Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Democratic Realist

Is there an irreconcilable disparity between authentic Christian faith and hard-boiled political realism? Common sense seems to require an unequivocal “yes”—one is so different from the other as to preclude any coherent combination of them. Yet we can find such a combination, or a significant approximation of it, in the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr. And that is what makes him an intriguing thinker and commentator on public affairs.

Much of Niebuhr’s extensive writing, newly collected by the Library of America, is focused upon the role and limits of morality in politics, especially international politics. He is critical of “realists” who would rely entirely on balances of power to preserve peace with a modicum of justice among nations. Balances of power are essentially unstable (consider the First World War).

So—shall we rely upon the general progress of enlightenment and the moral education that comes with it? As I read him, Niebuhr’s answer is “Not much.” He has a great deal to say against a modern Progressive optimism that looks forward to fundamental amelioration of the dispositions that lead us into hostilities. Underlying the Progressive outlook is an assumption about the connection between knowledge and virtue: As the former increases, so does the latter. While Niebuhr doesn’t want to deny categorically that such a connection can exist, he sees it as an insufficient basis for harmonious relations—especially among nations and, indeed, among any large social groups.

As Niebuhr argues at length in one of the works included here, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), an individual might be governed by ethical norms—even to the point of self-sacrifice for others—but a society cannot. While nations need not be altogether immune to moral considerations, these considerations are rarely strong enough to prevail against perceived national self-interest: “The selfishness of human communities must be regarded as an inevitability.”

Niebuhr’s social outlook may be considered pessimistic, though he never gives way to an unqualified pessimism. To the passage just quoted, he adds this:

Where it (the selfishness) is inordinate, it can be checked only by competing assertions of interest, and these can be effective only if coercive methods are added to moral and rational persuasion.

Quite a bit of Niebuhr’s argumentation looks like an effort to persuade his socialist and liberal-leaning colleagues that coercion is endemic to political life—and so they should desist from looking forward, naively, to a social transformation by which it would be eradicated or rendered unnecessary. Among the naïve are those who fail to see that even democratic movements are, and more or less need to be, coercive. Hence, despite his periodic denigration of the balance-of-power concept, Niebuhr ends up depending upon it to a considerable degree.

The distinctively Niebuhrian project is the reconstruction of democracy’s philosophic foundation, especially its view of basic human nature. Central to that enterprise is his remarkable recourse to and utilization of the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin. (I say remarkable because of Niebuhr’s general reputation as a liberal.)

Niebuhr maintains that modern liberal thought has been infected with two erroneous attitudes: an excessive individualism and a virtually boundless optimism about human beings and relations. Writing against “doctrinaire libertarianism,” he makes this striking observation:

No democratic society can survive if it acts upon the assumption that [personal] liberty is the only principle of democracy and does not recognize that community has as much value as liberty.

How many of our contemporaries would affirm, publicly, what this passage clearly implies—that the claims of individual liberty must be balanced against, and limited by, the equal claims of community? (Ask contemporary Americans what this country stands for; you will hear “liberty” far more often than “community.”) The trouble with doctrinal libertarianism is its refusal to acknowledge consequences of the fact that we are “social animals,” not just individuals, and that some of our problems are much in need of public, that is governmental, attention.

Niebuhr’s writings suggest that our excessive optimism is as deeply erroneous as our excessive individualism. Here is the root of it: “The conception of human nature which underlies the social and political attitudes of a liberal-democratic culture is that of an essentially harmless individual,” who simply desires to stay alive in peace and security. But we fail to see how easily the will-to-live is transformed into a will-to-power. Even our ideals and idealists are inevitably infected with an egoistic corruption. “No matter how pure the aspirations of the saintliest idealist may be,” he writes, “there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there are not some corruption of inordinate self-love.”

