Christian Realism and Democracy

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, by Reinhold Niebuhr

by Paul D. Miller

In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama famously said Reinhold Niebuhr was “one of my favorite philosophers.” Niebuhr, Obama explained, believed 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.” In Niebuhr’s view, Christians should be neither utopian nor cynical. We should never abandon the effort to make the world a more just and peaceful place, but never believe that our efforts are immune to injustice.  Niebuhr’s appealing moderation makes him a fertile source for jousting talking points. Both sides invoked him in the debate over the war in Iraq.

Niebuhr was an American theologian who made his name in the 1930s as a socialist intellectual. In the 1940s he dropped the socialism and developed what has come to be known as Christian realism–a view distinguished from non-Christian realism by retaining a concern for justice and peace, and from Christian idealism by its appreciation of the realities of power and politics in human life. Christian realism is, essentially, Augustine applied to the modern age, aware of the realities of human sin and corruption but, nonetheless, heeding the imperative for justice and love in this world.

Niebuhr published The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness in 1944, as World War II was coming to a close. The publisher’s blurb advertises it as “the fullest statement of his political philosophy.” The book is subtitled “A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense,” which is a good description of its first two chapters and which prompted me to pick the book up. The third and fourth take up some of the more significant challenges to democracy–capitalism and identity politics–before Niebuhr concludes in a fifth chapter on America’s role in the post-war world. Taken together, they represent a sustained meditation on the importance of democracy, how and why Christians should support it despite its weaknesses, an agenda for its renewal, and some suggestive thoughts about the growth of democracy abroad.

I.

Should Christians support democracy? Yes, argues Niebuhr, for not for the reasons you think. Americans raised on Locke, Jefferson, or Rawls have been taught to support democracy because of the social contract. Rational individuals would chose this sort of system if given the chance–as they were, in 1788. A system of elected representatives, majoritarian rule, and checks and balances ensures that property is protected and liberty is maximized for all concerned. What else is government for?

The problem for Niebuhr is that this justification for democracy presumes “a fatuous and superficial view of man,” (11). Liberalism assumed that human beings were best considered individually and were driven by a simple survival instinct which could be resolved by the right institutional guarantees of safety created by the social contract. That is why liberalism, when confronted with conflict, looks for its cause in disordered institutions.

But the social contract is a fiction and liberalism overemphasized man’s individuality, underappreciated our embeddedness in community, and exaggerated the purity of reason. “Man is the kind of animal who cannot merely live,” indeed, he “is not interested merely in physical survival but in prestige and social approval,” (19, 20). We seek not to survive, but to thrive, create, win recognition, and, at worst, dominate. Reason itself is not immune from our lusts and passions. “Human intelligence is never as pure an instrument of the universal perspective as the liberal democratic theory assumes,” Niebuhr wrote (but he also added “neither is it as purely the instrument of the ego, as is assumed by the anti-democratic theory,” (29)). Conflict does not stem most fundamentally from bad circumstances. It comes from the disordered human heart. That is why war, properly understood, is not simply the clash of rival survival instincts but the “conflicts of rival lusts and ambitions,” (28).

The naivete of classical liberal theory endangers democracy: if democracy’s traditional foundations are so obviously flawed, Niebuhr worried, then few will be able or willing to defend it from its critics or enemies. How can democracy be defended?

II.

Niebuhr advances a defense of democracy in his second chapter that is more pragmatic, more realistic, and almost entirely cribbed from J.S. Mill.

His first move is to consider the alternative. Apologies for autocracy always argue that strong government is needed to ward off chaos. Human nature is too wicked and too untrustworthy that freedom would inevitably degenerate into anarchy. The obvious flaw in this argument is that it assume all humans are wicked and untrustworthy except the autocrat. If the flaws in human nature are universal, then empowering a sinful person with unchecked power is the worst thing you could do. Democracy, by contrast, “arms the individual with political and constitutional power to resist the inordinate ambition of rulers, and to check the tendency of the community to achieve order at the price of liberty,” (47). This is pretty conventional stuff.

But Niebuhr goes further, in a direction that should make today’s’ libertarians and conservatives uncomfortable. The problem with autocracy is that its view of government is entirely negative. In fact, government “also has a more positive function. It must guide, direct, deflect, and rechannel conflicting and competing forces in a community in the interest of a higher order. It must provide instruments for the expression of the individual’s sense of obligation to the community as well as weapons against the individual’s anti-social lusts and ambitions,” (44).

