You may not know Reinhold Niebuhr, but you know Reinhold Niebuhr. At least you do if you've ever read that "man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary," or recited the prayer "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Gary Dorrien, professor at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, has called him "the most important thinker of the past century concerning the relation of Christianity to problems of social ethics and politics." Time went even further, eulogizing him as the "greatest Protestant theologian since Jonathan Edwards." His career as a pastor, theologian, professor, author, and social commentator left an indelible imprint on intellectual life in the 20th-century United States.
I was first drawn to Niebuhr after reading of his rejection of the unbridled idealism of the liberal social gospel, an ideology which he had enthusiastically espoused in his early years. Drawing from the writings of St. Augustine and John Calvin, Niebuhr came to believe in the 1920s that sentimental belief in the goodness and progress of man did not do justice to the egotistic and selfish nature of man. He applied his developing theology to political and social issues, helping to create a political and social perspective that is now known as Christian realism. Although Niebuhr would certainly not be theologically orthodox by conservative evangelical standards, his transition away from liberalism placed him, alongside Karl Barth and others, within the bounds of the Neo-Orthodox movement.
My introduction to Niebuhr's thought came through his book The Irony of American History (first published in 1952). The book immediately claimed a spot on the short list of my favorite books, but with graduate school readings and high school teaching taking up a disproportionate amount of my time, I placed any further exploration of Niebuhr's body of work on the backburner. Until this month, that is, when I picked up his 1944 book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense.
I've always believed that if you really want to understand a book, you need to write about it in some form. Take notes, review it, critique it, summarize it. But interact with it in some way. In an effort to engage with Niebuhr's thought more deeply, I've decided to take this approach with my second dip into Reinhold Niebuhr's writing. What follows is basically a rough draft (and decidedly non-expert) summary of Niebuhr's book. I've incorporated as many direct quotations from Niebuhr as possible, because his words are brilliant, and mine are not.
Niebuhr begins by first analyzing the tensions inherent in the "collectivism v. individualism" dichotomy that permeates modern democratic society. He writes:
It is true that individuals are usually the initiators of new insights and the proponents of novel methods. Yet there are collective forces at work in society which are not the conscious contrivance of individuals...
He then shifts his focus beyond the typical socialism/capitalism debates. His focus goes beyond those standard categories:
But there is a more fundamental error in the social philosophy of democratic civilization than the individualism of bourgeois democracy and the collectivism of Marxism. It is the confidence of both bourgeois and proletarian idealists in the possibility of achieving an easy resolution of the tension and conflict between self-interest and the general interest.
You can see the Augustinian/Calvinist influence on Niebuhr's thought here. He is essentially applying the idea of original sin to Western idealism. The problem with the various social philosophies, like the problem with mankind, is that they are corrupted but their adherents do not seem to realize it. Modern secular political theories all have good intentions. Yet, all of them make the crucial error of rejecting or ignoring original sin and thus creating a sense of naive, Utopian certainty. In one of my favorite passages of the book, he writes:
But it is necessary to point out that [original sin] makes an important contribution to any adequate social and political theory the lack of which has robbed bourgeois theory of real wisdom; for it emphasizes a fact which every page of human history attests. Through it one may understand that no matter how wide the perspectives which the human mind may reach, how broad the loyalties which the human imagination may conceive, how universal the community which human statecraft may organize, or how pure the aspirations of the saintliest idealists may be, there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love.
Those so blinded into believing their ideology is the ultimate answer to the proper social organization of society are deemed by Niebuhr as "children of light." He describes the children of light as those who "believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law." In Niebuhr's calculation, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham AND Karl Marx all qualify as children of light. In opposition to the children of light are the "children of darkness" (hey look, there's the book title!), who "are moral cynics...evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest."
In other words, Niebuhr argues that political conflict is not so much about competing theories (i.e. socialism vs. capitalism) but rather about the abuse of power by groups who feel no qualms about utilizing whatever theoretical avenue is available for them to seize, expand, and exploit their power. As Niebuhr writes, the fate of all of the children of light, from Smith to Marx, "is to have their creed become the vehicle and instrument of the children of darkness."
