How Reinhold Niebuhr speaks to 2016 American politics

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Religion News Service file photo.

Religion News Service file photo.

Religion News Service file photo.

Religion News Service file photo.

How I wish Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) could speak to us during this election year. We need him.

Of Niebuhr’s many brilliant intellectual contributions, I think his analysis of human nature, especially as manifested in group political behavior, is the most relevant today. I will invite Reinhold Niebuhr to speak into this moment by offering some quotations from my favorite of his books — Moral Man and Immoral Society. Published in 1932, during the dark days of the Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, this book could have been written yesterday. I will offer six quotes, with brief translations and comments.

Niebuhr 1: “In every human group there is less [capacity for] reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in personal relationships.”

Translation: Human groups, such as races, classes, and nations, but really any collective entity, are morally inferior to individuals. That’s because they are less likely to be rational and restrained, less likely to be able to see beyond their own wants and interests, less likely to be at all unselfish, than individual members of such groups would be in personal relationships.

Comment: Among many other implications, this quote speaks to exaggerated American fears over, say, Syrian refugees being allowed to come here, or a few dozen Gitmo prisoners being transferred to maximum security prisons, or the hardhearted language being used about Muslims and undocumented immigrants. If confronted with an orphaned Syrian child, a Muslim mom, or a hard-working undocumented “Dreamer,” most Americans, as individuals, would do better.

Niebuhr 2: “Moralists, sociologists and educators…completely disregard the political necessities in the struggle for justice in human society by failing to recognize those elements in man’s collective behavior which belong to the order of nature and can never be brought completely under the dominion of reason or conscience.”

Translation: Politics is about something very primal, something not easily amenable to appeals to reason or conscience. It’s about power, honor, money, pride, violence, dominance, change, and always, conflict.

Comment: The “order of nature” rather than the realm of reason and conscience — this must make one think about some of the scenes we have been seeing at this year’s political debates and rallies. Reason and conscience have very little to do with these displays.

Niebuhr 3: “Contending factions in a social struggle require morale; and morale is created by the right dogmas, symbols and emotionally potent oversimplifications.”

Translation: This, of course, always happens in politics, and the winning politician is quite often the one who offers the most effective “emotionally potent oversimplifications.” The frequent ridiculousness of these dogmas, symbols, and emotional oversimplifications does not negate their power.

Comment: See “Make America Great Again” and “Break Up the Big Banks.”

Niebuhr 4: “Will a disinherited group, such as [African-Americans], ever win full justice in society [through negotiation]? Will not even its most minimum demands seem exorbitant to the dominant whites, among whom only a very small minority will regard the inter-racial problem from the perspective of objective justice?”

Translation: Eighty years ago Niebuhr already saw that the strivings of black Americans for justice were being met by white resistance, a resistance absurd from any fair-minded rational or religious perspective, including that of the dominant Christian religion of America.

Comment: Black Americans will continue to press for justice. But they are and will continue to be resisted powerfully by those who treat even their minimal demands — for example, not to be routinely mistreated by police, not to be denied equal access to voting, not to be incarcerated disproportionately, not to be slurred or disrespected — as “exorbitant” or merely “politically correct.”

Niebuhr 5: “There is a paradox in patriotism…[because] patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism…The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint.”

Translation: Patriots feel unselfish and virtuous because they are devoted to a cause that is bigger than the mere individual. But patriotism can often just become collective egoism. This is all the more dangerous because it empowers the nation to do whatever it wants in the name of national pride, with everyone feeling virtuous because they are defending the beloved homeland.

Comment: Nationalism is inflamed, frustrated patriotism, and we are seeing plenty of nationalism in this election, based on the perception that America is in decline and “doesn’t win anymore,” whether in trade or military arenas. This has been accompanied by crude threats of torture and violence against our national enemies.

Niebuhr 6: “The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterized by universal self-deception and hypocrisy.” Always, they practice “the unconscious and conscious identification of their special interests with general interests and universal values.”

Translation: Groups are self-interested, and brutal in protecting that self-interest. Dominant groups usually justify their brutal pursuit of self-interest with lofty justifications. Dominant groups that feel threatened will push back hard, but will usually do so in the name of law, reason, morality, God, or whatever other rationalization might be handy.

Comment: Many Americans are receptive to a strongly nationalistic message because after so many decades of global dominance they consciously or unconsciously believe we have a right to dominate (e.g., “lead”) the world, and they do not at all like any evidence that our power is declining or our nation is being disrespected. Meanwhile, white Americans, male Americans, and Christian Americans are other historically dominant groups that (in many cases) feel threatened and identify their threatened interests with the general interest. They are attracted to candidates who speak to their fear and frustration.

I invite your feedback. Look for me on Facebook and Twitter, or offer civilized comment below.

  • Elledra

    Thank you, David, for a thoughtful, meaty article–now I want to read Niebuhr! I think Americans’ sometimes knee-jerk belief in individualism can prevent us from even seeing ourselves as subject to group thought of any sort (even though we clearly are–or what would be the point of mass advertising?). And then there are those nationalists who ARE comfortable with the idea of belonging to a group–and think God automatically makes all American group responses moral. Americans are either nothing but individuals, or else a single group that is always right . . .easy and naive (and potentially dangerous) extremes!

  • Jack

    Niebuhr is my favorite theologian, so you’re speaking my language.

    Niebuhr today would be sharply criticizing Republicans and parts of the right for the moral and spiritual disease of Trumpism, which he would say was flirting with fascism, but looking over the past generation, he’d also have plenty to say against the American left, as he did in his time. He criticized the naivete about fallen human nature that he believed to be characteristic of modern liberalism, leading to its failure to wake up promptly to the existential threats of fascism and then Marxism. In his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, I believe he touched on that point.

