Transcript for Paul Elie, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Robin Lovin — Moral Man and Immoral Society: Rediscovering Reinhold Niebuhr

February 10, 2005

Host, Krista Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, "Moral Man and Immoral Society," the ideas and the present day relevance of the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the famous "Serenity Prayer" that is recited today by millions, but in his time he was one of America's most influential thinkers and activists. His ideas about history, war and politics were heeded by religious and atheist Americans alike. In our time, there are calls on the left and the right for a Niebuhr of our day.

Mr. Chris Hedges: I think Niebuhr understood human societies and he understood human nature. He understood that because we live in a fallen world, because we often don't get to pick between good and evil but between evil and more evil, we must always ask for forgiveness and be very frightened of hubris.

Tippett: "Moral Man and Immoral Society," stay with us.

First Half of Program

Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "Moral Man and Immoral Society," an exploration of the ideas and present day relevance of the 20th century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was one of the most influential boundary-crossing religious figures of the 20th century. For decades, one observer has noted, he defined how Americans with realistic faith would deal with the world.

Dr. John Newton Thomas: (archival audio) Reinhold Niebuhr is known literally to hosts of people in this country and abroad. If one talks to a European and finds that that European knows the name of only one American Christian thinker, that name will almost invariably be the name of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Tippett: Reinhold Niebuhr was born in 1892, the German-American son of a Protestant minister. At 23, in 1915, he went to pastor a church in Detroit and there he became a force for labor rights and race relations. He once said, "I cut my eyeteeth fighting Henry Ford." He wrote an early book about his years in Detroit, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. In 1928 Niebuhr accepted an invitation to teach social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and there he stayed for three decades. Despite health problems from the 1950s on, he remained active in American life until his death in 1971.

Niebuhr agitated politically and theologized prolifically. He was a pivotal figure in the American decision to enter World War II. Neither his ideas nor his example settle neatly into the religious and political categories of his day or ours. He was part of what is called "liberal Protestant tradition." But he was deeply critical of his fellow Christians' failure to face the world's complexities head on. He innovated the term "Christian Realism," a middle way between idealism and arrogance.

Niebuhr was also famous for his original prayers. One of them, now known as the Serenity Prayer, was adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous and is recited today by millions. Niebuhr's original version of the prayer began "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."

Reinhold Niebuhr was part of an unusual generation of religious intellectuals in mid-century American life, including the Christian existentialist Paul Tillich, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his own brother H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale. He was close to all of them. But alone among them, Reinhold Niebuhr embodied the idea of public theology.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. founded a group called Atheists for Niebuhr. Martin Luther King often spoke of Niebuhr's impact on his fusion of faith and social action. Speaking on this program in 2002, Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes described the unusual reach of Niebuhr's voice in his time.

Chaplain Peter Gomes: And it was heard in the places where it counted. It was heard in TIME magazine. It was heard on the radio. It was heard in the street. It wasn't just heard in pulpits and theological seminaries. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find who is the contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr.

Tippett: In our time, on both the right and the left, there are calls for a Niebuhr of our day, for Reinhold Niebuhr's voice continues to carry, especially through his writings. His books have grand, evocative titles: Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Irony of American History, The Nature and Destiny of Man. That book begins, "Man has always been his own, most vexing problem." Niebuhr's understanding of human nature shaped his approach to every subject, including politics and foreign affairs. "Human beings," he asserted, "live in the tension between nature and spirit, between knowledge of our mortality and our intimations of transcendent meaning. Our highest hope and calling," he said, "is to live responsibly in this tension."

Here is a sample of Niebuhr's passionate preaching style from a 1952 sermon.

Mr. Reinhold Niebuhr: (archival audio) Where has there ever been a conflict in the human community where we have not felt that we could not fight the battle if the Lord were not on our side? Though, as Abraham Lincoln said, we did not frequently enough ask the question of whether we were on the Lord's side. These are natural religious instincts, natural efforts to close the great structure of life's meaning prematurely.

Tippett: This hour we'll articulate some of the enduring questions Reinhold Niebuhr posed in the face of the crises of his day, and we'll ask how his way of seeing the world might inform religious and political life in the 21st century.

