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.

They become, in short, a menace to the fragile fabric of the world. Niebuhr approvingly quoted a European diplomat who argued in the 1940s that American idealism imperiled Europe. "For American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself," the diplomat said.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Sage, Ink: "It's a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World" (February 21, 2002)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

From the archives:

"Was Democracy Just a Moment?" (December 1997)
Democracy may not be the system that will best serve the world—or even the one that will prevail in places that now consider themselves bastions of freedom. By Robert D. Kaplan

European diplomats say much the same thing today. If he were alive, Niebuhr would no doubt have qualms about the good-versus-evil rhetoric that President George Bush has used to mobilize public opinion in the war on terror. He would certainly have qualms about our spreading the gospel of democracy in the Middle East and Africa (Niebuhr did not regard democracy as "relevant" to what he called "ancient" and "primitive" cultures). He would be alarmed by American unilateralism: he believed it was necessary to work with European nations in order to check our own hubris.

A disclaimer is in order: I disagree with two thirds of what Niebuhr wrote. To begin with, he was naive. Just as the problem with pragmatists is that their plans never work, the problem with realists is that they are unrealistic. In the real world people do not undertake great tasks in the mood of cold, ironic realism that so delighted Niebuhr. People need to have their hopes fired and their passions engaged. The American Revolution could not have succeeded or even gotten off the ground without firebrands like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine. Slavery would not have ended without the zeal of the abolitionists.

Niebuhr overlearned the lessons of his age. Because communism and fascism were fomented by zealous idealists, he came to suspect all displays of passion, all righteous indignation, and all poetic elements in public life. But idealism in defense of democracy is no vice, at least not on balance.

From the archives:

"The Organization Kid" (April 2001)
The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life. By David Brooks

"A Politics for Generation X" (August 1999)
Today's young adults may be the most politically disengaged in American history. The author explains why, and puts forth a new political agenda that just might galvanize his generation. By Ted Halstead

Our problem today is not, as Niebuhr might have predicted, excessive zealotry or an overpoliticized life. Our problem is that most people are entirely disengaged from great public matters. Consumed by private pleasures, they almost never invest their passions in dreams of a better world. We could use a little more idealistic zeal, a little more hope and confidence.

And Niebuhr was wrong to try to disabuse Americans of a sense of democratic mission. He treated this sense as merely a self-flattering appendage to the American character. In fact it is the essence of the American character. Our Founders pledged their sacred honor because they thought they were leading a democratic revolution for all mankind. The highest points of American history—the abolition of slavery, the Marshall Plan, the civil-rights movement—were all driven by the sense that America is, in Lincoln's words, "the last best hope of earth." Even with our periodic fits of arrogance, the world is a better place because the United States has pursued its democratic mission.

Still, even those of us who would like to see the United States practice a more idealistic foreign policy—one that is more passionate about defending human rights and about truly inciting democracy around the world—could use a Reinhold Niebuhr to police our excesses. Niebuhr was often castigated for being every atheist's favorite theologian and every conservative anti-communist's favorite liberal. It would be helpful to have more thinkers of his sort, or at least one—a thinker who simultaneously believes in using power and is keenly aware that its use is inevitably corrupting. If nothing else, such a thinker might bring those who are wary of gung-ho Americanism into a grudging alliance with the interventionists. If there is going to be a hawkish left in America again, a left suspicious of power but willing to use it to defend freedom, it will have to be revived by a modern-day Reinhold Niebuhr.