Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, today with the pleasure of speaking with Joshua Mauldin who is at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, with a fascinating new book out on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and modern politics. So, Josh, it’s great to have you with us.
Mauldin: Thanks, Mark, great to be here.
Tooley: If you could hold your book up for a moment so we could take a glance. Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics. So, tell us why are Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and modern politics a timely topic for today?
Mauldin: Well, it’s funny you say that. I’ve been sending the book around and a lot of people do always say, well, that sounds very timely. The first copies of it arrived on my doorstep, and you know how these books take forever to kind of go all the way from beginning to getting it in hand, and the moment when they arrived on my doorstep, the Capitol was under siege. And I was sort of, someone might think oh, that sort of makes it seem timelier. At the time I was sort of so much upset by this whole situation that I just left the books out there for I think the whole day. Maybe around 10 pm that night I finally got them because it seemed so much was changing in society. But why is it timely? Two topics I was interested in that got me to writing the book were theories of liberalism, theories of modern politics that focus on critiques of liberalism, think about people like Alasdair MacIntyre, Brad Gregory, Patrick Deneen, but I was also interested in Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and one of the themes I was particularly interested in was how the whole history of national socialism, the Third Reich, the Holocaust plays a key role in theories of modern politics, whether it’s seen as a kind of warning sign of any kind of backsliding away from liberalism or whether it’s seen as a kind of culmination of the problems of liberalism. So, I thought it was a natural fit to bring these two theologians, Barth and Bonhoeffer, who lived during the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and although, especially with Barth, you don’t necessarily see them writing explicitly on that topic, you have to kind of dig deeper to find their thoughts on those topics, it seemed to be a natural fit to think about these theological figures in the midst of these broader debates.
Tooley: Is it accurate to describe both Barth and Bonhoeffer as liberals in the political sense? Supporters of liberal democracy?
Mauldin: Yeah, it’s a complicated topic. I basically try to use them to defend an account of liberal democracy. Of course, by that word, what do I mean? I mean in the broadest sense. I don’t mean it, of course, in the sense of a kind of progressive politics. I mean in the sense that would encompass a kind of a conservative right form of liberalism. Republicans in the United States, for example, as well as liberal progressive Democrats in the United States. So, it’s a broad sense of conception of political life that in some senses focuses on individual freedom and individual dignity. So, I think that part of what liberalism means is you have to build a structure of society that recognizes the individual as important. You can’t just sort of say here’s a social problem, let’s solve it without any regard to individual freedom. And basically, I tried to argue that Barth and Bonhoeffer support that. Although, there’s a lot of debates about whether Bonhoeffer thought that Germany, for example, could be a democracy. And he had some skepticism about that. But I think, on the whole, you can argue that both of them thought that the modern political settlement was itself an achievement as opposed to a kind of decline from some prior golden age, if that makes sense.
Tooley: Now you mentioned Patrick Deneen, who essentially despairs of American democracy. What would say, Karl Barth, say today regarding that argument or perspective?
Mauldin: Yeah, Deneen’s book I’ve read, and it was sort of out too late for me to deal with a lot. I kind of footnoted and reference it. I’m more focused on Alasdair MacIntyre, Brad Gregory, who’s a historian, and Stanley Hauerwas. MacIntyre is, in one sense, I think the kind of source of a lot of these criticisms. So, I think Deneen is drawing on MacIntyre to a great extent. Brad Gregory is, and so is Hauerwas. I do think that Barth has more of a sense of a theological framework undergirding kind of liberal politics. He’s more positive about it than Deneen would be, and that gets very complicated. I kind of go into it in the book. In one sense, what I want to say is, and I draw on this in chapter three and the chapter on Bonhoeffer, is with both Barth and Bonhoeffer you have an account of the ultimate that makes the penultimate possible. Those are Bonhoeffer’s terms, but I think he’s drawing on a kind of body and theology there. And in both cases, there is a danger of politics when it doesn’t have the ultimate. So, there’s a critique of secularism there when you don’t have a sense of the ultimate, the penultimate that is the kind of secular sphere is always in danger of becoming the ultimate. There’s a kind of religious tendency in humanity that if you have a politics that doesn’t have an account of the ultimate and a sense of the divine, you’re going to have a politics that itself tries to become religious in some nature. So, that’s in a sense the dark side of what one might call modern politics in general. I think there is a kind of theological eschatological stream of modern politics, and that’s why I talked about modern politics as the title of the book as opposed to just liberalism as a political philosophy. And I think someone like Deneen is sort of homing in on that that danger, but I think what you see with Barth and Bonhoeffer is an ability to diagnose that danger, but also to recognize the achievements of modern politics.
Tooley: I’m sure you’ve noticed there is a modern tendency to exploit Bonhoeffer, or whatever evil we perceive ourselves to be fighting today we’re just like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his struggles. So, how do you contend with that temptation?