    On the question of American exceptionalism, I believe that he would criticize both the idolatrous pride and self-righteousness of jingoism or nationalism and the opposite sin of moral relativism which erodes our will to stand up to real evil in the world.

    We need people like Niebuhr today.

  • Jack

    Reading Niebuhr is well worth it…..His finest work was his two-volume, “The Nature and Destiny of Man.” It is not easy reading, but it is enormously important if we want a clear-eyed view of the world. If you care both about religion and spirituality and also what works in the real world from a political and historical perspective, given both human potential and human fallenness, there is no better thing to read.

  • G Key

    Great topic, great information, great exposition, great “stick-to-your-ribs” food for thought, great reading, and great timing… all in one great article — well done, Mr. Gushee!

    Re “Meanwhile, white Americans, male Americans, and Christian Americans are other historically dominant groups that (in many cases) feel threatened and identify their threatened interests with the general interest.”:

    What those dominant groups consider “threatened interests” I call long obsolete and never moral “immunity from sharing”.

  • G Key

    Also, your comment, “Nationalism is inflamed, frustrated patriotism, and we are seeing plenty of nationalism in this election, based on the perception that America is in decline and “doesn’t win anymore,” whether in trade or military arenas,” immediately brought to my mind the saying, “Pride goeth before the fall,” which this atheist was happy to discover is actually a shortened form of Proverbs 16:18.

    Interesting that these self-described patriots seem to have twisted that Proverb into, “Pride is the cure to falling.”

  • JR

    “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
    ― Reinhold Niebuhr, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses

    “The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism. ”
    ― Reinhold Niebuhr

  • DM

    The writings of Reinhold Niebuhr reflect changing and developing ideologies that are consistent with the developmental stages of life that most individuals successfully go through during a lifespan. They also mirror the swinging pendulum of history and what society does to seek balance whether it’s perceived or real. I do think that it should be noted that the United States is the most diverse country in the world, which leads to unique challenges and issues that other nations do not face. I feel this may be another reason for seemingly paradoxical viewpoints he adopted throughout his life. In a nation as diverse as this one, adopting a single ideology is truly tough to do. This is why the serenity prayer is as poignant now as it was years ago when he wrote it.

  • Sean McKenzie

    Beautiful and insightful comments. What would Niebuhr say to do about Trumpism?

  • Most interesting. Erich Fromm caused a bit of a sensation when he wrote “The Sane Society” published in 1955 (the very year I was born). Until then basic Freudian thought was that sanity and insanity was measured in relation to the society they lived in. The idea that a social order could be insane and that human sanity should be measured against some standard was controversial in the discipline of psychology and psychoanalysis.

    I suspect that Reinhold Niebuhr may have had some influence on Fromm’s thought. Seeing Nazi Germany close up had a huge influence, of course.

  • Andrea Woods

    Thanks, David for this very excellent article. Keep pushing!

  • Jack

    Niebuhr was actually fairly consistent and true to his world view. He just lived in an ideologically and politically tumultuous time. The most confusing time was undoubtedly between the two world wars. Just amazing how well he navigated it and managed to avoid the following pitfalls of other intellectuals and elites of the time (1) the Social Darwinist view that led many so-called progressives to see fascism as the future and democracy as doomed and contrary to nature (2) the Marxist view which saw class struggle as the lone antidote to fascism and democracy as doomed because of its link to capitalism (3) the starry-eyed optimism prior to the rise of fascism which saw human nature as benign and the end of wars as being just around the corner and the need for armaments as outmoded and barbaric….

    Niebuhr avoided them all and stuck to the basic biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, keeping him away from fanaticism and utopianism.

  • Jack

    He would be opposing Trumpism with every fiber of his being as a dangerous back-door way to fascism….he would call it the danger of “romantic naturalism.”

  • Jack

    Niebuhr helped rescue Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Nazi Germany but Bonhoeffer insisted on going back to fight Hitler.

    Two amazing men…..

  • Doc Anthony

    I’m noticing that Gushee’s article does **not** reflect the even-handedness displayed in Jack’s post.

  • Doc Anthony

    But would Niebuhr also oppose Hillary’s (liberal) fascism as well?

  • DM

    I definitely think he was influenced by Fromm’s work. I think Fromm’s biggest contribution, that’s relevant today, is the conceptual framework he used. He combined disciplines such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, history and ethics in his analysis of society. It’s easy to get trapped in a single school of thought. However, this only limits our ability to make the most accurate and honest assessments of the society in which we live. How does a nation decide the direction it will go without a better understanding of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we may be heading?

  • DM

    Certain elements of Niebuhr’s political ideologies did evolve over the years, but I think this is what makes him so interesting. His ideas were always pertinent to the times, but never at the expense of his core Christian values. This is why I find it interesting that some politicians have quoted his teachings, but seem to disregard the basic principles and values that those teachings were based on. He had a very realistic view of the world and Christianity. He understood there could be no utopian society, but that didn’t mean becoming complacent either. He accepted that certain things in the world can not be changed, and that requires a basic surrender to a higher power. This is why I think the Serenity Prayer that he was credited for writing is a true insight on how he viewed things through the lense of his Christian Faith.

  • Jack

    I think the answer is yes Doc. He probably would see her as part true believer in the left and part cynical opportunist. She is to the left what Richard Nixon was to the right…..She has an authenticity problem.

  • Steve Barrett

    What in the world do you mean by “Hilary’s (liberal) fascism?” Can you be a little more specific with such a ridiculous charge? While Niebuhr was critical of liberals, I think it is accepted by many that he remained liberal.