Commentary Magazine

Needing Niebuhr Again

Realism means particularly one thing, that you establish the common good not purely by unselfishness but by the restraint of selfishness. That’s realism.

Reinhold Niebuhr, 1969

Many of the New Left find Niebuhr’s theology a buttress to the liberal establishment and, as such, a prime ideological target.

John C. Raines, in Christianity and Crisis, 1969

Nothing has happened to refute the realistic analysis of the stubbornness of evil in society or the tragic side of history. No return to a pre-Niebuhrian optimism is possible.

John C. Bennett, “Christian Realism: A Symposium,” 1968



Is it only a year since Reinhold Niebuhr died? It seems like ten. His strong but broken body had not yet surrendered when “new historical situations” were being proclaimed and his work discounted as a period piece. Niebuhr’s “Christian realism,” Tom Driver said, “was essentially defensive or conservative.”

Not long ago, Niebuhr towered over Christian political thinkers in the land. Now the new Movement—of moralism, hope, vision, and radical analysis—appears to have tumbled that once lofty tower or, far more sadly, to have wandered past it into a desert.

Undoubtedly, the structure of Niebuhr’s thought must be enlarged, redirected, given a deeper and more accurate base. Yet it will be enough, in celebration of his memory, to apply the basic insights of his thought to those who so easily think to replace him. The new moralism we see all around us is all too like the old moralism, against which Niebuhr directed the central energies of his life. In many ways it is as if he had lived and worked in vain.




In 1960, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in the terse preface to the paperback edition of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932): “I still believe that the central thesis of the book is important and I am still committed to it. The central thesis was, and is, that the Liberal Movement both religious and secular seemed to be unconscious of the basic difference between the morality of individuals and the morality of collectives, whether races, classes, or nations.” And later: “This distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.”

Forty years ago, as now, many looked forward to “the greening of America”; it is our most ineradicable national fantasy. Niebuhr’s polemic was explicitly addressed against those “who imagine that the egoism of individuals is being progressively checked by the development of rationality or the growth of religiously inspired goodwill and that nothing but the continuance of this process is necessary to establish social harmony between all the human societies and collectives.” Niebuhr listed his foes: “social analyses and prophecies” based on “the natural bias of the educator” (that social conservatism is due mainly to ignorance); and the “middle-class prejudices” of social scientists and “modern religious idealists.” He knew exactly what he opposed:

What is lacking among all these moralists, whether religious or rational, is an understanding of the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives, and the power of self-interest and collective egoism in all inter-group relations . . . they do not see that the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end.

Niebuhr then described what he took as the task of his entire life:

. . . the task of analyzing the moral resources and limitations of human nature, of tracing their consequences and cumulative effect in the life of human groups, and of weighing political strategies in the light of the ascertained facts. The ultimate purpose of this task is to find political methods which will offer the most promise of achieving an ethical social goal for society. Such methods must always be judged by two criteria: (1) Do they do justice to the moral resources and possibilities in human nature and provide for the exploitation of every latent moral capacity in man? (2) Do they take account of the limitations of human nature, particularly those which manifest themselves in man’s collective behavior?

“Christian realism,” wrote John C. Bennett in 1968, “developed in a polemical situation in which there had to be a special concern to counteract the one-sided optimism and idealism of the liberalism of the time.” In every generation, realism changes its meaning. As William Ernest Hocking once said, “realism is not a philosophy but a boast.” Who judges himself unrealistic? It is indispensable, then, to keep in mind an outline of Niebuhr’s life and to recreate in imagination the situation of American Protestant theology and politics during that period.

Gustav Niebuhr, Reinhold’s father, came to Illinois in 1878. The family had been, in Germany, of substantial means; Gustav left home out of rebellion rather than need. In America, after working as a farm hand, he became a Lutheran pastor. Reinhold’s mother was a second-generation German-American, the daughter of a minister. Three of their four children became professors of theology, including Hulda, their daughter. In 1915, Reinhold left Yale with a B.D. degree (his first B.D. was from Eden Seminary in St. Louis) and an M.A. He was restless with merely academic work, and owed an obligation to his church to serve in the ministry. There followed thirteen years as pastor to a small but heterogeneous parish in Henry Ford’s Detroit. (Niebuhr’s slim diary of 1929, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, falls just short of being a classic.) Beginning in 1925, Niebuhr contributed unsigned editorials and signed articles to The Christian Century, unmasking Henry Ford’s pretensions to “human-itarianism.” But against the power and established interests of Ford, Niebuhr’s religious individualism and liberal illusions seemed puny and sentimental.

In late 1928, Niebuhr moved to Union Theological Seminary as professor of social ethics, the position he held until the end of his active career. He became involved in the Socialist party, running as its Congressional candidate in 1930. He at first opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt, only later (1940) came to admire FDR’s pragmatism. John Dewey’s “optimism” and “rationalism” were early polemical targets for Niebuhr; later, they worked together in many common political causes, helping, for example, to establish Americans for Democratic Action.

Niebuhr’s main efforts were directed against that “Protestant Christianity” in America whose “optimism had no more solid foundation than the expansive mood of the era of triumphant capitalism” (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, 1935). He realized from the first that America suffered from a kind of secularized religion. The nation conceived of itself almost as if it were a church, a “movement” of social goodness. This “civil religion” had infected secular men as well. He wanted to introduce maturity into the civil religion: “Our modern liberal culture, of which American civilization is such an unalloyed exemplar, is involved in many ironic refutations of its original pretensions of virtue, wisdom, and power” (The Irony of American History, 1952).

