Vail Daily column: Make clear decisions in a murky world
What works to make wise decisions amid life’s complexities?
Some questioners wrestle with options. They accept answers aren’t apparent and act on educated guesses. Others ignore life’s ambiguities. They list choices by categories: right or wrong.
Since his student days at the College of William and Mary, former FBI director James Comey has decided by sifting through options. This Roman Catholic turned Methodist wrote his 1982 senior thesis comparing how the 1980s Moral Majority leader Rev. Jerry Falwell and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr believed Christianity intersected politics.
Niebuhr taught social ethics at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary in the mid-20th century. He made so strong an impact on American culture that Time magazine featured him on its cover in the early 1950s.
Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” possesses widespread impact. He prayed, “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.” This prayer’s underlying conviction is that we make political decisions in a world shot through with ambiguity.
Political power blinds leaders
In a New York magazine interview, Comey emphasized how pervasively Niebuhr’s teaching on politics and Christianity has influenced him. In his book “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932), Niebuhr warned that political power blinds leaders and citizens to national weaknesses.
The bigger political power grows, the more leaders tend to believe in their own press clippings. They assume their decisions are on target. Anyone who differs is part of a conspiracy to undermine America.
Niebuhr cautioned that the United States succumbs to self-righteous declarations, as do all nations. Some citizens assume America’s intentions are pure and demonize those who differ. Niebuhr declared that such stark contrasts are silly, dangerous and unbiblical. Evil taints the best of our national intentions. Some self-proclaimed moralists are deluded, assuming their way is God’s way. Such destructive bravado makes America first and stamps it with God’s approval.
In his undergraduate thesis, Comey pitted Niebuhr, who opposed the Vietnam War, against Falwell. This pro-war fundamentalist preacher rallied Christian conservatives under the Moral Majority’s flag-waving banner during the Reagan presidency.
Falwell believed in moral absolutes because “the Bible says so.” Niebuhr warned against moral absolutes that lead to sinful pride. He cautioned that the Bible doesn’t always mean what it says; it means what it means and leaves room for multiple interpretations.
Falwell was certain God didn’t approve of government integrating Christian schools. God also frowned on government-sponsored sex education classes in public schools that promoted contraception, which, in turn, increased sex outside of marriage. Falwell rallied the GOP around his “I’m right” politics. He condemned anyone who differed as leading the nation on destructive paths.
President Donald Trump shares some cocksure mental traits with Falwell. Their major difference is that Falwell relied on right biblical answers whereas Trump brags about his instinctive grasp of what’s right.
Both reject Niebuhr’s recognition of ambiguity. Where in Trump and Falwell’s minds is room for diverse views or tolerance of different convictions? With God rubber-stamping what they believe, Trump and Falwell have rejected using compromise to accomplish goals. Why rely on negotiation if you are right? Accommodating diverse opinions isn’t needed in a bunkered mental universe of what’s either true or false, right or wrong, my way or the highway.
Niebuhr warned that such a way of thinking breeds grand illusions of self-importance and cultivates a run-away national ego.
Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that, from the start, he was wary of meeting the president one-on-one. That’s because Niebuhrian caution kicked in. Comey internalized what he learned from researching his senior college thesis: Be suspicious of people who assume their opinions are right and God-approved.
Be wary of spiritual smugness. Distance yourself from anyone who has all the answers. Do what is good, worthy and honest. Search for what’s true.
Read Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” Embrace ambiguity as a fact of life.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.