Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr

When I was an undergrad student at Fresno Pacific University (then college) I was ironically introduced to the works of Reinhold Niebuhr. This introduction was ironic because FPU is an institution that was established by Mennonites, who are pacifists, and yet they were responsible for introducing me to Niebuhr, a political realist, who became one of the seminal influences upon my intellectual development. Recently as I was trolling around on the net for stuff about Niebuhr, I came across the article below by Arthur Schlesinger in which he wonders why America’s premier theologian of the twentieth century has failed to have a voice in America’s recent resurgence of public religiosity. After reading the article I felt it was worth a page on my blog because of the influence Niebuhr has had on my life, and because his is a voice that should be heard in critique of our current president’s religious posturing in relation to the war on terror. I heard that it was said of Niebuhr that he was the last theologian who had access to the White house door. How I wish our current president would listen to him now.


By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
September 18, 2005

The recent outburst of popular religiosity in the United States is a most dramatic and unforeseen development in American life. As Europe grows more secular, America grows more devout. George W. Bush is the most aggressively religious president Americans have ever had. American conservatives applaud his “faith-based’ presidency, an office heretofore regarded as secular. The religious right has become a potent force in national politics. Evangelicals now outnumber mainline Protestants and crowd megachurches. Billy Graham attracts supplicants by the thousand in Sodom and Gomorrah, a k a New York City. The Supreme Court broods over the placement of the Ten Commandments. Evangelicals take over the Air Force Academy, a government institution maintained by taxpayers’ dollars; the academy’s former superintendent says it will be six years before religious tolerance is restored. Mel Gibson’s movie “Passion of the Christ” draws nearly $400 million at the domestic box office.

In the midst of this religious commotion, the name of the most influential American theologian of the 20th century rarely appears – Reinhold Niebuhr. It may be that most “people of faith” belong to the religious right, and Niebuhr was on secular issues a determined liberal. But left evangelicals as well as their conservative brethren hardly ever invoke his name. Jim Wallis’s best-selling “God’s Politics” for example, is a liberal tract, but the author mentions Niebuhr only twice, and only in passing.

Niebuhr was born in Missouri in 1892, the son of a German-born minister of the German Evangelical Synod of North America. He was trained for the ministry at the Synod’s Eden Theological Seminary and at the Yale Divinity School. In the 1920’s he took a church in industrial Detroit, the scene of bitter labor-capital conflict. Niebuhr’s sympathies lay with the unions, and he joined Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party. Meanwhile, New York’s Union Theological Seminary, impressed by the power of his preaching and his writing, recruited him in 1928 for its faculty. There he remained for the rest of his life. He died in 1971.

Why, in an age of religiosity, has Niebuhr, the supreme American theologian of the 20th century, dropped out of 21st-century religious discourse? Maybe issues have taken more urgent forms since Niebuhr’s death – terrorism, torture, abortion, same-sex marriage, Genesis versus Darwin, embryonic stem-cell research. But maybe Niebuhr has fallen out of fashion because 9/11 has revived the myth of our national innocence. Lamentations about “the end of innocence” became favorite cliche at the time. Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor – not much of a background for national innocence. “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem,” Niebuhr wrote, “are insufferable in their human contacts.” The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).

Niebuhr brilliantly applied the tragic insights of Augustine and Calvin to moral and political issues. He poured out his thoughts in a stream of powerful books, articles and sermons. His major theological work was his two-volume Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943). The evolution of his political thought can be traced in three influential books: Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932); The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (1944); The Irony of American History (1952).

In these and other works, Niebuhr emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature – creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. This is what was known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” (Niebuhr, in the fashion of the day, used “man” not to exculpate women but as shorthand for “human being”.

The notion of sinful man was uncomfortable for my generation. We had been brought up to believe in human innocence and even in human perfectibility. This was less a liberal delusion than an expression of an all-American DNA. Andrew Carnegie had articulated the national faith when, after acclaiming the rise of man from lower to higher forms, he declared: “Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection.” In 1939, Charles E. Merriam of the University of Chicago, the dean of American political scientists, wrote in The New Democracy and the New Despotism, “There is a constant trend in human affairs toward the perfectibility of mankind. This was plainly stated at the time of the French Revolution and has been reasserted ever since that time, and with increasing plausibility.” Human ignorance and unjust institutions remained the only obstacles to a more perfect world. If proper education of individuals and proper reform of institutions did their job, such obstacles would be removed. For the heart of man was O.K. The idea of original sin was a historical, indeed a hysterical, curiosity that should have evaporated with Jonathan Edwards’s Calvinism.

