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The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr

Once Reinhold Niebuhr entered the spotlight he never left it, even posthumously. This is so if only because so many continue to lament his absence and long for someone to fill the void. This past year, a new documentary was released chronicling his life and influence. It featured both his most ardent disciples and strongest critics, all of whom seemed to love him.

Niebuhr has puzzled even some of his biggest fans, which includes everyone from Barack Obama to John McCain; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to Martin Luther King Jr.; and Cornel West to James Comey, who was recently outed as the owner of the Reinhold Niebuhr Twitter profile. Hubert Humphrey once said that “[n]o American has made a greater contribution to political wisdom and moral responsibility” than Reinhold Niebuhr. With Niebuhr, there is a little something for everyone.

But unlike many popular theologians, Niebuhr, the author of the Serenity Prayer, enjoyed significant influence during his own lifetime. George Kennan’s biographer noted that on the topic of nuclear proliferation, Kennan had read both Henry Kissinger (Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy) and Niebuhr on the subject and “found the former unconvincing and the latter prophetic.”1 Kennan and Niebuhr later corresponded on the issue.2 On his trip to America, Dietrich Bonhoeffer consulted Niebuhr on the issues facing German Christians in the early days of Hitler’s rule.3 Indeed, few, if any, modern theologians have had such a diverse and star-studded list of admirers. A man of such consequence deserves some measure of attention and deference.

There are seemingly infinite readings of his work. What is clear is that he does not fit snugly into any ideological box, whether it be a liberal, neoconservative, or Burkean one. Niebuhr himself attests to human complexity. And, as with all historical figures, conforming him into our own image is a temptation we must resist if we are to learn from him in spite of, or perhaps because of, his disputed legacy.

Christian Realism: Niebuhr’s Legacy

However one reads Niebuhr, he must do so against the background of his most famous creation, Christian realism, rooted in the Augustinian tradition of original sin and human depravity (man’s love turned in on himself).4 His Moral Man and Immoral Society has been called “a devastating critique of the yearning for purity and the radical forms that this yearning takes, whether the Christian wish to purify society of sin or the ‘rationalist’ wish to purify society of religion and other superstitions.” Against both extremes he charted his via media of realism.

All men are self-interested and thus prone to extremes, Niebuhr surmised. The sin of man invariably transferred to, and is magnified by, group affiliations. He conceded that the individual may be able to stifle his natural selfishness, but held that social groups—tribes, social movements, and nation states—are irredeemably self-interested and seek to realize said self-interest through power, to the extent that it is at their disposal. As fundamentally political, communal beings, men are inherently draw towards group affiliation. Armed with these conclusions, Niebuhr, who could accurately be described as a happy pessimist, waged war on the “optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility.” Whether it was the shortsighted enthusiasm that led to the First World War or the new world order championed by the Bolsheviks, Niebuhr stood against  “unscrupulous optimism,” as Roger Scruton (channeling Arthur Schopenhauer) put it in The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope. What is unique about Niebuhr-the-pessimist is that he was not often ignored.

Since, per Niebuhr, no internal check on group power exists, they must be challenged by competing forces, not unlike the realpolitik balance of power system which governed early modern Europe. Many debate the influences on Niebuhr himself, but here there are echoes of James Madison, Cardinal Richelieu, and even Teddy Roosevelt5 in him.

Peace between groups, then, “is gained by force and is always an uneasy and an unjust one.” Utopian perfection, sought by both religious and liberal idealists, is impossible in the present life. Niebuhr saw his analysis as applicable to both the internal class and race warfare at home, as well as the struggles against totalitarianism then threatening Western Civilization abroad. The only comfort that Niebuhr found was in staring history in the face with sobriety, recognizing the “limits of human striving,” and ultimately resting in the sovereignty of God over the affairs of men.

Niebuhr encouraged prudence and humility in dealing with societal ills, avoiding both the utopian fantasies of progressive liberalism and amoral Machiavellian pragmatism, as well as any uncritical assent to the status quo.

“Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.”

Hence, he ever sought a middle—but never neutral—ground, to explain man’s condition and to justify action to confront it.

Regarding democracy itself, in his famous essay, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness,” he said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” As is obvious from this Churchill-esque reluctant endorsement of democracy, Niebuhr was not optimistic about unconstrained human capacity to practice equity and equality, and thought that complete consensus was impossible. His view of the history of human existence was too long for that. “Man’s story is not a success story,” he said.

He was rarely shy in expressing his discontent with those who took a Pollyanna approach to the issues of the day; Neville Chamberlain and Franklin D. Roosevelt, with their naivety towards Hitler, being no exceptions. Nor was he particularly patient with those who rejected his view of human depravity, claiming the moral high ground for themselves, something often, in his view, exhibited in the war on communism (though he was certainly no passive critic of communism itself, which he called “a foe who embodies all the evils of a demonic religion”).

