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from issue no. 12 - 2008

If Niebuhr’s realism reaches the White House

The newly elected President Obama has spoken of Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite authors. The relevance of a Protestant theologian who, through a re-reading of Saint Augustine, cautioned the United States about political messianism

by Gianni Dessì

Reinhold Niebuhr during a lecture at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in a photo of 1952<BR> [© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

Reinhold Niebuhr during a lecture at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in a photo of 1952
[© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

In an interview some time ago with David Brooks, one of the best known conservative political commentators on the New York Times, newly elected President Obama spoke of Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite authors1.
Niebuhr, a little-known figure in Italy, was a Protestant theologian, a teacher of Social Ethics at Columbia University in New York, who had a great influence on American political culture from at least 1932, the year in which he published Moral man and immoral society, up to 1971, the year of his death. Intellectuals and politicians, conservatives and liberals have drawn on his political realism.
Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan, the most famous of the post-war conservative liberals who worked out the rationale for what would be the intellectual referent for many Americans in the years of the Cold War, of the opposition to the Soviet bloc, explicitly referred to Niebuhr and his political realism2.
On the other side, even Martin Luther King, certainly no conservative, was particularly alert to Niebuhr’s criticism of the optimism of liberal culture and the idea that justice could be achieved through moral exhortation: he acknowledged that it was to Niebuhr that he owed his awareness of the depth and persistence of evil in human life3.
Obama, interviewed by Brooks, said he owed Niebuhr the irrefutable idea that “there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction”.
In a few phrases some key aspects of Niebuhr’s position are brought out. The idea that “serious evil, hardship and pain cannot be eliminated from the world is drawn from Niebuhr’s criticism of the optimism that he believed to be one of the constituent features of American social and religious thinking; as the idea that he who by acting politically finds himself struggling against the presence of injustice and evil should be “humble”, refers to the awareness that it is not possible to eliminate evil from history and that it is a dangerous illusion to believe so.
On the other hand, the persistence of evil cannot be an excuse for “cynicism and inaction”. A position is delineated that is intended to avoid “naive idealism” and “bitter realism” (in Niebuhr’s terms: both sentimentality and cynicism).
How is this perspective set out in Niebuhr’s works and what are its historical and cultural referents?
In Italy Luigi Giussani, already in the late sixties, had grasped the significance of Niebuhr’s realism for theological thought and, more generally in American culture.
Giussani pointed out that European theological existentialism had certainly played a role in shaping the Protestant pastor, but “from the beginning a clear originality marked his work, the inspiration and key trends of which were formed and took shape in his lived experience as pastor of the Lutheran Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit”4.
President-elect Barack Obama and 
his wife Michelle and daughters Malia 
and Sasha on stage at the Grant Park in Chicago on the night of 4 November 2008 [© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha on stage at the Grant Park in Chicago on the night of 4 November 2008 [© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