My first guest, historian of ideas, Richard Wightman Fox, has written a secular biography of Reinhold Niebuhr. As an undergraduate at Stanford in the 1970s, he was intrigued by Niebuhr's influence on a diverse range of his professors. Fox considers Niebuhr's scope of influence comparable only to 20th century figures like the sociologist Margaret Mead or the journalist Walter Lippmann.

Mr. Richard Wightman Fox: There was really no other religious person who had that kind of crossover stature into the secular community, and that's why you keep hearing his name to this day. There were lots of nonreligious people who considered Niebuhr a major figure in helping them figure out where America was politically and culturally.

Tippett: Although, I wonder if as many people outside religious circles or theological circles now know Niebuhr's name as many as would at least recognize Lippmann or Margaret Mead.

Mr. Fox: I keep expecting Reinhold to drop off the map, but then you open the New Republic, for example, and you get a major piece by Peter Beinart in which he alludes to or mentions, at least in passing, Niebuhr as one of the people who redefined liberalism in the mid-20th century, when the ADA was founded, the Americans for Democratic Action. Beinart's calling for a similar reorientation of liberalism at this moment to confront the post-9/11 world and, in a sense, resuscitate the Democratic Party with a more Niebuhrian realist outlook than we have had, according to Beinart, in the Democratic Party lately. That shows that there still is a kind of crossover potential in the use of Niebuhr.

Tippett: There's a sentence in your biography of Niebuhr that I thought really stated it very simply and with a lovely clarity. You said, "He exhorted his readers and listeners to take responsibility for their world while warning them against the temptation to try to perfect it."

Mr. Fox: Right. The term responsibility is really a key because it connotes, along with taking strong positions for social justice, let's say, it connotes also a kind of reticence and even tentativeness where you do it responsibly. You are always measuring your responsible behavior against, on the one hand, Christ's command to love neighbor, but on the other hand you're watching out for the fanaticism that he thought always accompanied religiously-inspired social action. And by religion there he meant even secular religion, like communism, but he felt that you had to always walk that fine line, engagement but self-critical engagement.

Tippett: Some words that I like very much that I think were critical in Niebuhr's thinking about social and political affairs, as well as his theology and how he bound all of that together, were words like "irony" and "tragedy" and "paradox." Just reflect on those words and those qualities of his thought and his approach.

Mr. Fox: Yes, it was elementally important for me in being drawn to Niebuhr in the first place that he was emphasizing paradox and irony so much. The Christian faith, I think for him and for me when I encountered Niebuhr, was full of paradox and irony. And his constantly interpreting phrases of Jesus, such as "You have to lose in order to gain", "You have to give things up in order to get things," - all of these paradoxes were apparent to me as a young person, but Niebuhr gave them a development that made them relevant to everything we did in ethics, in politics, in spirituality. And really there I think he was, while being what we would call a liberal Protestant in the 20th century - and that means on the whole, I would say, pushing for social justice and taking the Christian life into the secular world. But along with that, I think Niebuhr's whole career is about trying to recapture the idea of a transcendent God, finding ways of making the idea of a sovereign God still meaningful in the modern world. For me it was always very compelling that he kept insisting on the paradox, and the central Christian paradox is simply that God is both divine and human.

Tippett: Yet what's so interesting and powerful about Niebuhr is that he not only emphasized that paradox, but he still continually tried to wrestle it to the ground in a sense. He still wanted to apply that in the real life, in the most complex conditions.

Mr. Fox: Niebuhr tried always to promote action in the interest of social justice, but the paradox was that those good people who took up such a challenge would inevitably sin in the process of doing good. So he always thought that a certain amount of evil was going to be produced by the best people. And there is the ultimate paradox - that sin accompanies the quest for love and justice.

Tippett: Richard Wightman Fox.

I'm Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. This hour, "Moral Man and Immoral Society." We're exploring the thought of the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and its resonance today.

In my experience as an interviewer, Niebuhr is quoted and cited as an influence more often than any other figure on a wide range of topics and by thinkers and activists on the right and the left. And whether on the right or the left, invoking Niebuhr invariably adds complexity, even struggle, to religious and political positions. Here's a voice from the Speaking of Faith archives from 2004, Michael Cromartie, an Evangelical political analyst in Washington DC. He reflects on Niebuhr's reasoning as he takes a self-critical look at the conservative Christian turned to politics to address moral and social concerns.

