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The Schizophrenic Prophet

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Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics
Edited by Elisabeth Sifton
The Library of America, 2015

loaniebuhrIn the course of his life (1892-1971), Reinhold Niebuhr moved from pacifism to militancy, from promoting assimilation to defending Zionism, from trusting the charity of capitalists to calling for proletarian revolution to decrying the USSR. But beneath it all he proclaimed a remarkably consistent and simple message: humans are obliged to strive for justice and doomed to fail every time.

Although the practical consequences of this creed were always political, its roots were theological. Niebuhr was the establishment theologian of the United States in the 20th century. And his influence has not disappeared in the 21st. During Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, David Brooks at one point asked him, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?” And Obama replied, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

This was a relatively safe affirmation, politically. As Richard Fox, a biographer of Niebuhr, puts it,

[Niebuhr’s] followers were liable to dwell on different sides of his message. . . to emphasize the critique of complacency and the quest for justice. . . [or] to stress the anti-utopianism of the political realist.

So while many, including the current US president, claim Niebuhr as part of their intellectual genealogy, that can mean almost anything. Does the ambiguity of his influence speak to the depth of his thought, or to the intractability of his paradox?

Readers eager to decide for themselves may now do so in one volume, thanks to the elegant auspices of the Library of America. Their new collection Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, collects four of his most important books — Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and The Irony of American History — along with a satisfying assortment of the editorials, reviews, lectures, and sermons that he wrote and published at a frenetic pace. By reading this volume, you can witness the permutations of Niebuhr’s basic message, the maturation of his declamatory style, and the contradictions of his method.


leavesfromthenotebookofatamedcynicLeaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929) is not Niebuhr’s best book, but it is certainly his most readable. It has a narrative structure unlike anything else he wrote. During his thirteen-year tenure as the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, he kept a journal about the job and Leaves is carved from this journal. The first publishers tried to explain its title in an advertisement:

Page by page the cynic — the same cynic that is in us all — is tamed — not broken, not forced into compromises, but tamed by the release of impulses of sympathy, or maturer observation, or sincere analysis.

This is a misrepresentation. In fact, during the period covered by Niebuhr’s journal, he moved away from a maudlin liberalism toward Marxism, the political position for which he used the codeword “cynicism.” It was marketed as the account of a jaded parson easing tolerantly into the manse, but it really told the story of a naive seminarian ascending to national prominence by publicly intervening in local politics. Niebuhr colluded in misrepresenting himself by including the following aw-shucks summary in his own preface:

The notes which have been chosen for publication have been picked to illustrate the typical problems of a modern minister in an industrial and urban community and what seem to be more or less typical reactions of a young minister to such problems. Nothing new or startling was attempted in the pastorate out of which these reflections grew.

In fact, much was new and startling about Niebuhr’s pastorate. But neither his prominence nor his radicalism could have been predicted from his origins.

Niebuhr was born to German immigrants. He didn’t learn English until he was ten, speaking instead the German of his family and his church denomination, the German Evangelical Synod. His father was a pastor, a pietist who believed in the supernatural inspiration of Scripture and all that comes with it. Niebuhr and his brothers were supposed to follow their father into ministering in the Evangelical Synod. To that end they were removed from public school in 9th grade and sent to a boarding school for future pastors. From there Niebuhr went to his father’s seminary. He would probably have continued to follow in his father’s footsteps — literally, because when his father died just after Niebuhr graduated, the church called Niebuhr to fill his pulpit — but he decided to go East and continue his studies at Yale Divinity School instead. With that decision, he escaped the ethnic and religious cul-de-sac into which he was born.

Freed both of the ideological constraints of his father and of denominational surroundings, Niebuhr soon exchanged his childhood faith for liberalism. (Liberal Christianity at the turn of the century involved accepting historical criticism of the Bible, exchanging a propositional orthodoxy for an ethical worldview.) When Niebuhr arrived in Detroit to take charge of his first parish, fresh from Yale, he was still very young and newly converted from the pietism of his family to the liberal Christianity of Yale.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is really the story of how this person discovered the two themes that make up the Niebuhrian thesis: the fatal incapacity of humankind to persist in justice, and the pressing need to seek it in politics nonetheless. These were themes far from the sunny optimism and bourgeois complacency of the liberal Christianity he espoused upon arriving in Detroit.

