Niebuhr Study Guide: Section IV

Niebuhr Study Guide: Section IV

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

Section IV: The Individual and Society

Related Web Elements

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

Interview with Richard Wightman Fox
Listen to and read the complete transcript of the interview in which this historian and biographer discusses Niebuhr's approach to self-critical engagement.

Interview with Robin Lovin

Interview with Max Stackhouse
Listen to and read the complete transcript of the interview with the Princeton theologian who discusses the Social Gospel movement and Walter Rauschenbush.

"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.

Letter to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
In this 1954 epistolary to the famous historian, Niebuhr affirms his affiliation with socialism and reflects on his former ideas about FDR's domestic policies.

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


Although it was not Reinhold Niebuhr's first book, Moral Man and Immoral Society — first published in 1932 and reissued in 1960 — set out many of the themes that cascaded through his thought as one of Protestant Christianity's premier social ethicists of the twentieth century. Here he addressed matters such as the relationship between the individual and society, the person and the nation, as well as how human achievement is always tempered by human fallibility and sin. That tempering is what led Niebuhr to call his position Christian realism, a counter to the naive optimism that he thought had prevailed in much modern Christian thinking.

Study Questions
1| There is a paradox in the title of that work that runs through Niebuhr's thinking, namely that although there is a creativity and basic sense of the right or justice in individual life, albeit corrupted by the conditions of finitude and what theologians call sin, the problem is compounded when applied to collectivities such as nations or societies. Why, for Niebuhr, were the challenges to morality and justice significantly more complex when looking at society than when looking at individual life? How did this understanding lead Niebuhr many years after the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society to suggest that it would have been more appropriate had he titled the book The Not So Moral Man in His Less Moral Communities?

2| In this vein, Niebuhr is also demanding that Christianity abandon seeing the moral and ethical life in purely individualistic terms and recognize that social structures and social policies also have moral dimensions. Why and how did Niebuhr's emphasis on a social ethic push American Christianity in new directions?

3| At the same time, Niebuhr refuted the optimism of the Social Gospel movement of the later nineteenth century that reached its peak of influence during his formative years as a student and pastor. Social Gospel thinkers such as Walter Rauschenbusch tended to see the potential inherent in American urban and industrial growth as a sign that modern society would gradually evolve into the Kingdom of God on earth. Niebuhr's rebuke in Moral Man and Immoral Society shattered that optimism, replacing it with what Niebuhr called Christian realism. What specifically prompted Niebuhr to step back from the optimism of the liberal thought that once dominated American Protestantism?

4| Because Moral Man and Immoral Society appeared during the era of the Great Depression, Niebuhr tended to emphasize how economic difference betrayed both individual and societal failure to live justly. Did that economic focus mean that the value of Niebuhr's appraisal was so bound to its own historical context that it had no enduring value? Or are there elements of his economic critique that have relevance in the early twenty-first century when there seems to be a growing gap between the economically privileged and the economically underprivileged?

5| Karl Marx had earlier linked social and political power to economic privilege. In what ways did Niebuhr draw on Marx's understanding to fashion his own analysis? What weaknesses did Niebuhr find in Marx's approach? Even though Niebuhr at some points in his life called himself a socialist, supported Norman Thomas in Thomas's presidential campaign in 1932, and even ran for Congress himself as a candidate of the Socialist Party, what theological and ethical beliefs kept him from being a Marxist?

6| Another recurring theme in Niebuhr's thought first carefully articulated in Moral Man and Immoral Society centered on the dangers of unrestrained nationalism. What did Niebuhr mean when he called nationalism "the expression of a sublimated egoism"? How does his understanding of the way nations and power groups within nations evidence a hypocritical and dangerous abuse of power when they mask particular positions as manifestations of a universal and absolute system of moral values relate to contemporary debates over the role of religion in American political life? For example, what would Niebuhr say about religious tests for judicial appointments or the current debates over same-gender marriage? In the last commentary published in his lifetime, a brief piece that appeared in the New York Times in December 1970, Niebuhr contended that "the most perplexing problem is the ecological one of rendering modern urban, industrial society fit for human beings, not poisoned by polluted air and water." How do you think Niebuhr would respond to the heated conversations in the public square today over national environmental policy?