Mauldin: I focus on that quite a bit in chapter four, and I think in some ways that’s one of the more interesting chapters. There was a book by Stephen Haynes called The Battle for Bonhoeffer, and I read that a couple years ago. Actually, this was after I’d already written much of this book. And he basically is, and maybe you’ve seen that book, Mark, it’s very interesting. He’s kind of giving a history of the reception of Bonhoeffer, particularly in the United States in the last say 40 years. One of the things he notes is that every president since Ronald Reagan at least has been likened to Hitler, and in each of these cases, you have somebody who’s likening themselves to a kind of Bonhoeffer who’s over against the Hitler who’s in power. And what you saw a lot, especially really for about 15 years, is the declaration of various Bonhoeffer moments. And these are moments when someone says, “Okay, we’re now in a battle for a moment. We have to resist, we have to overthrow, we have to do something of this nature.” What I argue in the chapter is actually it’s very vague exactly what is being declared in that moment. For example, is it being declared that we need to actually overthrow the government, participate in some kind of violent action? Oftentimes people who declare a Bonhoeffer moment at the very last moment, as it were, they pull back and say, “We’re not calling for any kind of violent insurrection. We’re only calling for asking the kinds of questions Bonhoeffer raised, such as who is Christ?” For us today, a kind of innocuous theological question, we might say. What I argue in the chapter is if we want to really think about Bonhoeffer and his account of political resistance, we shouldn’t think about the divine mandates. And, in a sense, I’m saying let’s not only think about Bonhoeffer as this kind of empty vessel in whom we can pour whatever political ideology we have, but let’s actually think about what he thought of as what politics needs to be in order to sustain a society over time. So, he has this idea of these various social spheres that constitute society, and he thinks, even in the modern, especially in a modern society, you need these various spheres like the state, religion or the church, family and marriage, and work, or culture. And his key point is these various spheres of society are sort of ordered by separate norms, and it’s very important that the norms of one or the other not entrench upon the other spheres. So, I make this whole argument that if we really want to sort of think about Bonhoeffer during a time of political tumble, let’s think about these divine mandates and what they have to say about what kinds of societies we need to build in order both to keep tyranny at bay, also to keep anarchy at bay, and to build up societies that can endure through time.
Tooley: Both Bonhoeffer and Barth, can people of today on both the political right and left look to them for guidance, or can one side claim any kind of ownership over one or the other?
Mauldin: I certainly think more the former, where both sides can learn a lot from both of them. There are left and right interpretations of both to some extent. People are always a little more surprised that I bring Barth in on this, because I think he’s seen by some as kind of a conservative dogmatic thinker who is more focused on the integrity of the Christian message than he is on any kind of political questions, whereas Bonhoeffer is seen more as a kind of political liberal, Protestant liberalism, we might say. What’s interesting is in writing the book, I found to some extent a little bit of the opposite. With Bonhoeffer, he has some chapters in ethics, his ethics manuscript especially, a chapter called “Heritage in Decay,” where he does actually, even though I’m arguing more for the kind of positive argument about democracy, he does to some extent see modern secular society as in some sense losing its Christian heritage. And in some sense, he’s arguing that that’s what has caused in his time the 1930s, 1940s, this civilization will collapse. And he does argue for a kind of retrieval of a theological, indeed a Christian, framework to bind society together. So, in some ways I ended up finding a little bit different from what I expected.
Tooley: And my impression of Barth, perhaps unfair, is that while he was in some sense prophetic in his denunciation of the evils of the Third Reich, that during the Cold War he was not as outspoken or perceptive about the threats to freedom that the Soviet Union posed. Is that a fair impression?
Mauldin: It is, I mean, I actually just wrote a chapter on it for The Oxford Handbook of Reinhold Niebuhr, and it’s specifically on Niebuhr and Karl Barth’s interactions, which, as you know, very much centered on this question. As we got into the 1940s, 50s, 60s, Barth wanted to maintain, well, I think there’s two things. I mean, I think one, he was called the “Red Pastor” in Safenwil in Switzerland, where he was a pastor. And he certainly was a Social Democrat throughout his life. So, he had a kind of sense of social democracy that he thought was necessary. And in his view, whether right or wrong, American form of capitalism was a threat to that as well as the Soviet Union. And he might have even argued in some sense, well, and here’s what I recommend the book to in a separate context, Barth always focused, what he said, at least in his political statements, on who he was talking to. And a lot of what we read in this debate about the Cold War and so on, when he was speaking to American audiences, he really wanted to not be sort of brought in to a kind of anti-Soviet Cold War ideology. When he was speaking to say Hungarians, he could be more critical of the Soviet Union. I think he always thought that kind of Niebuhr’s name for himself, American ideology, was going to sort of scoop the Christian message for its own kind of Cold War ideology. That’s what I would say to that.