As a young man Niebuhr found himself pastor of a small community in Detroit in the years when the Ford car company was expanding and in those of the First World War, between 1915 and 1928. Coming from a liberal background, he experienced the inadequacy of the anthropological optimism of that position and of its social embodiment, the Social Gospel movement, to provide an understanding of the persistence of individual evil and injustice. Those were the years of his revision of his liberal and optimistic beliefs. Faced with the hopes of a moralization of society through religious preaching he stated, in a note of 1927, that “a city which is built around a productive process and which gives only casual thought and incidental attention to its human problems is really a kind of hell”5. This self-criticism found full expression in the book Moral man and immoral society. In it, as Giussani wrote, “the inescapable reality of evil... is set out and documented against any optimism that does not see the existential impossibility of the transition from the awareness of good, that the individual has, to its realization, an impossibility that makes itself felt in inexorable fashion especially in the sphere of the collective”6. The book, published in 1932, written during the years in which Niebuhr felt the influence of Marxism, was in America of the ’thirties perhaps the most incisive denunciation of optimism and moralism, on the one hand, and of indifference and cynicism on the other, that had characterized American society in the years following the First World War. In the short period from 1917, the year America entered the war, up to 1919, the year of the peace treaties that heavily penalized the defeated nations, the idealism of the progressive movement and of President Wilson burned itself out. The moral reasons that Wilson and many progressive intellectuals had indicated as reasons for American participation in the war were contradicted by the harsh realism of peace treaties that openly expressed the sanction of the new balance of power between the victorious and the vanquished powers.
In America of the ’twenties, in reaction to the ideal of Wilson’s crusades, a return to normality took hold, which found expression in the election of the President Warren Harding who had made it the central plank of his election campaign.
In fact, in those years American society enjoyed unprecedented economic growth, the spread of advertising and mass-consumption, together with a marked polarization of rich and poor.
In the eyes of an acute observer like Niebuhr such a society appeared as the gainsaying, or reduction to rhetoric, of all forms of moralism and was characterized by the emergence of increasingly cynical and disillusioned attitudes.
The eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the production, transport and sale of alcohol on American soil, can be considered emblematic of the situation. Approved in 1919 as a symbol of the battle for the moralization of behavior, it actually encouraged the development of various forms of organized crime that made their biggest profits from bootlegging.
In those years Niebuhr believed that a more just society would not result from moral or religious exhortations but from concrete historical and political initiatives, that as such would have to deal with everyday situations.
He had left Detroit in 1928 and begun teaching at Columbia University in New York, and he was to recall how the requirements of teaching led him to deepen his understanding of Augustine. In an 1235053408030">The reference to Saint Augustine was central both in terms of an awareness of the reasons that distinguish the faith from idealism, and in overcoming certain paradoxes that Niebuhr had nurtured in the early years of his thinking.
To the young Niebuhr Christianity seemed marked by an aspect, that of the absolute gratuitousness, that went beyond any human attempt to achieve ethical ideals. Mankind can, with great sincerity, engage in efforts to achieve spheres of coexistence characterized by what Niebuhr calls “mutual love”, love based on reciprocity: Christ instead is witness to another kind of love, described as “sacrificial love”. In 1935 in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, he explicitly recalled that radical difference by writing: “The ethical demands posed by Jesus are impossible to achieve in the present existence of mankind... Anything less than perfect love in human life is destructive of life. Every human life lies under a looming disaster because it does not live the law of love”8.
In 1940, taking up some of these ideas and referring them to the political sphere, he argued that a conception “that has simply and sentimentally transmuted the supra-historical ideals of perfection of the Gospel into simple historical possibilities” had produced “bad religion” and “bad politics”, a religion in contrast with the essential given of the Christian faith and unrealistic politics, which made the democratic nations increasingly weak9.
On the other hand, while criticizing the sentimentality and optimism of liberal culture, he noted the ineradicable presence of the certainty of the meaning of existence, of its positivity, as essential feature of a healthy existence. This certainty, he wrote, “is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in any healthy life... Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning”10.
The work in which these various insights come together is The Nature and Destiny of Man, published in two volumes between 1941 and 1943. In it one reads: “Man is, according to the Biblical view, a created and finite existence in both body and spirit”11.
The key to understanding human nature is on the one hand recognition of creation: the essential optimism that characterizes a healthy existence is linked to the perception of being created, willed by God. On the other, human freedom, which, as sign set by God in the human heart, as possibility of adhering to that intuition or rejecting it, becomes absolutely central. Mankind can (and Niebuhr seems to say “inevitably”) seek satisfaction in created goods and not in God. Evil arises when people confer on a particular good an absolute value: it is the misuse of freedom – sin – that creates evil, not sensibility or materiality.
The presence of Augustine in what is Niebuhr’s greatest and most systematic work is obvious and constant: the realistic conception of human nature that Niebuhr proposes refers explicitly to the biblical conception and Augustine’s writings.
In a 1953 essay, Augustine’s Political Realism, included in Christian Realism and Political Problems, a book of the same year, Niebuhr explicitly acknowledges his debt to Saint Augustine and makes clear why the Saint is to be considered the first great realist in Western thought and why his perspective seems relevant to him
In a 1953 essay, Augustine’s Political Realism, included in Christian Realism and Political Problems, a book of the same year, Niebuhr explicitly acknowledges his debt to Saint Augustine and makes clear why the Saint is to be considered the first great realist in Western thought and why his perspective seems relevant to him.
Niebuhr begins this essay by offering a schematic definition of realism: it “indicates a willingness to consider all factors that in a political and social situation offer resistance to the established rules, particularly the factors of personal interest and power”. On the contrary, idealism, for its supporters, is “characterized by loyalty to the ideals and moral norms, rather than to their own interest”, for its critics, by “a willingness to ignore or be indifferent to the forces that in human life, offer resistance to universal ideals and standards”12. Niebuhr makes clear that idealism and realism in politics are dispositions rather than theories. In other words, even the most idealistic of individuals will inevitably have to confront himself with the facts, with the strength of what is; even the most realistic will have to confront himself with the human tendency to base action on ideal values, with what should be13. Niebuhr believes that Saint Augustine is “universally acknowledged as the first great realist in Western history. He has merited this recognition because the image of social reality in his Civitas Dei offers an adequate view of the social forces, of the pressures and competitiveness that we know are almost universal at all levels of community”14. For the Protestant theologian Saint Augustine’s realism is bound up with his conception of human nature, and in particular fashion with his judgment of the presence of evil in history. In fact, for Saint Augustine “the source of evil is self-love, rather than some residual natural impulse that reason has not yet mastered”. Thus evil does not arise either from sensibility or materiality, which are not opposed to the spiritual. Making one’s own material interests and ideals an ultimate end is a human characteristic that has to do with freedom and that expresses itself at every level of human and collective existence, from the family to the nation to the hypothetical world community.
Reinhold Niebuhr in his studio in a photo of 1955<BR> [© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

