the prayer. On the Web you can find it in God knows how many different ways.”

“In your book you seem to stress the second part of the Prayer, the need for courage to change the things that should be changed. You put this in the context of your father’s life and his fight for social changes. But don’t you think that sometimes the first part of the prayer is more difficult — to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed? To know when to leave well enough alone?” “It’s tremendously difficult. And I would say over and over and over again, if I could, that it’s important to maintain the balance of the three sections of the Prayer.

“One of the hardest things to accept with serenity is loss and death and pain. In 1943 when he wrote this— when there was no assurance the Allies would win, and millions of men and women had already died in a titanic conflict, the worst the world had ever known—one first had to pray for grace to accept with serenity these terrible and unchangeable facts. Yes, that’s fantastically difficult.

“But the hardest thing, of course, is the third: when it’s the one and when it’s the other. Every single day one has to think. Is this something that I should accept with serenity, or is this something I should try to change? That’s the deep conundrum that serious people think about all the time.”

“You seem to think most pastors and church leaders don’t wrestle with this enough. In fact, you’re pretty hard on pastors and church leaders.”

“Yes, I am.”

“In one passage about pastors, you say, 'Little changed in their privileged lives; they pussyfooted around feel-good preachers like Norman Vincent Peale or Billy Graham — who never risked their tremendous personal popularity by broaching a difficult spiritual subject, and rarely lifted a finger to help the social cause; they checked up on their pension funds and ignored their parishioners’ lives.’ That’s pretty, uh...”

“Harsh.”

“Is it overstated? There are other parts of the book where you say similar things, and I’m wondering about the anger. Did you feel your father was a lone voice crying in the wilderness, or is this something he felt and expressed?”

“It’s not anger. It’s a certain scorn and contempt. If you study the history of the American Protestant church in this century — let’s leave aside the Catholic church — I think you will always find men and women of enormous bravery and spiritual depth who are doing splendid work, who are laboring in God’s vineyard in the best possible way. You will always find such people. But all too often, especially in positions of power and prestige within each of the denominations, you’ll find very self-satisfied and pompous and self-congratulatory 'spiritual leaders’ who must be indicted as I indict them. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life in the company of completely secularized people, most of whom have been so repelled by that tone of smug sanctimony that they no longer attend church.”

“I find it surprising that you question whether your father and Paul Tillich were really major church leaders, whether they had significant influence. I want to hear you talk more about this, because most people today would say your father was the single most influential American theologian in the 20th Century.”

“Ah! That’s a different category, and I would not take it away from him or Uncle Paulus. But 'church leader’ implies leading churches, and here I insist on my generally bleak view. After he left his parish in Detroit and came to New York City, my father became, as it were, an itinerant preacher. He was then considered one of the most exciting preachers in America. However, 1 can list on the fingers of one hand the churches that invited him to preach! I would never have enough digits to list those who did not want to have anything to do with him because they regarded him as much too rabblerousing, left-wing, probably communist, certainly socialist, destabilizing, overly politicized. He preached regularly at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Chicago, in university chapels, which may account for some of his influence, because a great many students heard him and remembered him in their adult years, their post-college years. But churches? No. He was not at all popular, he was not liked in churches; he was not approved of; he was not respected.”

“But isn’t that the burden of the prophetic voice? To be out there on the edge?”

“Well, yes. Yes, indeed. 1 do think it is.”

“1 can’t tell you how many church meetings I’ve been in where the name of Reinhold Niebuhr was invoked. I have a hard time imagining anyone who was more influential in the later half of the 20th Century, especially with regard to social and economic and political problems.”

“Well, I think we’re both right. You’re right that he influenced his students and subsequent generations, perhaps more than any other teacher of his ilk. But I’m right to say that while he was working in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, he was not a church leader. He was a kind of prophetic voice; that is certainly right. Only a minority of American churches paid attention to him, while the majority did not approve of him. They didn’t approve of his politics or his theology.”

“Well, let’s be candid; most of them weren’t as smart as he was.” “But you didn’t have to be smart. It was not an issue of intelligence; it was an issue of moral decision about the relationship of Christian life to political life.”