Mr. Michael Cromartie: When you're trying to raise kids in this culture of all manner of violence and, let's just say, moral relativism all around, you become a little bit concerned about, well, what can our political process do to sort of at least abate some of these problems. Now, by the way, I just want to say it is not the case that politicians can do a whole lot about all of this except in the most symbolic ways. I just want to say sometimes religious conservatives have an over-inflated view of what politics can do to reshape a culture. It's what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, "Politics is the art of finding approximate solutions to basically insoluble problems." Working for a certain amount of justice, a certain amount of order, but it will never be utopian.

Tippett: Michael Cromartie.

It's impossible to know how Reinhold Niebuhr would react directly to the moral controversies of our time. In his day issues of race were tearing churches apart. In Richard Wightman Fox's biography he recounts a painful and perhaps instructive story. Niebuhr was committed to racial progress, but he once took a stand against a young pastor in his former church in Detroit who wanted to impose racial integration on his divided congregation.

Mr. Fox: Niebuhr himself was very engaged in that racial controversy in Detroit in defense of, in effect, the black community against the Ku Klux Klan. So he was very clear on racial issues. And yet, as you say, he was a gradualist on trying to get his own church to change its ways.

Tippett: That's sort of his realism, isn't it?

Mr. Fox: Yeah, it is. It's the idea that you don't try to force people to do what you may think is the moral thing because they may have to learn something before they're ready for it.

Tippett: Here's an analogy that occurred to me when I was reading that anecdote, and it's certainly imperfect but, let's see, on the issue of gay marriage right now, which is dividing denominations and churches. I think of a lot of stories I hear from Episcopalians who even were essentially inclined to embrace the idea of gay marriage but are very unhappy with how the Gene Robinson consecration was handled, that it was sort of declared that now this is right, this is moral. I thought it was very interesting that what he was emphasizing in the middle of that debate in which he felt that something very important was at stake and he knew where he stood on it - but he was also trying to talk about how change really happens, and he was saying you can't just impose it, you can't just preach it.

Mr. Fox: And what bothered him in his own congregation's case of that racial controversy was as much the, he thought, arrogance and complacency of Reverend Helm, the young radical who was going to impose racial equality on a Congregation. Niebuhr felt that that kind of wooden, bristling morality coming from the pulpit was just spiritually deficient itself, and therefore in addition to just being a gradualist on social change, he felt that there were actual spiritual dangers in that kind of moral clear sightedness.

Tippett: I did find though with this new catchword, this opinion poll-created catchword "moral values," I found those very words in the midst of a beautiful Niebuhr quote that you have in your book, from his book Does Civilization Need Religion. "Religions grow out of the real experience in which tragedy mingles with beauty and man learns that the moral values which dignify his life are embattled in his own soul and imperiled in the world." Are you able to clarify some of the rift in our culture now by looking at Reinhold Niebuhr?

Mr. Fox: I'm so glad to hear about that quote because I had forgotten that he identified moral values explicitly in that passage. I think I'm certainly, by looking at Niebuhr, aided in my effort to articulate the rift. I don't see Niebuhr or anyone offering a bridge across that rift. I think that the rift is just too deep and there are real concerns on both sides that cannot be bridged on an issue like abortion, for example. But I think the importance of Niebuhr is that he thought so deeply about all of the issues that came up in his era, and his general perspective on the relation between politics and religion, to my mind, is an important acquisition for all of us even today. And to some extent that might be a bridge. For Niebuhr, religion was always necessary but dangerous. So there was there, too, a paradox that you had to engage in politics but you had to also discipline politics from a religious standpoint. You had to be secular. You had to try to just solve problems in the most dispassionate and even, he might have said, scientific way, in ways that would make sense to everybody whatever their religion. But that was not going to be enough to impel politics towards issues of justice.

Tippett: Richard Wightman Fox is professor of history at the University of Southern California.

Niebuhr often acknowledged that concepts like grace, judgment, mystery and especially sin were difficult for moderns to take seriously, but he often called original sin the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. You only have to read today's newspaper, he would quip, to know there's something to it.