In The Irony of American History, he said that American prosperity had led people to believe in a false moral superiority and the fiction “that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions.” It is evident from his writings that Niebuhr was a man opposed to extremes and fanaticism of almost any kind, and who saw political society strictly as the art of the possible.

This misguided moral superiority Niebuhr spoke of can be seen in various parties of debates surrounding race and identity politics today, a place where Niebuhr can continue to help us. The tug-of-war over the Niebuhrian legacy most often involves questions of world affairs, and America’s place therein. Publications like Providence embody this facet of the Niebuhrian tradition. But there is no shortage of material from him on domestic issues, including “the race problem.” Current debates could do with an injection of his Christian realism.

I am certainly no expert on Niebuhr, and the plethora of Niebuhrian theories may suggest that no one could be truly so called. But the struggles revolving around race in America is a subject on which Niebuhr seems to be exceptionally accessible and unambiguous, though not unnuanced, and thus, more easily applicable today than he may be seen in some other subjects. This is not to say that Niebuhr is irrelevant in other areas, just less penetrable to the uninitiated. Irrelevant is hardly an attribute ever attributable to him.

Detroit and the Klan

It could be said that issues of race and oppression were on Niebuhr’s mind at the inception of his public ministry. Indeed, he first began to gain national notoriety by his preaching against the activity of the KKK in Detroit. As the Klan sought to gain control of Detroit city politics in order to subdue the growing minority populations, Niebuhr weaponized his pulpit against them. Arguably, as a result of Niebuhr’s activism in and out of the pulpit, only one of the KKK-endorsed candidates won election to the city council, and Charles Bowles lost the mayoral race.

It was from this same pulpit that Niebuhr became a labor rights activist and a vocal critic of the consumerist culture. He also was a leading apologist for German Americans who had come under great suspicion during the First World War. After his visit to Europe in 1923, he condemned the treatment of the Germans by the French occupational force in Germany on both humanitarian and realist ground (e.g. that such treatment would foment resentment in the German people). He was decidedly pragmatic in his foreign policy, but decidedly critical of John Dewey’s own unbridled pragmatism in Democracy and Education (1916).6

Throughout his varied—often paradoxical—positions, his Pauline-Augustinian understanding of the human condition, and of God as the only true remedy, remained constant.

Niebuhr preached a view of history that was a record of human depravity and oppression, which could only be remedied by adherence to God’s revelation in Christ. Bowing to the Lordship of Christ and embracing a life of self-sacrificial love under the yoke of the cross was the only way to conquer man’s innate desire to be as God (c.f. Genesis 3:5) over one another. Any other proposed solution, whether from the side of the oppressed or oppressor class, was sinfully fanciful, not rooted in the reality of history and divine revelation.

On Nazism and “The Race Problem”

Niebuhr seamlessly translated his evolved ideology into critiques of the events leading up to the Second World War, specifically regarding race-related issues. In a 1942 essay, Niebuhr doused any moral superiority that Americans might have felt whilst combating Nazi tyranny. Although Hitler represented explicit, systematic, and militant bigotry, the Allied forces retained guilt of prejudice as well. “[D]espite all democratic pretensions, there is no democracy that has fully transcended racial prejudices.” And Niebuhr doubted that any democracy ever would. “Race pride” is an inevitable aspect of “man’s collective life;” an element of group pride (the corruption of group consciousness).

Though not against a healthy patriotism, Niebuhr held that “Contempt of another group is the pathetic form that respect for our own group frequently takes,” said Niebuhr. And he saw this contempt as something that cannot be overcome by mere education, as if it were a simple “vestigial remnant of barbarism.” This was made plain in the dynamic of Nazi hatred of the Jews. “When a minority group is hated for its virtues as well as for its vices, and when its vices are hated not so much because they are vices as because they bear the stamp of uniqueness, we are obviously dealing with a collective psychology that is not easily altered by a little more enlightenment.”7

The issue is not one of civilization or education as such. Nor is it simply a question of acquiring the right cultural scheme. Notions of societal planning are utterly inept regarding the issues that most plague human existence. For Niebuhr, to look for either the cause or the solution in culture or societal planning is to misunderstand the issue entirely. He condemned the feeble attempts of the liberal church and political idealists because he saw them making this exact mistake (conflating the City of God with the City of Man).

“The more orthodox sacramental churches, which make a sharp distinction between what is possible in an ordinary human community and what is possible in a sacramental community of grace, have actually achieved a greater degree of transcendence over race than the liberal churches, which have assumed that ‘natural’ man has the capacity to rise above race pride and prejudice if only he becomes a little more enlightened. There are, in other words, no solutions for the race problem on any level if it is not realized that there is no absolute solution for this problem… it is not possible to purge a man completely of the sinful concomitant of group pride in his collective life.”

Niebuhr clearly felt that whilst many had succumbed to this corruption of collective life, others had fooled themselves, not only as to the solution, but as to the very root problem (lapsarinan man’s sin) and the prospect of their own guilt therein, distracting themselves with a utopian fallacy so to avoid the mirror, as it were.