This relentless egotism, apparently natural, is the ultimate source of the persistent hostility and conflict among us. One might want to respond: What about human reason. Is it good for nothing? Niebuhr doesn’t discount reason altogether, but treats it as an inadequate corrective. Our rationality is finally unable to control our egotism because reasoning itself is infected and distorted by self-interested aspiration. That pervasive self-interestedness is what Niebuhr calls “original sin,” which can manifest itself negatively as indifference to the welfare of others or positively as exploitation.

The economic exploitation of whole populations by rich property owners was a phenomenon much on Niebuhr’s mind, and for which he blamed capitalism. Niebuhr longed for the abolition of the capitalist economy, which he held responsible for much of the world’s ills. But he emphatically rejected the Marxist dream that it can be replaced by a system so cooperative as to abolish the basic human conflicts and antagonism. Nor did he have much regard for the expectation, prominent among thinkers like John Dewey, that knowledge produced by the advancing social sciences would eventually enable such a control over social forces as to render man, at last, “master of his destiny.” Egotism, and hence, conflict and strife, can be moderated somewhat but never completely tamed or socialized; they are endemic in the human condition  (a view also held by leading American Founders).

That Niebuhr took the Marxist perspective seriously is evident in all the attention he devotes to refuting it, especially its utopian ideas of ultimate liberation from strife and ultimate mastery. And he calls into question even the less extreme, liberal version of these hopes. For him, the Christian doctrine of Original Sin serves as a prophylactic against grand expectations, of whatever origin, about our social and political destiny:

We are protected by this [Christian] faith from many aberrations into which the “children of this world” fall: the hope of gaining purely human mastery over the drama of history; hope that evil will gradually be eliminated from the human community by growing human goodness or by more adequate instruments of justice; trust in the power of human reason and blindness to the corruption of that reason.

Authentic Christian faith faces the harsh fact that there will never be an end, on earth or by human effort, to the tensions among us or between individual and community. Thus it can serve as a bulwark against the dangerous zealotry that aims to wipe out all these evils once and for all.

Communism was the zealotry he meant. In contrast with it, he campaigned for significant yet hardly utopian social and political reforms. As an egalitarian, he fought against ethnic and economic inequalities (anti-Semitism, for example) and supported measures to reduce poverty. He regarded equality as the first political principle and even a dictate of natural laws. Yet he stopped rather short of demands for total economic equality, and he sometimes referred to radical egalitarians as fanatics.

So—shall we consider Reinhold Niebuhr a political moderate? No; he would surely have rejected that label. “There is only one step from a rationally moderated idealism to opportunism,” he wrote, “and only another step from opportunism to dishonest capitulation to the status quo.” Indeed Niebuhr seems to have a good word to say for the fanatic whose idealistic zealotry is unmoderated. Society, having a pronounced tendency to conservative inertia, is “in greater need of the challenge of the absolutist than the sweet reasonableness of the rationalist.” In this context, he even welcomed communism as a useful, maybe even necessary, challenge to bourgeois complacency.

Here I cannot resist calling attention to the massive depredations and slaughters that communist absolutism unleashed upon the world. Niebuhr, who died in 1971, was in no position to see all of it, but he was around to see enough. Of course, he disapproved and warned. But it seems to me that his disapproval could have come a bit sooner and his warnings might have been more commensurate with the magnitude of the evil. (Consider, by way of contrast, the relentless anti-communism of an Arthur Koestler.)

Niebuhr’s most influential and impressive work, also contained in this volume, is The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944). The “children of darkness” recognize no law beyond self-interest; they are cynics. The “children of light” recognize a higher moral law, but they are foolishly optimistic—oblivious to the demonic power of self-interest in their adversaries and even in their own good intentions. Hence, they are often unprepared to anticipate political dangers and deal with adversaries. Niebuhr tends to regard devoted Marxists as naïve Children of Light who should be, but aren’t, skeptical about any power—especially the claims and powers of party ideologues. Perhaps that lets them off a bit too easily.

