Niebuhr Study Guide: Section I

Niebuhr Study Guide: Section I

Introduction | Section I | Section II | Section III | Section IV | Section V | Section VI

Section I: Democracy and the Character of American Life

Related Web Elements

Radio Program
Listen to the online version of the radio broadcast and read the complete transcript of the show.

Interview with Robin Lovin
Listen to and read the complete transcript of the interview.

Interview with Max Stackhouse
Listen to and read the complete transcript of the interview.

A "Mike Wallace Interview" with Reinhold Niebuhr
An edited transcript of a 1958 interview intending to stimulate public discussion of the basic issues of survival and freedom in America during the 1950s and 1960s.

"Reinhold Niebuhr: Does His Legacy Have a Future?"
In this essay, Robin Lovin addresses contemporary critics of Niebuhr by arguing his idea of Christian realism is as relevant in our times as they were in Niebuhr's.

Christianity and Communism
Listen to Niebuhr's 1960 address at the height of the Cold War in which he discusses the rise of Communism, the dangers of utopianism, and its threat to religious thought.

American Power and Responsibility
In this 1954 address, Niebuhr discusses the pressing international issues of the day: the Cold War, the hydrogen bomb, and the United States' role in international affairs.

Pamphlet on Communist Sympathizers
The American Council of Christian Laymen lists Niebuhr as being "red" due to his affiliation with the Federal Council of Churches.

The Irony of American History
A complete online copy of Niebuhr's 1952 text.

Moral Man and Immoral Society
A complete online copy of Niebuhr's pivotal early text.


Reinhold Niebuhr nurtured an abiding interest in history, one shared with his son Christopher. He focused directly on the problem of history in Faith and History (1949). He also had a profound appreciation of American history and life. One manifestation of his commitment to the ideals of the American people came during the years of the Truman administration when Niebuhr served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of State. But Niebuhr's admiration of American democracy, as with every other dimension of life, was not uncritical. Indeed, some of Niebuhr's most incisive analysis came when he turned his critical lens on the nation that he loved so deeply as he did in The Irony of American History, published in 1952 at the peak of the Cold War.

Study Questions
1| On what basis does Niebuhr argue that American democratic ideals in theory at least are consistent with what he understands to be those political principles emerging from the biblical tradition?

2| Following Founding Father James Madison, Niebuhr claimed that American political institutions were based on a realistic estimation of the dynamics of how power actually operated in a society and of the centrality of economic forces in generating social conflict. How would you support and critique Niebuhr's claim then that American government from the adoption of the Constitution through the era of the New Deal represented the emergence of policies "closer to the truth than either Marxist or bourgeois ideology?"

3| Irony, however, remained basic to Niebuhr's analysis, for the system that was "closer to the truth" than alternatives was far from perfect and fell short of its own ideals. Even earlier, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr had identified racism as a fundamental flaw in American practice. What led Niebuhr to emphasize race as the basic inconsistency in the years before the Civil Rights movement brought it to the top of the national agenda? On what grounds did he argue that racism was inconsistent with both American political and Christian religious ideals?

4| Today some commentators suggest that gender and class have replaced race as the core issues pointing to the contradiction between so-called American values and the lived realities of American life. Niebuhr, of course, was acutely sensitive to class and privilege. Listen to Robin Lovin's comments. What would Niebuhrian Christian realism have to say about the contemporary discussion regarding gender, feminism, and women's rights in American society?

5| If Niebuhr had a sober assessment of the reality of American life, he was by no means impressed with Communism in the age of the Cold War, although he understood that some forms of Communism could be attractive in areas where local citizens believed that their own social problems resulted primarily from American economic exploitation. Why and how did Niebuhr see American policy has having a deleterious impact on other peoples? On what grounds was Niebuhr even more critical of Communism? How did his understanding of irony advance ideas earlier suggested in Faith and History (1949) about how history and all historical movements remain morally ambiguous? How does his position in Faith and History and The Irony of American History build on what he advanced earlier in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and Its Traditional Defense?

6| Do you think that Reinhold Niebuhr would regard the collapse of Communism in Europe in the 1990s as a vindication of the essential goodness of American democracy? To what extent would Niebuhr see the demise of Communism in Europe as providing the opportunity for an unwarranted arrogance on the part of the U.S. and other democratic nations?

7| Some have suggested that Niebuhr's insistence that all human life, whether individual or social, at best reflects only a proximate good as a denial of the power of faith to transform culture. Niebuhr would no doubt disagree, insisting that the Christian symbols of resurrection and last judgment — the telos — to which life is moving represent a vital hope for an eternal future that "transfigures, but does not annul, the temporal process." In your mind, does Niebuhr's notion of irony and paradox, of the limits of history because of sin and the hope of eternity, enhance or deny the role of human agency in endowing action with moral potential?

