The Prophet to Politicians

Posted by Brent.Barry on August 23, 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr

“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, can 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 standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

                                                – Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

Reinhold Niebuhr is often referred to as the supreme American theologian of the 20th century and was certainly the leading pubic theologian of his time. He was a gifted pastor in the 1920s in Detroit who went on to teach at Union Seminary in 1928, teaching there for the rest of his life.

Niebuhr was known as a “prophet to politicians” and was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, he said “whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men, and later on imported yellow men for peon labor – not much of a background for national innocence.”  Niebuhr wrote that “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem, are insufferable in their human contacts. ” He was critical of the self-righteous delusion of innocence that divided the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).

Niebuhr brilliantly applied the tragic insights of Augustine and Calvin to moral and political issues. He poured out his thoughts in a stream of powerful books, articles and sermons. His major theological work was his two-volume “Nature and Destiny of Man” (1941, 1943).

The evolution of his political thought can be traced in three influential books: Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932); The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (1944); The Irony of American History (1952).

In these and other works, Niebuhr developed his “Christian realism.” He emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature – creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, and the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. He emphasized that:

  • God alone is the critical judge of all human pretensions.
  • Jesus Christ is the “impossible possibility,” therefore sin limits possibilities for all in power to abuse power. A task of the Christian is to work to unmask the abuse of power.
  • Positive goals concerning social action should be taken, provided such action is self-critical enough to avoid Utopian illusions and the corruption of power. 

Niebuhr summed up his political argument in this single powerful sentence:

“Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. ” (Niebuhr, in the fashion of the day, used man not to exculpate women but as shorthand for human being.)

Interestingly, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Jimmy Carter, and President Barack Obama each claimed Niebuhr as their favorite theologian.

Reinhold Niebuhr was the first theologian I read and have probably read more Niebuhr than any other. I know I am biased, but I think the voice of Niebuhr is much needed in today’s world. The last lines of “The Irony of American History,” written in 1952, resound more than a half century later.

“If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Rev. Brent Barry is the lead pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church. Brent and NorthPark have a deep commitment to working with the poor and hungry in Dallas, helping those with Alzheimer’s disease, and reaching across religious and cultural lines to do their part to bring Dallas together as one.


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