On a more profound level of inquiry, Niebuhr has important things to say about sin and guilt—including the proposition that they are so endemic that none of us can ever be entirely free of them. To illustrate the point in its extremity, he refers to our wartime saturation bombing of enemy cities. Inevitably many innocent people are killed; yet the bombing is necessary in a just cause. For Niebuhr, that is a prime example of unescapable “moral ambiguity,” and not only in warfare. “It is not possible,” he writes, “to engage in any act of collective opposition to collective evil without involving the innocent with the guilty. It is not possible to move in history without becoming tainted with guilt.”

Now Niebuhr didn’t have to think of it that way. He could have said that those who have to kill in a righteous cause have done the right thing and have nothing to feel guilty about. That is a common opinion. But Niebuhr is intent upon illustrating a paradoxical concept: morally necessary wrongdoing that renders many of us, and everyone in politics, complicit in sinful activity. The end may justify, even mandate, morally suspect means but that is not an exoneration. In this world there is no escape from sin and guilt.

Niebuhr reminds us of how religious institutions and faiths can become complicit in wrongdoing of various sorts. Often enough, even Christian passions have lent themselves to hubristic national pride and intolerant zealotry. Even “the American dream” comes in for a bit of Niebuhrian critique as a (milder) form of national hubris, supported frequently by Christians. Who are we to think of ourselves as an inspirational model for the world?, he asks.

But hasn’t Christianity brought into the world an inspirational teaching on behalf of humility which promotes toleration? After all, Christianity stands for charity. Of course, Niebuhr has some positive things to say about his religion, but he is at least as interested in the exposure of difficulties. Virtuous toleration of beliefs at variance with those we cherish “requires that religious convictions be sincerely and devoutly held, yet sinful and finite corruptions of these convictions be humbly acknowledged.” No easy matter. Here, I think, we are in the vicinity of a Kierkegaardian insight about the dilemma of authentic faith. You must be able to maintain a wholehearted commitment while retaining sober awareness that you could be wrong.

As the foregoing observations might indicate, Niebuhr was much interested in the ironic aspects of life and in the concept of irony itself. Irony is a fascinating and elusive subject. Niebuhr attempts to define it, with modest success, as a certain kind of incongruity. Here is an example: wisdom becoming self-destructive folly because it is unaware of its own limits—a deficiency of which Niebuhr repeatedly accused the United States during the Cold War. Here’s another, and related, irony: we purported to be conducting a virtuous battle against Marxist and Soviet materialism, while our commercial society was every bit as materialistic in its own way. (For more, see his 1952 The Irony of American History.)

Niebuhr’s interest in the ironic is at least matched by his interest in the subject of “illusions” and the illusory. His emphasis on American “illusions” of virtue and greatness has been noted, as have his critical remarks about his own church and faith. Ridicule of that sort is also directed at “intellectuals,” who vacillate between vapid expectations of universal harmony through World Government and a simplistic devotion to an “impossible individualism.” At the bottom of all this intellectual confusion, perhaps, is an erroneous equation of fundamental human dignity (a moral reality) with fundamental human goodness (a dream).

Yet, paradoxically, Niebuhr is not entirely against the illusory. He regards as a “valuable illusion” the idea that perfect justice is achievable in human communities—a belief that is needed by those who struggle against social injustices. It is a dangerous belief insofar as it encourages fanaticism; so it must be brought under rational restraint. “One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.” Again, the paradoxical.

So far this essay has failed to address directly a major Niebuhrian theme: the mysteriousness of human nature and destiny. Niebuhr quotes and explores the famous pronouncement of St. Paul that “we see through a glass darkly.” We exist in problematic situations that we cannot entirely understand. I cannot fully understand the people I deal with, and even my own motivations remain somewhat elusive. The claim that everything is knowable is hubristic futility.

Shall we then embrace mystery and give up on understanding? On this subject, the Christian viewpoint, as presented by Niebuhr, looks like a kind of moderation. We can see this in the passage where he says:

A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life.