In 1939, Niebuhr gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, whose fruit was his classic The Nature and Destiny of Man (two volumes). In defense of the democratic idea he wrote Children of Light, Children of Darkness (1944), in which appeared one of his most famous aphorisms: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Others of his best-known books are Faith and History (1949), The Self and the Dramas of History (1958), and The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959).

In 1956, Niebuhr suffered the first of a series of strokes which greatly weakened him, forced him to desist from his extraordinarily active ways, and left him for fifteen years mentally keen and eager but unable to work for longer than an hour or two a day. One of his most brilliant books, Man’s Nature and His Communities, appeared during this period (1965).



Niebuhr was at his best in reinterpreting the religious springs of the American past. His aim was effective social reform in American institutions, particularly in the 1930’s on behalf of labor. Since power is normally blind and unyielding, Niebuhr did not shrink from those limited uses of violence required for social change. He argued strenuously that even decent husbands, family men, men of honor are obliged by social structures to act according to social roles. Private morality is therefore no sufficient guarantee of social morality. (The obverse—not stressed by Niebuhr, but perhaps exemplified in some persons responsible for the war in Vietnam—is that participation in social wrongs is no necessary guarantee of private dereliction.) Good men are often involved in policies, even honorably involved, whose social consequences, here or there, sooner or later, wreak great evil. Brutal men, with evil intentions, sometimes bring about social good. Pure intentions, high goals, and unblemished radicalism of mind do not absolve men of the ambiguous consequences of what they estimate to be their most morally radiant actions. Political life does not follow the form of a morality play; it is tragic.

Niebuhr was at his weakest, I believe, where his reputation is highest: in international affairs. Nevertheless, his strength in such matters, sufficient to win him the gratitude of men like George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, was threefold. He unmasked many of the moral pretensions of America by ripping to shreds traditional religio-ideological interpretations of American destiny. Secondly, he concentrated the attention of moralists upon issues of power and interest-he refused to leave to Machiavelli the things of Machiavelli. Thirdly, he gave the genuine moral strivings which are the great, indisputable resources of our nation’s capacity for maturation, a new, tougher, more supple religious base than they had heretofore had.



In order to understand the old moralism against which Niebuhr inveighed, we must recall some American Protestant history. America is perhaps the first land in history founded by people who urgently wished to be saints. There were three components of this desire: a profound instinct for the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race; a sectarian, utopian spirit of concern; a complacence with the grace that God, through science, industry and progress, daily sheds upon America.

In the North, we read American history Southward. We tend to exaggerate the importance of the Puritans and the sober Calvinists of New England. The Southern evangelism so poorly understood by those of us not part of it, is regarded by its partisans, surely a religious majority in American life and dispersed throughout every region, as the strong, ironlike backbone of American life, the center of the mainstream. What we regard as “mainline Protestantism”—the kind of churches the Rockefellers go to, sedate chapels at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, that mixture of private piety, oak-walled economic power, and technical education provided for Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Church scions we have known—is a minority tradition. Because of its money, position, and power, it has dominated our government, courts, and universities. But when American Protestants have faced a major parting of the ways between North-eastern modernism and experiential fundamentalism, they have nearly always chosen the latter. This has happened, for example, in “The Great Awakening” of 1720-25; the defeat of Jonathan Edwards in New England and his migration to Princeton Seminary, the later bastion of orthodoxy; in the great revivals of the 19th century; and perhaps in the recent amazing growth rates of Pentecostalism and other fundamentalist movements.

The dark, tormenting thoughts of Hawthorne or Melville, or even Faulkner, have not affected our character nearly so much as the optimism of the fundamentalist Christian. Such a Christian believes that the organism is healthy, disease comes from outside—germs, agitators. Carried along by him, we believe in the future. We believe in—we require—new frontiers. We believe in changing things, confident that cosmic probabilities are weighted enormously, in our case at least, on the side of good. Let someone announce a product is “new”—from toothpaste to politics—and our unconscious minds are tutored to expect it to be “better.” We also believe in action. Through fundamentalism, our God is the God who acts in history. Thus even our conservatism, even our fundamentalism, encourage no scruples concerning gadgetry, industry, super-highways, supersonic transports. With ideas, with dissent and divergence and disloyalty, however, religious conservatives do have difficulty. For to those who know they are on the side of the future, dissent is not simply an annoyance; it is a delaying tactic, a useless sidetrack. “Come home, America” is not really a cry to return to the past; it is the symbol of the better future that yet will be. Thus has George McGovern instinctively understood that conservative Protestant traditions use retrospective language for futuristic purposes.

Nathan Glazer remarks in American Judaism that Judaism can best be understood less as a “religion” in the sense of church and doctrines, and more as a “religious civilization.” Similarly, besides Christianity as a religion in America, there is also America as a religious civilization—there is what Robert N. Bellah has called “the civil religion.” The civil religion allows for the freedom of other religions. There is “separation of church and state.” But intermediate between church and state, pervading both of them, lies the quotidian civilization whose self-understanding is suffused with inescapable symbolic materials. These affect the self-understanding of Catholics, Jews, atheists—all who live, move, and have their being within their ambience. They are cited regularly in the great documents of our history, in inaugural addresses, at high political turning points.

