A "Mike Wallace Interview" with Reinhold Niebuhr

(April 27, 1958)

This is an edited transcript of one of a series of thirteen Mike Wallace Interviews, produced by the American Broadcasting Company in association with the Fund for the Republic for the purpose of stimulating public discussion of the basic issues of survival and freedom in America during the 1950s and 1960s.

Wallace: This is Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr — A Protestant minister, one of the most important and challenging religious thinkers in the world. Dr. Niebuhr is a critic of America's religious revival and he says that religion will not necessarily vanquish injustice or communism. We'll find out why in just a moment.

Wallace: Good evening, I'm Mike Wallace. It's been said of tonight's guest, "No man has had as much influence as a preacher in this generation. No preacher has had as much influence outside the church." Reinhold Niebuhr is the vice-president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, currently on leave to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Through his writing he has helped mould the world's thinking in religion, morality, and politics. Dr. Niebuhr, the first question I'd like to put to you is perhaps a very obvious one, but I would like a kind of capsule answer if I may. We hear about the necessity for a separation between church and state. If religion is good, why should our society be based upon a separation between the church and the state?

Niebuhr: Your "if" is a very big one — "if religion is good." It may be good and it may be bad. The separation of church and the state is necessary partly because if religion is good then the state shouldn't interfere with a religious vision or with a religious prophecy. There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence. That's why there must be a separation of churches. But if religion is bad — and a bad religion is one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause — then religion mustn't interfere with the state. So one of the basic democratic principles as we know it in America is the separation of church and state.

Wallace: Well, this brings us to the issue of possible religious infringements on freedom here in the United States. I'm going to talk about several. First off: The Roman Catholic Church opposes birth control and divorce and there is no doubt that this opposition has blocked the spread of birth control and easier divorce laws, not merely for Catholics but for non-Catholics as well. Do you consider such measures an infringement on the rights and liberties of non-Catholics?

Niebuhr: When you say "not merely for Catholics," that is the crux of the matter. The Church has the right to set its own standards within its community. I don't think it has a right to prohibit birth control or to enforce upon a secular society its conception of divorce and the indissolubility of the marriage tie.

Wallace: When you say enforce upon a society, how does the Catholic Church enforce its suggestions for Catholics?

Niebuhr: No, no, no, that's the point. Whenever a church does anything for its own group it has that right.

Wallace: Surely.

Niebuhr: But when it reaches up beyond its group and tries to enforce its standards upon a society that doesn't accept these standards — perhaps for good reasons, perhaps for bad reasons — this is the problem we face in a pluralistic society, that not necessarily every standard every church tries to enforce upon the society is from the society's standpoint a good standard.

Wallace: Tell me this, sir, would you vote for a devout Catholic as President of the United States?

Niebuhr: Well, 1 have a simple answer to that. I voted for one in 1928.

Wallace: Then obviously you feel that a man can be a devout Catholic without in any sense owing his first allegiance as an American to the Pope rather than to —

Niebuhr: That is one of the flagrant misconceptions about Catholicism in America: that if a man is a Catholic he owes allegiance to what they say is a foreign sovereign, or something like that. In our study in the Fund for the Republic on religion in a pluralistic society, we're dealing with both policies and attitudes and one of the things we have to consider is the attitudes of Protestants to Catholics and Catholics to Protestants and Catholics and Protestants to Jews. Now the ordinary Protestant, Jew, or secularist has a stereotype about Catholicism. It consists of Spanish Catholicism, Latin-American Catholicism, and, let us say, the Catholicism of O'Connor's novel, The Last Hurrah. Now there are all these types of Catholicism but the stereotype doesn't do justice to the genuine relation that Catholicism has had to democratic society, not only in our country but in France since the war, in Germany after the First World War, in the Germany of Adenauer. These are the creative relationships of Catholicism to a free society that the average American doesn't fully appreciate.

Wallace: Are you saying that we do not properly understand our Catholic brothers?

Niebuhr: We don't properly discriminate. We never discriminate properly when we're dealing with another group. One of the big problems about religion is that religious people don't know that they are probably as flagrant in these misjudgments as irreligious people.

Wallace: We don't discriminate sufficiently. We discriminate against occasionally too much.

Niebuhr: Yes, that's right.

Wallace: Let's turn to some criticisms of the Protestant Church. You've admitted in your writings that the Catholics have been far more successful than the Protestants in abolishing racial segregation in their churches. How come?

Niebuhr: Well, how come? I tried to analyze this in an article in a rather heretical way. I said that the churches that are most obviously democratic are most obviously given to race prejudice, by which I mean the churches that have absolute congregational control. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a kind of Protestantism that said, "If you could only get rid of the Bishop, then you'd be a true Christian." Well, you might get rid of the Bishop and get the local Ku Klux Klan leader instead. That has been the fate of certain types of Protestantism. They get under the control of a White Citizens Council, while the Catholic Church with its authoritarian system, in which the Bishop expresses the conscience of the whole Christian community, says there are some things that you can't do. There must be equality of all men before God in a democratic society. I think that the achievements of Catholicism on race are very very impressive.

Wallace: I imagine that you deplore, then, the comparative impotence of certain Protestant churches in this respect?

Niebuhr: I certainly do. I said in my article that we Protestants ought to confess humbly that the theatre and sports have done more for race amity, for race understanding than the Protestant Church in certain sects and in certain parts of the nation.

Wallace: I ask you a question now about which we could talk for many hours and ask for a simple and straightforward answer. Dr. Niebuhr, how do you account for Christian anti-Semitism in the United States? Do we sufficiently appreciate our Jewish population here?

Niebuhr:: I don't think we do. I account for it, first, on the basis of general human failing. We misjudge anybody who's different from us. The Jews diverge from our type, ethnically and religiously. That's their chief offense, but there are particular causes. I have many Jewish friends, very creative Jewish friends, and I've long felt that the average Christian didn't realize the tremendous capacity for civic righteousness among our Jewish people.

Wallace: What do you mean by "civic righteousness"?

Niebuhr: Well, let me mention Stanley Isaacs here in New York — people that have a concern for the public good, Senator Lehmann, Frank Altschul. Now I know there are Christians that also have this, but there is not a sufficient appreciation in the Christian community of this particular quality of Jewish life.

Wallace: Why does the Jewish stereotype unhappily survive?

Niebuhr: Well, that's a long story. It came out of the Middle Ages and was transferred here, according to our American historians, through populism. The Jews were the money-lenders of the Middle Ages so there's a stereotype of the slightly or more than slightly dishonest businessman. This stereotype covers and obscures all the facts.

Wallace: It would look, Dr. Niebuhr, as though all of our major religions are becoming more influential. I say it would look that way because we hear so much about religious revivals, increasing church attendance, college students returning to religion, the apparent success of the evangelists. Yet, in large measure, you have criticized this revival. Why?

Niebuhr: That's a long story, too. I wouldn't criticize the whole revival. I've criticized the revival wherever it gives petty and trivial answers to great and ultimate questions about the meaning of our life. Let me put it like this: The people who weren't traditionally religious, conventionally religious in my youth had a religion of their own. They were liberals who believed in the idea of progress or they were Marxists. Both of these secular religions have broken down. The nuclear age has refuted the idea of progress and Marxism has been refuted by Stalinism. Therefore, people have returned to the historic religion. Now when the historic religions give trivial answers to the tragic questions of our day — when an evangelist says, for instance, we must hope in Christ without spelling out what this means in our particular nuclear age — this is irrelevant. When another evangelist says if America doesn't stop being selfish, it will be doomed, this is also a childish answer because nations are selfish. The question about America isn't whether we will be selfish or unselfish, but will we be sufficiently imaginative, for example, to pass the Reciprocal Trade Acts.

Wallace: In other words, translate religion into a kind of active morality.

Niebuhr: Yes, a morality of justice and reciprocity.

Wallace: Let me ask you this: We're constantly being told by our political and church leaders that in our fight against communism we are on God's side — that we're God-fearing people, the Russians, the Communists are atheists — and therefore we must ultimately win. What about that?

Niebuhr: I don't know whether any religious leader would say that we must ultimately win because we're on God's side. If they do say that, it's bad religion, because —

Wallace: Well, haven't we heard from the Old Testament that "right is might"?

Niebuhr: But in the Old Testament the God of the Prophets never was completely on Israel's side. There was a primitive national religion but there was always a transcendent God who had judgment first in the House of God. This is the true religion. It has a sense of a transcendent majesty and a transcendent meaning that puts the foe and me under the same judgment. "Judge not that you be not judged." Why do we judge each other —

Wallace: But we do, we do!

Niebuhr: That's true religion.

Wallace: We do here, sir, do we not? For instance, we're told by many of our leaders, including President Eisenhower, that we will help strengthen our selves as a nation through religion and going to church. And I infer, from what I hear, that our political and our religious leaders say, "If we can find a religious revival, this will give us strength to fight godless communism." We do hear that.

Niebuhr: You may hear that. I wouldn't agree with it. I will tell you, among other reasons, why: I know that the Communists are atheistic and godless, but I don't think that's what's primarily the matter with them. What's primarily the matter with them is that they worship false gods. That's much more dangerous than when people don't believe anything; they may be confused but they're not dangerous. The fanatic is dangerous. The Communists do have a god, the Dialectic of History, which guarantees everything that they're going to do and guarantees them victory; that's why they're fanatic. All this talk about atheistic materialism and God-fearing America I think is beside the point; it's a rather vapid form of religion.

Wallace: What is our way out? What is our solution? You have said not only that religion can't solve our problems but that our reason can't, our intelligence can't, science can't. Why can't they, and what can?

Niebuhr: Well, that brings us to the ultimate question, about the Biblical and the Christian and the Jewish interpretations of the meaning of human existence. When I say that those things can't solve our problems, I don't say that they don't contribute, that you don't have to have science, a rational approach to the problems of life. The more complex the world situation becomes, the more scientific and rational analysis you have to have, and the less you can do with simple good-will and sentiment. Nonetheless, I think the Christian faith is right as against simple forms of secularism in that it believes that there is in man a radical freedom. This freedom is creative but it is also destructive, and there's nothing to prevent it from being both creative and destructive. That's why history is not an answer to our problem, because history complicates and enlarges every problem of human existence. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries didn't believe this but now we're living in the nuclear age, and the science that was supposed to work automatically for human welfare has become a science that gives us nuclear weapons. This is the ironic character of human history and human existence, which I can only explain, if I may say so, in Biblical terms, although I don't mean by this that I would accept every interpretation of Christianity that's derived from the Bible. Many people wouldn't accept my interpretation, but that's what Christianity means for me. There is an ultimate answer in the true religious faith. It doesn't give you any immediate answers. One of the young physicists at the Institute for Advanced Study said to me: "I know that there's a general religious frame which I accept but does it give a particular answer?" And I said, "No, it doesn't give us a particular answer." You can't say that religion or irreligion will give us a particular answer to the nuclear dilemma. I think I have one answer, which is partly religious and partly secular; and that is, we ought at least to recognize that we and the Russians are in a common predicament. That would be religious in the sense of "Judge not lest you be judged." We judge the Russians because they're living under despotism and we don't like it, but we've gotten into a fix now where we're living in a common predicament. We all know it really. This doesn't mean that the Summit Conference ought to be held, or that it would succeed, but we ought to recognize the common predicament of Communists and democrats — or Americans.

Wallace: Let me ask you this: I think it was Bertrand Russell who fairly recently said — and other people have said it along with him — that if it came to communism or nuclear war, communism or possible incineration, they'd choose to live under communism. How do you feel about that?

Niebuhr: Well, I know Bertrand Russell is a great philosopher or logical mathematician, but I think my friend Sidney Hook is right about him. He said, "All the achievements in this field are no substitute for common sense." What Bertrand Russell is saying is that capitulation to communism is better than a nuclear war. But that isn't the point. We have to risk a nuclear war in order to escape capitulation to communism. For all I know, we may stumble into this terrible war. But no nation can say, "We will capitulate to tyranny rather than accept a speculative fate" — to accept an absolute fate as alternative to a speculative one. No nation can do that.

Wallace: But people say: "I would rather 'live and fight another day' than give it all up right now. I would even rather live under a totalitarian government, without freedom, momentarily, in order that I may live to fight for my freedom at a later time."

Niebuhr: Well, I can see that individuals would say that. I would simply say that in terms of collective destiny it's not a live option. A nation will not say that, a complex of nations will not say it. I think that the people who say that are really too rationalistic. Politics deals with a common-sense approach to the imponderables of history which I think are obscured by a certain kind of rationalism.