The first entries in Leaves almost bear out the promise of Niebuhr’s preface, that this book will be the story of a “typical” young clergyman. He notes the oddity of wearing a pulpit gown. He complains about the difficulty of coming up with new sermons to preach each Sunday. He worries about whether it’s uncouth to accept payment for officiating at a wedding. But these preliminary anecdotes pass quickly, and we find Niebuhr, a few pages and three years later, in 1918, looking up from the little sheepfold of his local parish to the wider world. Two experiences robbed him of his innocence, brought him face to face with the contradiction between ethical ideals and political realities.

First, as a German-American, Niebuhr had to decide how he would respond to the anti-German sentiment which swept the nation even before the US declared its entry into the first World War. Surprisingly, he acceded to it completely. He allied with elements in the German Evangelical Synod who sought to distance themselves from their ethnic origin, who pressed for English-language services, for the removal of words and symbols bespeaking Teutonic affiliation, and for prominent displays of patriotism. When the war actually commenced, Niebuhr supported it in light of President Wilson’s high-minded war aims, even contemplating giving up his pastorate to become a chaplain in the army. But he began to question his knee-jerk, immigrant’s patriotism, at first just by obtaining a sense of the reality of war:

I hardly know how to bring order out of confusion in my mind in regard to this war. I think that if Wilson’s aims are realized the war will serve a good purpose. When I talk to the boys I make much of the Wilsonian program as against the kind of diplomacy which brought on the war. But it is easier to talk about the aims of the war than to justify its methods.

Out at Funston I watched bayonet practice. It was enough to make me feel a brazen hypocrite for being in this thing, even in a rather indirect way. Yet I cannot bring myself to associate with pacifists. Perhaps if I were not of German blood, I could. That may be cowardly, but I do think that a new nation has a right to be pretty sensitive about its unity.

Later, his worries about the possibility of waging war for ideal purposes — even a war to end all wars, as Wilson’s was supposed to be — proved accurate when, at the Versailles conference, Wilson’s principles foundered on the shoals of his weak diplomacy:

What seems to be happening at Paris is that they will let Wilson label the transaction if the others can determine its true import. Thus realities are exchanged for words. . . Wilson is a typical son of the manse. He believes too much in words.

The rise and fall of Wilson as a political messiah had archetypal significance in Niebuhr’s life. Through it he learned a pessimism about movements premised on ideal aims; soon this pessimism became an instinct and eventually, in his weighty final works, a central principle in his account of human nature. There was a worm at the heart of every human aspiration. Niebuhr didn’t have a name for it yet, but he saw it clearly in the tragedy of Wilsonian foreign policy.

FordAssemblyThe other source of disillusion that Niebuhr discusses in Leaves was endemic to Detroit. The city was then Henry Ford’s city, home to the factories where he pioneered both the assembly line production system and the hypocritical style of American corporate charity. Ford contended that by giving his workers an unusually high wage and quantities of leisure he was providing for them better than old age pensions, or health and unemployment insurance could do. But Ford’s wages, by the time of Niebuhr’s tenure in Detroit, were demonstrably average, and the leisure he provided was offset by the process of speeding up assembly lines to produce just as many cars as did slower assembly lines with longer hours. Only young, vigorous workers could survive in one of his factories. They aged swiftly from the strain and then were discarded. One year Ford simply shut down production to drive up demand as he prepared his next car design, and thousands of families suffered through twelve months of fear and famine because they had no social safety net. Niebuhr felt explosive anger at Ford:

What a civilization this is! Naive gentlemen with a genius for mechanics suddenly become the arbiters over the lives and fortunes of hundreds of thousands. Their moral pretensions are credulously accepted at full value. No one bothers to ask whether an industry which can maintain a cash reserve of a quarter of a billion ought not to make some provision for its unemployed.

