American Oracle

The Uses & Abuses of Reinhold Niebuhr

Seldom have the man and the moment come together more felicitously than in the life of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). His furrowed brow and intense, arresting gaze were perfectly suited to the midcentury years of world war and Cold War, of mutual assured destruction and agonizing reappraisals. He may have been born with gravitas; certainly he had acquired more than his share by middle age.

Niebuhr was not afraid to make sententious, even oracular pronouncements. Nothing less would have suited his mission in life: to reassert the ethical claims of Augustinian Christianity in public life—the perversity of evil in all of us; Original Sin. This was not the sort of message suitable for Fireside Chats. It had to come from a prophetic figure, but a worldly one who kept company with presidents and prime ministers.

No other theologian can match Niebuhr’s influence in American public life. For decades he was the hero of a centrist morality play, warning American leaders against the dangers of sentimental pacifism in the 1930s and hysterical anticommunism in the 1950s, charting a course of “liberal realism” between the abstract ideologies of left and right. During the years after the Vietnam War, when liberal realism revealed itself as little more than a portentous version of Cold War orthodoxy, Niebuhr’s reputation lost some luster.

But as the “war on terror” justified new imperial adventures abroad, his shade reappeared to haunt public discourse, animating austere pronouncements from David Brooks’s op-ed column to Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

The historian John Patrick Diggins was not alive to hear Obama justify sixty years of U.S. military interventions with the announcement that “evil does exist in the world,” nor to read Brooks’s praise of the president’s Niebuhrian realism. But Diggins would not have been surprised. Well before he died in January 2009, he was already convinced that “Niebuhr’s reputation is undergoing a revival but his ideas are ignored.” Prolific to the end, during the months before his death Diggins produced a brief manuscript exploring Niebuhr’s thought and showing why it should matter to us today. The result is the posthumously published Why Niebuhr Now? (University of Chicago Press, $22, 127 pp.). The book makes a fitful but finally persuasive case for Niebuhr’s continued relevance to our grim post-9/11 era—when the U.S. foreign-policy elite still imagines an endless war on terror (though the phrase itself may have fallen from fashion), and popular journalists chirp like eight-year-old boys about the latest fight between good guys and bad guys.

Diggins wants to use Niebuhr to challenge this dualism. Writing in the shadow of President George W. Bush’s providentialist posturing, Diggins characterizes the differences between the 1930s and the 2000s: “In our time the problem of religion is not its debilitating pacifism but its overbearing militarism.” Niebuhr’s Augustinian emphasis on the universality of evil should puncture the balloon of American self-righteousness, Diggins complains, but instead the theologian has been appropriated by military interventionists. The most egregious, to Diggins, is former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, whose New York Times Magazine piece, “The Rehabilitation of the Cold War Liberal,” featured a full-page photo of Niebuhr and an argument that (as Diggins summarizes) “after 9/11 America needed Niebuhr’s wisdom because his example could show liberals how to assert American power, battle evil to win the war on terror, and recapture the glory days of liberalism.” To claim Niebuhr as an ally in the Iraq War is, for Diggins, a preposterous misreading. “One wonders why our neo-Niebuhrians think Niebuhr would have supported the invasion of Iraq, a preemptive war carried out unilaterally and for reasons that require continual revision,” he writes. This is a well-placed observation, but one also wonders how Diggins could have overlooked Andrew J. Bacevich, the most informed and impassioned critic of militarism in our time, who cites Niebuhr’s critique of nationalist hubris at every opportunity. “Neo-Niebuhrians” apparently draw a rich and contradictory array of inferences from the master’s work.

This is nothing new for Niebuhr. As his intellectual enemy, the Marxist-turned-pragmatist Sidney Hook, observed with grudging admiration: “There must be something extremely paradoxical in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr to make so many who are so far apart in their allegiances feel so akin to him.” Niebuhr would have loved the characterization: “paradox” was one of his favorite words. How could it not be, for a Protestant intellectual who embraced the contradictions of his beliefs—losing all to gain all, cultivating doubt to deepen faith? Yet paradox was also popular among many of Niebuhr’s non-Protestant contemporaries, from Lionel Trilling to Alan Tate. Invoking paradox was a way of acknowledging the limits of rationality in an era when reason had been pressed into the service of mass death, a way of insisting that there were depths to human experience that positivism could not penetrate.

