Regret Is Not Enough

Why the President Should Read Paul Ramsey

In late December, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law, despite having “serious reservations” about provisions allowing those suspected of terrorist connections to be detained indefinitely without trial—including U.S. citizens arrested on American soil.

Obama expressed a similarly ambivalent attitude toward the darker side of statecraft in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, where he asserted that war is both “necessary” and an “expression of human folly.” Such ambivalence is a hallmark of the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose influence Obama first acknowledged in an interview with David Brooks in 2007.

I find Obama’s decision to sign NDAA despite his well-founded reservations deeply troubling. So, as we move toward the 2012 election, I hope that he adds another great twentieth-century Protestant political moralist to his reading list: Paul Ramsey. Ramsey once said that his goal in writing was to “propose an extension within the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.” And by “extension,” Ramsey meant “necessary theological correction.”

If Martin Luther’s motto is “sin boldly,” Niebuhr’s would be “sin humbly—but effectively.” As a “Christian realist,” Niebuhr insisted that statesmen don’t have the moral luxury of refusing to get their hands dirty. At the same time, he held that leaders ought to resist the delusion that the comparative justice of their cause whitewashes their methods—or their hearts, for that matter. By critiquing American self-righteousness, Niebuhr presented himself as a strong critic of American exceptionalism.

What Ramsey allows us to see, however, is that Niebuhr’s framework ultimately provided American exceptionalism with its best defense mechanism yet. It encourages us to deceive ourselves into believing that the regret and doubt we experience over the use of morally questionable means only proves our morally superior status. Ultimately, American exceptionalism and moral consequentialism go together hand in glove—the moral self-examination and self-recrimination only make the glove fit like a second skin.

How, then, to curb the pride and self-righteousness that Niebuhr perceived to be at the heart of American exceptionalism? Ramsey rightly saw that it is necessary not only to be appropriately measured about the political goals we set, but also to be appropriately limited in the means we use to achieve them. We escape the snare of excessive self-regard by honoring absolute moral norms that respect the humanity of our enemies, who are equally beloved by God, not by wringing our hands before we violate these norms.

Ramsey argued, for example, that the justification for waging war and the limits restricting how we wage it arise from the same source—Christian love of neighbor. Following Augustine, he maintained that when we are unjustly attacked as individuals, we ought to turn the other cheek. When our innocent neighbors are attacked, however, love requires that we take up arms and defend them. But this justification immediately generates its own limit: Ramsey insisted we cannot consistently claim to be motivated by Christian love and a concern to protect the weak and vulnerable if we target our weapons at just such groups of people. And so he defended the principle of discrimination as part of the just-war criteria: the absolute immunity of noncombatants from direct attack.

I also think there is a strong Ramseyan argument against indefinite detention of terrorist suspects without trial. Not only does indefinite detention violate American constitutional norms, particularly the norm of due process, it also violates the norms of Christian neighbor love, because the idea of personal moral accountability and just judgment is at the heart of Christianity. We recite in the creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead; we know that if we are consigned to hell, it will be on the basis of our own actions for which we are fairly judged.

The Christian belief in the possibility of just judgment in the end times undergirds our efforts to hold ourselves and one another morally accountable in these times—including in times of war. To detain prisoners indefinitely without a fair trial doesn’t merely consign them to an earthly hell without first hearing their case. Perhaps more troubling, it treats them as animals to be contained and controlled, rather than moral agents to be judged and held accountable for their actions—and only for their actions.

Does it matter that Obama promised not to authorize indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens? On this question I think both Niebuhr and Ramsey would agree that the answer is “not much.” It is not merely a matter of what Obama himself will do if he is presented with circumstances he perceives as sufficiently exigent; it is also a question of what his successors in office will do. Both Ramsey and Niebuhr would say that the human capacity for self-deception and self-justification is nearly boundless—especially among the powerful.

Related: Undue Process, by Cathleen Kaveny
True Writ, by Joseph D. Becker

Published in the 2012-01-27 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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