Guide Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power

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Robert Boston. Religion and the Realist Tradition. Jodok Troy. Mainstreaming Torture. What I like about him is that he believes what he believes passionately, but with a sense of humility. Why are there Niebuhr revivals? Niebuhr is the person we turn to for balance. We turn to him when things get out of hand. His critique of original sin I think applies neatly at different times to both the right and the left in our politics.

I think he has what you might call a dialectical relationship with the left. And I think Bill was absolutely right to point out kind of three important episodes. He reacted against the social gospel not because he opposed the economic or social programs of the social gospel but because he had a different understanding of human nature.

He thought liberals had too optimistic a view of human nature. His next big political turn was in the late s, when he broke with his pacifist friends. The Christian Century , as you know, is still around, but he broke with The Christian Century and formed another magazine called Christianity and Crisis to argue that we needed to go to war against Hitler and Nazism. And then he made his mark again in politics, with a liberal anticommunism that made him one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Niebuhr never stopped being a liberal, but he was a liberal critic. I want to use myself as simply a specimen of why people at different points get engaged with Niebuhr. And I was also impatient with some parts of the left that seemed not to believe in the disciplines and limits placed upon our aspirations by the need to persuade majorities and to build consensus in democratic societies.

I was and still am turned off by self-righteous moralism disguised as morality. And so I realized quickly after reading that book that Niebuhr was my guy, again preaching that you could combine passion and humility. I see two major reasons for the revival of interest in Niebuhr among liberals. Americans, Niebuhr argued, were never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire.

Table of Contents

One great Niebuhrian quote should hang over all seminars. I think the paradox is that — and my friend Bill Galston really called this to my attention — one of the paradoxes is that Niebuhr encourages us to doubt and the kind of doubt that Niebuhr encourages is the kind of doubt that faith ought to encourage. But I think this is an inadequate understanding of the Christian and Jewish traditions, which always call us to a form of moral doubt that, as Bill Galston has said, calls upon us to question our motivations and pretensions to special virtue.

David Brooks and I did a session on Niebuhr recently, and one point that emerged clearly is that it is not surprising that Niebuhr really came to popularity in a period when he was writing about Nazism and Stalinism, which were ideologies that justified despotic pretensions in the name of creating new human beings and perfect societies.