Thus the primordial problem for Protestant Christianity in America is to distinguish itself from the civil religion. It was easy to separate church from state. To separate church from culture, to prevent the church from becoming “merely” a cultural religion, is an especially acute problem for the evangelical Protestant traditions, more so than for traditions of the Jewish, Catholic, or “high” Protestant type. For the evangelical traditions—those of the sects and denominations-conceive of themselves as voluntary associations, generated through the conversion of adult individuals, held together by a communal discipline that sets them apart from “worldliness.” This model of religious association is believed to be peculiarly parallel to the democratic way of life. It is atomic, associative, voluntary, consensual. And in this very marked coincidence between evangelical forms and democratic forms lies the danger of confusing religious life with political life. Imagining American institutions to be in a peculiar way the fruit of evangelical religious traditions, ordinary Christians can hardly be blamed for sensing few dangers to Christianity from total absorption into “the American way.” America is “a Christian nation.”

Testimonies to Protestant confusion on this point abound in every period of American history. At the time when Reinhold Niebuhr was just coming into prominence, the situation seemed not more bleak than earlier, but suddenly subject to question. Wilhelm Pauck and H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold’s brother, together with Francis P. Miller, wrote The Church Against the World (1935). (The fact that two of the three authors were German-American is significant. The emergence of major theologians who were not Anglo-Saxon undercut the racial pride that was one pillar of the old moralism.) Miller wrote: “The plain fact is that the domestication of the Protestant community in the United States within the framework of the national culture has progressed as far as in any Western land. The degradation of the American Protestant church is as complete as the degradation of any other national Protestant church.” Worldliness, the three authors went on, dominates the church “in thought, in organization, and in discipline.” In “the century and a half of Anglo-Saxon assuredness,” everyone had believed that no other people besides Anglo-Americans could carry out God’s mission.



Sympathetic historians commonly picture the images of history favored by American Protestants—images of “building up God’s Kingdom,” even “the social gospel”—as in some harmless way rhetorical. But those images were riverbeds for the rush of power, political and economic, that gives substance to the title of Martin Marty’s brilliant history, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America.1 Marty writes astringently of the early years of the 20th century: “The agents of God happen to be Anglo-Saxon Americans who had funds to invest in the world, guns with which to subjugate the yellow Spaniards, and a spiritual superiority which gave them license to determine the destinies of others.” Anglo-Saxonism was conceived as “God’s highest human revelation to date.” “We are the chosen people,” wrote Josiah Strong. “Can anyone doubt that the result of this competition of the races will be the ‘survival of the fittest’?”

In 1855, noted church historian Philip Schaff had written: “I doubt whether the moral influence of Christianity and of Protestantism has more deeply and widely affected any nation than it has the Anglo-Saxon.” Two British Christians wrote in 1836: “Blot out Britain and America from the map of the world, and you destroy all those great institutions which almost exclusively promise the world’s renovation.” And Schaff again: “The Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American, of all modern races, possess the strongest natural character and the one best fitted for universal dominion.”

Charles Hodge of Princeton asserted in 1829 that America will exert “a greater influence on the human family than any other nation that has ever existed.” A century later, Protestants were exhorted to “see this nation of ours . . . become not only the savior but the model and monitor of the reconstructed civilization of the world in the future.” The Southern Bishop Warren A. Candler, brother of the Coca Cola magnate, wrote (c. 1926): “The hope of mankind is in the keeping of the Anglo-Saxon nations, led by the United States; and evangelical Christianity, with Methodism in the forefront, is the hope of these nations.” Candler understood assimilation: Anglo-Saxons are “not only the people directly descended from the Anglos and the Saxons, but those who, by collateral descent or by political association with them, have been conformed to their type and identified with their destiny.”

But World War I, the advances of industrialization, the fruits of Prohibition, and the Depression were steadily eroding conviction. Even in 1927, H. Richard Niebuhr observed that “a psychology of defeat, of which both fundamentalism and modernism are symptoms, has grabbed the forces of religion.” Wilhelm Pauck, one of a distinguished line of emigrés who settled here, surveyed the desolate American Christianity of 1935: “Perhaps the time is not far distant when a prophet will rise among us who, fully imbued with the mood and spirit of our era, will speak to us in the name of the living God with such power and authority that all who long for salvation will be compelled to listen.” Marty adds succinctly: “In Reinhold Niebuhr, many Protestants began to feel they had found such a prophet.”

Niebuhr was not alone, of course, and not all intelligent Protestants, by far, accepted the chauvinism whose depth and breadth in the tradition retain such power to astonish. Still, the verb critics and biographers routinely choose for Niebuhr is towered. Words of his like “irony,” “tragedy,” “ambiguity,” and “realism” interrupted the stream of sectarian optimism. The rise of Hitler discredited the intellectual supports of Anglo-Saxon racism. Niebuhr turned his attention to puncturing the moral optimism and complacence in industrial progress that university professors—even of the acumen of John Dewey—shared with city editors and county sheriffs.

The battle between realism and idealism had first to be waged in his own heart. In 1914, Niebuhr, perhaps compensating for his German-American origins, had enthusiastically abandoned pacifist scruples and supported the war. Later he repented, joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and wrote articles in support of love, reason, and peace. A decade later, after his experiences in Detroit, he once more renounced pacifism. (He understood quite clearly that even nonviolent pacifism, like Gandhi’s, implicates one in violence.) In religious terms, he began to read St. Augustine on the savagery of the earthly city and Luther on the evil in every human heart. In social terms, he began to read Marx. He thus made one “turn to the Right,” toward religious orthodoxy, and a “turn to the Left” in accepting the need for at least limited forms of violence and socialist revolution. Both helped him to interpret experiences he otherwise could not account for. During a trip to Europe in 1936, he saw that his worst fears about Nazi Germany were coming true. He returned to the U.S. trying to sound the alarm. He established networks for bringing refugees here.