One of those instruments is liberty. No autocracy can anticipate, invent, or create all the things that every individual might if given the chance. Autocracy shuts the door on human potential. Democracy opens it up. “The indeterminate creativity of history validates the idea of a free or democratic society, which refuses to place premature checks upon human vitalities,” (49). Democracy will not even prevent people from questioning democracy: “not even the moral presuppositions upon which the society rests are withdrawn from constant scrutiny and re-examination. Only through such freedom can the premature arrest of new vitalities in history be prevented,” (74).

Christianity has a special role to play here. “The ultimate transcendence of the individual over communal and social processes can be understood and guarded only in a religious culture which knowns of a universe of meaning in which this  individual freedom has support and significance,” (79). That is what Christianity provides, for it “has always insisted that man had a dimension which required freedom of conscience beyond all laws and requirements of the human community,” (80).

Thus, a Christian appreciation for human sinfulness helps us guard against unchecked power in government, but a Christian appreciation for human potential should also lead us to value human freedom. As Niebuhr famously put it in his foreword, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary,” (xxxii).

Students of political theory will recognize parallels with J.S. Mill’s argument “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion” in On Liberty. Niebuhr follows pretty much the same argument, adding a theological edge to them, but oddly never quotes or refers to Mill at all. I confess I generally agreed with Niebuhr’s defense of democracy but was expecting something more.

III.

Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book comes in chapter 4, in which he considers “Democratic Toleration and the Groups of the Community,” or, as we would call it today, identity politics. He considers, in turn, religious, ethnic, and class cleavages and the challenge they pose to democracy. I underlined almost the entire 14-page section on religious identity.

Niebuhr rightly notes that “religious diversity remains potentially the most basic source of conflict,” (125)–and he wrote that five decades before Samuel Huntington wrote Clash of Civilizations. He argued that there are three approaches to resolving the question of religious pluralism: 1) restore original unity under the umbrella of one dominant group, which he says was the aim of the Roman Catholic Church, and today we might say is the aim of political Islam, 2) “the approach of secularism which attempts to achieve cultural unity through the disavowal of traditional historical religions,” which is the aim of the progressive left, and 3) “maintain religious vitality within the conditions of religious diversity,” (126). This third path is only possible with “religious humility,” (135).

The problem with secularism is that it is a “covert religion,” (131) which presumes religious identities can be easily subsumed under a civic religion. Niebuhr says in one of the most powerful passages of the book:

“This belief fails to appreciate the endless variety of cultural and religious convictions, growing out of varying historical situations. It does not understand the perennial power of particularity in human culture. The most pathetic aspect of the bourgeois faith [in secularism] is that it regards its characteristic perspective and convictions as universally valid and applicable…” (131)

As a covert religion of secularism, democracy becomes, effectively, the end of human life, which Niebuhr calls “a less vicious version of the Nazi creed,” (133).  This is the menace which Richard John Neuhaus warned of in The Naked Public Square (1984) and that worries many Christian today who fear an increasingly intolerant liberalism. “No society, not even a democratic one, is great enough or good enough to make itself the final end of human existence,” (133) which is a good rebuke to progressive utopians. But in the next breath, Niebuhr applies this thought globally, warning against believing in a secular version of “redemptive history” in which the United States plays the savior of the world, preemptively critiquing the triumphalism of the post-Cold War “End of History” school of thought. This is the part of Niebuhr that today’s liberals and critiques of the Iraq war love most.

I’ve only touched the surface of this short book. While I do not agree with everything in it, and find something lacking in Niebuhr’s writing, there is much to chew on here.

  • johzek

    It is very telling that among the three approaches to resolving the question of religious diversity given by Niebuhr the only two options available to the religious would be to ally a dominant group with the power of the state, in effect forcing your will upon others, or pretend that substantial differences do not exist, but what I believe is really the right one, and I’ll tolerate your beliefs as long as you keep your distance, or maybe we could just call it humility because that sounds nicer. Noticeably lacking is an approach among the religious to objectively determine which of the diverse faiths, and the numerous denominations and sects within each, is the correct one. Reason, the epistemological method of looking outward at the world of facts, is not available to world views that rely so heavily on the imagination and look not outward but inward to the content of ones consciousness and its hopes and wishes and desires. So it is not surprising that secularism, employing the method of reason, must come under fire from the religious since it alone provides the means to decide the issue. It disavows religion because there is no objective evidence for it. Niebuhr says that secularism “fails to appreciate the endless variety of cultural and religious convictions.” Any secularist would certainly recognize this endless variety of religious convictions, it is an objective fact of reality, and I would also say that a secularist would most definitely appreciate the problem this presents for any religion which claims it is the only true one.


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