I don’t think it is controversial to state that America is a country made by war — war informs the nation’s identity and its existential meaning. King Philip’s War in the 17th century helped imagine what it might mean to be American. The Revolutionary War fundamentally shaped the unification of disparate states in order to declare independence from Great Britain. The Civil War forged a new understanding of American democracy through the violent destruction of slavery. The World Wars of the 20th century expanded federal power and remade the United States into a global superpower. The Cold War inaugurated a seemingly permanent national security apparatus linked to the possession of nuclear weapons. And the wars of the 21st century have committed Americans to an endless cycle low-grade, high-tech, expressions of violence in almost every corner of the globe.

Considering this history, perhaps the most controversial stand to take in America is to be anti-war. It is controversial in large part because to be anti-war often sounds anti-American. And perhaps that is right — if war is intrinsic to American identity then questioning the nation’s wars inevitably leads to questioning America itself.

So, was A.J. Muste — the labor activist, American intellectual, and pacifist — anti-American? Yes, for reasons that served him well and helped re-define the American left and American Christianity. In short, he kept both honest in how they related to their own intellectual traditions.

In a book that I admire for its elegant writing, comprehensive research, and fair-minded analysis, Leilah Danielson’s American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century rescues the historiography of mid-century American politics from being reduced to a celebration of New Deal liberalism and Cold War realism. Moreover, Muste might be considered one of the most significant critics of Americanism, an ideological construct that is one part Christian arrogance, one part military hubris, and another part materialistic obsessiveness. At the same time, Danielson demonstrates what we can learn from Muste’s failure to generate the kind of following that liberalism and the American national security state engendered. We might see Muste as an antidote to too much Niebuhr (or TMN, for short). Speaking only for me and a few of my colleagues that know me well, I am probably a special audience for Danielson’s book — I do need help with my TMN.

Muste needed Niebuhr, though too. At least, he needed the towering figure of mid-century American Protestant theology (as he was often tagged) if only as a worthy intellectual sparring partner. Danielson points out that both Muste and Niebuhr developed similar critiques of liberalism, modernism, and (to a lesser extent) American hubris through their admiration of the Jewish prophetic tradition. Niebuhr “called on his fellow Christians,” Danielson writes, “to act in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, who called upon society to recognize its sins and conform to the will of God. For Niebuhr, religion was not compatible with modern culture and society, but rather a challenge to it.” (206)

Yet Muste departed from Niebuhr’s almost cyclical use of the prophetic tradition — returning again and again to challenge those in power without necessarily offering a way forward. Ultimately the problem with Niebuhr (as a boat-load of scholars have pointed out) was his willingness to use institutions of power as levers in his social critique rather than build a movement that would stand outside the status quo. For Muste and, later someone such as Stanley Hauerwas, the position outside the status quo was the Christian church. Danielson explains: “It was his [Muste’s] understanding of Christianity as a prophetic religion that encouraged him to interpret Christ suffering on the cross as a social concept. Thus, Muste drew upon the history of American radicalism and the prophetic tradition to make his argument that pacifists have to engage in nonviolent resistance.” (209) Muste built organizations that carried idealism not as dream of a better world but as tools to destroy barriers to a better world.

If the debate between Muste and Niebuhr had reached its apex in the Second World War, we might describe it as a draw. After all, Muste’s focus on Christ-crucified as the core of his prophetic challenge failed in the Holocaust. Muste’s universalist aspirations did not appeal to Jews and would not have helped the millions who perished in the Nazi racialized war machine. However, Muste’s theology offered a devastating critique of America at its most vainglorious. Faced with the Christian realism of Niebuhr and his allies in the early Cold War and the inevitable equivocations with American power (which were measured and justified to some degree), Muste posed a challenge as someone on the inside. Danielson sums up Muste’s challenged smartly: “Just what is the workable compromise between the prophets and Machiavelli?” (235)

Indeed, to me, Muste (and Danielson’s book) bring into sharp relief the most difficult question regarding a nation’s relationship to its people: how can a nation compel its citizens to fight, kill, and die without becoming as destructive as the enemy it faces? During the first half of the Cold War, Muste’s alternative to Christian realism went from seeming anachronistic because it suggested a pacifist response to Hitler and moral equivalency between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to nearly prophetic by condemning the “armament economy,” soulless bureaucratic killing, and the hubris that led to the Vietnam War. With great verve, Danielson establishes Muste’s thought as a bridge between the era of progressive critics of American power such as Randolph Bourne to New Left critics such as William Appleman Williams and (closer to our time) Perry Anderson:

The conflict between radical pacifists and other Protestants went deeper than the question of the United States’ role in the world; it was also about national identity, race, and historical memory. To Muste, when policymakers posited the United States as the representative of democratic civilization, they effectively erased its history of racism and the history of Western imperialism. It was this same blindness that prevented Americans from recognizing the belligerency of U.S. foreign policy. Was it not time, [Muste] asked rhetorically, for Americans to develop ‘‘a modicum of objectivity and humility and stop thinking that we and our preponderant might constitute an exception among all nations and in all history? That, in other words, we are the master race, the Herrenvolk, the supremacy all men will, and must, hail with delight?’’ (249)

I don’t think Niebuhr was far away from this kind of position, though. In his most popular book, The Irony of American History, Niebuhr too sounded the alarm of American blindness and hubris and the drift toward acting (if not becoming) like the adversaries it needed to oppose in the world. Niebuhr would also come around to a much more nuanced position on nuclear deterrence, and near the end of his life he opposed the Vietnam War. But it is also clearly the case, that no one mistook Muste’s thought for Christian realism or John Foster Dulles — as many would with Niebuhr’s work.

And yet, I am at a loss to know how to apply the lessons from Muste’s work. With Niebuhr, I see in his work a struggle with prophetic religion in a time of moral crisis and national security struggles — his failings are instructive if not inspirational. With Muste, I see a critique of vanity — those who challenge power should never make friends with it. Okay, but what was his alternative? Proposing Jesus’s love ethic as a strategy for unilateral disarmament has prophetic power but it is also mightily disturbing and potentially catastrophic. Muste’s critique of the state might have inspired New Left anti-statism but it failed to consider the strong anti-institutional (read also anti-religious) nature of that position.

Even with my ambivalence toward Muste as an intellectual leader, his debate with people such as Niebuhr reminds me that there was a time when liberalism encompassed questions of great consequence rather figuring out how to convince people that it is not merely a collection of falsehoods.

Ray Haberski is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at IUPUI. This essay is part of a roundtable at the S-USIH blog on Leilah Danielson’s, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

This essay was originally published by S-USH blog.