Most American Protestants were still in the grip of “love” and “reason.” Thousands of young men on the campuses were taking pledges “never to go to war.” Giant peace rallies were staged. Charles Clayton Morrison’s significantly titled The Christian Century continued to be the forum for Niebuhr’s attacks on pacifism, “America First,” and sentimental interpretations of love and reason. The counterattacks mounted in intensity. So strongly did Niebuhr disagree with the editorial position of The Christian Century, that together with his friends he launched Christianity and Crisis in New York. The year was 1941. The crisis was the threat of Hitler to Western civilization. The gloom of those days, difficult to recreate today, was thick. Many felt the dread, described by Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead, that a night of reaction was about to descend upon every nation of the world.



John C. Bennett has recently described the history of Christianity and Crisis and listed four ways in which its vision, especially in the 1950’s, was not quite adequate in preparing its readers for what would follow: the implications of nuclear warfare; changes within Communism and the receding of the cold war; the need for revolutionary change in the Third World; and “the errors and dangers of the American counterrevolutionary stance, especially in the Third World.” And he adds: “I think that Christian realism may have neglected the extent to which secular history may be influenced by what we may call the continuing effects of redemption, including the signs of resurrection.”

Niebuhr often admitted during his last years that he should not, for pedagogical purposes at least, have chosen “original sin” as the symbol on which to base his analysis of self-centeredness and self-deception. Such a symbol did not allow him to treat as fully as his program demanded the “moral resources and possibilities in human nature.” That symbol, together with his preoccupation with the menace first of Hitler and then of Stalinist Russia, gave a defensive, negative cast to his thought, in betrayal of his own explicit intentions.

Still, Niebuhr’s very roots in classical Germanic pessimism (through his Lutheran reading of Augustine) introduced new “moral resources and possibilities” into the American mainstream. Christopher Lasch has recently noted that the European revolutionary tradition carries with it “a tragic sense of the cost of even the most brilliant civilization.” A revolution is not a glorious, holy event. It is, as thirty Spanish anarcho-syndicalists announced in a manifesto in 1932 (the same year as Moral Man and Immoral Society), “a tragic and cruel event which forms man only through the suffering of his body and the sorrow of his mind.” Culture is the capacity of a people to live with ambiguity, tragedy, irony, and defeat. In that sense, America lacks culture. Our best novels, Lasch notes, are “books written in defiance of civilization as represented by Aunt Polly.” We are a nation retarded in adolescence. No wonder we are so utterly susceptible to the cult of youth. Our models for morality are pre-moral, merely (in Kierkegaard’s term) aesthetic, callow.

Niebuhr wedded in his own person the dark, even self-torturing stirrings of the Lutheran tradition and the clear-sighted instinct for “changing the world” of America’s high Calvinism. “Contrition” was one of his favorite words. An image that recurs in his writings, as in those of Luther, is that of a man broken, shattered, “under judgment.” (In reality, Niebuhr appears to have been a tall, aggressive, dominating man who wished he were more broken and humble, whose traditions told him he should be, and finally during fifteen years of incapacitating but bravely-borne illness was.) On the other hand, no banker at Chase Manhattan, no Ivy League college president, had a clearer eye for the actual lay of power and interests. We sometimes forget what it is like to be on the other side of a deal with “a shrewd Yankee trader.” The Yankee gazes with endlessly honest, sincere, reliable eyes—no contract necessary, a handshake will do—and still gets the better of the bargain. The shrewdness lies in making honesty do what other people do through rituals of deception. Niebuhr had the Yankee instinct for practicalities. He also had a Lutheran conscience about it.

Thus, as a man from the heartlands, Niebuhr was able to enter into “mainline” Protestantism. He was uncommonly alert to changes in the world, to the shifting sands of power and ideas and symbols. His best writing, in fact, was almost invariably his journalism; his books were rather like attempts to state systematically and fully what he had already discovered in contact with events. He did not carry with him heavy hypotheses of such grandeur that events merely served them by unfolding. He was, rather, a thinker whose intelligence penetrated events to an uncommonly profound level—seeing in them the drama of selves and groups which they partly revealed, partly masked. Self-deception was his fundamental theme. He had a dramatic sense of action and politics, such as in a different sphere Kenneth Burke was always commending. Burke concentrated on the “grammar” of such dramas, Nie-buhr on their concrete unfolding.

Niebuhr changed positions often, not erratically but as cultural dramas changed. He understood quite clearly—he alluded to it in an article on Karl Barth, the Swiss founder of “Neo-Orthodoxy,” with whom he was often paired—that his own resolve to stay close to actual events, rather than to more speculative heights, doomed his work to a certain transience. He knew that no disciple of his could repeat his own positions, views, even principles. A genuine disciple would have to respond as intelligently to events in his time as Niebuhr had in his.

What saved Niebuhr from mere expediency—and this is a point difficult for some to grasp, prickly even to state—is that he remained consistently faithful to a dramatic, developing standpoint. It would be difficult to isolate in Niebuhr’s life any set of principles or axioms to which, over the whole range of his maturity (say, from his third book, Moral Man and Immoral Society in 1932), he remained faithful. Key words like “pacifism,” “love,” “justice,” “equality” underwent fairly radical transformations as his thought and experiences matured.

