The Theologian and the Historian

Published March 19, 2007

The Weekly Standard, Vol. 012, Issue 26

Time magazine’s April 20, 1962, cover story on Karl Barth announced that the great Swiss theologian would visit the United States for the first, and what turned out to be the only, time. Given Barth’s well-known anti-American stance, the visit caused a stir in the White House. President Kennedy, then in his second year, was grappling daily with Soviet threats and Khrushchev’s boasts. JFK had already suffered two serious Cold War reverses–the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba and Khrushchev’s raising of the Berlin Wall. Given these realities, Kennedy was not about to welcome Barth to a country whose history Barth had said he loved but whose current “way of life” he professed to scorn.

Barth said among his reasons for coming here were to visit the Gettysburg battlefield (he was a Civil War buff) and to meet several of “the bright young men close to President Kennedy.” He specifically mentioned Arthur Schlesinger Jr., then a White House aide.

Given Schlesinger’s death on February 28 at age 89, it seems appropriate to recall his encounter with Barth, which took place in my home in Chevy Chase. Since coming to Washington in 1955, I had felt impelled to get religious and political leaders to talk with one another–my rationale for establishing the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1976.

At the time of Barth’s American visit, I was a member of a small discussion group devoted to theology, and we hosted the famous visitor in Washington. Earlier, I had been a foreign policy staffer for Senator Hubert Humphrey during his quest for the presidential nomination against Kennedy, and I knew many of Kennedy’s men. So our house was a logical place for Barth to meet Schlesinger and other Kennedy aides, including William Bundy from the Defense Department, AID director Frank Coffin, and Roger Hilsman from the State Department. Each was well informed on foreign policy.

On May 7, 1962, the 75-year-old Barth arrived in his dark-rimmed glasses and rumpled gray suit. He had a twinkle in his eye. Schlesinger, a bit in his cups, arrived after the guests were seated. The four-hour conversation–apparently the only one Barth had in an American home–was revealing.

Our discussion focused on whether Washington or Moscow was more responsible for the Cold War. At one point, Barth asked critically: “Why did you Americans rearm the West Germans?” When we said that Moscow had long since rearmed the East Germans, Barth seemed surprised. He seemed unaware that East Germany had become a front-line fortress in the Soviet Empire.

During the exchange, Barth kept pressing his political views, each of us patiently correcting his flawed perceptions. At one point Arthur burst out, “You of all people ought to understand these things!” Years later, he told me that Barth reminded him of “a leftover from Henry Wallace’s pro-Communist activities in 1948.”

Several years before this encounter, Reinhold Niebuhr had called Barth a “man of infinite imagination and irresponsibility.” Barth had replied, “Niebuhr is a great man,” but if he were to listen to what “Mozart is saying, he wouldn’t be so serious all the time.”

Barth never mentioned Mozart during our evening together, but his political views could well have been influenced by his strange infatuation with the nonpolitical romanticism of Mozart and his music. In his famous Letter of Thanks to Mozart, Barth wrote: “Whenever I listen to you, I am transported to the threshold of a world which, in sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world.” Elsewhere, Barth suggested that in public “the angels play only Bach,” but when they are at home they play Mozart. If Barth listened to Mozart less, I mused, and read the newspapers more, he might understand that freedom itself was at stake in the East-West struggle.

Barth’s seven weeks in America, including brief visits with Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr., opened his eyes. Indeed, in the foreword to his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, written on his return to Switzerland, Barth acknowledged that his visit had given him a more positive impression of America. He had found America “fantastic” and was especially impressed by the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, and a “political evening in Washington . . . with a group of younger men who stood near to the president.” He said this was his only serious discussion of U.S. foreign policy with informed Americans.

Indeed, his visit confirmed Samuel Johnson’s dictum about travel regulating “imagination by reality.” Though the visit brought Barth “intense pleasure,” it hardly made him an America booster: “I believe neither in a Soviet heaven on earth, nor in a similar Swiss or American terrestrial paradise.” But then, who does?

Six years later, in 1968, Karl Barth died in Basel. He was 82. Some obituaries bracketed him with Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, each of whom had made seminal contributions to the understanding of Christianity and politics. Regrettably, Barth does not belong in this venerable company. He was simply too otherworldly to comprehend the wonder and tragedy of the human drama, much less to speak truth to those entrusted with the fateful decisions of our time. Barth was a great theologian, Schlesinger a competent historian, and Mozart a timeless artist.

— Ernest W. Lefever is a Senior Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of The Irony of Virtue.

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