The editors discuss Mark Tooley’s review of Top Gun: Maverick, Marc LiVecche’s article about the “vocation of arms,” and how Reinhold Niebuhr viewed the Truman Doctrine and church-state relations in Europe.

Rough Transcript

Mark Tooley: Hello, this is Mark Tooley editor of Providence, A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marxism with fellow Marks and fellow editors Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton reviewing three pieces from Providence this week. Starting with my own piece on the new Tom Cruise film Top Gun and its lessons for American statecraft, Marc LiVecche’s piece on the vocation of arms which he wrote in time for Memorial Day this past week, and, finally, Mark Melton on a piece from 75 years ago Christianity and Crisis magazine from our patron saint Reinhold Niebuhr on the Truman Doctrine among other topics as an Niebuhr toured post-war Europe.

But first let me get to my own article. I saw a week ago the new Top Gun movie. Having somehow, although I live to the 1980s, completely miss the first Top Gun movie—I’ve yet to see it–so I cannot compare, I’m relying on others to fill me in on what happened. I absolutely loved it, the theater loved it, the theater custodian standing at the doorway loved it and asked me what I thought about it. I just gushed in response; tremendously entertaining, but I believe it has lessons for statecraft, even through the prism of Christian realism, in that it illustrates a tremendous confidence and audacity by all who were in the film in terms of achieving their mission, which is an attack upon a nuclear enrichment plant (probably it’s implied Iran, but no name is actually presented). I think this quality is perhaps uniquely American, certainly Israel has a tremendous audacity, but any great power any great actor on the world stage must have audacity and perhaps Christians are intrinsically uncomfortable with audacity whether personal, much less national, but a nation cannot function on a grand scale without that level of ambition and confidence. If Reinhold Niebuhr, Marc LiVecche or Mark Melton can correct me, but if a Reinhold Niebuhr were alive today, I think he would mostly if not entirely agree with me in that he himself urged America to be audacious when he urged its entrance into World War II and when he ultimately backed America’s leadership role in the Cold War. Obviously, he and the whole school of Christian realism warn against brashness, overconfidence, hubris, arrogance. which can all lead to cataclysm and implosion, but we must have a tremendous confidence in our vocation and in our mission to do what is right and good as best as we can see the right and good if we are to succeed, and if we are to serve the cause of justice and even righteousness in the world. But Marc LiVecche what think you?

Marc LiVecche: Oh, I say hoorah, absolutely. I can’t believe you didn’t see the first one, but I’m heartened to know that even not having that under your belt you still rejoiced in the second one. I’ll be writing an article for World magazine that’ll hopefully come out soon on Top Gun, and I see many of the same things that you and many others have said. It’s the most fun I’ve had in the theater for a long time. I tend because of the options available to lean toward the grim and sort of more weighty movies, darker, grittier all of that; but I have not smiled this much in a movie for a long time now–almost beginning to end. But at the same time, as you know, there’s a lot there to chew on in maybe a light-hearted way. Audacity was certainly there, the idea that audacity can also be had partly through being incredibly well prepared for battle. I think it’s always been a truism with the American military that we can be audacious but we can also be graceful because we are well trained. I think it is only after you have extreme confidence in your own abilities that you can take on both the audacious and then, within the audacious actions, exercise that kind of restraint. It comes from knowing that if things still go south, you know I can reassert myself in a more powerful way. Top Gun is all about training, it’s all about audacity, it’s all those things–it’s nice to see the old sentiments can still be lauded without cynicism or sentimentality. The theater loved it, as you said; this was the first time in a long time that people have clapped at various points throughout, hollered, and just had a good time. I think it’s a I think it’s a great moment–very excited about.

Mark Tooley: Applauding, laughing, crying all at the same time–wonderful experience. Mark Melton have you been to see Top Gun?

Mark Melton: No, I have not, I think the last time I’ve seen clapping like that in a movie was Snakes on a Plane, so sounds like this might have a different theme though, different ethos. I know that next week we’re going to have Alan Dowd an article by him, where he compares and contrasts the old movie to the new one, and so that may be of interest to Tooley if you don’t want to go rent the movie on Amazon. Last week I wrote an article about Doctor Who comparing and contrasting some of the themes over the decades of Doctor Who, the British sci-fi show. Same thing I think that’ll be done with Top Gun. Maybe that’s something we could talk about next week when Dowd’s article comes out: why are there these differences between the 1980 and the 2020 movies, I think is an interesting angle.

Marc LiVecche: A little bit of a teaser (and this might not come about, if it doesn’t come about I’ll eat my words next week) I’m trying to get Alan Dowd, myself, Joe Choppa (Air Force pilot fighter trained but an RPA pilot), and then someone from the US Naval Academy who was in Top Gun into a Zoom cast and to just pontificate about the film and have fun and deal with some of the issues. I think there’s a lot to be said about force effectiveness versus force protection, our mission effectiveness versus force protection that the movie touches on–but for the most part of be it’ll be light-hearted banter about the film.

Mark Tooley: Marc LiVecche, tell us about your piece on the vocation of arms, especially as it related to Memorial Day, but more widely.