Biographers and seasoned students of his thought have, therefore, taken to describing his development according to “stages,” or “periods,” or (occasionally) “motifs.” Ronald Stone,2 for example, distinguishes four periods: the disillusioning of a liberal; the socialist alternative; Christian realism; the pragmatic-liberal synthesis. The pattern is biographical, dramatic. Seeds of the later developments are discernible in the earlier. One could not have predicted just where Niebuhr would be going after any one moment; on the other hand, surprising as some of his “turns” were at the time, in some strong way they always seemed consistent with Niebuhr the man. There was a reason for them and that reason, more often than not, had to do with fresh experiences he had encountered and refused merely to grind up within his former system. In contact with events, he always saw to it that he changed, too. On that organic fidelity to himself was his impressive lifelong consistency built.

The deficiencies in such a method become clear when one recalls the enormous expansion of consciousness imposed upon educated people during the last fifteen years. There is no way to judge how Niebuhr would have changed under the pressures that altered the consciousness of the rest of us. It would have been marvelous to have had him at the height of his powers during the turbulence of the 1960’s; instead, he could only be an occasional and inevitably distant observer.

Niebuhr needed events. At the end, a Methodist bishop visiting with him expressed surprise that Niebuhr’s eyes filled several times with tears. “Perhaps it was the drugs,” the bishop charitably remarked. Perhaps it was the pain, the humiliation.




In his last years, Niebuhr described his own inner life for John Cogley. He was closer, he feared, to Jewish symbols than to Christian. The social justice he had found most eloquently expressed in the Hebrew prophets was, he said, his most identifiable religious passion. In the brilliant, retrospective, quasi-autobiographical Man’s Nature and His Communities, Niebuhr commented explicitly on revisions in his views: “. . . they gradually change from a purely Protestant viewpoint to an increasing sympathy for the two other great traditions of Western culture, Jewish and Catholic. They also embody increasingly the insights of the secular disciplines . . . of an empirical and historical culture.” He speaks of “the tortuous path” of his own mind “in adjusting the Protestant heritage of individualism and perfectionism through a world depression and two world wars to the present realities of a highly technical and collective culture, facing the perils of a nuclear age.”

Niebuhr’s mental life was one of constant enlargement. The accusations of restless young men, anxious to go “beyond” him, therefore, are often couched in respectful phrases. Had Niebuhr been well, he might have shown the way on three issues in particular: black liberation, the politics of the Third World, and the new moralism.

Frequently, complaints have been voiced that Niebuhr did not dare to hope enough; that his realism, increasing with the years, persuaded him to settle for too little. John C. Raines has suggested that Niebuhr gave too much attention to perverse inclinations like pride and sensuality, not enough to the far more common social sin of sloth, apathy, passing the buck. In 1939, critics point out, fewer than eight thousand of America’s eight million black Protestants worshiped in integrated churches. Why, they ask, did Niebuhr not propose more revolutionary action?

Perhaps he should have. On the other hand, what needed to be done for blacks in America needed to be done by blacks. Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference recalled at the thirtieth anniversary of Christianity and Crisis, only weeks before Niebuhr’s death:

I remember one night when somebody came at [Martin Luther King] with some of the philosophical presuppositions of strict Gandhian nonviolence, and he responded about three o’clock in the morning with the most brilliant lecture I had ever heard on The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the thinking of John Bennett and Christianity and Crisis. He reminded us that he had done his Ph.D. thesis on Paul Tillich, and you realized how everything he did was formulated much more out of a sense of Christian realism and out of the historic black reality of the Christian Church in the Southern part of the United States than I think the press ever really understood.

We always (at first) tried to make nonviolence something that was very idealistic and ethereal and for the saints to live by, and never really understood, as Dr. Niebuhr said as far back as Moral Man and Immoral Society, that nonviolent power and economic withdrawal would be the means that the black community might eventually use to gain justice.

The great events that preoccupied Niebuhr’s attention during his creative years were the depression, the world wars, and the nuclear competition between Russia and the United States. He thought crisply in terms of powers and interests, and his The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959), which some of his students seem to regard as one of his weakest books, fastened upon the twin phenomena of nationalism and imperial systems. It is not difficult, then, to imagine how Niebuhr would have related his earlier investigations to present Third-World theories of revolution, particularly in Latin America. A transformation in context would, of course, have been required. A sharper distinction between the positive resources of American culture and the arrogance of American power would have tempered Niebuhr’s praise of “the open society.” If any American was prepared in advance to assimilate the humiliation of American virtue, wisdom, and power in Vietnam, it was Reinhold Niebuhr.

But did his “realism” make such doublethink as appeared among the subjects of the Pentagon Papers all-too-normal? Had he given too much ammunition to the “hardheaded,” to the “tough” pursuers of “the national interest”? Did he contribute to the weakening of brave witness against the “necessities” and “realities” of “tragic decisions” and “wars of ambiguity”? There is a feeling among many that he sold them too easily on “compromise” and “facing present realities.” Early-warning indignation systems, they feel, might have spared America disaster in Vietnam.

Niebuhr himself was one of the earliest and most profound critics of the war in Vietnam; so also were men who had learned from him, like Hans Morgenthau, John Bennett, and William Pfaff. But several other considerations are relevant here. Niebuhr believed thoroughly in the importance of “countervailing forces.” The over-weening power of the American Presidency increasingly appalled him. The fraudulence of appeals to “reason,” or “support for the President,” or “the defense of American honor” was transparent to him. The cloaking of imperial designs with moral rhetoric was no new ruse.

Less than others, however, was he shocked by America’s “mistakes,” or “unconscious imperial instincts,” or “deliberate adventures” (whichever theory about our Vietnam involvement one accepts). He never thought power should be trusted. He never trusted claims to virtue or wisdom.

