Faith and Politics: Lessons from Reinhold Niebuhr

When I was in public life, both as an elected official and as a political appointee, I gave a great deal of thought to the faith implications of a political career. There is the danger that a political job can become an Idol. I don't mean that politics can cause a narcissistic focus on one's career (although that certainly is a danger). Instead, I mean that there is the danger that a politician can believe that politics (not faith) is the path to salvation.

Yet, I also believed that God calls us to take action in this life and this world, and that a political life seemed an obvious way to meet the call.

The question is this: how to reconcile the recognition that salvation comes solely through God with the call to action in this world?

I was thrilled when someone gave me a biography of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that described Niebuhr's own struggle with this question. Niebuhr’s ultimate description of a Christian's appropriate role in the world was The Irony of American History. This book was written in 1952--very dark days indeed. In that book Niebuhr argues that it was entirely appropriate for the United States to combat Communism and Fascism, but he also cautioned that Americans were guilty of hubris in how they were viewing themselves in this struggle. He cautioned that language of good versus evil in describing that struggle was very dangerous.

I was therefore fascinated to read David Brook's column earlier this week in the New York Times. The column focused on a conversation that Brooks had with Senator Barak Obama on Niebuhr:

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”

My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.

On the one hand, Obama hates, as Niebuhr certainly would have, the grand Bushian rhetoric about ridding the world of evil and tyranny and transforming the Middle East. But he also dislikes liberal muddle-headedness on power politics. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he says liberal objectives like withdrawing from Iraq, stopping AIDS and working more closely with our allies may be laudable, “but they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy.”

In Chicago this week, Obama argued against the current tides of Democratic opinion. There’s been a sharp rise in isolationism among Democrats, according to a recent Pew survey, so Obama argued for global engagement. Fewer Democrats believe in peace through military strength, so Obama argued for increasing the size of the military.

In other words, when Obama is confronted by what he sees as arrogant unilateral action, he argues for humility. When he is confronted by what he sees as dovish passivity, he argues for the hardheaded promotion of democracy in the spirit of John F. Kennedy.

The question is, aside from rejecting the extremes, has Obama thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own — a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts?

Read it all (subscription required).

This is fascinating, but only with a little more context about Niebuhr. Niebuhr was originally one of the most prominent proponents of the "Social Gospel", which viewed the Gospels as a blueprint for action in the world. Niebuhr, however, soon turned away from the Social Gospel because he thought that it ignored the fundamental sinful nature of mankind. Here is a great summary of Niebuhr's views by Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga :

Niebuhr dismissed as mere “sentimentality” the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome through intelligent social reform, and that America could be transformed in time into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades, holding hands around the national campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arena of national and international politics had to take full and realistic account of the unloveliness of human nature, and the unlovely nature of power. Christians who claimed to want to do good in those arenas had to be willing to get their hands soiled, for existing social relations were held together by coercion, and only counter-coercion could change them. All else was pretense and pipedreams.

This sweeping rejection of the Social Gospel and reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin did not, however, mean that Niebuhr gave up on the possibility of social reform. On the contrary. Christians were obliged to work actively for progressive social causes and for the realization of Christian social ideals of justice and righteousness. But in doing so they had to abandon their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social righteousness would, he believed, inexorably involve them in acts of sin and imperfection. Not because the end justifies the means, but because that was simply the way of the world. Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage. But the Christian faith just as inexorably called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that gives no ultimate moral quarter to dirty hands. The result would seem to be a stark contradiction, a call to do the impossible.

But Niebuhr insisted that the Christian life nevertheless requires us to embrace both parts of that formulation. Notwithstanding the more flattering preferences of liberal theologians, the doctrine of original sin was profoundly and essentially true, and its probative value was confirmed empirically every day. Man is a sinner in his deepest nature. But man was not merely a sinner, but also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God’s image, still capable of acts of wisdom, generosity, and truth, and still able to advance the cause of social improvement. All these assertions were true. All have an equivalent claim on the Christian mind and heart. In insisting upon such a complex formulation, Niebuhr was correcting the Social Gospel’s erroneous attempt to collapse or resolve the tension at the heart of the Christian vision of things.

Read it all.

What does Niebuhr teach us today? Niebuhr would be thrilled that the Episcopal Church was taking on fighting extreme poverty as a mission, but he would caution us to avoid believing that we, alone, will solve world poverty. He would likely cringe at the promise that we can eliminate poverty, but would urge us to try to do so. He would also likely support efforts to defeat violent Islamic fundamentalism, but would caution us not to use language that suggested that this was a battle of good versus evil.

Finally, he would remind us that we need to always remember the following passage from The Irony of American History as we take action in the world:

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 are 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.

It will be interesting to see if Obama follows this Niebuhrian course.


Hi, Chuck,

I came across your blog while googling Darcey Steinke. This post really hits on a struggle I have been aware of for many years. I also grew up Lutheran and like Darcey Steinke, though I have wandered a lot, much of, not just Christianity, but doctrine as expressed in the Lutheran Church, remains the bedrock for me. And it also informs my reaction to political and social causes. Knowing the reality of each individual's sinful nature, I tend to get cynical. But I'm not comfortable there - there HAS to be hope. And there has to be humility. I'm frustrated that brilliant, talented, charismatic people who lead dramatic social and political movements don't recognize the limitations of what they can accomplish simply because the heart of each person has to be changed for such programs to work in the long run. Even if such a program accomplishes good in one generation, another generation of people whose hearts will have to change will come along. I'm glad you're here thinking about these things and writing about them.

Shirley Schuette
Public Historian
Neuer Gedankengan!
Chuck Blanchard said…

Thanks for visiting and exploring beyond the Steinke post. Come back again!

I have found Niebuhr the best middle ground between being hopelessness and being naive when it comes to polictics.
janinsanfran said…
Thanks -- now I know exactly why Obama makes me uneasy. Like Niebuhr, he thinks he knows best and we're rubes for struggling for perfection. I adhere to the tradition of struggling for perfection -- with the terrible knowledge that as humans we are doomed to fail.

We're probably both wrong. :-)
Chuck Blanchard said…

Perhaps you and I read Niebuhr differently. I think he would agree with your vision--strive for perfection with the terible knowledge that we are doomed to fail because of human imperfection.

In my view, hard core realism (untempered by idealism) leads to inaction. Hard core idealism (without some realism) leads to ineffectivness. I think Niehbuhr's formula (as well framed by you) comes closest to the right balance. I think of Jesus's admonision that we be wise as serpant abu innocent as lambs.

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