In the actual life that Leaves only adumbrates, Niebuhr took an even stronger stand against Ford and his ilk in numerous editorials and public speeches. When he eventually left Detroit for New York, the manufacturing aristocracy toasted his departure. For Niebuhr, Ford was the domestic counterpart to the international lesson of WWI. Idealistic rhetoric could never replace shrewdness as a way to deal with the reality of evil. Only power could fight power. Ford may have very sincerely thought he was the laborer’s friend; but he preyed upon him like other capitalists, like all capitalists.

It was the standard line of liberal Christians that strife between labor and capital required self-sacrifice on the part of capital and patience on the side of labor. But the self-congratulating forms of exploitation which men like Ford convinced themselves were actually humanitarian policies convinced Niebuhr that the liberal Christians must be wrong. Labor could not be patient, because capital would never sacrifice itself. With this recognition he took his first step in the direction of socialism.

But in Leaves he was not yet prepared to go all the way. He could only offer the ineffectual hope that his society would be shamed into reforming itself:

If the church can do nothing else, it can bear witness to the truth until such a day as bitter experience will force a recalcitrant civilization to a humility which it does not now possess.

In fact, by the time Leaves was published, Niebuhr had already moved well beyond biding his time from within the church. In Leaves he muses about how unusual it is for a minister to address the actual political and social implications of his religion from the pulpit; and, though he doesn’t really describe it in the book, in Detroit he put this idea into practice. He tapped into the demagogic potential of the weekly sermon, directly discussing contemporary political and social issues. These “sermons” proved popular, leading to the explosive growth of his church and many, many invitations to speak elsewhere.

Such extra-curricular activities led to the position he would occupy for the rest of his life. His charisma as a visiting speaker attracted the attention of Henry Sloane Coffin, president of Union Theological Seminary who offered him a job teaching. A little over-awed, but eager to step into an even more prominent position of leadership in American religion, Niebuhr accepted, bringing his Detroit pastorate to an end.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic remains silent on the exciting public life of Niebuhr even as it provides a window onto his inner development. Richard Fox explains what is interesting in such a view: “what made it stand out was its relentless record of a unique man’s attempt to become a prophet.”


Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944) are excellent choices to represent the middle stage of Niebuhr’s career. Each potently expresses one of the two themes of his basic thesis, moralmanandimmoralsocietywhich now received its development as a political credo and a theological orientation. As a professor at Union Theological Seminary, cultivating his own ideas in the form of lectures was now his primary responsibility. A stream of books began to pour from his typewriter.

During those years he pursued a typically erratic political course. The interest in labor politics that he had acquired in Detroit led him to join the Socialist Party of America. He even ran for the New York State Senate on the party’s ticket, losing badly. But then as the fascist threat in Europe grew to terrifying proportions, he threw over his affiliation with the socialists and supported Roosevelt. He decided the proletarian revolution would simply have to wait until democracy had been saved from fascism.

Moral Man and Immoral Society was written at the beginning of his Marxist period. It’s full of anti-liberal polemics, directed squarely at his religious colleagues and former allies. He lost friends and made enemies over the book. In it, he attempts to explain his increasingly strong belief that although political activity requires unethical behavior, it is still a Christian duty. The method he used to justify this claim is explicit in his title. The shrewdness, the compromises, and even the violence of political life could be justified by the contrast between individual and social morality:

Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. . . But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others[.]

The Christian position that perfect private morality could be a substitute for social justice was no longer tenable:

We are, at least, rid of some of our illusions. We can no longer buy the highest satisfactions of the individual life at the expense of social injustice. We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.

But this was not to say that individual morality had no influence, for the Christian, upon social action. It enjoined a severe discipline of self-criticism. Christians ought to bestir themselves for social justice, moving boldly, shrewdly, effectively — and self-critically.

Moral Man and Immoral Society was the most forceful statement of one half of Niebuhr’s creed: the half which demanded of Christians that they exert themselves as a real political power, that they refuse the martyr’s path of non-resistance and non-intervention. The other half of his creed — that every human exertion of political power is doomed to self-corruption — is represented by The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.