We see through a glass darkly but we do see. This Biblical answer to the problem of knowledge is, it seems to me, in accord with common sense. If everything were an impenetrable mystery, there would be no point whatever in any theological or philosophic reflection. On the other hand, if everything is knowable, why are we still beset with basic uncertainties that resist efforts at resolution? Biblical teaching presupposes that God has made some things, but not others, accessible to human understanding in this world. Niebuhr’s teaching is an endeavor to do justice to both human capacity and human limitations. It is also an effort to recognize the divine dispensation that is ultimately beyond our comprehension.

A summary of the Niebuhrian conception of human nature would go something like this: the human being is endowed by God with a freedom of the will transcending all natural impulse, allowing for choices that creatively rise above or destructively sink below what nature dictates. Our ambitions, extending well beyond the “comfortable self-preservation” of our Lockean way of life, include imperious desires for recognition and power. But we cannot have all the power that we want. Our destiny depends upon our choices—but upon God more than us.

Finally, we arrive, with Niebuhr, at the ideal of love which he regards as religion’s pinnacle and “permanent contribution to the moral life.” Christian love embraces everyone as brothers and sisters thereby nullifying all the divisions among us. This message, rigorously interpreted, looks like a demand for something unnatural, though Niebuhr doesn’t quite say so. What is obviously natural is my love of family, friends, and, maybe by extension, fellow citizens. But for the Gospel that is not nearly enough. “If ye love [only] them that love you, what reward have ye?” said Jesus, “and,” adds Niebuhr, “in the logic of those words the whole social genius of the Christian religion is revealed.”

Niebuhr explicitly acknowledges the obvious: that this is no easy commandment for a human being to fulfill. (Consider that, by his own testimony, many of us are rather unlovable.) Nor, he asserts, will nations be able to fulfill it collectively. The expectation of some moralists that a nation must submit itself to “the law of Christ” is (as he gently puts it) is unrealistic and sentimental. Yet he disapproves of those religious folks who, because their highest ideals are unrealizable politically, are inclined to withdraw from the political arena altogether. To them, this is his apparent message: Don’t be either a defeatist or a sentimentalist; stay in there and be content with such modest accomplishments as are possible. Here is a Christian activism both inspired by love and tempered by rationality. The combination of appeals to faithful love and to sober reason is typically Niebuhrian.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a Christian democratic realist. And he was a subtle and complex thinker who did not offer any facile solutions. Yet underlying his relative pessimism about human society, we can discern a profound faith in divine Providence.

Reader Discussion

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on August 15, 2015 at 09:58:53 am

I always refer to Niebuhr - and am grateful for the timing of this article - on the anniversaries of HIrishman & Nagasaki. I wish he had lived to specifically explicate this decision in light of his moral theology. It would have been a big help to us.

I am always angered by those who defend the decision - not by the decision itself but by the cheap grace, or as this author says, the easy exoneration - the defenders provide for us.

I always appreciate Niebuhr for educating us to act in the world for justice while at the same time warning us to be aware of our limitations, suspect of our own motivations, and aware that the consequences of our actions cannot be accurately forecast or even easily understood. Nevertheless, act we must.

"Now we see through a glass darkly" is a perfect condensation of his thought and it would not have occurred to me. Thanks so much.

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Bob fleming
on August 17, 2015 at 16:27:44 pm

Niebuhr is without a doubt my favorite theologian. Awesome essay here. We currently have a President for whom Niebuhr has been the clear and dominant influence in shaping much of his views. Lest anyone doubt this, read a few Niebuhr essays and then read Obama's Nobel Address.

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Bert Clere
on October 24, 2018 at 06:33:14 am

[…] Professor Clor to write for Law and Liberty: about his friend, the late Walter Berns, and about Reinhold Niebuhr. In both cases he produced wonderfully comprehensive sketches of these […]

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Image of An Aristotelian in Lockeland: Harry Clor
An Aristotelian in Lockeland: Harry Clor

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