Daniel Rice’s Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original

[1] When America learned the President of the United States identified Reinhold Niebuhr as a person who influenced him, I imagine many people scurried to probe more deeply into the nature of Niebuhr’s ethical and political thinking. Of course, there were people wondering who Reinhold Niebuhr is. I imagine some people saw this as an opportunity to reintroduce Reinhold Niebuhr to the American public.

[2] When I began teaching an advanced-level class in Christian ethics some students would wonder why we were reading a work by Reinhold Niebuhr. My first response was that Reinhold Niebuhr shaped and influenced the field of Christian social ethics. Second, Niebuhr’s methodology, commonly known as “Christian realism,” is worthy of engagement, assessment, and debate as to its usefulness today. Third, does Niebuhr’s realistic understanding of human nature, with both its creative and destructive impulses, still work today as an explanation for politics? If not, what would be creative alternatives? These three reasons were enough to engage Niebuhr who critically engaged the context of his time.

[3] I believe the questions Niebuhr wrestled with, from a faith perspective, are still with us today. For example, what does it mean to live and participate in a society organized by a democracy? What are our most beloved values and do all citizens of the United States abide by them? What does democracy mean in a society that is multicultural and multi-religious? Do other countries want or even desire to have “our” type of democracy? On what basis do groups (racial, ethnic, economic, gender, religious, national and political) build relationships with each other? What is the basis of United States foreign policy now that we are the only “superpower” in the world? These questions challenge many of our assumptions about what we think and believe about the way we order our life as a nation politically and how we think we might want to order the world politically. Reinhold Niebuhr’s theological and ethical thinking may provide some guidance as we wade through the ambiguities of life. And this, I think, is the strength of this section of the book.

[4] Any understanding of Niebuhr’s perspective on politics must begin with theological anthropology. While all of the essays in this section deal with some aspect of Niebuhr’s anthropology, Daniel Rice’s essay is probably the most comprehensive. Rice argues that in order to understand Niebuhr’s perspective on democracy and politics, one must grasp the concept of “Christian realism.”

[5] A critical dimension of Christian realism is its paradoxical understanding of human nature expressed in our individual and group life. The central concept here is sin and its relationship to whether the individual or group can be moral. This relationship Niebuhr articulates in a key text Rice neglects in his essay, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

[6] Niebuhr contends that the individual has the capacity to be moral. This capacity originates from the individual’s ability to consider the needs of others. Moreover, the individual’s capacity to transcend her own self-interest prompts her to justice (Moral Man, xi). Sin enters when the individual seeks security by pursuing its own self-interests. Groups, on the other hand, find it impossible to be moral for several reasons. They lack the capacity to consider the interests of others, reason is not able to guide them, and they have unrestrained egoism (Moral Man, xi–xii). Groups are a power to themselves and their egoism (such as racism and classism) as Niebuhr argues are supported by ideologies proffered by the group. Sin in relationship to groups is pride and the group’s failure to see its own idolatry.

[7] Rice does identify the resources Niebuhr views Christianity contributes towards fostering democracy. Niebuhr says there are three contributions, the individual is a “source of authority” to “challenge and…defy the authorities of this world,” “Christianity justifies checks on both the citizen and on those who govern”; and “the availability of humility and forgiveness in Christianity…allows for that spirit of toleration without which democratic institutions are in constant jeopardy” (p. 131). Clearly, in my view, these three contributions would empower the individual Christian for participation in the arena of politics.

[8] Rice goes on to identify the complexity of Niebuhr’s understanding of politics. While the self has a desire to seek its own self-interest, it also has the capacity to seek the interest of others. Love is the moral norm that operates between individuals and ensures just relationships through rational persuasion. Democracy, therefore, is a governmental form that best opens the possibility for the creative expression of the individual. At the same time, democracy also constrains the destructive side of the human being.

[9] Relationships between groups (i.e., racial, national, ethnic, women, economic, etc.) are established on a political basis. Power and self-interest become central in the life of groups and governments. In order for justice to exist in society, there has to be a central form of government and democracy is the best form. According to Niebuhr, democracy is a form of government that is needed because of our capacity for justice and democracy is limited by the sinful potential of human beings to do injustice. Therefore, democracy seeks, as Niebuhr was wont to say, approximate solutions to insolvable problems. Another way of saying this is that sin and evil do exist in the world and in the actions of human beings. Justice is only an approximation of justice.

[10] Today’s readers may be surprised when they learn that Niebuhr identifies “toleration” as a much needed virtue for a successful democracy. For a democratic society to function properly a balance of power is necessary and the self-interest of groups need to be met. I wonder what public debate about health care reform would sound like if toleration were practiced. What about the debate over where Muslim mosques could be located? Is not toleration a value citizens of the United States teach and honor? What do balance of power, self-interest, and toleration mean when the United States moves into the international arena? The last section of Rice’s essay “on exporting democracy” and the next several essays open the discussion for us.