“Yes, but my point is that he had a rare mind. He could bring together different sides of an issue and see the intersection. So it’s not surprising he was a lone voice. But I’m shocked when you say that only a few churches would invite him to preach.”

“Literally, less than five. I was talking to my brother about this. I can actually remember only three, one of which was St. George’s Church in New York, and there was one in Philadelphia and one in Chicago. Let’s say there’s two more that 1 don’t know about. That makes five, but there were certainly no more than that. My brother, who has a much better memory for these details, can’t remember any more either. Also, I have been through my father’s correspondence in the Library of Congress. You have no idea the hate mail he got! An immense amount of angry letters from bigwigs with important stationery, with big positions in denominational organizations.”

“In addition to having a first-rate mind, your father must have had a tremendous capacity for friendship. I’m thinking of the constant conversations he had with various people, the walks with Rabbi Heschel. Am I correct?”

“I think it was the case, expressed differently in different parts of his life. In his early years, his capacity for friendship, as you call it, was a pastoral capacity, which 1 don’t believe he ever lost, even when he gave up his church in Detroit. I never knew him as a working pastor of a parish, but I don’t believe he ever lost his sense of how to approach people and deal with people.

“After his death I learned from some of his former students things he had never mentioned because he never violated the confidentially of pastoral exchanges. But these people would say, ‘Your father was such a help to me when x-y-z happened and I didn’t know what to do, and I went to talk to him even though it had been ten years since I’d been in his classroom, and he helped me tremendously through this terrible crisis.’ I learned all this after his death.

“I learned a lot about his friendships after his death. Marion Pauck, the widow of Wilhelm Pauck, whose book on Tillich I mention in my book, told me about his friendship with Tillich and with Pauck. He didn’t really talk about his friendships or make a big deal about them, but he certainly had them. Those are the plusses.

“The minuses are that he was a driven workaholic, and he worked too hard and stressed himself too much in ways that affected his judgment about people in politics, often adversely. I also know about instances when his closest colleagues, who were his friends at Union, would say, ‘Reinhold, slow down. Cool off. Back off. You’re driving yourself too much.’ And I think in the period of his most intense work, which would be roughly 1935 to ’52, he certainly had plenty of friends, but he was also driving himself nonstop, day in and day out, in a way that didn’t allow for the amplitude of time to develop friendships. Then, after 1952, when he became very ill, he was very depressed, and he was forced by medical difficulties into a slower schedule that allowed the ripening of friendship, like the one he had with Rabbi Heschel.”

“The conversation he had with Karl Barth is one I would have liked to overhear.”

“Yes!”

“The most important American theologian of the 20th Century having a discussion with the most important European theologian of the 20th Century. I gather they had great respect for each other, but at the same time, had a kind of wariness with each other.”

“I don’t know if they had a personal wariness.”

“Not personal, no. I mean with each other’s theology. I’m interested in the differences and the disagreements between them because I believe it’s significant as the church tries to find its way today. Perhaps Barth’s insistence on proclaiming the word of God alone, clearly and distinctly, sometimes abstracted the Gospel from its social environment, left it disembodied, disconnected from the world of politics and economics. On the other hand, I wonder if the opposite problem could be said of your father’s position — that applying the Gospel to our messy world, which involves inevitable compromises, can diminish the central message itself?”

“That’s always the danger. I suppose you could say that both of them overdid it, overstated their position. I don’t really have anything to add to what you say. But to me, there’s another issue that’s also tied up, as it were, in the Prayer. That is the question of the timing of one’s actions or inaction. I mention this because I think Barth’s insistence on the pure, uncontaminated church community was, for my father, unfortunate. It was late to be arguing about the purity of the church in 1934 vis-a-vis Hitler. I tried to make this point. When you recognize the danger that is about to destroy this church, and when you insist upon the pure church community— the timing is important. There is no question that Barth, when he spoke this way during World War I, was superb. But to say it in 1934 is another matter.”

