By Francis P. Sempa

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was both a theologian (teaching at Union Theological Seminary for over thirty years) and a public intellectual. The American diplomat and realist historian George F. Kennan called Niebuhr “the father of us all,” meaning the intellectual mentor of the twentieth century’s political realists. Niebuhr authored numerous books, including Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Nature and Destiny of Man (1939), Christianity and Power Politics (1940), The Irony of American History (1952), and The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959). He wrote articles for Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, Commentary, The New Republic, The New Leader, The Reporter, World Politics, and other publications.

Some of Niebuhr’s writings were collected in a volume entitled Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics (1960), edited by Harry R. Davis and Robert C. Good. Niebuhr’s observations and analyses of the political-spiritual crisis of Western Civilization in that volume are so profound that they speak directly to us in our current time of troubles in both domestic and international politics.

Niebuhr identified three principal crises in Western history: the fall of the Roman Empire, the decay of feudalism and rise of bourgeois democratic society, and the current crisis in which, he observed, “We are witnessing and participating in, the decline of … European civilization.”

“Every great crisis in world history,” Niebuhr explained,

represents a breakdown both in the organization of civilization and in the life of a culture. It is a spiritual as well as a political … crisis … Civilization is the body of a culture. Culture is the spirit of a civilization. Civilization means the political, economic, and social arrangements and mechanisms by which the life of men is ordered. Culture means the philosophical, esthetic, and religious ideas and presuppositions that inform political organization and that in turn emerge from it.

The “Christian” nations of Western Civilization, he noted, are no longer “profoundly influenced in their thought and action by Christian presuppositions or imperatives.” The decline of Christianity left a vacuum that has been filled by secular faiths, including liberalism and socialism/communism, that seek to “reduce the meaning of human existence to purely social, political, and historically realizable terms.”

Niebuhr called liberals “soft utopians” whose primary faith is in “progress.” Liberalism, he wrote, fails “to understand the tragic character of human history.” Emerging from the French Enlightenment, liberalism, Niebuhr explained, believes in the perfectibility of man as the eventual destiny of historical progress. Liberalism, he wrote, is “primarily faith in man; faith in his capacity to subdue nature, and faith that the subjection of nature achieves life’s final good.” Liberalism, he continued, is a form of “blindness” on the part of, mostly, intellectuals for whom God is rationalism, progress, and reason. “It is a blindness,” Niebuhr insisted, “which does not see the perennial difference between human actions and aspirations, … the inevitable tragedy of human existence, the irreducible irrationality of human behavior, and the tortuous character of human history.”

Liberals mistake progress in science, technology, and knowledge for advancement in human nature and behavior. Such illusions, Niebuhr wrote, should have been refuted by the horrors of the twentieth century. “Since 1914,” he wrote, “one tragic experience has followed another, as if history had been designed to refute the vain delusions of modern man.” Yet, liberals maintain their faith in historical progress—their faith in man as the center of the universe. To Niebuhr, this was a profound spiritual crisis. “[T]he modern world,” he wrote, “does not believe in sin. Our secular age has rejected that doctrine more whole-heartedly than any other Christian doctrine.”

Human beings, Niebuhr explained, are not perfectible. They “are both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and far-seeing.” Throughout history, humans have shown a lust for power; this is especially true in the political realm. Humans are not always or even mostly virtuous. Progress in science and knowledge, after all, has coincided with genocide and war.

Western Civilization, Niebuhr believed, is fragile. The belief that civilization and its institutions will survive without the support of the forces of order and religiously based virtuous restraint is a fatal delusion. “[S]ocial peace as is achieved in any civilization,” Niebuhr wrote, “rests upon a precarious equilibrium of social forces. This equilibrium may degenerate into anarchy if there is no strong organizing center in it. And it may degenerate into tyranny if the organizing center destroys the vitality of the parts.” This is precisely the problem and dilemma we face today in the streets of Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and other cities.

Liberalism is the dominant culture of Western Civilization. It pervades Western media, public schools, institutions of higher education, the entertainment industry, and much of our government—local, state, and federal. And it is ill equipped to confront the revolutionary moment that is upon us. It is, in fact, aiding and abetting those revolutionary forces that have taken to the streets to, in their own words, “bring down the system.”

Niebuhr spoke also to another aspect of our current crisis—the international struggle against a communist enemy—in his time the Soviet Union; in our time Communist China. He described communists as “hard utopians” and communism as a “variant of the same utopianism with which the whole liberal world is infected.” It is a secular religion that empowers the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (the ruling Communist elite) to “practice a tyrannical rule over the faithful and to conduct ruthless conflict against all enemies.” Communism in practice gives the ruling class a “monopoly of both economic and political power,” and gives “some men absolute power over other men” which results in “evils which are worse than injustice.” Communists, he wrote, “pose as the liberators of every class or nation,” when in fact their true goal is to “enslave” every class and nation.

Niebuhr pointed out that while Marxism and liberalism are antithetical political theories, they are very similar as moral and religious theories. “Both obscure the fact,” he explained, “that the root of man’s lust for power and of his cruel and self-righteous judgments on is fellows is in himself and not in some social or economic institution.”

Niebuhr opposed foreign policy crusades against communism, opting instead for a hard-headed realism that sought to maintain a balance of power among nations. In his time, the Soviet threat was more messianic than today’s China threat, but Niebuhr understood that communist dictators used nationalism, and sometimes even religion as Stalin did in World War II, to maintain and expand their power. The best course for the West, he believed, was prudent containment—more political than military—as recommended by his admirer George Kennan and his friend Hans Morgenthau.

In the end, Niebuhr relied on the teachings of Christianity to deal with, if not overcome, the moral ambiguities of this world. The Christian faith, he explained, “helps us to understand the necessity of preserving against tyrannical power whatever standards of justice or virtue we have achieved.… It helps us to appreciate the responsibilities which even sinful men and nations have to preserve what is relatively good against explicit evil.”

More fundamentally, Niebuhr hoped that what he called “Christian otherworldliness” would help us make sense out of life. “We are rightly concerned about the probabilities of disaster to our civilization and about our various immediate duties to avert it,” he wrote. “But we will perform our duties with greater steadiness if we have something of the faith expressed by St. Paul in the words: ‘Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.’” It is this “nonchalance about life or death,” Niebuhr explained, “which includes some sense of serenity about the life and death of civilizations,” that can help us do “what we ought to do.” The irony of Niebuhr’s solution, however, is that it demands a religious reawakening that our liberal culture is determined to prevent.  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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