This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break we'll examine Reinhold Niebuhr's foundational insights into war and politics with Christian ethicist Robin Lovin and political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Second Half of Program

Tippett: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Each week we take on a different theme asking how religious ideas shape and are informed by American life. Today we're exploring the ideas and the present day relevance of the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

In his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr applied his perspective of Christian realism to human societies and nations. "Individuals," he said, "may strive to be moral, but collectively human beings are compromised and prone to immorality, even evil." The Christian ethic, he believed controversially, is not an adequate social ethic. He wrote, "Civilization depends upon the vigorous pursuit of the highest values by people who are intelligent enough to know that their values are qualified by their interests and corrupted by their prejudices." Niebuhr preached sober realism in the early decades of the 20th century as liberal idealism and American can-do optimism flourished in American culture and American churches despite the depression at home and the simmering of violence and tyranny abroad.

Mr. Reinhold Niebuhr: (archival audio) Have you studied the history of our Puritan fathers in New England? I don't want to engage in the ordinary, rather cheap strictures against our Puritan fathers because there were some very great virtues and graces in their life. But I've become convinced as I read American history that this represents the real defect in our Puritan inheritance — the doctrine of special providence. These Puritan forefathers of ours were so sure that every rain and that every drought was connected with the virtue and vice of their enterprise, that God always had his hand upon them to reward them for their goodness and to punish them for their evil. This is unfortunate. It's particularly unfortunate when a religious community develops in the vast possibilities of America where inevitably the proofs of God's favor will be greater than the proof of God's wrath. This may be the reason why we are so self-righteous. This may be the reason why we still haven't come to terms in an ultimate religious sense with the problem of the special favors that we enjoy as a nation against the other nations of the world.

Tippett: Niebuhr's paradoxical reasoning about the world, God, and human nature made him hard to classify ideologically. He identified for many years as a pacifist then vigorously argued for American engagement in World War II. He became a staunch cold warrior, but he rejected the war in Vietnam as an extension of that conflict.

When the University of Chicago political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote a book in the aftermath of 9/11 entitled Just War on Terror, she devoted a chapter to St. Augustine, the father of "just war" theory, and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Niebuhr operated in a world of 20th century tyrannies and superpower struggles as he formulated his theological response to world affairs. I asked Jean Bethke Elshtain how she understands his relevance now.

Ms. Jean Bethke Elshtain: Well, what comes to mind is a person of great seriousness of purpose who ongoingly engaged the struggles of his time, didn't retreat from them, immersed himself fully in them without becoming entirely reconciled to that. So I think that insistence that we confront the harsh realities of our time — that we think seriously about them as Christians — that insistence is really the heart of the matter. I would add here also the recognition that human beings are finite, incomplete, frail creatures and that the politics that we create is bound to be marked by our own finitude.

Tippett: So a great deal of what Niebuhr struggled with and this sort of crucible in which he formed a lot of his great theology had to do with world events and was in war time…

Ms. Elshtain: Yes.

Tippett: …a very different kind of war and a different era of history. But I think what's maybe most interesting to get at is not so much asking where would Niebuhr come down on this current war but how would he think it through. Now you, obviously, have your opinions and positions. But I'd really like to start at getting at that by how did you think about how Niebuhr would come at this, what ideas and questions he would bring to this current war that we have?

Ms. Elshtain: Well, he would certainly begin with those basic recognitions of human sinfulness, the reality of evil, the need to punish and restrain those who are determined to harm the innocent, the innocent being those in no position to defend themselves. That, I think, would be the basis of his thinking, together with real concerns about trying to do more than you reasonably can, even in restraining and punishing evil. I think he would insist that evil be confronted but at the same time that we not be over ambitious in that confrontation and try to bring about results that are beyond our capacities and thereby perhaps bringing about an outcome that is quite different from the one that we had too optimistically anticipated.

So I think that he would approach this with a great deal of gravity and solemnity and recognition of the play of forces. People, I think, forget that Niebuhr was very much in the mix of figures who were thinking about international relations and about how states behave.

Tippett: Diplomats and politicians as well as religious thinkers.