Niebuhr (who was certainly left-leaning in his lifetime) thus brings both the left and the right in for reckoning. The economic right, which typically lauds the brilliance of Adam Smith's capitalism because it supposedly figured out a way to channel self-interest into a vehicle for the promotion of the greater good, is misguided and naive. For, despite the fact that Smith's theory contained what Niebuhr called a "secularized version of providence...[in which] a man who is guided by self-interest is also 'led by an invisible hand to promote an end which is not his intention,'" Smith's idealism was ripe for exploitation. Niebuhr writes:
A dogma which was intended to guarantee the economic freedom of the individual became the “ideology” of vast corporate structures of a later period of capitalism, used by them, and still used, to prevent a proper political control of their power. His vision of international harmony was transmuted into the sorry realities of an international capitalism which recognized neither moral scruples nor political restraints in expanding its power over the world. His vision of a democratic harmony of society, founded upon the free play of economic forces, was refuted by the tragic realities of the class conflicts in western society. Individual and collective egotism usually employed the political philosophy of this creed, but always defied the moral idealism which informed it.
Sitting alongside Smith's capitalism among the children of light was utilitarianism, which Niebuhr absolutely disdained, calling it the "most naive form of the democratic faith." Together, Bentham and Smith paved the way for corrupt influences to seize on their ideas:
Utilitarianism's conception of the wise egotist, who in his prudence manages to serve interests wider than his own, supported exactly the same kind of political philosophy as Adam Smith's conception of the harmless egotist, who did not even have to be wise, since the providential laws of nature held his egotism in check. So Jeremy Bentham's influence was added to that of Adam Smith in support of a laissez-faire political philosophy; and this philosophy encouraged an unrestrained expression of human greed at the precise moment in history when an advancing industrialism required more, rather than less, moral and political restraint upon economic forces.
Marxism did not escape damning criticism from Niebuhr, either. In one of the many classic lines for the book, Niebuhr writes, "Marxism expects men to be as tame and social on the other side of the revolution as Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham thought them to be tame and prudential on this side of the revolution." Furthermore, Marxism miscalculated the extent of man's selfishness, "for men may fight as desperately for power and glory as for bread." Niebuhr continues:
The Marxist theory fails to anticipate the inevitable rise of an oligarchy in a new society, partly because it has Utopian ideas of idyllic relations in such a society, which obviate the necessity of the use of any form of coercive power; and partly because it identifies economic power too absolutely with the power of private ownership.
Marxist theory has no protection against the excessive power of those who manipulate a socialized economic process or who combine the control of both the economic and the political process.
After all his deconstruction, one might wonder if Niebuhr has anything constructive to say. How then, shall we live? (Or at least what political ideology should we hold?) If all the typical ideological camps are corrupted, then what ideas does Niebuhr promote? Niebuhr's answer is that the democratic process must play itself out in light of changing situations. Democracy, Niebuhr says, is "a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems." Perils abound from "too little and too much equilibrium of economic power, or from too much or too little social control of it" and thus, answers to those questions "must be considered in the light of each new situation and technical development...[and] continually solved within the framework of the democratic process."
Understanding the perils of both collectivist and individualist creeds, we must find the right balance for our time, understanding that where we land on the spectrum may not be the proper place for future generations. You can see quite clearly why Niebuhr would make for a terrible politician. Instead of simplifying political rhetoric into "bad guys" and "good guys," Niebuhr suggests a complicated and (probably impossible) process of comprehending our time and situation with enough precision to be able to fine-tune the balance, every generation, on our politico-economic machine. "Since freedom and community are partially contradictory and partially complementary values in human life," Niebuhr says, "there is no perfect solution for the relation of the two values to each other. This means that the debate on how much or how little the economic process should be brought under political control is a never-ending one." How's that for a campaign slogan?
Niebuhr also spends time in the book discussing the importance of the Christian faith to the political realities of the West. It is here, I think, that present-day conservatives might be most drawn to Niebuhr's thought (if, that is, they were just cherry-picking Niebuhr's ideas to select only the ones they already agree with). In a statement that one could imagine any number of current conservative religious activists saying, Niebuhr writes:
The most effective opponents of tyrannical government are today, as they have been in the past, men who can say, “We must obey God rather than man.” Their resolution is possible because they have a vantage point from which they can discount the pretensions of demonic Caesars and from which they can defy malignant power as embodied in a given government.
Furthermore, Niebuhr claims that religious ideas are
the ultimate sources of the moral standards from which political principles are derived. In any case both the foundation and the pinnacle of any cultural structure are religious; for any scheme of values is finally determined by the ultimate answer which is given to the ultimate question about the meaning of life...
Indeed, the religious idea of finding life's "ultimate answers" is incredibly important, because different ideas about the ultimate meaning of life "produce conflicting answers on all proximate issues of moral order and political organization."
