James Comey: The Fall of a Niebuhrian

Comey wrote his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr

Comey’s thesis treats Niebuhr’s writings as a kind of wisdom literature for Christian office seekers. “Every aspiring world leader,” he advised, should study “Niebuhr’s classic statement of the human condition.”


Last fall, my students were reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 classic, “The Irony of American History,” when the renowned theologian’s title came alive for them: Soon after FBI Director James Comey announced an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, she lost the presidential election to Donald Trump.

As Comey came under the microscope of national attention, we learned that he had written his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr.

The plot thickened this spring, when cybersleuth Ashley Feinberg discovered that he uses the name “Reinhold Niebuhr” on his private Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Comey’s abrupt dismissal by President Trump this week raises the question anew: What is the significance, if any, of his attachment to the leading political theologian of the 20th century?

Raised in a Catholic family in Yonkers, N.Y., Comey earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry and religious studies from William & Mary in 1982. His senior thesis, which compared the thinking of socialist-turned-liberal Niebuhr with that of archconservative Jerry Falwell on the role of the Christian in politics, was the work of a young man in flux.

Niebuhr, who called himself a “Christian realist,” advanced a chastened view of human nature as sinful and an ironic interpretation of history at the height of American power after World War II. Falwell, who created the Moral Majority in 1979, championed the fervent Christian nationalism of the Reagan years.

How did Comey bring together these strange bedfellows?

He argued that Falwell and Niebuhr shared a conviction that the Christian has a duty and a mandate to participate in politics. By taking this tack, Comey placed himself, the would-be Christian politician, at the center of his inquiry.

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