Ms. Elshtain: Exactly. He's in that mix. And they're looking to him, in part, as one of their own, someone who brought a particular cluster of recognitions but was very much a realist. So I must say that I go back and forth on how Niebuhr would finally situate himself. But I think that's how he would start to think about both the war against terrorism and the current Iraq conflict.

Tippett: I mean, just a moment ago when you were describing his thought, I heard you using words and ideas that would be cautionary for people who take both sides of this war.

Ms. Elshtain: That's right.

Tippett: On the one hand that there is such a thing as evil that sometimes must be confronted, must be named and punished. On the other hand, that there's always this danger of hubris.

Ms. Elshtain: Indeed.

Tippett: There's this great, well, I think this very compelling quote from Niebuhr; there's so many of them, aren't there?

Ms. Elshtain: There are.

Tippett: He said, "The New Testament does not envisage a simple triumph of good over evil in history. It sees human history involved in the contradictions of sin to the end."

Ms. Elshtain: Absolutely. So how do you work out the tension? It's a never ending tension. It will persist until the end time between power and the good and how we try to make a world that is less brutal and less evil than the one that we're in with no presupposition that there will be a culminating moment when all will be well.

Tippett: Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Here's a segment from the Speaking of Faith audio archives in which The New York Times reporter and former war correspondent Chris Hedges described how Niebuhr's thought was shaping his attitude towards American military engagement in Iraq.

Mr. Chris Hedges: You know, Niebuhr is often described as a Christian realist, but he ardently opposed the Vietnam War. So I think Niebuhr understood human societies and he understood human nature and he understood that to make moral choiceis not between moral and immoral but between immoral and more immoral, and when you don't want to be tainted — and I think some pacifists can go this route in the same way that cynics do — you don't make choice. You know, because we live in a fallen world, because we often don't get to pick between good and evil but between evil and more evil, you know, we in the end have to be tainted. It's why Niebuhr wrote that when we make a decision, because we don't know the will of God, we often don't know the consequences of our actions, however well-intentioned, we must always ask for forgiveness and be very frightened of hubris. And hubris, as the ancient Greeks know, can destroy us.

Tippett: Now back to my conversation with political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain.

One of Niebuhr's favorite words, I think, or one of his central concepts was paradox. He used words like "paradox" and "irony." And it seems to me that that falls away completely when you reduce everything to black and white, good and evil, an either/or choice. Talk about how you understand how he used and lived with a concept like paradox and how you might offer that up to our public life.

Ms. Elshtain: Well, I think the paradox begins for a Christian theologian like Niebuhr with the fact that we have Christ and we have culture. That's the first paradox that his brother H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a famous book on, Christ and Culture. Christ's kingdom is not of this world and yet Christians are called to try to achieve some relative justice, some approximation of that kingdom on this earth.

Tippett: Part of that is also not — it's not a sense of futility but just knowing that things will go wrong, being realistic about that, right?

Ms. Elshtain: Absolutely. It's being realistic, being aware of the shortcomings of what we can do. But that is not an invitation to quiescence or to a kind of sectarian retreat. That's an attitude that Niebuhr would find troubling, even offensive, because it neglects the responsibility that is ours to care for others. The question, "Who is my brother? Who is my sister?" for Niebuhr is always a central moving question. So in the debate before the US entry into World War II, which came belatedly as far as Niebuhr was concerned, one of the issues he was raising in the late '30s was, "Has no one any responsibility for the fact that the Nazis aim to annihilate the Jews?" He understood that was part of the Nazi agenda. Everybody who paid any attention knew that. "Are they not our brothers and sisters?" if you will. So I think that kind of engagement with the world in and through caritas, Christian love, translates as a kind of responsibility, then you have to figure out what you can reasonably be responsible for.

Tippett: Here's something he wrote in Christianity and Crisis, which he wrote in 1952. But again, the context of this remark is that he was extremely politically active, I mean directly politically active, running for office.

Ms. Elshtain: Indeed.

Tippett: He wrote, "Religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry."

Ms. Elshtain: He reminds us that politics, which is a good and which drew him to the point of exhaustion. If you read biographies of Niebuhr, he was just a nonstop activist, if you will, on many, many fronts and, no doubt, foreshortened his life, at least many believe that it did. But he was insistent that politics is not an ultimate value, it is a relative value. It is one good among many. And if we assume a kind of ultimacy in our politics, then that is in fact an idolatry, assuming a kind of perfectionist standard that can never be achieved.