In typical Niebuhrian fashion, he then turns his guns towards both the secularist and the religionist. Secularism, Niebuhr says, "represents a form of scepticism which is conscious of the relativity of all human perspectives. In this form it stands on the abyss of moral nihilism and threatens the whole of life with a sense of meaningless-ness...it creates a spiritual vacuum into which demonic religions easily rush." [Niebuhr equates demonic religions especially with the Nazis throughout the book]
Lest religionists (or "moral idealists") claim Niebuhr as their champion, Niebuhr laments that "the fanaticism of the various religions...frequently made no other solution [than secularism] in the modern democratic state possible." In other words, even though religion (and for Niebuhr, especially Christianity) provides the surest foundation for a well-ordered political society, one must be religious in the correct way. As Niebuhr writes:
Democratic life requires a spirit of tolerant cooperation between individuals and groups which can be achieved by neither moral cynics, who know no law beyond their own interest, nor by moral idealists, who acknowledge such a law but are unconscious of the corruption which insinuates itself into the statement of it by even the most disinterested idealists.
The correct way to be religious in a democratic society, then, is one in which
each religion, or each version of a single faith, seek to proclaim its highest insights while yet preserving an humble and contrite recognition of the fact that all actual expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity. Such a recognition creates a spirit of tolerance and makes any religious or cultural movement hesitant to claim official validity for its form of religion or to demand an official monopoly for its cult.
This type of religious toleration envisioned by Niebuhr straddles the line between the relativism of the moral cynics and the sincerely-held belief of the moral idealists. Niebuhr explains that his conception of religious toleration
requires that religious convictions be sincerely and devoutly held while yet the sinful and finite corruptions of these convictions be humbly acknowledged; and the actual fruits of other faiths be generously estimated. Whenever the religious groups of a community are incapable of such humility and charity the national community will be forced to save its unity through either secularism or authoritarianism.
And how can one gain what Niebuhr considers a higher order of religious commitment? It springs, Niebuhr writes, "only from the depth of a religion which confronts the individual with a more ultimate majesty and purity than all human majesties and values, and persuades him to confess: 'Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.'” In other words, a well-functioning democratic society requires religious humility from its citizens.
It is here that I think Niebuhr may have placed himself in the camp of the "children of light." When faced with the two errors of moral cynics and moral idealists, he posits a third way - moral realism - that may itself be too naive to actually work in democratic society, or may itself be utilized by the "children of darkness" for less-than-admirable purposes.
Of course, Niebuhr does differentiate himself from moral idealists in that he does not propose an ultimate solution to the world's problems. He does not claim to offer some sort of Utopian system. But even Niebuhr's conception of a society in which economic options are carefully considered and religious beliefs are held with humility must also be corrupted in some way, if his theory of original sin is correct. And one might also wonder if Niebuhr's nuanced understanding of religious toleration - one which lauds the principles of the Christian faith - still ultimately undermines Christian claims to ultimate truth. His word to religionists is indeed a wise one, and one need only to look at the sin in religion's social and political past to see why deep humility is needed. Yet, his proposal could also rather easily be used as a vehicle of the moral cynics and relativists to undermine belief in a higher law and ultimate truth.
Regardless, Niebuhr's brilliant thought and his careful deconstruction of the false myths which permeate American political society are well worth considering. In a polarized political climate in which both sides seem to make unbounded claims of certainty in their ideas and also partake in unbridled demonization of the other side, a realization and reflection of the sin and corruption inherent in all our political ideas would be especially helpful to us today.
Interestingly, Niebuhr closes this book, a book in which he has denounced moral idealism, with a wonderful expression of his Christian hope that God will ultimately purify even our corrupt aspirations. There is no better way to close than with Niebuhr's own words:
The Christian faith finds the final clue to the meaning of life and history in the Christ whose goodness is at once the virtue which man ought, but does not, achieve in history, and the revelation of a divine mercy which understands and resolves the perpetual contradictions in which history is involved, even on the highest reaches of human achievements. From the standpoint of such a faith it is possible to deal with the ultimate social problem of human history: the creation of community in world dimensions. The insistence of the Christian faith that the love of Christ is the final norm of human existence must express itself socially in unwillingness to stop short of the whole human community in expressing our sense of moral responsibility for the life and welfare of others. The understanding of the Christian faith that the highest achievements of human life are infected with sinful corruption will help men to be prepared for new corruptions on the level of world community which drive simpler idealists to despair. The hope of Christian faith that the divine power which bears history can complete what even the highest human striving must leave incomplete, and can purify the corruptions which appear in even the purest human aspirations, is an indispensable prerequisite for diligent fulfillment of our historic tasks.