Barack Obama is often described as some kind of Niebuhrian, a tag he has encouraged by describing Reinhold Niebuhr as a major influence on his thought. Niebuhr was a complex figure who prized ambiguity and paradox, changed his positions many times, and found his way by reacting pragmatically to events—all of which may turn out to be true of Obama. But the key to Niebuhr, and to Obama’s interest in him, is the idea of combining a realistic understanding of politics and human nature with a religiously inspired idealism.
Had Niebuhr lacked the humility and intellectual flexibility to change his mind numerous times, he would not have become the leading American Christian public intellectual of the twentieth century. In his early career Niebuhr implored his fellow German-Americans to support America’s intervention in World War I. In the 1920s he became a leading pacifist advocate of Social Gospel liberalism. In the 1930s he dropped pacifism and blasted the New Deal as a militant Socialist. In the 1940s he dropped Socialism and became a leader of the Democratic Party’s “Vital Center” establishment. In the early 1950s he was a leading advocate of Cold War containment, describing communism as an evil religion. In the late 1950s he protested that anti-communism, a just cause, had been hijacked by ideologues and militants. In the 1960s he turned against the war in Vietnam and called for a policy of peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union.
There were a few constants amid all the changes. Niebuhr took for granted the activist orientation of the Social Gospel, even as he criticized Social Gospel idealism. He was deeply political and never apologized for being so. He was a brilliant interpreter of human fallibility and ambiguity. And he was always determined to be realistic, even during his liberal pacifist phase. For Niebuhr, realism was fundamentally the recognition that good and evil are inextricably linked in human nature and society, and that politics is primarily about struggling for power.
Repeatedly he blasted his liberal Protestant tradition for being too moralistic and idealistic. Niebuhr’s first attacks on liberal Protestantism called the church to throw off its moralism to join the class struggle against a dying capitalist order. Later he called the church to throw off its moralism to join the Allied military struggle against fascism. Later he called the church to throw off its moralism to support America’s Cold War against communism.
Niebuhr taught his religious and secular readers to view the world as a theater of perpetual struggles for power among competing interests. In foreign policy, realism sought a balance of power among regimes and a stable correlation of forces. In domestic policy it conceived government as a countervailing power mediating between corporate capitalism and the trade unions. Theologically, realism was rooted in the doctrine that the image of God in every human being is marred by selfishness. The redemptive work of divine grace is to enable fallen egotists to surrender their prideful attempts to master their existence.
Today Niebuhr’s name is back in public discussion mostly because the Bush administration pitched realism aside after September 11, 2001. Niebuhr symbolizes the possibility of a prudent foreign policy chastened by a realistic understanding of the limits of power. There are liberal, radical, moderate, and conservative Niebuhrians; there are even neoconservative Niebuhrians, though that group is mostly kidding itself about having much in common with Niebuhr. If the neocons had absorbed even half of Niebuhr’s realism, we might have been spared the very bad idea of invading Iraq.
In 1952 Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History, “We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the ‘happiness of mankind’ as its promise.” In The Structure of Nations and Empires, in 1959, he put it ruefully: “We are tempted to the fanatic dogma that our form of community is not only more valid than any other but that it is more feasible for all communities on all continents.” Niebuhr inveighed against his country’s innocent view of itself as the redeemer nation that invaded only to liberate. America was overdue for a dose of realism about its imperial ambitions, he urged. Any moral idealism not chastened by its own selfishness and that of others is pathetic and dangerous; at the same time, any realism lacking a moral dimension is corrupt.
By the latter standard, most realism is corrupt. For Hobbes, Machiavelli, and other founders of the realist tradition, the whole point of realism was to divorce politics from ethical factors. Niebuhr’s attempt to fuse realism to ethics, much less the love ethic of Jesus, constantly courted the danger of selling out the ethics. To hold together the worldly cynicism of the realist tradition and the theocentric morality of Jesus and the biblical prophets, one needs a very high tolerance for ambiguity and paradox. Even to try, as Niebuhr did, one has to be terribly serious about the scriptural injunctions to lift the yoke of oppression and build a just society. Otherwise the ethical part of Niebuhrian realism becomes mere window dressing for nationalistic will-to-power.
To many of Niebuhr’s critics during his heyday, that was exactly his legacy. After he was gone, liberation theologians said the same thing more forcefully and with greater effect. In the 1970s Niebuhr lost his high standing in theology after liberation theologians charged that Niebuhrian realism was too nationalistic, middle-class, white, and male-dominated to be liberating. Repeatedly Niebuhr’s thought was dismissed as an ideology supporting the economic and military interests of the United States.
But today Niebuhr is back in public discussion because he symbolizes, notably to Barack Obama, the possibility of a progressive realism that defends America’s interests more prudently and advances the cause of social justice. Niebuhr, like Obama, blends liberal internationalist and realist motifs, contending that multilateral cooperation is compatible with the power-seeking clash of nations. The case for a strong international community has a realistic basis, that the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs and risks of not working together. All parties are better off when the most powerful nations agree not to do everything that is in their power and nations work together to create new forms of collective security.
The early Niebuhr played up the irrelevance of Jesus’ love of perfectionism to politics, stressing that Jesus never talked about the realistic limits or consequences of social ethical choices. The later Niebuhr realized that the love ethic kept him and many others in the struggle, whether or not they succeeded. That was its political relevance. Justice could not be defined abstractly; it was a relational term that depended on the motive force of love. The meaning of justice could be determined only in the interaction of love and situation, through the mediation of Niebuhr’s three principles of justice—freedom, equality, and order.
Holding to a moral center while exercising power is notoriously difficult. President Obama is likely to find, while struggling with the difficulty, that he needs the counsel of Reinhold Niebuhr more than ever.
[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]