Tippett: Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

I'm Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today a special program on the thought and legacy of the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Mr. Reinhold Niebuhr: (archival audio) Because when we say that we believe in God, we're inclined to mean by that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor. And if we don't mean that, which is religion on a fairly adolescent and immature level, we at least mean that we have discovered amidst the vast confusions of life what we usually call the moral order according to which evil is punished and good rewarded. And we could hardly feel that life had any meaning if we could not be certain of that. Think of the words of the Psalms, "A thousand shall fall at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, but the evil shall not come nigh unto thee." One thinks of the intercessory prayers that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, "A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy." What a natural prayer that is and how finally impossible. The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.

Tippett: Reinhold Niebuhr in a sermon in 1952.

My final guest, Robin Lovin, is a theologian and ethicist at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and a leading, contemporary scholar and teacher of Niebuhr's thought. When Lovin began his graduate studies in 1974, Niebuhr still towered as a giant figure of the previous generation. Like all my guests, Lovin concedes that Niebuhr's singular stature was possible in part because of the relative homogeneity of American culture at mid-century. But Lovin finds Niebuhr's essential approach instructive even in a more fragmented and pluralistic world. Niebuhr was concerned in his time with the great global confrontation between religious and secular worldviews. Lovin suspects that Niebuhr would be fascinated today by the resurgence of religious energies here and abroad. I asked Robin Lovin how Niebuhr might begin to think about that.

Mr. Robin Lovin: Niebuhr always approached issues by trying to say two things that are in tension with each other, and maybe it's in that tension that his creativity comes. Because the first thing he would do is tell us to be realistic, not to begin with some ideal model of how church and state are related. And though we can learn a lot from history, not to go back to Jefferson and Madison as if they had it all worked out, but pay attention to what's actually happening in the world around us. The other thing that he always held up is the mutability, the changeability of all historical forms.

I think that what his theology gave him primarily was a point of permanence outside the flocks of history so that he didn't have to rely on any of the historical circumstances of his time. So his creativity was in this ability both to be realistic about what was going on and at the same time to tell us never to absolutize the historical situation in which we live, to realize that its parameters are always open to change. And we're going to be most surprised by the way those basic historical realities change, not just by events that sneak up on us.

Tippett: Is there something that's happening in our public life, an idea that's out there where you are finding the thought of Niebuhr to be especially informative for you as you approach it?

Mr. Lovin: Well, his way of understanding the forces at work in international relations are--that's a very important part of his legacy right now. And every time we start talking as if liberal democracy and market economies were going to be the human future for all time to come, every time we start thinking that way, we really ought to hear Niebuhrian alarm bells going off in all of our heads to remind us that the institutions of history are always changeable and none of our accomplishments are ever as final as we would like them to be. The underlying temptation to conceive of one's own interest as too central to history, that's the perennial fact about human life. What you're always trying to do as a realist is to figure out how is that working itself out in the current historical situation?

Tippett: There is this quality of humility that I keep hearing about as I look into this figure of Reinhold Niebuhr that was apparently there in his person, in his personality, and there's something like humility in the stance, in the attitude you just described towards one's own position in the world. But especially for people who haven't read him, there was an incredibly prophetic, strident, aggressive, strong voice. There was a realism about power and also a willingness to take power seriously and to exercise power in a way, right?

Mr. Lovin: I think that's right. I really think that Niebuhr, for all the power that he had as a speaker and his ability to move people, and you talk to people now even who were his students 30 and 40 years ago, and they still have this memory of his powerful preaching and his ability to hold a class and, even in conversation, to kind of dominate a room. And yet I really think Niebuhr himself thought of himself as a servant of those ideas that he was trying to share. He didn't get the hearing that he got from political figures and from academics all across the country and so forth by being a bombastic figure. I think he really did have an ability to go into a room and hear what people were genuinely concerned about and then articulate those fears and concerns back to them in a way that made sense. It was because he really was a listener at heart that he was able to speak so clearly out of what was actually going on in the political world around him.

Tippett: You also, I believe, have a special interest in issues of racial morality, racial justice, right?

