From the 1930s through the 1950s, Reinhold Niebuhr achieved a singular stature among twentieth–century American theologians. The son of a German immigrant pastor, Niebuhr (1892–1971) was not a popular evangelist but rather a philosopher of public life, bringing the insights of biblical truth to bear on the great issues of politics and social ethics. He spoke to and within the Church, but also to a broader educated public. Yet at the beginning of the twenty–first century, Niebuhr seems, at least to his disciples, a classic instance of the prophet who is without honor in his own country. This is not altogether surprising, for despite his stress on the possibilities for improving the temporal world, and, beyond that, his ultimate affirmation of hope and redemption, Niebuhr expressed a profoundly tragic sense of history that runs against the grain of American optimism.
An outspoken progressive and reformer from the start, Niebuhr was nonetheless always unhappy with the sentimentality and pacifism that pervaded the social program of liberal Christianity—especially mainline Protestantism—which (to oversimplify somewhat) sought to correct political injustices mainly through appeals to reason and conscience. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr broke decisively with this “social gospel” outlook, insisting that power is the principal ingredient in arbitrating the competing claims of nations, races, and social classes. According to Niebuhr, conflict and tension are permanent features of history. While social improvement is possible, the justice of this world is born in strife and is always provisional, fragmentary, and insecure.
Niebuhr’s pessimistic account was based not merely on observation of the world as it is, but also on a theology which emphasized that sin is endemic to the human condition in history. Man, as a creature whose existence paradoxically combines spirit and matter, can sense his own “finitude and fragility” in the universe; annihilation and meaninglessness threaten all of his hopes, achievements, and affections. Thus man is tempted to prideful assertions of his will that provide an illusion of control and meaning. While he can ease his anxiety and pretension through faith in God rather than self, that faith is always imperfect (imperfect faith being, for Niebuhr, the essence of “original sin”). Reason can sharpen ethical sensitivity and practice, but, ironically, it can also sharpen the capacity to rationalize selfishness and the will to power—and, doubly ironic, sometimes both at the same time.
The tendency to rationalize, Niebuhr argued, is especially pronounced in man’s “collective life.” While individuals in their personal dealings often transcend self–interest (hence “moral man”), nations dealing with other nations, or social classes with other social classes, have little or no capacity for self–transcendence (“immoral society”). Nations and classes have limited understanding of the people they harm by their unjust self–assertion; they lack appreciation for the often complicated laws and institutions through which such injustice is perpetuated; and they are more inclined to embrace rationalizations of self–interest than prophetic denunciations. These facts, for Niebuhr, explain why dominant groups rarely yield their privileges except when put under pressure by some countervailing social force.
Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” was not, however, a Darwinian or Machiavellian ethic of pure struggle and the will to power. Niebuhr stressed the relevance of agape, or Christian love, not as a directly practicable political principle, but as the ideal toward which justice strives and the standard of judgment on all political achievements in history. Moral, rational, and religious appeals might be subordinate factors in the struggle for justice, but Niebuhr still counted them as real: if rational and ethical considerations alone don’t make oppressors yield just concessions to the oppressed, they often do enable them to internalize rather than contest reforms once they are established.
Political power is necessary in politics, Niebuhr insisted, but it should be exercised by men and women who possess prudence, self–knowledge, forgiveness, and charity. Equipped with these faculties and theological virtues, they will be better able to fight for justice in a way that makes reconciliation possible. (Lincoln and Churchill were Niebuhr’s models in this respect.) There is already in Moral Man and Immoral Society a hint of the appreciation Niebuhr later developed for the American constitutional system, with its checks and balances and its genius for recognizing—and thereby channeling and containing—society’s inevitable conflicts.
For all that, the realism of Moral Man retains a tragic sense: the fear that struggles for justice can end up being destructive for all parties, that oppressed and oppressor can merely reverse roles, that even a relatively just peace can often sacrifice important values. Moreover, Niebuhr’s realism made it painfully clear that people of genuine good will, whether religious or not, sometimes have to employ distinctly unloving means in the service of love and justice. Most of all, Niebuhr in this book begins to recognize that our fondest hopes and ideals for society must inevitably be frustrated. To seek their enactment in history (or as others would say, to “immanentize the eschaton”) is to fall into utopianism and, ultimately, fanaticism.
What finally prevents Niebuhrian realism from becoming a dark or even cynical vision is the promise of God’s kingdom—and His forgiveness. In history, men and women can only do what is possible within the specific and concrete circumstances of their time. For people to live with this terrible limitation on their moral impulses, Niebuhr thinks, they must believe that at the end of history God will complete, and thus give meaning to, their partial and ambiguous achievements. Perhaps even more important, they must rely on God’s forgiveness to bear the evil and guilt that political action inevitably entails. As in Aeschylus’ tragic drama, the lesser evil may still be so bad that the guilt it brings can be lifted only through divine intervention.
In a sentimental and superficially optimistic culture, such gravitas often seems alien. It is perhaps ironic that Niebuhr’s most famous words, taken from a sermon given shortly after Moral Man was written, were intended as a guide for politics and history more than personal spiritual renewal—yet they have become a kind of national motto for individuals at their extremes: “God, grant us grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Matthew Berke is managing editor of First Things.