This is one of several books spun out of Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures. He was invited to deliver the prestigious lectures in 1938, joining a long line of illustrious philosophers and theologians, including William James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead. It was a surprising honor for someone more noted for his activist preaching and vague, if forceful, pronouncements on current affairs than for his scholarly probity. For the same reason, at first it seemed to him beyond his powers. He doubted his ability to conduct the research necessary for the task. But he managed to deliver them in Edinburgh, to the accompaniment of air raid sirens and distant bombs. They would become one of his best-known books, The Nature and Destiny of Man.

thenatureanddestinyofmanThe Library of America collection does not include this book among Niebuhr’s “major works on religion and politics,” which may surprise Niebuhr aficionados. He never worked harder on a text or presented one in a more august venue. But the editor’s decision to exclude it was wise. The Nature and Destiny of Man, precisely because Niebuhr reaches for a tone of historical erudition he does not earn, based on hastily conducted and shoddily deployed research, is an embarrassingly bad book, full both of oversimplifications and pseudo-complexities.

As Niebuhr fell back into his usual energetic round of speeches and lectures, some of the research he had so hastily conducted for the Gifford Lectures worked its way into the real heart of his declamations. For one thing, he discovered a name for that worm at the heart of human aspirations which he had been writing about since his disappointment with Wilson: sin. For Niebuhr, this historically Christian doctrine turned out to be the right language for something he had always talked about. He was beginning to use the resources of the Christian tradition which had always been at his disposal — it was not as if sin was a new concept to him — to flesh out the personal insights that animated his thoughts.

In The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, he proposed a defense of democracy on the basis of the doctrine of sin. Rather than a liberal defense of democracy, dependent upon faith in the common man, he proposed that democracy was necessary as a comprehensive set of checks on humanity’s propensity to be evil. He summed up his position in what became a famous sentence: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

By the time he was writing this book, Niebuhr had made his major synthesis. His pessimism — or realism, as he liked to call it — now had a theological foundation. He could say with confidence that:

a Christian view of human nature is more adequate for the development of a democratic society than either the optimism with which democracy has become historically associated or the moral cynicism which inclines human communities to tyrannical political strategies.

This is because:

Religious humility is in perfect accord with the presuppositions of a democratic society. . . According to the Christian faith the pride which seeks to hide the conditioned and finite character of all human endeavor, is the very quintessence of sin. Religious faith ought therefore be a constant fount of humility; for it ought to encourage men to moderate their natural pride and to achieve some decent consciousness of the relativity of their own statement of even the most ultimate truth.

Democracy, in which every public proclamation is subject to the veto of the demos, is a perfect embodiment, Niebuhr thought, of the Christian pessimism of the doctrine of original sin.

Neither Moral Man nor Children are really great books, apart from their value in documenting the mind of an influential thinker. They don’t have the literary and autobiographical charm of Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, relying instead for their aesthetic appeal upon the torrential force of Niebuhr’s homiletic style. They are extremely repetitive, organized around arguments that can be adequately expressed in a few pages, notable neither for practical shrewdness nor for theoretical depth. But they have an undeniable force, even now, which derives from the simplicity of their author’s ideas and the gravity and urgency of his style.

His creed was now defined and defended. By his late forties Niebuhr had arrived at a clear formulation of the two ideas that had been haunting him since his youth. The message of Niebuhr’s Christianity was simple but hard to swallow: it called for realpolitik coupled with prophetic pessimism. Now there remained only to write a book worthy of his message.


By the 1950s, Niebuhr was already recognized as the preeminent theological voice of politics in the US. He had been lavished with honorary doctorates and invitations to give prominent lecture series at home and abroad. He had published many a popular and influential book and he had appeared in national magazines and religious journals with impossible frequency for decades. He had even, on several occasions, been officially consulted by the US State Department under George Kennan. In 1948 he made it onto the cover of TIME magazine. The import of his message — or at least half of it — was widely known. Under his picture were printed the words, “Man’s story is not a success story.”

ironyofamericanhistoryBut he had not yet written a genuinely great book. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was quaint and intriguing, yet indecisive and unformed; his political manifestos were undermined by the changeability of his actual political positions; his Gifford lectures were two monstrous volumes of pseudo-scholarship; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays were signs of a fertile pen, collectively prepossessing, yet individually ephemeral. All that changed with The Irony of American History.

