I’ve got to say, I did not have Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr on my Closing-Night-of-the-Convention Bingo Card.
But I’m really glad they were there!
Both of those references came from the candidate himself. Early on, in a shorter clip, Joe Biden quoted Kierkegaard’s line that “Faith sees best in the dark.” Later, in his acceptance speech, he said “I’ll be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”
When he said that, I felt a stirring in my old political-science brain. I knew exactly from where he was drawing that material. I mean, sure — it’s basic duality stuff: Light. Darkness. Could be from anywhere, right?
That would be true for most politicians, but not Joe. Not Joe, because he is an Irish Catholic politician who came to political sentience in the middle of the 20th century, and whose life revolved around trying to figure out how to marry our fallen nature with a deeply rooted spiritual duty to service while dwelling in a liberal society assailed by rising totalitarianism all around.
And if that’s the case, then Niebuhr it is.
I know this because I am an Irish Catholic kid from a political family who came to political sentience in the late 20th century who was told by his father — an Irish Catholic politician who came to political sentience in the middle of the 20th century, that if I wanted to resolve the struggle between our fallen nature and our calling to service while dwelling in a liberal society assailed by rising totalitarianism all around, then I should most definitely read that Christian ethicist’s seminal work: “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.”
That one book, more than any other I know, delves into the problems of life in a liberal democracy, and the eternal struggle to keep it. Niebuhr understood that autocrats and demagogues posed an existential threat to democracies, but he also saw the truth that the political naivety of idealists poses a similarly grave threat. In VERY short form, Niebuhr argued not that the world was simply a battle between the children of darkness and the children of light, but that to keep our liberty, we children of light needed to toughen up a bit if we are going to play in the same sandbox as the sons-a-bitches like Putin or Trump or Hitler.
Niebuhr understood humans — and nations — are pulled in dangerous directions on all sides. He argued that, given a chance, the worst among us will always choose dominance and destruction, while the best in us have a tendency to be more than a bit blind to dangers inherent in the human heart.
The pull-quote most often cited is, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
And we — as members of a liberal democracy — inhabit that struggle for as long as we can, managing every generation in a constant battle to maintain justice and decency. Expand those theories out as you will in our current milieu, but understand that Joe Biden is no piker when it comes to the philosophical roots to his belief. He made that much clear tonight.
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Anyone who reads these essays regularly knows that my candidate in the Democratic Primary was Senator Warren, and I was less than thrilled — along with a good 45 to 50% of the party — when Joe got the nod. What you likely don’t know is that my reluctance to join in with the Political Revolution of Bernie Sanders after Warren dropped out was because of folks like Reinhold Niebuhr.
A lot of my friends on the left see this as a weakness, as a fear of change, but it’s not. It’s a fear, rather, to slightly misquote T.E. Lawrence, that “Youth can win, but it doesn’t know how to keep, and is pitiably weak against age.” The fires that burn for revolution — as both Lawrence and Niebuhr knew — are hot and move fast, but they don’t usually sustain democracy either due to their own naivety, or their own inability to guard against the spirits of darkness that reside inside themselves. I love the goals of the revolution, but I also fear its ungovernable souls. Slay me as you will.
But apparently, the majority of Democrats felt the same way in the end, so we find ourselves here with Joe — who against all my expectations is turning out to be an excellent champion for the cause.
My fear — and I presume, the fear of every living Democrat across the country — was that Joe wouldn’t quite match up to the moment. Lord knows he has faltered in the past when history has found him center stage. My fear was that we would see “Sleepy Joe,” as Trump has derided him. My fear was that he’d not be able to make the case against the profound danger — the evil — that is in the White House tonight.
But, my God, he did.
Oh, Lord, he did.
He spoke — as a child of the light, with a glint of fire — about family, fidelity, and faith. He called us to battle, but he did so with a loving heart. He was not a Pollyanna, giving a speech that was florid and filled with unending promises. Rather, he told us this would be hard. He told us that we were fighting for something bigger than ourselves. He pulled no punches about the assaults on decency and democracy and diversity that we are assailed by on all sides.
He did, in short, what his political philosophy told him to do. He took just enough of the darkness, that small kernel of rage, and he mixed it in with the hope. He did what Niebuhr instructed. He understood that ninety, ninety-five percent of this fight needs to be fought with the heart of angels, but the steel of battle — that last five percent — needs a killer instinct, and that was there, too.
When he started this campaign, Joe said it was “for the soul of America.” And honestly, I thought that was a canned line that he got from a political operative. But he showed us tonight that it wasn’t. He showed us tonight that for him — as it must be for us — this is a war for everything.
Niebuhr wrote his book, the full title of which is: “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense” in 1944 — right at the end of WWII. He wrote it knowing that democracies can fall to the right or to the left. He wrote it knowing that democracies can fall to persistent demons, or when idealistic dreamers become lost in their own utopian ideals, their own sense of purity, their own misguided faith in the natural goodness of world once purged of evil.
He wrote it at a time when young folks like my dad and Joe Biden (and John Lewis and Dr. King and Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters) were just starting out in the struggle to make America great in ways that all of us could recognize. His audience read it while sons-of-bitches like Fred Trump and Bull Connor were doing everything they could to keep the riff-raff down. He wrote it for a polity that understood that the struggle was always going to be there, because it grows directly from us.
I’m glad that Joe was there to read it.
I’m glad that Joe read his Kierkegaard, too.
Who knows, maybe I’m just glad that Joe reads ANYTHING, given where we are in the historical pendulum swing, but I’m coming out of this week really pumped to get behind a guy whom I recognize as an empathetic champion that will lead us toward the light, but also one who can be a bad-ass old warrior when we need to do battle with the darkness. Our capacity for justice makes a better America possible, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s gonna take a goddamned fight. I trust now that Joe gets that.
But more importantly, I understand now that he’s known it for a very long time.