Speaking about segregation of African Americans in the military and the mass detainment of the Japanese at the time (see Korematsu v. United States), Niebuhr concluded, “We cannot deal with our injustices to either the Negroes or the Japanese adequately because we dare not confess to ourselves how great our sins are. If we made such a confession, the whole temple of our illusions would fall.”

To Niebuhr, the only solution was to face the problem head on. But he did not limit his realist critique to white America, but also prescribed “Christian realism” to oppressed minority groups, namely by dispelling the notion that the cause of the difficulties they faced could be attributed to a particular group (e.g. southern whites), thus exonerating the rest of society. “Race prejudice is a deeper disease than that,” Niebuhr lamented. “A particular culture may aggravate it, but the purest democratic culture does not eliminate it. . .all men, and not merely white men, have race prejudice.”8

Here, Niebuhr is pushing away from the idea that prior to societal institutions, man existed free from corruption and compromise. And that by extension, he is repudiating the political delusion that fueled the radicals of the French Revolution; the idea that man can progress by regression to some pre-corruption state. But, as stated, Niebuhr knew that the problem of man came from within, not from without, and thus is present in any society, if masked by varying degrees. He expounded further:

“Once we have recognized that we ourselves are not free of the sin that we see in our enemy and oppressor, no matter how grievous the oppression, it becomes possible for us to deal with the sin with vigor and with grace.”

“If we imagine that race pride is only a vestigial remnant of barbarism, which civilization is in the process of sloughing off; if we do not understand it as a perennial corruption of man’s collective life… we are bound to follow wrong policies in dealing with… the problem.”

This is to fully and soberly understand the situation so that problems can be dealt with more wisely. It is not to “capitulate to aggravated forms of evil, merely because we know ourselves to be tainted with them.” And it is to accept that political remedies are incapable of offering permanent solutions to the real issues that plague mankind. To Niebuhr, the problem with communism and the modern progressives was one in kind, merely distinguished by degree and manifestation: both believed that collective action through politics and government was the savior, thus supplanting Christ’s supremacy.


There is no grand antidote or solution to be drawn from Niebuhr here (that would be antithetical to his legacy in a sense). But as we enter Black History Month and survey the landscape of race relations in America, there are a couple of things that the Church should consider from the Niebuhrian deposit of wisdom:

1) The Church must remember the limitations of sinful, unregenerate man in this world. He not only deals unjustly in his human relations, but is inherently idolatrous in his worship and is resistant to the truth. No present political remedy will give us all the satisfaction we seek or make as at one with ourselves. Similarly, there is no political figure or regime that is a maker or breaker, so to speak. We must remain sober-minded in this arena, not being caught up in either the temporary jubilee or hysteria of the moment, as if we had no transcendent future hope. And we must be happy pessimists, with eyes fixed on the truth, giving it priority over misplaced hope. To invoke Roger Scruton again, “People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation.”9  

Despite man’s fallenness, which is eternally hopeless apart from Christ, Niebuhr preached that man should seek justice in the temporal present, taking care to not abstract the spiritual from matter, history, and life.10 Even though the holy (and whole) justice of the Kingdom of God is only attainable in the hereafter (not yet consummated), it is the duty of the Christian on earth to reflect in action the reality of the kingdom, even if heavily qualified. Augustine believed that there are appropriate times for the cities of God and man to contract together in the pursuit of the common good of the present polis. But, we must make sure that in doing so we do not adopt worldly standards of “success,” thereby forgetting our true citizenship: [Our] hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  

2) Also, the Church must recognize that the root of sin, which manifests as racial hate in some, runs deep within all of us. Therefore, we must not, by excusing ourselves from guilt, make the same mistake of those who allow group pride to control them: namely, to foster moral superiority within our own hearts (the prideful root of racial sin). “Perhaps the first thing we must learn from the gospel [in this context] is the sense of our common involvement in the sins of racial loyalty and prejudice,” not special to any one group but “a general human shortcoming.” Humility in this regard will insulate against any self-righteous judgments which only, in Niebuhr’s view, “aggravate the crisis.” Instead, Christians should exhibit patience across the dividing lines, and act with all prudence informed by genuine charity.11

In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr wrote that Christians are “’both sinner and righteous’. . .Christ is what we ought to be and also what we cannot be.” A wise man recognizes “that the power of God is in us and the power of God is against us in judgment and mercy.” The dual status of the Christian man, simul iustus et peccator, is cause to manage both our expectations and aspirations. We are to pursue Christian living and appropriate partnerships between the City of God and City of Man, not because we believe that the invisible hand of history is guiding humanity progressively to a utopian end of our own design, but because it is morally right as “little Christs” to do so. Therefore, the focus is not necessarily on “results” per se, but on process and motivation. Unjust outcomes can be accepted because all outcomes are unjust in the temporal present. But they can only be accepted when we approach them soberly, not patting ourselves on our backs for achieving another step towards the delusion of societal perfection under the modern god of progress, and ignoring our ever-present, sinful failures in our dealings with one another.



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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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