Reinhold Niebuhr in his studio in a photo of 1955
[© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

Augustine’s realism also makes it possible to rebut the accusation addressed by liberals to those who do not hold a non-optimistic conception of human nature: the accusation, that is, of considering in the same way and hence of approving any form of power. “Pessimistic realism”, writes Niebuhr, “drove both Hobbes and Luther into unconditional approval of the state of power, but this only because they were not realistic enough. They saw the danger of anarchy in the selfishness of citizens but were wrong in perceiving the danger of tyranny in the selfishness of the governors”15.
Saint Augustine’s realism, in other words, does not yield to cynicism and indifference towards power because “while selfishness is ‘natural’, in the sense that it is universal, it is not natural in the sense that it does not conform to the nature of man”. In fact, “realism becomes morally cynical or nihilistic when it assumes that a universal characteristic of human behavior must be considered as normative. The biblical description of human behavior, on which Augustine based his thinking, can avoid both illusion and cynicism because it recognizes that the corruption of human freedom can make universal a model of behavior without rendering it normative”16.
The idea of a realism that is able to avoid indifference, cynicism and the unconditional acceptance of any form of power, as well as sentimentality, idealism and illusions in regard to politics and human existence, emerges strongly from this rereading that Niebuhr proposes of Saint Augustine: it is to this perspective which, as Niebuhr pointed out, expresses a disposition rather than a theory, that Obama seems to refer to.

1 C. Blake, Obama and Niebuhr, in The New Republic, 3 May 2007.
2 Cf. R.C. Good, The National Interest and Political Realism: Niebuhr’s “Debate” with Morgenthau and Kennan, in The Journal of Politics, n. 4, 1960, pp. 597-619.
3 C. Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African-American Social Gospel, in Paul E. Johnson (ed.), African American Christianity, University of California Press, Berkeley 1994, pp. 168-170.
4 L. Giussani, Grandi linee della teologia protestante americana. Profilo storico dalle origini agli anni Cinquanta (The broad outlines of American Protestant theology. Historical profile from the beginnings to the ’Fifties), Jaca Book, Milan 1988 (1st edition 1969), p. 131.
5 R. Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland 1957 (1st edition 1929), p. 169.
6 L. Giussani, Teologia protestante americana, cit., p. 132.
7 R. Niebuhr, It. tr., Una teologia per la prassi, Queriniana, Brescia 1977, p. 55.
8 R. Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Scribner’s, New York 1935, p. 67.
9 R. Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, Scribner’s, New York 1952 (1st edition 1940), pp. IX-X.
10 Ibid., p. 178.
11 R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man. A Christian Interpretation, vol. I, Human Nature, Scribner’s, New York 1964 (1st edition 1941), p. 12.
12 R. Niebuhr, It. tr., Il realismo politico di Agostino, in G. Dessì, Niebuhr. Antropologia cristiana e democrazia, Studium, Rome 1993, pp. 77-78.
13 I take this terminology from Alessandro Ferrara, La forza dell’esempio. Il paradigma del giudizio, Feltrinelli, Milan 2008, pp. 17-33. A third great force, the theme of the book, is that of “what is as it should be”.
14 R. Niebuhr, It. tr., Il realismo politico di Agostino, cit., p. 79.
15 Ibid., p. 85.
16 Ibid., p. 88.

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