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How Reinhold Niebuhr speaks to 2016 American politics

What would Reinhold Niebuhr say about our politics right now?

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.