“But in 1934 the Confessing Church issued the Barmen Declaration, largely written by Barth. In its first affirmation, it insisted that Jesus Christ alone is Lord — with the not-too-subtle implication that Hitler was not.”

“Oh, sure. It was terrific as far as it went. It just went nowhere far enough. In terms of what it said, it was superb. You could say that not enough German pastors signed it, although it’s true that many more pastors took a stand than did professors or other professionals. This was the only big declaration against Hitler of this kind. It was splendid as far as it went, but it was concerned only with the defense of the church community against Hitler. It evaded the issue of converted Jews in the church; it evaded the issue of what Hitler was doing to the social fabric of the churches that these pastors represented.”

“Back to the Serenity Prayer, your special focus was on its authorship and the dispute about its origins. Richard Fox, in his biography of your father's life, suggests that your father himself began to question whether he really wrote the Prayer, or whether he had perhaps unconsciously quoted someone else. Do you think there's anything to that?”

“No, I don’t. I’ve seen the evidence Fox used. As I say in my book, in the years he was being beleaguered with questions about the authorship, he was suffering from sometimes quite severe clinical depression, and he just got sick of the whole thing. So there are plenty of letters in which he’d write back saying, i don’t know, maybe I didn’t write it.’ Perhaps he didn’t literally say that, but you know what I mean. He would write back saying, ‘Well, whatever.’That’s a 1990s or 2003 phrase, which one did not use in the 1960s, but he used whatever the equivalent of that was to say, ‘I don’t know, maybe I didn’t write it.’ But he knew he wrote it! I think he was just depressed and fatigued with these constant question, and he also had a genuine spiritual modesty that prevented him from making a big claim about it.”

“After all, this is a prayer, as you pointed out.”

“Also, as I tried to suggest, the idea of the Prayer is embedded in many other prayers, some of them written by him, some of them found in The Book of Common Prayer. So he didn’t want to make a big deal about it.” “Isn’t it ironic, considering his significance as a thinker and social activist, that he’s perhaps most well known for this little prayer?"

“Yes, indeed.”

“As meaningful as the Prayer might be, it’s actually a minor part of Reinhold Niebuhr’s overall contribution.”

“Well, irony was a mode he was familiar with and comfortable in!”

“How would you describe your own relationship with him? He was a busy man — look at the students he taught, the books he wrote, the committees he organized, the heads of state he counseled, the church leaders he guided. Was there much time for his family? Would you say you were close to him? Or am I prying?”

“No, it’s a fair question. I, like my brother and his friends, felt close to him. He conveyed his love for his family very steadily.”

“He could express it? Germans are often quite reserved.”

“He was not a demonstrative person, but he was unfailingly friendly and courteous, and he always seemed to me a trustworthy and loving parent. However, until he became ill in 1952, I really didn’t see very much of him. I felt close to him because I felt safe in his surroundings, which I think some children don’t with their parents, at least in my generation.”

“Was he an awe-inspiring figure around the house?”

“No, he was not. And nobody who knew him thought he was. His students didn’t find him awe-inspiring. If they liked him, they loved him. He was a friendly, approachable person. He didn’t walk into a room like a big shot, you know what I mean? He was modest and straightforward. I didn’t find him awe-inspiring, no.”

“What about your mother? At the end of your book, I wanted to know more about her.”

“Ah, she was interesting!”

“She must have been formidable. I mean, here’s a woman who maintained her own Anglican loyalties, in contrast to your father’s Noncomfprmist tradition. Will you say more about her?”

“She was extremely intelligent and lively, a strong person. She outlived him, dying 5 or 6 years ago. Well, she was 17 years younger than he; she was 23 when they got married. Through the ’30s she was sick. I don’t mention this in the book. She had several miscarriages, so she was bedridden for good parts of the ’30s. However, she was a strong and lively person and more than held her own with him. They were an amazing couple. They just adored each other; they really loved each other, and they had a happy, happy time together. Their personal styles were hilariously different: my mother was extremely English in a high Oxonian way, and my father was this, as he put it, yahoo from Missouri. They had different table manners and different accents, and they came from different worlds, but they got along splendidly.”