Talking Points
1| For Niebuhr, as for the Social Gospel advocates whose position he generally thought too simplistic and naïve, central to his idea of democracy were the principles of liberty, justice, and equality. And like those who preceded him, Niebuhr found these embedded in the teachings of the Hebrew prophets recorded in the Bible as well as in the teachings of Jesus, especially those associated with the Sermon on the Mount. Yet even here there was paradox, for Niebuhr recognized that holding ideals and implementing them in public life were two rather different things. As you talk about these ideals, look at what Richard Fox said about the place of paradox in the Sermon on the Mount. Think, too, about whether what Niebuhr was talking about is more basic than much of the current lip service being paid to "moral values" in the political culture of the early 21st century.

2| Niebuhr, of course, did not uncritically endorse the New Deal, as he was wary of the liberalism that seemed to undergird it. As you talk about Niebuhr's understanding of the dynamics of power, you may want to read the interview with Robin Lovin, especially the section on "new realities" where Lovin suggests that what was important for Niebuhr was not the inherent moral qualities to be found in American democracy or in any particular political policy, but the way in which American democratic institutions provided "a structured, institutional form of the restraints on evil" that always haunted Niebuhr.

3| Niebuhr's involvement in matters of racial justice began at least as early as his days as a pastor in Detroit when he witnessed first hand some of the discrimination experienced by the thousands of African Americans who were coming to Detroit to work in the emerging automotive industry. As you think about Niebuhr's views of race, look at Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he comments on Niebuhr's analysis of the racial situation in Moral Man and Immoral Society. You may also wish to listen to the radio program where Richard Fox speaks about racial controversy in Niebuhr's Detroit congregation and later when Robin Lovin recalls that Niebuhr had some reservations about mass action or civil disobedience at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Why do you think Niebuhr remained reticent about the use of mass action to achieve any form of social justice?

4| In several of the interview transcripts, you will find observations that may stimulate conversation on some of these issues. For example, Lovin notes that some feminist writers find Niebuhr to speak primarily to a white, male experience, and therefore they find in his work little that speaks to female experience. Both Lovin and Fox speculate about how Niebuhr might have responded to the controversy regarding the election and confirmation of a gay male as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.

5| Especially helpful for thinking about Niebuhr's critique of Communism is listening to the address given in 1960 on "Christianity and Communism." Think, too, about whether there are some common elements in his criticism of both Communism and democracy, especially in what he saw as the naïve expectation that either could usher in a perfect social order.

6| Niebuhr's 1954 sermon on "American Power and Responsibility" may provide some helpful background here. Most students of Niebuhr would argue that he would never sanction anything that approached a national arrogance, for that would fly in the face of acknowledging the moral flaws in democracy itself. Look, too, at the transcript of the interview Mike Wallace conducted with Niebuhr himself where he talks about the necessity of freedom for both individuals and societies to be able to act as moral agents. To further your reflection, examine what Robin Lovin has to say about the collapse of the Soviet Union in the section of his article called "Realism About the State."

7| Niebuhr's liberal critics tended to attack him precisely because it seemed that the fulfillment of moral action, the implementation of moral policy, and the development of a moral society all finally rested outside history in some "pie in the sky" future. And, if that's the case, then what Niebuhr had to say was not as relevant to lived reality as his supporters claimed. Others would insist that here is where Niebuhr speaks most convincingly as a Christian thinker, positing an eschatological future that lies beyond history, to be sure, but insisting that because finite humans will never attain perfection here and now does not mean that there should not be strides towards justice. As you discuss this point, look at the complete transcript of the interview with Max Stackhouse where he speaks about "ultimate redemption."

Further Reading
"The Problem of Evil in Human History"
by Crane Brinton
from New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 6, 1952, page 5.

Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr's Prophetic Role and Legacy
by Charles C. Brown
Trinity Press International, 2002
*See especially Chapter 6.

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness:
A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense

by Reinhold Niebuhr
Complete online text first published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944.

Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949

Faith and Politics:
A Commentary on Religious, Social and Political Thought in a Technological Age

by Reinhold Niebuhr and edited by Ronald H. Stone
George Braziller, 1968

The Irony of American History
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Complete online text first published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952.

Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics: His Political Philosophy and
Its Application to Our Age as Expressed in His Writings

by Reinhold Niebuhr and edited by Harry R. Davis and Robert C. Good
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960

The World Crisis and American Responsibility: Nine Essays
by Reinhold Niebuhr and edited by Ernest W. Lefever
Association Press, 1958

Reinhold Niebuhr's Works: A Bibliography
by D.B. Robertson
University Press of America, 1983.

"Niebuhr and Some Critics"
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
from Christianity and Society, 17 (Autumn 1952): pages 25-27.

Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians
by Ronald H. Stone
Abingdon Press, 1972.

Share Episode

Shortened URL


Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.