Talking Points
1| Think here about whether a society is merely the sum total of the individuals who happen to be part of it or whether it takes on a life or momentum of its own. Niebuhr thought the latter, which is why he was more hesitant about seeing societies and/or cultures as having the same moral potential as individuals. In this context, think also about the quote from the program transcript: "Individuals may strive to be moral, but collectively human beings are compromised and prone to immoral evil." How does this reflect Niebuhr's realism? Robin Lovin, in his article, also notes that in 1932 when Moral Man and Immoral Society was published, "Protestant Christians … still put tremendous faith in the power of right-minded individuals to change their society." Do we still think that way today?

2| Some of those new directions did echo the Social Gospel movement in attributing moral qualities to social structures and policies. In Niebuhr's day, one of those structures had to do with the way racism was legally imbedded in American life. Today, we might think about how Niebuhr's understanding would play into decisions regarding changes in Medicare or in Social Security or even how there may be moral dimensions to policies regarding drilling for oil in Alaska. More obviously, from a Niebuhrian perspective, we might talk about the moral aspects of foreign policy such as the war in Iraq.

3| In context, Niebuhr's realism no doubt reflected the devastation of World War I, with its enormous loss of life, and then the coming of the Great Depression. If the earlier Social Gospel advocates had hoped for the gradual creation of heaven on earth, thanks to technological advances that brought the possibility of eradicating poverty and disease, Niebuhr saw in the war and economic depression a more sobering appraisal of the limits of all human capability. Hence he called his view "realism" because it tempered the potential that was always expanding with the awareness that human finitude — or sin, in theological terms — would mean that the best results could never be attained. On the Web site, some of the observations by both Robin Lovin and Max Stackhouse on the Social Gospel may stimulate further conversation.

4| Those who might see Niebuhr's appraisal as too somber are inclined to regard it as bound to the culture shaped by the Great Depression and then to the ways in which the New Deal sought to bring the nation out of Depression and secure the foundations of capitalism through some sort of regulation, rather than the laissez-faire approach that dominated an earlier epoch. Others, however, suggest that Niebuhr would be very critical of some of the current trends in American economic life because of the increasing disparity between persons of privilege and those who seem caught in low-paying jobs and struggle for survival. Some would also want to apply Niebuhr's perspective to the global economy, where "first world" nations seem to thrive at the expense of "third world" nations when it comes to exploitation of economic resources. What do you think?

5| In his interview, Max Stackhouse notes that although Niebuhr identified with socialism, he found Karl Marx too utopian to be of enduring value. Do you think Niebuhr was correct in his criticism of Marx? Is there a way for Niebuhr's realism to embrace the best of socialism, but always critique it with an understanding that short of the eschaton, the final close of history, every attempt to create the perfect society will fail?

6| When you talk about how Niebuhr's perspective might have relevance for burning issues of the twenty-first century, such as the increasing concern for the environment that Niebuhr himself noted, recall Richard Fox's trenchant observation that what Niebuhr was about was to prod individuals and societies to take responsibility for their world, even if they could never perfect it. How can we take responsibility for our world today?

Further Reading
Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr
by June Bingham
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961. 2nd ed., 1972. Reissued, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992.

Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr's Prophetic Role and Legacy
by Charles C. Brown
Trinity Press International, 2002
*See especially Chapter 3.

"Reinhold Niebuhr as a Political Theologian" from Reinhold Niebuhr and the Issues of Our Time
by Langdon Gilkey and edited by Richard Harries
Eerdmans, 1986, pages 158-68

Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism
by Robin Lovin
Cambridge University Press, 1995

Moral Man and Immoral Society
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932. Reissued, 1960.

"'Redeemer Nation' to Super-Power" from the New York Times (December 4, 1970, page 47)
by Reinhold Niebuhr

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

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

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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.