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The Theologian and the Historian: When Barth met Schlesinger

Ernest W. Lefever

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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.

Read the entire article on the Weekly Standard website (new window will open).

Posted: 15-Mar-07



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