What Comey learned from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about ethical leadership

Former FBI Director James Comey. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

While James Comey’s most recent clashes with President Trump are foremost on everyone’s minds, he’s had quite a career. He was the U.S. attorney responsible for taking down the New York mafia, the acting U.S. attorney general who stopped the policy that George W. Bush’s administration called “enhanced interrogation” or, in other words, torture, and finally the FBI director who was seen as changing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. His new book, “A Higher Loyalty,” recounts these experiences and many others. He does so not simply to demonstrate his impact on history, but to show what he has learned about ethical leadership and how he has tried to live out that knowledge.

Reviewers have noted the influence of one particular 20th-century American Christian philosopher: Reinhold Niebuhr. Comey wrote his college thesis on Niebuhr. This resonance stayed with him. Until quite recently, Comey used Twitter under the pseudonym “Reinhold Niebuhr”.

I too discovered Niebuhr in college. I’ve studied his works for decades, and my latest book takes up his analysis of our democracy to develop a democratic form of humility.

Understanding Niebuhr can help us, I believe, better understand Comey and the decisions he made.

Lesson 1: Ego, lies and vanity

The Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr in a 1963 photo. AP Photo

Some may know Niebuhr only as the author of the “serenity prayer” used by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups. But while he was indeed an ordained Christian minister, he was also one of America’s greatest and most influential political theorists. Writing from before World War II and through the Cold War, Niebuhr was a thoughtful analyst of American politics and its place in the world.

Niebuhr’s theology starts with the myth of the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, God created Adam and Eve, and they lived in the paradise of Eden. But after they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God cast them out of paradise, saying to Adam:

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”

Niebuhr does not regard this story as a historical account of human origins, but he does believe that it conveys an indispensable truth: Unlike the rest of creation, human beings know.

We know how precarious and insignificant our lives are, and we know that they are going to end. This truth is inescapable, yet we want desperately to escape it. We strive, in every conceivable way, to convince ourselves that we are powerful, important and righteous. Thus at the core of human existence is a self-deception.

In Niebuhr’s words,“Man loves himself inordinately. Since his determinate existence does not deserve the devotion lavished upon it, it is obviously necessary to practice some deception to justify such excessive devotion….” And the primary purpose of this deception “is to deceive, not others, but the self.”

Comey echoes this idea that all humans are subject to self-deception. In the book, he strives to be self-reflective, to recognize how he overstates his own importance:

“I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego.”

In an interview with the New York Times Daily podcast, Comey uses this Niebuhrian idea to underline his notion of ethical leadership:

“much of what I’ve tried to do as a leader is guardrail around what I think my weaknesses are. Really important to me that I avoid the danger – which I think all humans have, but I know I have – of falling in love with my own view of things, my own righteousness.”

Following Niebuhr, Comey believes that being a good leader begins with knowing that we lie to ourselves. More, he believes that any good leader must maintain a higher loyalty to a core set of “lasting values” that come before our own desires. Without that core, it is just too easy for us to believe our own lies.

Lesson 2: The obligation to try

There is another side to Niebuhr’s anthropology, however, equally true and important: Human beings are created in the image of God. Everyone carries a spark of the divine. For Niebuhr, this means that while we humans are prideful and vain, full of inordinate self-love, we are not indifferent to the suffering of others. For all our inescapable faults, we are also constrained by our nature to try to make the world better, kinder and more just.

This constraint means human beings are drawn to engage with the world. Even though our perspective is limited, biased and surrounded by our own lies, Christians are therefore called to enter the maelstrom of politics. Niebuhr wrote that “the one wrong answer” was to ignore the connection between religion and politics because “it obscures our Christian responsibilities for the good order and justice of our civil community.”

This idea of responsibility is likewise represented in Comey’s book. With an honesty that is arresting and heartbreaking, Comey recounts the death of his baby boy from an infection. He notes that he took a new measure of commitment from the experience. Comey writes, “Our obligation, our duty, is to ensure that something good comes from suffering.” Niebuhr could not have said it better.

Lesson 3: Accounting for our failures

Of course, many will find all this beside the point. Many Republicans and Democrats are deeply angry with Comey.

For all their disagreements, both sides believe that while Comey paints himself as a person of moral rectitude, when confronted with extremely hard choices, he handled them badly, and our nation is still reeling from the effects.

Comey’s book. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

For these Americans, Comey’s book not surprisingly conveys an air of sanctimony. But even if that’s true, it serves only to bring home a very Niebuhrian point: that while we humans strive to make the world a better place, and while we must, in Jesus’s words, look first for the mote in our own eye, we will not always succeed. We cannot always escape the worst parts of ourselves.

That decidedly Niebuhrian point is worth remembering. More to the point, at this particularly contentious moment in American political history, we, as Americans, can and should take from it this equally Niebuhrian reminder: that in this regard, Comey is not one jot different from any one of us.

Editor’s Note: this article was updated to correct the details of Comey’s Twitter account.

Love this article? Show your love with a gift to The Conversation to support our journalism.