- Robust Liberalism: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Public Life by Timothy A. Beach-Verhey
Those most intimate with the works of H. Richard Niebuhr, who return to them time after time for theological and ethical sustenance, know that they exemplify a more interesting thinker than his brother, Reinhold. Of course, Reinhold was and remains the more public figure, read seriously in his time by politicians and theologians, celebrated by our current president, and enjoying renewed scholarly interest resulting in new editions of out-of-print works and a number of critical studies. Meanwhile, H. Richard continues to exert decisive influence on American Protestant thought. Such diverse thinkers as Paul Ramsey, James Gustafson, Stanley Hauerwas, William Schweiker, Kathryn Tanner, Gordon Kaufman, Emilie Townes, and Victor Anderson (among others) all labor under the breadth of H. Richard Niebuhr's insights. And no wonder, given the scope of his contributions: social and historical studies of American Christianity, theological method, the infamous Christ-and-culture typology of Christian ethics, faith analysis, responsibility ethics, as well as sundry other topics addressed in essays and lectures. Timothy Beach-Verhey brings the fullness of H. Richard Niebuhr to bear on the problem of Christianity's relationship to American public and political life. Beyond demonstrating that H. Richard's work has contemporary relevance, he shows that it has relevance to the very problem that Reinhold's work is usually adduced to address. But whereas Reinhold's realism constrains him to approach this problem from the friction generated between the possible and the ideal, H. Richard's theocentrism leads him to approach it from a particular understanding of the relationship between the particular and the universal, which balances realism and historicism.
Beach-Verhey's main argument is that H. Richard Niebuhr's position resides beyond the standoff between a Rawlsian liberalism that seeks to excise religious convictions from public discourse and a Hauerwasian Christianity that seeks to excise liberal assumptions or remainders from Christian discourse and life. Niebuhr offers a "third alternative that recognizes that religious faith cannot be removed from political life," pace Rawls, "but also does not associate a common life with the cultural hegemony of a particular religious or cultural perspective," pace Hauerwas (25). Niebuhr shows us how Christian and non-Christian Americans can share a common political life, by combining relativism [End Page 189] and pluralism about discourse with realism about God and the world. While thought, interpretation, and knowledge are subjectively limited and fallible, genuine engagement with an objective reality is still possible. It is precisely a genuine relation to the real universal, or God understood as "the sovereign reality that confronts each and every particular," that binds together all historical communities with their limited, fallible perspectives, enabling them to respond to each other dialogically as coparticipants in God's covenant-structured reality rather than to engage each other competitively as exclusive claimants to that reality (18-19). The result is a robust liberalism, constituted by particular communities reaching beyond tolerance to share their substantive moral claims in public life while exercising responsibility for each other before and to the God that transcends them all. In this light, Christian churches and liberal political institutions become possible allies rather than necessary combatants.
The first part of the book articulates H. Richard Niebuhr's third option of robust liberalism in conversation with John Rawls and Stanley Hauerwas and also with the recent work of Franklin Gamwell, Jeffrey Stout, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Beach-Verhey notes a surprising affinity between Rawls the defender and Hauerwas the critic of liberal democracy: both understand it to be defined by social contract. For Rawls, this means that particular substantive moral and religious claims must be left out of public discourse. Ironically, he therefore fails in the purported aim of his approach to political liberalism—that of securing a place for minority dissenters—if minority dissenters are religious. To this extent, religious believers are justified in rejecting the Rawlsian approach. Hauerwas resigns himself to this picture...