Moreover, Niebuhr’s early criticism of the presuppositions of certain powerful trends in the American social sciences anticipated by decades the orgies of self-criticism we have witnessed these last six years: tendencies toward depersonalization, manipulation, complacent gradualism, heedlessness about quality, community, and ends. From Moral Man and Immoral Society, through Faith and History, to The Self and the Dramas of History, and in such essays as were collected in Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953), Niebuhr opposed a one-dimensional, optimistic, manipulative realism. His was a realism alert to subjective viewpoints, organic connections, historical contingency and incompleteness, and the biases of interest and power.

A major social change did, however, take place during the period in which Niebuhr was writing and he may not have been fully aware of it. The number of managers, experts, bureaucrats, consultants, sound engineers, technicians, administrators, staff assistants, and white-collar professionals grew exponentially. Professional football with its ruthless precision, corporate timing, and calculated realism became the nation’s central symbolic ritual. The perfectionism and individualism that were once Niebuhr’s chief foes were giving way to professionalism and organization. “Realism” and “collective consciousness” were becoming the dominant way of life among America’s professional elites.

In this sense, Niebuhr’s work was all too frequently losing its earlier prophetic bite and becoming the rationalization of a new status quo. “I hate to do this,” the new hardnosed realist began to say. “In the best of all worlds it wouldn’t be necessary. But within the parameters of reasonable probabilities, it’s the best we can do. We’ll have to bite the bullet.” In the gallery of model Americans, the tough pragmatist, expert and professional, replaced the pious huckster of snake-oil and the well- connected, silver-haired Episcopalian banker.



In response to the rise of this new national superculture of rootless professionals, streaming from the most extensive networks of universities any nation in history has ever spawned, there has also been a resurgence of perfectionism and individualism. Ironically, then, what cutting edge Niebuhr’s razor lost on one side it acquired on the other. The McGovern Democrats are nothing within the bounds of their specialties if not masters of technique, professionals, realists. On the other hand, they manifest and they often encourage a most traditional American moralism. “Together at the Garden with McGovern” on June 14 was as sentimental an effusion of a peculiarly American idealism, teardrop for teardrop, as any the Garden has ever sheltered, including the Crusades of the Reverend Billy Graham. “If only,” Dionne Warwick crystallized the mood, “we have love!

This new moralism is, to be sure, not so much a repetition as a transformation of the old moralism. For individualism, it supplies “Do your thing!” For perfectionism, it supplies “When the world will live as one!” There will be no religions, no countries, no ethnic or racial differences, no conflicts or ambiguities, no tragedies or betrayals or defeats—“If only we have love!

The new moralism has been partly successful in awakening the traditional civil religion of the nation. The critics of the war in Vietnam, forgetting their disgust at the moralism and self-righteousness of John Foster Dulles, reintroduced personalist moral discourse into political matters. Some day I imagine a future Daniel Ellsberg releasing secret memoranda from the Pentagon, revealing that certain key officials knew they should have taken certain immediate military steps. But an election was coming up, and so deeply seared had the popular consciousness been by the cry “No more Vietnams!” that, despite the clear moral imperative, they deemed it “realistic” not to act. As fears of another Munich were used to justify intervention in Vietnam, fears of another Vietnam will surely justify some future—and equally disastrous—nonintervention.

In domestic affairs, meanwhile, race has become the simplistic key to everything. Black men were dying disproportionately in Vietnam, “Gooks” were pushed out of helicopters, and revisionist views of Custer’s Last Stand lifted corners on the awful story of the treatment of the red man by the white man. “White racism” became for the Left the smear “Communism” had been for the Right. The guilt was insupportable; sensitive and innocent souls rushed to dissociate themselves from it. “They” became the evil ones: the racists, the fascists, the pigs. Children of the upper classes, attended to in their individuality as children never had been before, were consumed with self-loathing.

Protestant thinkers of sectarian background are quick to see that their own tradition is coming back in force, after scarcely a generation of “mainline pragmatism,” and they have been quick to soften the Niebuhrian heritage. “Our policy,” the usually cool John C. Bennett writes of Christianity and Crisis, “has been to give a platform to those who push the white man hardest [he does not say “most penetratingly”], for we see that white racism is a deeper cultural sickness than we realized in the early 60’s.” Harvey Cox notes that Niebuhr introduced “Augustinian-Reformation realism” into the dominant form of American religion—that “Christian visionary sectarian type of ethic that has had terrible problems and wonderful possibilities.” Cox, a Baptist, notes his own roots in the latter and adds:

We have been scourged and corrected by history and by theological reflection since then. But I think there is something very valuable in that tradition which nonetheless can form political action in the future. It is interesting to me that this latter tradition is the one that makes sense to those who are theologically interested and religiously aware among the political activists on campuses today.

Mentioning his experience of living in a black neighborhood in Boston, Cox warns against Niebuhrian pessimism: “A confidence in the morality of one’s own cause not too complicated by strictures that warn against its possible distortion and its sinful defilement are very necessary when you talk to people who have been on the bottom.”

George Williamson, Jr., decries the way in which Christian realism has become the ideology of social engineers: “But the effect glorified by an American pragmatic spirit is a specifically predictable and controllable effect.” He writes then of “our two sectarian groups—our two radical outbreaks of charisma,” the blacks and the youth:

The rise of sectarian charismata among these groups manifests a common, communicable, operational, and immediate perception of actual evil in this particular world and an attendant sense of identity, integrity, and value in the commitment to “overcome” or to “give peace a chance”—i.e., operationally to redeem themselves from this actual evil.



