An Exception to Exceptionalism: A Reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr's Vision of "Prophetic" Christianity and the Problem of Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy

This essay addresses the issue of religion and foreign politics in the United States and interrogates the presumed congruency between conservative Protestant religion and American exceptionalism. By examining Reinhold Niebuhr's approach to U.S. foreign policy around the critical period of World War II and the early cold war, it will seek to demonstrate that Niebuhr's "prophetic" theology acted as a critical lever against the cultural prism of cold war nationalism, even while his politics were consistent with the dominant view. It firstly traces the development of Niebuhr's prophetic approach to nations and nationalism in the 1930s. Niebuhr argued that nation-states make "religious" claims in the sense that they claim absolute status for what is partial and finite; the prophetic church had to resist and criticize all such idolatry. While the context of fascist Europe and Nazi Germany was obvious in the 1930s, Niebuhr's critique of nationalism continued in the 1940s and 1950s: only now it was focused on the United States. Niebuhr is well known for his advocacy of U.S. intervention in World War II, and his call for a "tough" foreign policy toward the USSR in the late 1940s. It is tempting, therefore, to see him as simply another complicit cold warrior, tangled in the sticky web of American exceptionalism. Indeed, his call for American responsibility in the postwar world was premised on a belief in the relative superiority of "western civilization" over Nazism and communism. And yet Niebuhr's prophetic stance meant that while he was calling for American responsibility he was at the same time chiding American self-idolatry. In countless essays and editorials Niebuhr is found criticizing the notion that American values such as democracy, free-market capitalism, and liberalism were absolute. According to Niebuhr, U.S. foreign policy ought not presume the universal validity of American political values and thus impose these values and structures on peoples with whom they do not hold legitimacy. This meant, for example, not escalating cold war conflict in Asia. The prophetic stance on the one hand called for defense of certain "goods" in western civilization, and yet relativized those same goods against the claim of a transcendent God who judges all pretensions. Finally, the essay suggests that a "more theological" public discourse, not less, may lead to a transcendence of the prism of American exceptionalism in approaching foreign policy in the twenty-first century.