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Why Democracy is Good Even Though it Still Sucks (Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism”)

Why Democracy is Good Even Though it Still Sucks (Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism”) September 4, 2016

Ever heard of “Christian realism”? The notion is attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose writings about ethics, politics, and the relation between Christianity and society remain hugely influential.

Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union, 1862 (Pubilc Domain via WikiCommons)
Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union, 1862 (Pubilc Domain via WikiCommons)

Robin Lovin, in An Introduction to Christian Ethics, has a good summary of Niebuhr’s Christian realism, showing why Niebuhr believed that democracy was deemed preferential to other systems of government:

We need a form of government that will use force to restrain evil, but we also need to restrain the self-righteousness of those who are in charge of the government. That was why Niebuhr’s argument for democracy was different from the way that Americans had historically thought about their system of government.

It was, as he said in the subtitle of his book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, “a vindication of democracy and a critique of its traditional defense.”

From the time of the American Revolution, political leaders had argued that people are led into war and greed by tyrannical leaders who set them against one another. Do away with the tyrant and the people will live in peace and shared prosperity. The more realistic truth, Niebuhr suggested, is that even good rulers need to be limited, and people left to themselves will pursue their own interests as readily as they pursue the common good. Democracy works because it uses the interests of the people to restrain the power of the rulers and gives the government just enough power to keep the self-interest of the people in check. The kind of government that will work over the long run is one that recognizes the ambiguity in human nature, which is capable of both mutual love and ruthless exploitation of the neighbor.

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” Niebuhr wrote. “But man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

A democracy that operates within those limits may be the best form of government, but it still depends on a balance of forces that requires constant attention and honest self-criticism.

 

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