Yet the resort to paradox—especially when it was applied to public life—could be an obscurantist dodge, a refusal to ask all the relevant empirical and analytical questions. It could also be a rhetorical tic, a way of signaling profundity without having to demonstrate it. Niebuhr was nothing if not a rhetorician, and a variety of audiences found his musings profound—as many were. Still, one cannot discount the possibility that part of his wide appeal arose from the sweeping vagueness of his pronouncements. Sometimes the strain of asking ultimate questions showed, and Niebuhr slipped into sonorous sentences rather than careful argument. The punditocracy loves to pluck his balanced formulations from the Internet. One of their favorites is: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” This is a perfect example of the oracular style that made Niebuhr’s ideas so seductive, so easily misunderstood, and so widely adaptable to disparate ends.

For another example, consider what Diggins regards as the profoundest and most persistent public question Niebuhr addressed: “How much evil might America do in attempting to do good?” Everything depended on where the emphasis fell: if it was on avoiding evil, then this was a gospel of restraint; if it was on doing good, then this was a creed of open-ended military possibility. The ambiguity surfaced after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as Richard Wightman Fox reveals in his indispendable biography. Niebuhr signed a Federal Council of Churches protest against the use of atomic weapons; but when chided by James Conant, a major figure in the Manhattan Project, the theologian apologized, telling Conant the bombs were a quintessential example of “how much evil we must do in order to do good.” This troubling formulation justified the unbridled use of military power in the name of “doing good.” It also tacitly endorsed the allied demand for unconditional surrender, which seemingly reduced the choices available to President Harry S. Truman in the summer of 1945 to two: either using the bomb or launching a full-scale invasion of mainland Japan.

Niebuhr, the critic of Manichean dualism, sometimes slipped into his own polarities. Despite his insistence that “the evil in the foe is also in the self,” he often forgot that precaution when confronting the evils of totalitarianism. This was understandable but unfortunate. It led him to endorse Cold War policies he would later come to repudiate, and left him open to appropriation by contemporary advocates of counterinsurgency strategies abroad. For all his subtlety, Niebuhr contributed to the dualistic assumption that, when the chips are down, only two choices exist: military intervention or pacifist isolation.

From the early 1930s through the early 1950s, there was rarely any doubt which choice Niebuhr would make. He routinely defined pacifism as (implicitly feminine) passivity and military intervention as (implicitly masculine) activity. Like other male thinkers in the Emersonian tradition, he wanted to flee the sterility of the study and embrace the strife of the world. He kept his suitcase packed by his podium at Union Theological Seminary, ready to fly off to the next lecture, the next conference, the next meeting with influential men. He embodied the activist imperative at the heart of so much American intellectual life, an imperative that can be traced to Emerson’s dictum: “Power ceases in the moment of repose.” Like other male intellectuals, before and since, Niebuhr feared falling into the irrelevant impotence of the bystander. During the early 1930s, while his brother, the theologian Richard Niebuhr, championed “the grace of doing nothing” in the face of Japanese aggression in Manchuria, Reinhold came to believe that doing something—and usually something military—was always better than doing nothing.

This was the outlook that animated Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). The book’s title expressed its thesis. Nations will always be vain, proud, complacent, and hypocritical—they cannot be held to the same standards as individuals. The elimination of violence between nations or social groups is therefore a futile goal. Violence, moreover, is not inherently unethical, if deployed in the service of “equal justice,” which is—according to Niebuhr, “the most rational ultimate aim for society.... A war for the emancipation of a nation, a race, or a class is thus placed in a different moral category from the use of power for imperial rule or class dominance.” But if nations were always hypocritical, would they not cloak sordid aims in claims of righteousness? And did not militarists as well as pacifists confuse national interest with individual morality? If pacifists wanted the nation to turn the other cheek, militarists wanted it to toughen up and be a man. Niebuhr could have questioned the personification of the nation that pervaded militarist as well as pacifist rhetoric. But he was committed to dismantling pacifism, not questioning militarism.

