This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Reinhold Niebuhr’s attempt to place the democratic experiment on more firm ground. His The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness represents Niebuhr’s effort to save democracy from itself.

His essay rests on at least three premises. Niebuhr thought that in theory democracy accounted for the spiritual and social nature of human existence as well as its unique variety and necessities. That is, democracy could provide the space to realize the human capacity for transcendence by unleashing the indeterminate variety of human creativity and vitality. This made it potentially a permanently valid form of social and political organization. At the same time, he agreed with the basic critique of the practice of democracy by Catholic interlocutors (most notably Jacques Maritain), namely, that the “libertarian and individualistic version” of democracy constructed by bourgeois civilization was unsustainable and in fact “in the process of disintegration.” Finally, he thought that democracy must find a more adequate cultural basis that took seriously the Christian doctrine of sin in the effort to balance the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the community. Human creativity and vitality will become destructive given human sinfulness.

In support of these premises, Niebuhr applied the metaphors of children of darkness and children of light to two basic approaches to democratic life. The children of light are those who recognize that self-interest must be disciplined by a more universal law whereas the children of darkness are those who see no universal law beyond the self either individually or nationally. 

Niebuhr suggested that modern democracies mainly consist of children of light who recognize the need for a more universal law to govern self-interest. Yet, too often  they also entertained a form of sentimentalism that underestimated the power of self-interest either among the moral cynics (children of darkness) or even among themselves. In short, the children of light have not always understood that inordinate self-love corrupts every level of human moral and social achievement and thus do not provide the necessary mechanisms to balance individual and collective interests.

As part of his argument, Niebuhr also criticized the social-contract theory of the origin of civil government for wrongly assuming that “communities, and not merely governments, are created by a fiat of the human will.” He saw this as an expression of the bourgeois notion of individual mastery over collective forces and historical destiny. Communities were not the instrument of “atomic individuals” who agree to create minimal “traffic rules” to govern collective existence. His Christian assumptions that community is the prior creation of God in the sense of the organic relatedness of life would not allow him to embrace such bourgeois individualism.

This is nowhere more apparent than his comments on marriage in which he suggests that bourgeois culture sought to apply the social-contract theory of government to family life. “The theory assumed that two people could establish a sexual partnership by a revocable contract and that the contract should preserve as much liberty as possible for each partner. But a healthy marriage produces children who are not revocable. It initiates an organic process of mutuality which outruns any decision which created it.”

Niebuhr could also draw the contrasts too sharply such as when he claims that self-transcendence ends in mystic otherworldliness unless it is directed toward indeterminate realizations of the self in the life of the other. He surmised that mystics had difficulty living with the moral ambiguities of communities since they perceive a purer form of existence. On the one hand, he recognized the Protestant principle that prophetic individuals (like a Luther) can possess moral insight into the universal law that brings this law to bear on idolatrous forms of community. On the other hand, his own biases against forms of Christianity that emphasized transcendence caused him to find quietist demons lurking around too many corners. This is part of what united his concerns over Barth’s theology, Billy Graham’s revivalism, and mysticism. Niebuhr did not account for the fact that from within a vision of transcendence, the Pietist streams connecting a Barth, a Graham, and Pentecostals found both the resources and the internal compulsion to move out in mission for society.

While his criticisms of Catholicism return to a seminal difference between a Protestant vision and a Catholic or Orthodox one, he pushes the boundaries so far as to fail to provide an adequate ecclesiology. From a Protestant perspective, Niebuhr argued that Catholicism too exhibits the blindness of the children of light by virtue of the fact that it criticizes the rationalization of bourgeois interests in the world while not seeing the “ideological taint” in the medieval world and the medieval church. Indeed the Protestant vision embodies the notion that even the visible church can possess this ideological taint and thus must always be reforming to a more faithful understanding of the gospel. Doctrinal development is not always progress and therefore requires various types of reform and renewal. The infallibility of the church is an eschatological reality glimpsed partially in its communal life and the visions of the people of God as they are shaped by that life.

Niebuhr also did not possess an adequate grasp of the role of the church within medieval society because he did not understand the contours of that society. He criticizes John of Salisbury’s claim in Policraticus that the church is the soul of society as a “perfect rationalization of clerical political authority” without recognizing it as a twelfth century form of Christian realism. The nobility of the twelfth century remained a warrior class who sought to establish and strengthen their political domains through conflict as much as through alliance. Indeed, John of Salisbury, who saw the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket murdered in the cathedral by rogue knights, understood what it meant to say that the church must prevent the warrior class from destroying itself and others. Through her social existence and call to transcendence, the church sought to mitigate against the promotion of honor in the service of self-interest.

Here ultimately one finds a basic problem critics of Niebuhr have identified. The democratic experiment and the world community toward which it is leading in Niebuhr’s mind seems to have replaced the church. At the end of his essay, Niebuhr places his hope in the realization of a world community without mentioning the church as the vehicle for such a community.

Niebuhr’s essay remains an important contribution to efforts to ground democratic life in a deeper analysis of the human person as a member of a community. Recognizing that human life best flourishes in organic relation to community and nature while also seeking to transcend these in freedom, Niebuhr argued that the children of light must become attuned to the ways in which inordinate desire taints all forms of life. Human freedom must surrender to a more universal law in such a way as to check its destructive capacity and unleash its creative potential. Most importantly, he argued that the democratic order requires a proper view of the human person if it is to endure.

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Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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