Mr. Lovin: Yes.

Tippett: So I would say at this particular moment in our history, not that that maybe shouldn't be at the top of our list, but there are other moral and social issues that are more prominent in our public debate. But, then again, the question is not so much where would Niebuhr come down on, I don't know, on gay marriage, what would his position be, but how might he think this through. It seems to me there's something interesting in his thought, instructive in terms of his idea about how social change and moral change, in fact, comes about.

Mr. Lovin: Right. Niebuhr always talked about how in American life our practice is better than our theory, and sometimes that was true for him as well, I think. In the early stages of the civil rights movement, Niebuhr was very hesitant about the kind of mass action that Martin Luther King was bringing about because he was worried about backlash and resistance and he thought it might slow down the process of change. Now, it's interesting, of course, that King in "Letter from Birmingham Jail," gives Niebuhr's "Moral Man and Immoral Society" the credit for giving him the idea of nonviolent resistance. But nonetheless, that was Niebuhr in the 1930s. Niebuhr by the 1960s was a little more hesitant. There again, I think that's where we have to be wise enough to correct his theory by paying attention to practice. I think what we've learned from the 1960s onward is the power of groups of people to produce change. I don't think that he could conceive of a world in which the apartheid regime in South Africa and the communist regime in East Germany and so forth could really be overthrown by these kinds of mass movements. I like to think, however, that his basic understanding of the vulnerability of all institutions and structures in history would have made him receptive to those kinds of changes and willing to learn from those new kinds of strategies.

Tippett: Robin Lovin.

Here is a South African voice from the Speaking of Faith archives, the theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio. He used Niebuhr's ideas as he worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the transformation of his country in the 1990s.

Mr. Charles Villa-Vicencio: I cut my theological teeth about a hundred years ago on Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, that it's easier to be a moral individual than a moral community. All sorts of forces are built into those communities, which make it very, very difficult to persuade communities. And, as a government commission, we could not reconcile the nation. We couldn't offer forgiveness. All we could do was to try and create a space within which people listened to one another. And to the extent that a greater depth of understanding, of being aware of what drove people to do these dreadful things, as that understanding began to emerge so the morality began to flow in.

Tippett: Charles Villa-Vicencio.

Now back to my conversation with Niebuhr scholar Robin Lovin.

You quote Niebuhr as saying, "Justice will require that some people contend against us." In other words, he might also not have been surprised by the contentious atmosphere in our society today. I mean, talk to me about that conviction of his and how he lived with that.

Mr. Lovin: That quotation comes, in fact, from one of the first articles he wrote back in the 1930s when he started talking about Christian realism as a name for this attitude that he brought to politics. Again I think this is what makes him a figure who is at home in our way of thinking about the world now. He wasn't alarmed by controversy and conflict because he didn't think that the goal was to find one group whose ideas so matched truth and wisdom that we could give them the power. The whole point was that even the wisest among us benefit from criticism and from the people who think that we're totally wrong-headed in the way that we look at the world.

Tippett: It's interesting because I'm listening to what you're saying and I'm thinking of our current cultural divide, and I'm imagining that people on both sides of that divide - you can take any number of issues - could hear your words as very affirming towards them or as a challenge, right?

Mr. Lovin: Right.

Tippett: As a positive challenge. It's interesting that Niebuhr, I find, does get used on both sides of all kinds of specific debates.

Mr. Lovin: Yeah, that's exactly right.

Tippett: So what does that say about him and his ideas and his legacy?

Mr. Lovin: We seem to have the notion that controversy and conflict and polarization in the society ought to go away, that we will someday return to something that's normal, you know, in which there won't be this kind of polarization. Whereas I think Niebuhr would say, look, normal is what we've got now. What I think Niebuhr opens us up to is being more hopeful and less anxious about this conflicted time in which we find ourselves.

Tippett: And yet staying very engaged.

Mr. Lovin: Staying very engaged and not assuming that the boundaries that are drawn now are the boundaries that are going to last forever.

Tippett: Robin Lovin is the Cary M. McGwire University professor of ethics at the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

In closing, here is one of the most beloved and often quoted passages of Niebuhr's writing from his book The Irony of American History:

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."

Voices on the Radio

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.

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