Niebuhrian Irony and Drones — Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

February 24, 2014

“IRONY. THE OPPOSITE OF WRINKLY” reads the message on a sweatshirt wife Harriet gave me, perhaps in reaction to my probable overuse of a topic. The word “irony” appears in the title of at least one book, one article, one chapter, one column, and one review that I’ve written through the years. They all take off from reflection on a concept fostered by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), the last century’s foremost public theologian.

A Protestant who chummed with atheists, Niebuhr said that “the Christian faith tends to make the ironic view of human evil in history the normative one.” He spoke not of literary irony but of “historic” or “dramatic” versions of irony applied to American history. God, for him, is the “divine judge who laughs at human pretensions, without [note this!] being hostile to human aspirations.” So such irony is not about “what fools these mortals be!”

Niebuhr has been dead for forty-three years, and the statute of limitations on implicating him in crucial debates ought to have been long in force, but, though his own personal reputation, status, and relevance are seen to rise and fall and rise again, those who comment on American public life offer new wrinkles as they debate policies and politicians.

No U.S. president escapes analysis through Niebuhrian ironic perspectives. The current president has not been able to dodge or duck, in no small measure because he invited the use of such perspectives, explicitly in an interview with David Brooks several years ago.Sightings doesn’t do much sighting of U.S. presidents, but in this reflection on Niebuhrian irony, we’ll let two essayists pose questions to President Obama which they don't allow him to duck.

The two are James L. Fredericks, a Loyola Marymount professor, and Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University; they are featured together in the cover story “American Innocence: Niebuhr & the Ironies of History” (Commonweal, Jan. 9, 2014).

Fredericks is succinct about what Niebuhr saw: our tendency, as Americans, to sanctify our political institutions; we forget that history is intractable, its course and direction finally beyond human comprehension; and U.S. history offers little evidence for triumphalism or an all-out tragic sense.

Then Fredericks applies these perspectives to the tense topic of President Obama’s use of drones. Fredericks sees the potential for devastatingly immoral acts and consequences, but sides with the President who said, “We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.”

Bacevich equals Fredericks in his admiration for Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, but finds that while it is an invaluable text about the past, “as a policy handbook,” it is “all but devoid of value.” Niebuhr’s warnings are profound, but on today’s complex issues they are “not much help.” He can help a leader avoid egregious mistakes, “but heeding Niebuhr won’t guarantee sound decisions or wise policies.”

Niebuhr would ask, about drones: “given the resentments among local populations, many terrorists are we creating for every one we kill?” What sort of precedents are we creating with a program of “targeted assassinations?” “Will targeted assassinations ever eliminate or even reduce the causes of violent Islamic radicalism?” 

So Bacevich thinks that Niebuhr would condemn the drone campaign as ill-conceivedand immoral.

Yes, after 9/11 "doing nothing may not be an option,” but is it the only option? Let the questioning and debate continue, with IRONY not only on our sweatshirts, but as a perspective on what has to be on the minds of the thoughtful.

Sources and Further Reading:

Fredericks, James L. and Andrew J. Bacevich. "American Innocence: Niebuhr & the Ironies of History." Commonweal, January 9, 2014.

Brooks, David. "Obama, Gospel and Verse." International New York Times Opinion Pages, April 26, 2007.

Monte. “Martin Marty anticipates Niebuhrian outlook in Obama presidency.” The Society Pages: a backstage sociologist blog, November 6, 2008.

Marty, Martin. “Preaching Ironically: Thanks, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Prophets.”McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, 4 (2001).

Marty, Martin. “Irony (fig.) and (lit.) in Modern American Religion.” Article based on the Scholars Press Associates Lecture delivered at the American Academy of Religion on the occasion of the Academy’s 75th anniversary, December 9, 1984.

Marty, Martin. “The War-Time Lincoln and the Ironic Tradition in America.” Radio program, "On Being with Krista Tippett," November 2, 2006.

Marty. Martin. Modern American Religion, Volume 1: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue / compfight

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0.jpegAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:



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