Tooley: Of course, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Niebuhr were thrown into the same pot in terms of being neoorthodox, whatever that means. But obviously they were very different personalities and had very different beliefs, and, as you mentioned, some debate between Niebuhr and Barth. How would you summarize their differences and their commonalities?
Mauldin: Between all three?
Mauldin: Barth and Niebuhr, for one thing, and this is what I argue in this chapter that I’ve just written, I think Niebuhr and Barth were actually sort of vocationally doing very different things. Barth wrote this massive church dogmatic which was focused on in some sense describing the Christian faith, and it was very much doing it for pastors, preachers in the pulpit. He has these short paragraphs at the top of each section of this huge multivolume thing, each of his doctrines he has a little paragraph at the top where he kind of summarizes it. And people notice that and don’t necessarily think too much about it. What I found very fascinating in doing some historical reading on his biography, on Barth’s biography, he had this same framework way back when he was in his 20s and was teaching confirmation classes to adolescents in the Alpine Village in Switzerland where he was a pastor for 10 years. Basically, this was a way that he was teaching the Christian faith to young people who were just learning about it, and he continued this same basic framework throughout his life in writing the church dogmatic. So, I mean, I think Barth was very much focused on how do we read, describe, narrate the Christian faith for people who are going to actually be proclaiming it from the pulpit as pastors. Niebuhr was also a professor at a seminary and, interestingly enough, was a pastor in Detroit for 13 years during pretty much the same time that Barth was a pastor. They were both pastors as their first kind of positions in life and then Niebuhr became a seminary professor. So, he also was working in the seminary, but in a very different way, very much more focused in a sort of American sense on politics, on how the Christian faith would relate to the state in the United States. And I think he just always had a different vocation, even while he was training ministers.
Tooley: And of course, Niebuhr was considered a founder of contemporary Christian realism. Would Barth or Bonhoeffer subscribe to any aspect of Christian realism or self-identify as such?
Mauldin: They didn’t identify as such, but I think there are certainly certain themes of Christian realism that they would have subscribed to. I’ll put it that way. Robin Lovin has his book on Christian realism, on the brand Christian realism, where he argues that Christian realism is defined by three forms of realism, moral realism, theological realism, and political realism. And all three are kind of interrelated, but they’re not the same thing. Theological realism being that there really is a God. God is real. And there’s a sort of actor and subject in history; it’s not just a kind of projection of human needs and so on. Moral realism, the idea that our moral claims are actually attached to something real in the world, it’s not a moral relativism, it’s not that we just make up rules in order to organize our lives, they’re actually our objective moral norms. And political realism, which is in some ways what Niebuhr is most known for. But this kind of sense of our political lives, especially at the international level, can’t be organized around purely ideals, but have to be organized around basically the facts of human nature, the facts of human desire for power, and so on and so forth. So, all three of those are key to Christian realism as Niebuhr understood it. I would argue. And I think all three Bonhoeffer and Barth would have subscribed to. The only question might have been what would their view of political realism have been. Maybe they would have been a little less, maybe they would have been a little more optimistic, we could say. But I’ll leave that as a question.
Tooley: And perhaps today we need some political optimism.
Mauldin: I think that’s right. One of the figures who I found very interesting and I used in the book, even though he’s in some ways not popular, at least this book, is Francis Fukuyama. I’m very interested in his books The End of History and The Last Man. This was back in 1990 that he wrote this, or ’91, and you’ll remember the publication of that, Mark, and how it sort of caused a lot of controversy. And even to this day, part of the reason I wanted to use it is I think a lot of people read that, or a lot of people criticize that book, often I think without having read it. Because it’s a much more subtle argument than is often given credit. But the key point there being in the book that at that time, he was arguing that liberal democracy had no sort of normative rivals in the world. There were a few kind of, there were certainly still countries that were not liberal democracies, but even those usually tried to defend their claims in terms of liberty, democracy, they maybe even had democratic in the title of their country’s name. And so far as they weren’t democratic, they argued that this was just a way station on the way to a democratic society, and so forth. And a lot of people I think were actually upset that Fukuyama was in a sense optimistic, in a sense, to get to your point, Mark. That he was too optimistic that this would kind of continue. Of course, today, in a sense, you could argue that the critics have been proven right in so far as you’ve got a lot, we’ve got countries like China, which are now growing stronger and stronger on an authoritarian model. They’re not democratizing in the way that even as recently as 2001 people thought or hoped they would. But I still think there’s something to be said that we need an optimism, particularly around the question of liberal democracy. We need optimism that even in the wake of threats, even in the wake of all the kind of recriminations, partisan infighting, we see that in the longer term, I think, democracy will endure.
Tooley: Josh Mauldin, the author of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics, thank you for a fascinating conversation.
Mauldin: Thanks, Mark.