Unlike the old moralism, however, the new moralism is not confined to Protestants. It embraces Jews and Catholics as well, and it draws its attitudes from Jewish, Catholic, and indeed from secular sources as well as from Protestant ones. Nathan Glazer has pointed out that some 80 per cent of American Jews come from Eastern Europe; and that the Enlightenment struck with especial force among Jews in that portion of Europe. He suggests that “socialism, anarchism, Zionism, and other radical secular political movements flourished among the East European Jews, particularly those who moved to the cities from the small towns.” He attributes to the persecutions, political insecurities, and age-old state of underprivilege the pronounced tendency of Jewish immigrants in America to support liberal and radical social causes. How could they not believe in “the possibility of change”?

As for Catholics, there is the peculiar romanticism to which some of them, once aroused on political matters, are not only prone but almost driven. On the conservative side, Belloc and Waugh in England Claudel and Bloy in France, and perhaps William F. Buckley, Jr., and Garry Wills in the United States, suggest the qualities of wit, poetry, fancy, and acerbic commentary the romantic tradition can supply. The aura of mystery; the calm of sempiternal perspectives; the awe surrounding gigantic struggles between good and evil; a special love for the “witness” who according to the lights of this world fails; a delight in twitting mere pragmatists, empiricists, and “liberals”; a zest for hide-and-seek drama like Chesterton’s Father Brown or Father Berrigan’s masquerade party at Cornell—these inform the literary Catholic’s special blend of moralism.

The mandate of Pope John’s Vatican II, moreover, to “take the Church into the world” offered many good liberal Catholics an escape from the pettiness of intramural Catholic politics, into the larger world of “the secular city.” Slowly came the shock that city hall and the FBI, the university and the federal bureaucracy, are, if less colorful, as intransigent and pragmatic as the New York Chancery. A certain number of Catholics went from conservative or non-political to radical without ever passing through liberalism—Garry Wills is an example of the first, Sister Elizabeth McAlister an example of the second. Finally, the rude political awakening of apolitical and even atheological missionaries to Latin America, like the Melvilles, imparted a note of revolutionary fervor. Even the once sober Commonweal scarcely resists a note, now and then, of what Monsignor Knox once chastised as “enthusiasm,” that breach of sober realism which Thomas More and Thomas a Becket, in their extremity, were so careful to avoid. Among many liberal Catholics, American pragmatism had a short life of less than a decade.




In politics attitudes are not reality; power and interests must be diagnosed. The new moralism differs from the old because its power and its interests differ. Michael Harrington suggests in Toward a Democratic Left that our economy is creating a social structure which vastly enlarges “the conscience constituency.” This attribution of “conscience” to a political class shocks a Niebuhrian. “In general,” Harrington explains, “the more educated a group, the greater is its sensitivity to ‘ethical’ questions in politics.” He cites the optimistic view of James MacGregor Burns that the suburbs may well be “more responsible to bold leaders who stress issues of the mind and heart, and not just of the stomach.” There is something beguilingly deceptive in this self-flattery of educated professionals.

No doubt the higher income and suburban living of what David T. Bazelon calls “the New Class” have solved some of the issues of the stomach; such people are not starving. No doubt, too, they turn to politics in order to satisfy “mind and heart.” Such a turn is not ipso facto “ethical.” In 1967 in Power in America: The Politics of the New Class, Bazelon recognized the transformation in American class structure and attitudes:

So the great new mass of more or less educated people, primary beneficiaries of the postwar “income revolution,” devoted worshipers of children and automobile culture, has become the decisive swing group to mediate and perhaps finally to resolve the classic American conflict of the city-dweller and the small-town’ agrarian, the immigrant and the Wasp, and at last to dispel the effects of agrarian ideology.

The skills of this class are precisely as we have seen them in the McGovern campaign of 1972. Such skills, Harrington writes, quoting Bazelon, are essentially social, for they are based on “a great number of people who mostly organize, and administer and criticize and comment on the activities of others.” Their chief strength is planning. Bazelon worries that they might “proceed woodenly to administer everybody and everything.” Even Harrington sounds a warning:

. . . a new class is coming into being. It is not the old middle class of small-property owners and entrepreneurs, nor the new middle class of managers. It is composed of scientists, technicians, teachers, and professionals in the public sector of the society. By education and work experience it is predisposed toward planning. It could be an ally of the poor and the organized workers—or their sophisticated enemy. In other words, an unprecedented social and political variable seems to be taking shape in America.

The New Class covers its political campaigns—in 1968 as in 1972, in the civil-rights movement and in the anti-war movement—with an aura of morality so thick it would make the righteous Anglo-Saxons of a century ago envious. Because two of its chief causes—civil rights (including poverty) and resistance to the Indochinese war—are morally sound, it has been able to conceal its own lust for power and its own class interests, at least from itself. On several counts, its interests are less than “ethical.”

First, although the New Class denounces the “system” and complains about its own “alienation,” its power, wealth, and status depend to a vast extent on an activist federal government committed to “change.” In the old politics, patronage consisted of local favors: a streetlight, a city job. In the new politics, patronage operates on a national scale: federal initiatives making hundreds of thousands of jobs and opportunities available to those whose hearts itch to do good and who long for a “meaningful” use of their talents, skills, and years.

Secondly, the New Class has special psychic interests. It somehow feels it must exorcise its complicity in various social evils: white racism, militarism, imperialism, male chauvinism, consumerism, affluence. Acute discomfort at moral accusations distorts the vision of this class and makes it politically volatile. In this respect, it is rather like that “resentful” class Richard Hofstadter wrote of in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: it tends to project its own guilts upon scapegoats, in this case lower-middle-class whites. A desire to escape ambiguity and to be thoroughly good is an ambivalent political resource, as American history amply reveals.