Niebuhr’s suspicion of pacifism, perhaps understandable in the shadow of Nazi tyranny, persisted into the Cold War. His magnum opus from that period was The Irony of American History (1952), which, as Diggins writes, “was not a call to moral clarity but an acknowledgment of moral ambiguity.” Yet Niebuhr began with categorical distinctions among pathos, tragedy, and irony. While pathos elicits pity, tragedy “elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt.” Niebuhr’s example of a tragic dilemma was the U.S. government’s policy of threatening nuclear war “to preserve world peace”—a policy that involved all Americans in the “prospective guilt of the atomic bomb,” for which they must take responsibility. The reference to tragedy (another popular midcentury word) concealed the responsibility of policymakers by diffusing it among the population as a whole. “We” were somehow all responsible for the nuclear-arms race. Niebuhr’s liberal realism reaffirmed conventional Cold War pieties in the guise of refuting them. Embracing Niebuhr’s perspective, powerful men could do what they had planned to do anyway by framing their agenda with solemn acknowledgment of universal guilt and ineradicable evil. Thus the superpower acted more in sorrow than in anger but acted, nonetheless. This rhetorical strategy stretched from the Truman Doctrine to Obama’s Oslo speech. While Niebuhr may not have created the myth of the reluctant superpower, he gave it powerful legitimacy.

But if The Irony of American History marked a low point in Niebuhr’s accommodation to power, the book also signaled his turn toward a more critical stance. Irony (like tragedy and paradox, a staple word of post–World War II culture) was to Niebuhr the most useful concept for analyzing American civilization. He argued that “the ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than a conscious resolution.” The “unconscious weakness” of Americans was their spiritual pride, which led them to assume that their prosperity and power were the products of their exceptional virtue, their divinely ordained role in the drama of world history.

It was here, in his developing critique of American exceptionalism, that Niebuhr became the thinker so admired by Diggins and Bacevich. He had always questioned the teleology that underwrote visions of an “American century”—and that survives to the present, animating observations that various (usually Arab) dictators “don’t want to end up on the wrong side of history.” Niebuhr knew that the spread of democracy was not providentially destined, and that history does not choose “right” or “wrong” sides. Thoughout the fifties and into the sixties, Niebuhr reassessed his Manichean militance—rejecting the first use of nuclear weapons (which he had earlier condoned), questioning the Kennedy administration’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union, and challenging the Cold War orthodoxy behind the Vietnam War. His critique of nationalist hubris has outlasted his apologetics for established power.

Niebuhr’s religious sensibility, rather than his policy views, remains his most enduring legacy. He challenged the cheery song of the self at the core of the American creed. From Aristotle to Jonathan Edwards, Diggins observes, the self had been “a battleground of reason and passion left bloody with unsatisfied cravings.” But from the early nineteenth century on (beginning, perhaps, with Emerson), the self became “less a riddle and more a resource.” As Diggins writes, the developing lexicon of self—self-reliance, self-determination, self-esteem, etc.—assumed “that freedom depends on the strengths of the self. These are the very tendencies Niebuhr identified with sin”—above all the sin of pride. Rejecting the pragmatist notion of an empty “social self,” shaped by interaction with other people and institutions, Niebuhr continued to insist that an inner self torn by warring impulses was the source of civilization and its discontents.

Though they used different vocabularies, Niebuhr and Freud shared a skepticism toward utopian visions of human liberation and national destiny. As Diggins writes: “Where there is freedom, [Niebuhr] observed, there is also power; and where there is power, there is sin and the temptation to sin.” This reminder rejects the key assumption behind the past sixty years of U.S. foreign policy: the conviction that American power and American virtue are twinned. Niebuhr was ultimately unpersuaded.

“Power always thinks it has a great soul,” he wrote. That is the kind of aphorism that starts thought rather than stops it. It is neither paradoxical, nor tragic, nor even ironic; it is simply a shrewd insight. That insight alone justifies Niebuhr’s inclusion in contemporary public debate.

Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 

Jackson Lears is the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and editor in chief of the Raritan Quarterly Review. His books include No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (1981), Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003), and Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (2009).

Also by this author
Reform of the Reform

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections