Reinhold Niebuhr Centennial

remarks by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (July 08, 1992)

in the House of Representatives


  • Mr. PRICE. Mr. Speaker, this year we observe the centennial of the birth of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our country's preeminent theologians and political theorists. Born in Missouri on June 21, 1892, Niebuhr served in Detroit as a pastor for 13 years before coming to Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1928 for what was to be a distinguished and highly influential 32-year career.
  • Niebuhr's ideas profoundly influenced my own understanding of my inherited religious faith and its implications for political life—and similarly shaped the thinking of thousands in my generation. I first encountered his writings as a student at Yale Divinity School where their influence was widespread, ranging from his magisterial The Nature and Destiny of Man in theology, to The Irony of American History in American religious thought, to Moral Man and Immoral Society in social ethics. His Christian realism offered not so much a fixed system as a way of thinking, tempering idealism with a realization that all human endeavors are subject to the taint of pridefulness and the will-to-power. "The worst form of intolerance," Niebuhr once wrote, "is religious intolerance, in which the particular interests of the contestants hide behind religious absolutes." At the same time, he rejected that cynicism which would dismiss ideals as illusory and settle for a realpolitik that made sin and self-interest normative. The religious ethic of love, although it could never be perfectly embodied in politics, nonetheless compelled its adherents to constantly pursue justice as a proximate public expansion of love. Thus did Niebuhr seek to put political realism into the service of justice.
  • Such applications were not always simple or straightforward. In the years prior to World War II, for example, Niebuhr challenged those who interpreted the love ethic to counsel nonresistance and pacifism. Such a view, he argued, owed more to enlightenment notions of human perfectibility than to that Christian realism that, in taking full account of human sin and the will-to-power, recognized "that justice could be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand."
  • While Niebuhr's ideas were deeply rooted in a theology of divine transcendence and human fallibility, they were accessible to and influential among people of diverse religious and philosophical backgrounds. "He persuaded me and many of my counterparts," writes the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "that original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectibility."
  • Professor Schlesinger participated in a centennial celebration of Reinhold Niebuhr's life and work at Union Seminary in November and has recently summarized his thoughts in an editorial tribute to Niebuhr, which I ask be included at this point in the Record. It is fitting to pause and honor the life and work of this remarkable American, and perhaps even more important to reflect on how his ideas speak to the perplexities of our own day.

[from The New York Times, June 22, 1992]
(by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.)

Yesterday marked the centennial of Reinhold Niebuhr—preacher, theologian, political philosopher, educator, one of the great Americans of the century. He cast an intellectual spell on my generation; though his Christian realism passed out of fashion in the hippie 60's and 70's and yuppie 70's and 80's, it is enjoying a revival in the disenchanted 90's. Niebuhr is currently a subject of acrid dispute between liberals and conservatives, each claiming him.

He was a minister's son, born in Missouri. Deciding to become a minister, he went to Yale Divinity School where he felt like `a mongrel among thoroughbreds.' He came to Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1928 and taught there for the next third of a century—taught there and taught everywhere. Until he suffered a stroke in 1952, he swept across the country and around the world, delivering sermons, lectures, political speeches, pouring out books and articles on theology, history, foreign policy, politics and culture.

What gave his activities unity and power was his passionate sense of the tragedy of life, irony of history and fallibility of humans—and his deep conviction of the duty, even in face of these intractable realities, to be firm in the right as God gives us to see the right. Humility, he believed, must temper, not sever, the nerve of action. Lincoln was his ideal as a statesman because he combined "moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning."

I first heard him preach in the winter of 1940-41 in the midst of the bitter national debate between the isolationists and the interventionists. Man was sinful, Niebuhr said. The self cannot always do the good it intends. But even sinful man had the duty of acting against evil in the world. Our sins could not justify our standing apart from the European struggle.

This emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue. Niebuhr made us think anew about the nature and destiny of man.

Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power.

He persuaded me and many of my contemporaries that original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectibility.

Niebuhr's analysis was grounded in the Christianity of Augustine and Calvin, but he had, nonetheless, a special affinity with secular circles.

His warnings against utopianism, messianism and perfectionism strike a chord today. We are beginning in this distraught decade to remember what we should never have forgotten: We cannot play the role of God to history, and we must strive as best we can to attain decency, clarity and proximate justice in an ambiguous world.

Niebuhr the man? He was high-spirited, great-hearted, devoid of pomposity and pretense, endlessly curious about ideas and personalities, vigorous in his enthusiasms and criticisms, filled with practical wisdom and for all his robust ego, a man of endearing humility. "I had a few thoughts and a tremendous urge to express myself," he wrote his friend Bishop Will Scarlett. "I spoke and wrote all over the place and now when the stuff is reviewed most of it turns out to be slightly cockeyed and partly askew."

Of all his thoughts, I treasure this the most: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

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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.