Thirdly, the New Class is tempted to be good at the expense of others. It supports school busing, for example, but its own children will not suffer loss of status, or quality education, or wealth, or safety by being bused. The New Class will not lose what lower classes lose. And the New Class mandates, plans, and executes the busing. The children of the lower classes—black and white—are the clients, but they are not, it would seem, entitled to “participate in the decisions that affect their lives.” Or again, although the means and strategies of warfare have been generated by the skills of the New Class as by no other (the research and technology responsible for the peculiar savagery of the war in Indochina were not developed by truckdrivers), that class has managed for the most part to keep its own sons out of Vietnam.

In domestic politics, Niebuhr is correct in his advice that we ask of any group: What’s in it for you? He is also correct in his estimation that justice is approximated not through a “conscience constituency” but through restraints upon the interests of each and every constituency. It is high irony, of a sort Niebuhr would have savored, that the New Class in finding his realism “dated” has conveniently overlooked precisely his most central theme: that claims on the part of groups to represent “conscience,” “morality,” and “principle” must be exposed for what they are: disguises for naked power and raw interest. Characteristically, Niebuhr noted, such disguises are nowhere more successful than among their propagators, self-deceived at the core of their apparent decency, goodness, and innocence. Beware of the children of light is, perhaps, the fundamental Niebuhrian imperative. It is an imperative desperately relevant now that the new moralism has acquired awesome professional skills and organizational abilities, now that it afflicts our class.




One characteristic of the New Class is its need for “attitudinal” correctness. So, although attitudes have little to do with actual political effects, we must track the new moralism on its own terrain. The attitudes the New Class commends are revealed to be moralistic by five signals.

First, moralism uses indignation, outrage, and feelings of guilt to energize reform. A mature morality, by contrast, recognizes that in politics personal guilt is less significant than changes in institutional Structures; that as an emotion guilt paralyzes clear thinking; that convulsive attempts to liberate one’s conscience lead to excesses that generate yet another cycle of evils to be guilty about tomorrow.

A second signal is a need to base political action upon a conviction of moral superiority. Christopher Lasch, for example, dangerously urges that the Left, before it can become effective, “needs to demonstrate the superiority of its moral vision and its theoretical understanding.” But in order to act well, one does not have to feel that one’s cause is “morally superior.” It quite suffices to believe that one’s own path, so far as one can determine, increases the possibilitis of human community and human liberty. Granted all we know of the relativity of standpoints and human fallibility—and on few matters ought we to be more thoroughly informed—we may presume our political opponents to be equally convinced of their own righteousness.

A third signal lies in taking actions in order to think oneself good, rather than in order to achieve solid political results. This self-centered desire prevents one from facing defeats, betrayals, and one’s own responsibility for evils unwittingly generated. In politics, the quest for innocence is futile. A democratic system functions in strict dependence even upon those who do not participate; they, too, are part of the calculus by which the organized gain and keep power. We are already implicated. No one has clean hands. “The quiet American,” who wishes to do good, involves all who touch him in tragedy.

A fourth signal lies in the search for “optimism” and uneasiness with “pessimism.” Various cultures understand this polar relationship differently. The Anglo-American sectarian tradition demands so high a quotient of hope, such assurance that effort will “make a difference,” that it is extraordinarily prone to despair. It sets a high premium on vision, apocalypse, Utopia. By contrast, certain writers of Southern and Eastern Europe—Camus, Silone, Moravia, Kazantzakis, to name but a few—have given expression to a profound pessimism that does not prevent courageous action. In order to act well, it is not necessary to believe that one will succeed. Human morality, both in persons and in societies, lies in the substance and the form of action, not in its contingent fruition. The sower sows; God giveth the increase.

“Realism,” of course, can itself become a kind of moralism. One prides oneself on yielding to “things as they are,” feels superior to those who do not, deadens one’s imagination so as to avoid disillusionment. “A good realist may be humble and have a healthy irony about his own virtue,” George Williamson writes, “but there is nothing quite so withering as his scorn of someone who will not acquire and employ the techniques that he has learned.” Thus, a fifth signal: the moralistic form of realism is managerial, bureaucratic, subservient to technique; it employs pessimism as a motive against imagination. By contrast, a mature political morality searches out unexpected, long-range sources of aspiration and strength. It does not take a morose delight in being blocked. It prides itself on inventiveness. For though it has come to expect evil frequently to win, it accepts no such victory as final. Realism turned moralistic is defeatist; maturity is a source of long-range struggle. The one paralyzes action; the other finds in defeat reasons to act, in hopelessness ways to endure.



Niebuhr himself gave testimony to such differences between moralism and morality over and over again, as in this passage from a lecture he included in Christianity and Power Politics (1940), called “Optimism, Pessimism, and Faith:”

“Religion,” declares Whitehead [in Science and the Modern World], “is a version of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of things, something which is real and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and yet the hopeless quest.” These paradoxes are in the spirit of great religion. The mystery of life is comprehended in meaning, though no human statement of the meaning can fully resolve the mystery. The tragedy of life is recognized, but faith prevents tragedy from being pure tragedy. Perplexity remains, but there is no perplexity unto despair. Evil is neither accepted as inevitable nor regarded as a proof of the meaninglessness of life. Gratitude and contrition are mingled, which means that life is both appreciated and challenged. To such faith the generations are bound to return after they have pursued the mirages in the desert to which they are tempted from time to time by the illusions of particular eras.




1 Dial Press, 1970.

2 Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians, Abingdon Press, 272 pp., $8.00.

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