Wallace: Dr. Niebuhr, tell me this: Is freedom necessary? The Russians, we are told, do not have freedom, and yet they have a productive society. Is freedom necessary for our society?

Niebuhr: Well, I should think it was, but that's a rather searching question that I couldn't answer very simply. I'd say that freedom is necessary for two reasons. It's necessary for the individual, because the individual, no matter how good the society is, has hopes, fears, ambitions, creative urges that transcend the purposes of his society. Therefore, we have a long history of freedom, as people have tried to extricate themselves from tyranny for the sake of art, for the sake of science, for the sake of religion, for the sake of the conscience of the individual. Secondly, freedom is ultimately necessary for a society, because every despotic society lives on the basis of a rather implausible dogma. For instance, the Russian society lives on the Marxist dogma of world redemption through communism.

Wallace: Implausible to whom?

Niebuhr: To us.

Wallace: Yes. All right. But obviously not implausible to hundreds of millions of people.

Niebuhr: No, one of the great perplexities is that the dogma is implausible to the whole of European society because we have our own different history but it is not — as you quite rightly point out — so implausible in Asia and Africa. That's our predicament, that this despotism, which we regard with abhorrence, is rather too plausible to decaying feudal, agrarian, pastoral societies. That's why we must expect to have many a defeat before we will have an ultimate victory in this contest with communism.

Wallace: But you believe in an ultimate victory? Why are you so sure of an ultimate victory?

Niebuhr: I'm not so sure. I hope for an ultimate victory, but I think that there's a serious ambiguousness about it. On the one hand, you say, because it's right it must be victorious. On the other hand, you say, it's right whether it's victorious or not. This is what I believe about a free society — that it's right, victorious or not.

Wallace: What is your personal attitude about atheism? We have heard from certain atheists that the whole conception of God is unworthy of free men. They say that it's almost, in a sense, contemptible for a man to fall on his knees before God. What is your attitude toward atheists?

Niebuhr: Well, you are asking two questions there. My personal attitude toward atheists is the same attitude I have toward Christians, and it is governed by a very orthodox text: "By their fruits shall ye know them." I wouldn't judge a man by the presuppositions of his life but by the fruits of his life. And the fruits — the relevant fruits — are, I'd say, a sense of charity, a sense of proportion, a sense of justice. Whether the man is an atheist or a Christian, I would judge him by his fruits, and I therefore have many agnostic friends. That's an answer to one question. I might say that the debate between atheists and Christians is rather stale to me, because the Christians say, "You must be a Christian, or you must be a religious man, in order to be good," and the atheists will say — as you quoted one of these atheists as saying — "It's beneath the dignity of a free man to bow his knee to a god, as if he were a sinner." The truth about man is that he has a curious kind of dignity but also a curious kind of misery, and that is what the various forms of agnosticism don't understand. The eighteenth century always talked about the dignity of man, but I rather like Pascal's words, "The philosophers talk to you about the dignity of man, and they tempt you to pride, or they talk to you about the misery of man, and they tempt you to despair," and then, says Pascal — this was written in the Cartesian age — "Where, but in the simplicity of the Gospel, can you hear about both the dignity of man and the misery of man?" That's what I say to the atheists. On the other hand, I also say, it is significant that it is as difficult to get charity out of piety as to get reasonableness out of rationalism.

Wallace: Do you think that because you're a Christian you're a more valuable man in our society, or more worthy in the eyes of God, than an atheist like Bertrand Russell?

Niebuhr: I think I've already answered that, Mr. Wallace. Certainly anybody who says "in the eyes of God" is pretentious. How do I know about God's judgment? One of the fundamental points about religious humility is that you say you don't know about the ultimate judgment. It's beyond your judgment. If you equate God's judgment with your judgment, you have a wrong religion.

Wallace: Dr. Niebuhr, I surely thank you for coming and spending this half-hour with us. God speed to you, sir. Reinhold Niebuhr is a man of God, but a man of the world as well. Dr. Niebuhr would seem to be saying that if a nation would survive and remain free, its citizens must use religion as a source of self-criticism, not as a source of self-righteousness.

Reprinted with the permission of The Mike Wallace Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

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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.