Marc LiVecche: It’s a good segue as well, because in the piece as it was written for Memorial Day but certainly with a wider application, we often talk within military ethics, within military education, of the professional military the professional the profession of arms. And this is important and I discussed what it means to be a professional military and have a profession, but I also contrast that with what it might mean to have something that we could call a vocation of arms. I take that to be something in some ways a little bit more thick philosophically, even theologically thick, or thicker, than a profession. A vocation implies that you’re called to something and also implies that there is a Caller if you’ve been called, so I explore what that might mean in terms of the US military, both in terms of what it is that someone who practices that vocation is aiming at (and I, of course, stress the vocation of arms is aiming at is peace) and then I explore a little bit about what it means to aim at peace in terms of exercising a vocation. I try to dispel the sentimental myth that war somehow ennobles. I think when Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Armed Services Day, when those sorts of military holidays roll around we tend to get a little bit sentimental we put a lot of people on pedestals, sometimes very rightly so. But we also romanticize what the profession or the vocation of arms can be about. I chip away a little bit of this this idea that war necessarily ennobles. I note that could go in both directions, but then I do stress the idea that, if war doesn’t ennoble per se, almost certainly the preparation for war ennobles. It can do, and it has done. I think that’s the nice segue with the discussion of Top Gun, you sort of see this play out. These men and women who are the best fighter pilots in the world, have trained for combat (most of them hadn’t seen it, they sort of stress that) all of them are willing to sacrifice themselves for something beyond themselves. They’re willing to apply themselves diligently for concepts that other people might mock or find too vague. They are willing to give their lives to do something beyond their own pleasure and well-being–and that is ennobling and I think preparation for war does that. It’s a wide ranging, not terribly tightly written exploration of something that I’m playing with called the vocation of arms.

Mark Tooley: Excellent! Finally, Mark Melton, tell us about Reinhold Niebuhr and what he was writing 75 years ago regarding the Truman Doctrine and its emphasis on American help for those who were resisting Soviet encroachments, and also he reflects on state churches, as he visits throughout Europe.

Mark Melton: Right, so he travels through Europe (this is actually I think his second trip through postwar Europe, he was in Germany in the fall of 1946 and wrote a couple of editorial notes to Christianity and Crisis at that time). In this trip in 1947 he traveled to Scotland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. He may have gone to some other places, but he wrote report from those countries, and when he got back he wrote this correspondence that we posted this week, in which I wrote an intro to. And he synthesizes some of his different thoughts, one of the first things is that the Truman Doctrine was announced while he was over there, so it gives a report of how Europeans were thinking about this doctrine, and that includes an apprehensiveness. The Europeans have realized that they were once dominant actors on the world stage and in the post war environment, they are not the dominant actors. The United States is going to be taking a huge leap in countering the Soviet Union in a way that Europeans will have to rely upon. He wrote about the worries of the Europeans in the same way that a backseat driver is more worried about getting in an accident then the driver is, and I think that is probably an apt description for at least my experiences of living in Europe, you can still see part of that.

He also wrote about how he supported the Truman Doctrine but he disliked how Harry Truman described it as “defending democracies,” because at the time, Greece and Turkey were not great democracies and there were problems and corruption and whatnot in those countries. But he said we still needed to help these countries resist communist, especially the Greeks needed to help more than the Turks, but the Greeks really needed the help–not for the sake of democracy, but for the sake of peace in Europe. I think you could add if you side with the US you’re more likely to become more democratic than if you sided with the Soviets. That’s one part that he talks about is analyzing that and being supportive of it, which if you look through all the articles from 1945 to 47, you see an arc of Reinhold Niebuhr moving from being too accommodating to the Soviets, wanting to give them the bomb for the sake of being nice and creating common ground with them to we got to resist them and fight off the Communists incursions in the Balkans or in Greece. It’s a nice part there to kind of see that historical development that I don’t think many people realize was there, they kind of think of Reinhold Niebuhr as an automatic cold warrior, and it took him a couple of years to really lean into that.

The other thing you mentioned was he talked about state churches. In his different correspondences he writes about attending different services and he comments about Calvinism here, Karl Barth, and the State, the political parties, there was a development of like trying to create not post World War Christian political parties that were not connected to a Christian denomination. He also interestingly wrote about state established churches and he says that it creates the illusion or the facade of a Christian nation. He observed that churches were not well attended, they didn’t have as much as much influence. He said that their society within society was just as secular, if not more so than American society based on his experiences of seeing this. One of the previous correspondences he wrote about a discussion he heard of people wanting to disestablish the churches in Europe, and he basically seems to imply that the you know the official attendance, the official membership of these churches would collapse. And, as happened in the Netherlands, that came to pass. I think there you see a bit of a critique of the illiberal, post-liberal or post-constitutional (whatever you want to call it) movement that some Christians are advocating for in the US.

Mark Tooley: Very good, looking forward to the next week. I’m going to write a piece comparing how C.S. Lewis viewed history versus Herbert Butterfield, who is a contemporary of Niebuhr and Christian realist. Lewis warned against historicism as he called it, but also against Christians being overly ambitious to terms of interpreting history as revealing God’s will. Butterfield is much more providential and encourages, in some sense, looking for God’s will as history moves forward. LiVecche, you already mentioned the piece you’re writing for us. Melton, do you have anything in the works?

Mark Melton: Yeah I’m going to probably write “Five Impressions on Reinhold Niebuhr and His Contributors in Christianity and Crisis.” I think one of these points may relate to what you’re going to write. I think I would disagree with Herbert Butterfield and maybe agree with C.S. Lewis on this–I’m not sure which source you’re going to side on C.S. Lewis, but I wrote previously on The Four Loves he talks about how learning a bad history can create a false impression that can be easily broken and then leads to basically disparaging the country. But I’m not sure what angle you’re going to take with that or what sources you’re citing.

Mark Tooley: I’m going to side against Lewis and for Butterfield so we can have that debate.

Marc LiVecche: Good there we go.

Mark Tooley: Very good, thank you, gentlemen have a good weekend, and we conclude this episode of Marxism. Until next week, bye bye.