Still, Niebuhr’s concept of original sin solved certain problems for my generation. The 20th century was, as Isaiah Berlin said, “the most terrible century in Western history.” The belief in human perfectibility had not prepared us for Hitler and Stalin. The death camps and the gulags proved that men were capable of infinite depravity. The heart of man is obviously not O.K. Niebuhr’s analysis of human nature and history came as a vast illumination. His argument had the double merit of accounting for Hitler and Stalin and for the necessity of standing up to them. Niebuhr himself had been a pacifist, but he was a realist and resigned from the antiwar Socialist Party in 1940.

Many of us understood original sin as a metaphor. Niebuhr’s distinction between taking the Bible seriously and taking it literally invited symbolic interpretation and made it easy for seculars to join the club. Morton White, the philosopher, spoke satirically of Atheists for Niebuhr. (Luis Buuel, the Spanish film director, was asked about his religious views. “I’m an atheist,” he replied. “Thank God.”) “About the concept of original sin,” Niebuhr wrote in 1960, “I now realize that I made a mistake in emphasizing it so much, though I still believe that it might be rescued from its primitive corruptions. But it is a red rag to most moderns. I find that even my realistic friends are inclined to be offended by it, though our interpretations of the human situation are identical.”

The Second World War left America the most powerful nation in the world, and the cold war created a new model of international tension. Niebuhr was never more involved in politics. He helped found Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal organization opposed to the two Joes, Stalin and McCarthy. He was tireless (until strokes slowed him up) in cautioning Americans not to succumb to the self-righteous delusions of innocence and infallibility. “From the earliest days of its history to the present moment,” Niebuhr wrote in 1952, “there is a deep layer of messianic consciousness in the mind of America. We never dreamed that we would have as much political power as we possess today; nor for that matter did we anticipate that the most powerful nation on earth would suffer such an ironic refutation of its dreams of mastering history.” For messianism – carrying on one man’s theory of God’s work – threatened to abolish the unfathomable distance between the Almighty and human sinners.

Niebuhr would have rejoiced at Mr. Dooley’s definition of a fanatic. According to the Irish bartender created by Finley Peter Dunne, a fanatic “does what he thinks th Lord wud do if He only knew th facts iv th case.” There is no greater human presumption than to read the mind of the Almighty, and no more dangerous individual than the one who has convinced himself that he is executing the Almighty’s will. “A democracy,” Niebuhr said, “cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war,” and he lamented the “inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history.”

Original sin, by tainting all human perceptions, is the enemy of absolutes. Mortal man’ apprehension of truth is fitful, shadowy and imperfect; he sees through the glass darkly. Against absolutism Niebuhr insisted on the “relativity of all human perspectives,” as well as on the sinfulness of those who claimed divine sanction for their opinions. He declared himself “in broad agreement with the relativist position in the matter of freedom, as upon every other social and political right or principle.” In pointing to the dangers of what Justice Robert H. Jackson called “compulsory godliness,” Niebuhr argued that “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.” Religion, he warned, could be a source of error as well as wisdom and light. Its role should be to inculcate, not a sense of infallibility, but a sense of humility. Indeed, “the worst corruption is a corrupt religion.”

One imagines a meeting between two men – say, for example, the president of the United States and the last pope – who have private lines to the Almighty but discover fundamental disagreements over the message each receives. Thus Bush is the fervent champion of the war against Iraq; John Paul II stoutly opposed the war. Bush is the fervent champion of capital punishment; John Paul II stoutly opposed capital punishment. How do these two absolutists reconcile contradictory and incompatible communications from the Almighty?

The Civil War, that savage, fraternal conflict, was the great national trauma, and Lincoln was for Reinhold Niebuhr the model statesman. Of all American presidents, Lincoln had the most acute religious insight. Though not enrolled in any denomination, he brooded over the infinite mystery of the Almighty. To claim knowledge of the divine will and purpose was for Lincoln the unpardonable sin.

He summed up his religious sense in his second inaugural, delivered in the fifth year of the Civil War. Both warring halves of the Union, he said, read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Each invoked God’s aid against the other. Let us judge not that we be not judged. Let us fight on with “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” But let us never forget, Lincoln reminded the nation in memorable words, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Thurlow Weed, the cynical and highly intelligent boss of New York, sent Lincoln congratulations on the inaugural address. “I believe it is not immediately popular,” Lincoln replied. “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.”

“The combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues,” Niebuhr commented on Lincoln’s second inaugural, “with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free society on the one hand while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle.”

Like all God-fearing men, Americans are never safe “against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire.” This is vanity. To be effective in the world, we need “a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us” and “a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities.” None of the insights of religious faith contradict “our purpose and duty of preserving our civilization. They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it.”

The last lines of The Irony of American History, written in 1952, resound more than a half-century later. “If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is the author, most recently, of War and the American Presidency.