“That’s a tribute to both of them.”

“It is a tribute to both of them. She was also difficult in ways that he was not I said to you that I always felt safe with him. I never felt safe with my mother. She was a difficult, edgy person. She was brave to come to America on her own and lived this rather unusual life, but I think she was always edgy with herself and, therefore, made other people edgy. One of the things I learned — you asked me if I learned things about my father in doing the research for this book, and I did, but I also learned a lot about my mother—was that many, many people didn’t like her. My father’s closest friends all liked her because they understood the way this amazing couple functioned. They all certainly admired the way she took care of him when he became so ill. But she had many...not enemies, but people who were not fond of her. She was very snobbish. I don’t mean socially snobbish; Americans think snobs are always social snobs. She was an intellectual snob, and she didn’t tolerate easily people who were not as bright as she or as interesting as her husband.”

“But people like Auden enjoyed her?”

“Ah, yes, but they came out of the same neck of the woods and were interested in the same things: poetry and music and theology. So they bonded immediately. They were very close.” “Your brother, I take it, is still alive?”

“Yes, he is, and he lives in Massachusetts.”

“If it’s not putting you too much on the spot, may I ask whether you are a practicing Christian?”

“Well, you are putting me on the spot, but I don’t mind that. I do not regularly attend church, and I haven’t for decades. At the moment, my life is such that I actually go back and forth between Princeton and New York City — Princeton, where I am mostly on the weekends, and New York, where I really live, which is my spiritual home. If I were to return to the church, I would want it to be in New York, but Princeton is where I am on Sundays. So, I’m not defending myself, but because I am divided I have not come to know any one church community well enough to feel comfortable in it.

“I say in the book that I declared to my parents when I was 17 years old that I was not a believer, and I stopped going to church regularly. I never completely returned. However, when my children were growing up and one of them began singing in the choir of our local Episcopal church in Brooklyn Heights— the rector was, in fact, an old student of my father’s — I returned and felt comfortable and happy. As I say in my book, I am vividly aware of the benefits and also the requirements of communal worship for the true Christian life. But I have failed in that and I don’t, myself, go much to church.

“I think of myself, frankly, as a believing Christian, but that brings up a much bigger issue than we can possibly discuss in this interview, which is, what does it mean to believe? My cousin, Gus Niebuhr, who was, for a number of years, a religion reporter...”

“Yes, and a very good one.”

“A very good one. And a dear friend and somebody I adore. I used to say to him — when he would be reporting controversies in the church about such things as people believing or not believing in the Virgin Birth, or believing or not believing in the Ascension, or whatever — ‘Gus! You never ask them, what do they mean by believe? What does it mean to believe?’And in the book I quoted my mother as saying, ‘Belief. What a weasel word.’ ”

“I have often asked myself what your father, if he were alive, would say about our present situation. What do you think would be the central issues he’d be most passionate about?”

“Right now, since the advent of the Bush administration, he would be shocked and dismayed and grief-stricken — shocked by the unilateralism and the militarism and the pride. And he would be distressed beyond measure at the fact that this kind of behavior in the world is accompanied by a gross disregard for social justice in the United States, so that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. There doesn’t seem to be a feeling of community, that we are in this together and should be helping each other, and there seems to be a complete disregard of the basic moral imperatives of a democratic life. What more can I say?

“All you have to do is read what he wrote right after the war in 1945, or what he wrote in Irony of American History a few years later, to know that he wondered what would happen when America became the one hegemonic power and if it could behave with any kind of virtue or humility. But we’re not behaving with virtue or humility now, and it would break his heart.

“May I add that, even worse, this lack of virtue and moral compass and humility is accompanied by the most sanctimonious ‘God on my side’ talk, which would revolt him. He never liked this, even with less extravagant examples, and he would just hate the present situation. I know what he wrote in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and I know what he thought about extreme, right-wing Republicans in the ’40s. What would he think now that they’re in power? God!”

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