A Man On a Gray Horse

The mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr may have gotten a lot of things wrong—but we could use a thinker like him today

I'm amazed that Reinhold Niebuhr hasn't made a comeback since September 11. After all, he was one of America's most profound writers on war and international conflict. At the start of World War II and then again at the dawn of the Cold War he wrote sweeping books that helped readers to connect their historical situations with broad truths about God and human nature. Yet a Nexis search on Niebuhr turns up only a handful of references to him over the past year. And the few substantive essays that have appeared were written for conservative publications, whereas Niebuhr propounded a hard-nosed liberal view of the world. The situation is depressing: Niebuhr's arguments were big and ambitious, whereas our debates are small and wonky.

Niebuhr grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, and attended Elmhurst College and Yale Divinity School. As a young man he became a pastor at the Bethel Evangelical Church, in Detroit, and was active in the Social Gospel movement, which saw in Christianity a blueprint for progressive and scientific political reform.

Niebuhr soon tired of what he saw as the self-righteous naiveté of the Social Gospel activists. He wrote a series of essays exposing their idealistic pieties and became a spokesman for moral realism, arguing that reform had to be conducted by people who were acutely aware of the limits of human capabilities and the intractability of sin. Niebuhr believed that "man is a sinner in his deepest nature," as the humanities professor Wilfred M. McClay wrote this past February in First Things. "But man was not merely a sinner, but also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God's image ... still able to advance the cause of social improvement."

The classic Niebuhr pose was to argue the middle against both ends—to argue for reform but against the pride of idealists, who hope to achieve too much, and against the cowardice of standpatters, who are afraid to get their hands dirty. Niebuhr could be bloody-minded in his realism: every action causes some collateral damage, he acknowledged, but people must act nonetheless, begging forgiveness for the evils they commit in the service of good.

Niebuhr's world view was well suited to the era of total war. In 1939 he delivered a series of lectures in Edinburgh on his version of Christian realism. As he spoke, bombs from German aircraft could be heard falling around the city. Niebuhr noticed that his audience was getting restless, but he was so caught up in his lecture that he thought they were squirming over something he'd said. The lectures were eventually collected in two volumes titled The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943). After you've finished a book with a title like that, what's left to read?

Ten years later, at the start of the Cold War, Niebuhr gave another set of lectures, this time in Fulton, Missouri; they served as the starting point for a book called The Irony of American History (1952). He began the book by making his position against communism clear: "We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice." Niebuhr would have chosen the word "demonically" with care; in effect, he dubbed the Soviet Union an evil empire thirty years before Ronald Reagan did.

Niebuhr was afraid, however, that in battling evil the United States would become intoxicated with illusions about its own goodness. He wrote,

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.

He believed that Americans were ill suited to addressing the issues that go along with being a superpower. As he phrased it,

Our lack of the lust of power makes the fulminations of our foes against us singularly inept. On the other hand, we have been so deluded by the concept of our innocency that we are ill prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us.

Niebuhr's great foe was idealism. American idealism, he believed, comes in two forms: the idealism of noninterventionists, who are embarrassed by power, and the idealism of imperialists, who disguise power as virtue.

The non-interventionists, he argued, seek to preserve the purity of their souls, either by denouncing military actions or by demanding that every action taken be unequivocally virtuous. They exaggerate the sins committed by their own country, excuse the malevolence of its enemies, and, as later polemicists have put it, inevitably blame America first. This is all just a pious way of refusing to face real problems, Niebuhr wrote. Though his subject was the isolationist response to Nazi Germany, he might as well have been referring to some of the left-wing reactions to today's war on terror.

With respect to the idealistic imperialists, on both the right and the left, Niebuhr conceded that the United States was founded on utopian hopes, on the dream of transforming a new land into a second Eden, where the oppression and misery of the Old World would be supplanted by happiness, prosperity, virtue, and freedom. However, he argued, Americans are simple-minded in their view of happiness. They tend to believe that with enough affluence and good will, all tensions can ultimately be reconciled. They believe that if each person pursues self-interest, then all will achieve contentment, by some invisible hand. In fact, Niebuhr contended, "Happiness is no simple possibility of human existence." In the world he saw, moments of happiness were possible only for those who renounced selfinterest, who "die[d] to self." In the most famous passage of The Irony of American History he declared,

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Many Americans, Niebuhr believed, fail to see the irony of this situation and the limitations of what can be achieved. Instead they believe that the United States has a mission to spread democracy around the world. They think that this country is uniquely blessed and have come to regard it as the tutor to mankind. Nations in the grip of this sort of hubris seek "greater power than is given to mortals," he said. They become inflamed by hatred for their foes, and corrupted even if their foes really do deserve to be hated. And they become enraged when they discover barriers to the realization of their ideals.

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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