In his greatest book Niebuhr takes on the subject of American exceptionalism, the nation’s many attempts to direct the course of history and take responsibility for the peace of the globe, and the often disastrous consequences of this hubris. The book was written with an eye primarily to nuclear proliferation.

Our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history. Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb.

But Niebuhr’s message was not pure admonishment. As always, the paradox of Niebuhr’s position led him to insist upon the necessity of using power to change the world for the better, even as he condemned the inevitable corruption of that very power: “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.”

“Realism” was the word he had found for the first part of his creed; “sin” for the second; now, in “irony,” he found the word that could describe the tensions of the whole. Niebuhr believed the nuclear standoff was politically necessary, even as he urged that the US should somehow acquire humility without faltering for even an instant in its geopolitical staring contest. He felt the situation was characteristically ironic. He distinguished the concept of irony from pathos and tragedy. Pathos “arises from fortuitous cross-purposes and confusions in life for which no reason can be given, or guilt ascribed,” while tragedy “is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good.” Irony “consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous.” For example:

If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits — in all such cases the situation is ironic.

To take the ironic view of American history is to recognize that its strength and moral pretensions have put it into the morally hazardous position of holding the world hostage to its weapons of mass destruction.

Irony is a uniquely Christian perspective, according to Niebuhr, because

the Christian faith tends to make the ironic view of human evil in history the normative one. Its conception of redemption from evil carries it beyond the limits of irony, but its interpretation of the nature of evil in human history is consistently ironic. This consistency is achieved on the basis of the belief that the whole drama of history is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.

The implication is that American history and the Christian perspective are specially compatible, made for each other. At the end of Irony, Niebuhr offered his positive suggestion for a model of behavior suitable to the cold war US politician: Abraham Lincoln.

[D]uring our Civil War. . . Lincoln’s responsibilities precluded the luxury of the simple detachment of an irresponsible observer. Yet his brooding sense of charity was derived from a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning than that of the immediate political conflict. “Both sides,” he declared, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God. The prayers of both could not be answered — that of neither has been answered fully.”

childrenoflightaandchildrenofdarknessThe US could do worse than imitate Lincoln, Niebuhr thought. It could resolutely go on threatening the future with its missiles, while indulging in a little salutary private soul-searching and contrition.

The Irony of American History was the perfect book for its time. More than any other of Niebuhr’s writings, it has directly influenced historians, philosophers, and politicians. High Cold War drama met pulpit eloquence, and his cascades of balanced clauses drove home the endlessly fruitful simplicities of Niebuhr’s pet paradox. I personally find it a deeply objectionable book — an argument in favor of sorrowful thuggery, which in no way ameliorates the thuggery but only immiserates the thug — yet find myself on every reading once again swept along in a sort of aesthetic acquiescence to the power of Niebuhr’s prose.

But Niebuhr’s power is only rhetorical. His run at becoming an American prophet illustrates why one shouldn’t aspire to such a position in our time. The Jewish prophets were supposed to have spoken with the voice of God to chastise his people for their ethical and political shortcomings. But Niebuhr could never approximate their combination of theological and political authority.

When he criticized his co-religionists he did so, invariably, on the ground that they failed politically; when he criticized politics, he did so, equally invariably, on the ground that it failed religiously. But his omnidirectional curmudgeonry left him with no solid place to stand, a would-be world-mover without a fulcrum. His political convictions were as unstable as the times. And to find a religious standpoint he had to reach beyond any immediate church or tradition — protestantism’s classic problem — to assert some ahistorical ironic essence for Christianity.

In the end, Niebuhr was a divided prophet, torn between a voice of violent realism and a voice of repenting virtue. But in a characteristically American resolution to his favorite tension, he managed to promote the bellicose messianism of his country while claiming the right to be its conscience. A century from the advent of Niebuhr’s career, we may thank the Library of America for providing us with an opportunity to argue once again with the classic texts of the schizophrenic prophet of the American century.

Robert Minto is an editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.

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