[11] The question could be framed this way, should the United States be in the business of exporting its form of organizing society and its politics (i.e., democracy)? Rice points out what might be a difficult dimension in Christian realism. He notes that Niebuhr’s thinking on this matter is that other nations have inadequacies and therefore it will be difficult for them to embrace democracy as a form of government. In what comes across as an American (or it could be read as Western) bias, Niebuhr did not think the rest of the world had the necessary conditions for a democratic society. In essence, his thinking, I believe, denies the humanity of people in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

[12] Larry Rasmussen’s essay, “Empire or global community,” is especially helpful because of his discussion of Niebuhr’s understanding of empire and the possibility of a global community. Readers who may locate themselves left of center politically may find Niebuhr a companion in their analysis of the United States and its brand of democracy and capitalism.

[13] Rasmussen points out Niebuhr’s analysis of the United States and its relationship to the concept of empire. Using an essay entitled, “Awkward Imperialists,” where Niebuhr identifies two ingredients that make up an empire, economic power and imperialism, Rasmussen draws connections with our situation in the world today. With a keen analytical sense, Rasmussen draws connections with how one president embraced empire. More directly, Rasmussen shows how that president understood that it was God’s call for the United States to pursue a mission seeking the freedom of people and exporting democracy around the world.

[14] The other side of the equation is: can there be a global community? On the one hand, Niebuhr would say no. History may be moving toward a global community; however, it is filled with humankind’s possibilities and impossibilities. On the other hand, in Niebuhr’s thinking it may take a common enemy to bring about a global community. Here Rasmussen identifies two contemporary issues, namely, the global economy and what we as humans are doing to nature as a potential universal foe that will bring about a global community? Of course, that is dependent on how the resources of the faith are utilized to bring about justice in society.

[15] Readers interested in foreign policy will find Kenneth Thompson and Ronald Stone’s essay interesting. They give some insight into Niebuhr’s thinking about how Christian realism functions in this important area. Thompson teaches that central to Niebuhr’s thinking were the concepts of “balance of power” and “national interest.” Balance of power presupposes that there are other power centers in the world that need balancing. Moreover, balance of power presupposes that these power centers have the same motivations as the United States. That is not always the case and those engaged in foreign policy should not expect that to be the case.

[16] The other side of the dialectic offered by Niebuhr is the idea of “national interest.” What constitutes national interest? Who decides the national interest? Can the national interest be objectively identified or is it left to the political party that is in power? Along with identifying national interest as a concept of Niebuhr’s thinking, Thompson writes that Niebuhr spoke about prudence as a principle in politics.

[17] Stone’s essay may be a timely one, especially with our relationships with Israel. While it may come as a surprise to some, Niebuhr’s thinking about the Middle East says Stone is tied to his context. Niebuhr was shaped, in part, by relationships he had with members of the Jewish community. Niebuhr’s position with regard to Israel could be identified as Christian pro-Zionist because he argued for a homeland for the homeless Jewish community. At the same time, Niebuhr argued for settlement of Arab claims.

[18] McKeogh’s essay on Niebuhr’s discussion of pacifism is a crucial one. Given that the United States is presently involved in two wars, what does Niebuhr have to say about pacifism? Niebuhr, while having embraced pacifism, turned from it because of the way justice was pursued. McKeogh identifies a typical Niebuhrianism, two positions in dialectical relationship to each other. On the one side, there is a perfectionist idealist and on the other there is a political realist. The distinction between the two is that the former falls short in its pursuit of justice and the latter seeks justice but will use force if it is called for in the situation.

[19] An interesting discussion is Niebuhr’s position on non-violent resistance. On McKeogh’s reporting, Niebuhr takes on pacifists who understand Jesus as advocating non-violent resistance. Rather, McKeogh points out that Niebuhr’s interpretation of Jesus is that he practiced non-resistance. Although Niebuhr did reject those pacifists who embraced non-violent resistance, he did, according to McKeogh, support Gandhi’s crusade in India and Dr. Martin Luther King’s conception of non-violent resistance. Finally, McKeogh includes the debate between Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder, a highly respected Mennonite pacifist, in his presentation of Niebuhr’s understanding of pacifism.

[20] The final essay in this section deals with prophetic faith and its relationship to democracy. One could argue that this is the most important essay of this section. I say important because Christians may have a prophetic word to speak to a world that may be blindly accepting democracy as a structure for its political life.

[21] However, one must return to Niebuhr’s understanding of anthropology. The human being exists at the juncture of nature and spirit. There is freedom in the human’s capacity to transcend the self. Yet, when one looks at our social life as organized in groups it is here that politics comes into play. Groups relate to each other on the basis of power. That is, if democracy is the political system that is the structure of society, it will remain the structure because of the power it has received from the members of society.

[22] The prophetic dimension of the faith is brought against those who may not know the difference between the choices they may need to make. Rather as Lovin points out prophetic judgment is made on human beings and the responsible choices we fail to make for the good of the community. One of the comments I have persistently heard from elders within the African American community is that each generation has to make its choice about what it will pursue politically. Prophetic judgments must reflect our experience of structures and people of our time.

[23] This section, “Niebuhr and Politics,” is filled with much for those interested in how Niebuhr has influenced the President of the United States. One could not go wrong in rethinking his or her own understanding of politics and the role of a democracy in a world that is shaped by social networks and an ever-growing information highway. And, it just may be that Niebuhr really does present what some may consider a Lutheran understanding of politics; namely, politics that seeks proximate answers to insolvable problems.

Richard J. Perry

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Dr. Perry is a member of the Advisory Council for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, represents the Lutheran Ethicists Network on the Theological Roundtable, and serves as convener of the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL, USA).