Picking What We Like From Niebuhr

Review: 'An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story'

Reinhold Niebuhr / AP

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Reinhold Niebuhr just won't go away—which, for a liberal theologian, is saying something. Nearly a half-century after his death in 1971 he is still regularly cited in discussions of American politics (Barack Obama called him his "favorite philosopher"), many of his books are still in print, and in 2015 his major works were published by the Library of America. Now he is the subject of an impressively produced documentary—broadcasting on PBS and the World Channel this month—that will further encourage interest in America's most popular and brilliant midcentury intellectual.

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, directed by Martin Doblmeier, covers the man's life about as well as it's possible to do in an hour: his upbringing by German parents in Missouri in the 1890s and 1900s; his education at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale; his pastorate in Detroit from 1915 to 1928; his appointment at Union Theological Seminary despite having no doctorate; his work with the State Department in the 1950s despite remaining on the FBI watch list for his socialist sympathies; his almost superhuman productivity as a writer while maintaining a happy marriage with two children; and of course the "Christian realism" for which he is best known, given fullest expression in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), and The Irony of American History (1952).

The film has the virtues and shortcomings of most biopics on writers and intellectuals. On the one hand, the narration is efficient and minimal, nicely complemented by documentary images and stock footage; the presentation of Niebuhr is full and fair, on the whole sympathetic while alluding to criticisms; and the general effect is to convince the uninitiated viewer that he ought to read one or two of Niebuhr's books. There are some surprises, too. We see for instance a clip of Niebuhr speaking with Mike Wallace. I hadn't realized he possessed such dramatic flair—the raised finger, the dramatic pause. You get a sense of how well Niebuhr played the role of (deplorable term) "public intellectual" from such tidbits.

On the other hand, you always seem to reach the end of these documentaries feeling you haven't learned as much as you were meant to. That's partly the nature of the medium—you're watching television, not reading a book—but partly because the mostly academic commentators interviewed by the producers aren't all that helpful. They seem more interested in relaying the contents of their own specialized arguments on Niebuhr's ideas than in explaining what the man wrote and why it matters to people who have only the foggiest clue who he was.

David Brooks is almost alone in giving the viewer some larger sense of Niebuhr's relevance. Accordingly, the documentary begins with him. "Barack Obama, a pretty progressive Democrat, and Jimmy Carter, could draw on Niebuhr," says Brooks, correctly. "Some of the Reaganites liked Niebuhr. Some of the George W. Bush people like Niebuhr. Everyone picks something they like."

That's true, and it's something that ought to bother Niebuhr's admirers. That so many people from disparate and opposing viewpoints profess to have been influenced by a writer is not always a sign of that writer's merit or philosophical rigor; often it's a sign of vacuity at the heart of his work. Or maybe it suggests that his admirers would rather praise him than take his ideas seriously.

This occurred to me as I watched the documentary's treatment of Niebuhr's best and most famous work, Moral Man and Immoral Society. The book's basic idea is this: While people are capable of "moral" or altruistic behavior as individuals, they become cold and cruel, even vicious, when they act as collectives. Men and women are able to act morally in some circumstances; governments and nations basically are not. Political ideologies built on the idea that man can create a perfectly just society by means of collective coercion are therefore doomed to failure. "There are definite limits of moral goodwill and social intelligence," he writes, "beyond which even the most vital religion and the most astute educational programme will not carry a social group, whatever may be possible for individuals in an intimate society."

The best check on group egoism, Niebuhr contends, is not coercion by a technocratic elite but the ordered conflict of democracy. What is lacking in the worldview of Thomas Dewey and other progressives, he writes,

is an understanding of the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives, and the power of self-interest and collective egoism in all intergroup relations. Failure to recognize the stubborn resistance of group egoism to all moral and inclusive social objectives inevitably involves them in unrealistic and confused political thought. They regard social conflict either as an impossible method of achieving morally approved ends or as a momentary expedient which a more perfect education or a purer religion will make unnecessary. They do not see that the limitations of the human imagination, the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end.

That is a powerful argument. Its implications, whatever one's philosophical allegiances, are bewildering. It's applicable to the utopian ideologies of communism and Social Gospel theory with their wild optimism about human nature, modern progressivism and "compassionate conservatism" with their faith in bureaucratic benevolence, and even the new Trumpian nationalism with its confidence in the restorative power of unity and patriotism.

Now, you have to be careful about using Niebuhr to criticize modern left-wing ideologies. He was a committed socialist when he wrote Moral Manindeed he ran for the New York Senate and U.S. Congress in 1930 and 1932, respectively, under the Socialist banner (he lost badly both times). Still, it's commonplace to observe that writers often don't fully appreciate the consequences of their own ideas, and only a fool could fail to see that Niebuhr's critique of collectivism has direct bearing on all modern attempts—some by the right but most by the left—to achieve a perfectly humane and inclusive society by means of governmental coercion. In a word: It can't be done. Governments are run by fallen humans, and fallen humans always tend to value their own group and despise competing groups.

To illuminate this great text, the filmmakers turn, reasonably enough, to Cornel West. West has held professorships at Princeton and Niebuhr's own Union Seminary and is a prominent commentator on Christian theology and social justice. Here is his explanation of Moral Man and Immoral Society.

At the time the book was published, varieties of liberal theology were highly influential; and the common denominator of these liberal theologies tended to downplay the tragic dimensions of the human condition, the ways in which all of us are in some sense shot through with greed and envy and resentment—what Christian theologians traditionally would call sin. Niebuhr comes in with this tragic sensibility, with this Augustinian sensibility, and says No, we all are fallen, we all are finite, we all are fallible; there will never be a utopian society in human history; there will never be paradise in space and time. We are all corrupt in terms of the choices we make, so it's not in any way just a matter of good on the one side, evil on the other; the good and the evil is shot through our souls as a civil war taking place in the battlefields of our hearts.

All of this is true as far as it goes. Liberal Protestant theologians in the first third of the twentieth century no longer took the doctrine of sin seriously, believing man to be perfectible. Niebuhr forcefully told them they were wrong. He brought an "Augustinian sensibility" to the debate—which is a radical theologian's fancy way of saying Niebuhr insisted on the inescapable reality of sin in human life.

For Cornel West, as indeed for many left-of-center admirers of Niebuhr's great work, that's it. Moral Man and Immoral Society tells us that utopia is impossible because there is evil in society. Well, okay. But in the progressive mind that only means they're entirely justified in amassing government power to combat that evil—thus sidestepping Niebuhr's warning about the danger of using human collectives to achieve moral ends. But at least now they can think of themselves as hard-nosed practitioners of realism. Were no starry-eyed utopians!

Is it something about Niebuhr's writing itself? Is his answer—democracy rather than state control—too weak or too shallow? Or is this tendency to take what we like from books we value and ignore the thorny questions they raise something all of us do? I don't know. But I'm sure of this: In Niebuhr's writing, as David Brooks puts it, "everyone picks something they like."

Barton Swaim

Barton Swaim   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Barton Swaim is the author of "The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics" and a contributing columnist at the Washington Post.

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