“Editorial Correspondence,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
March 3, 1947


The most vivid impression of an American traveler in Europe today is of the marked contrast between American abundance and European poverty. The living standards of Britain are of course immeasurably higher than those of the continent; yet they are so much lower than our American standards that one begins to understand why Britain is more concerned than we about the continent. It is not only closer to the continent but also shares the general European poverty. One realizes that America’s spiritual remoteness from the affairs of Europe is due not merely to geography and distance, but to the fact that American opulence makes it difficult for us to understand the fate of the peoples of Europe upon whom our power impinges. At the moment Britain is in the grip of a coal shortage which accentuates the contrast between the warm American home and the austere British home.

Any sense of American technical superiority over Britain must quickly give way to a sense of our moral inferiority in the deeper issues of life. This is a highly disciplined nation which takes a rightful pride in the fact that the limited supplies of the nation are equitably distributed and that no one therefore eats his bread at the expense of another. In comparison our mad scramble to remove all controls and our consequent inflation seem pathetic indeed. It is in fact so regarded by the British who do not envy us. They think of us rather as a profligate adolescent who may not come to a good end.


It is noticeable that others beside Labor party radicals view the dominance of American power in the world community with some apprehension. The fear that we might become isolationist again has gradually abated. But there is no certainty that we understand the needs of Europe and there is almost complete certainty that we will run from a “boom” to a “bust” period in our economy and that we may drag Europe down with us in such a catastrophe. A certain unconscious envy may prompt some of these fears; but there is some warrant for them even if the envy be discounted. In general an American is struck by the fact that the position of a Dives in a world inhabited by innumerable Lazaruses is not an enviable one.


To turn to matters of religious life, it may be worth reporting that the services of the Church of Scotland probably offer our American church life a better example in the art of worship than we could secure anywhere else. The majority of American churches are non-liturgical. While they may and do learn increasingly from liturgical churches about the art of worship they are not likely ever to become purely liturgical. On the other hand they must arrive at a richer and more meaningful worship than is offered in the average pastoral prayer of the American church. The Church of Scotland, since the reunion between the established and the free church, has blended the liturgical tradition of the former with the free tradition of the latter. The blend is a very good one from which we could learn. The prayers are completely free of the slipshod and banal sentimentalities which disfigure so many American public prayers. They are rich in Biblical content and not without aesthetic form and beauty.

I have just come from the meeting of the Glasgow Presbytery where the moderator’s opening worship service gave one a genuine sense of being transported into a community of grace, which lived in the presence of God and which had a sense of fellowship with every similar community in all places and of all times.

“Editorial Correspondence,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
March 31, 1947

The longer one stays in Britain the more one becomes aware of the great difficulties of mutual understanding which arise between a nation as opulent as America and one as straightened in circumstance as Britain. Britain is a world power which bears heavy responsibilities in every part of the world. But the little island which is the center of one of the most formidable political systems of modern times, is tired and poor. The present coal crisis is only a symptom of a far-reaching deterioration in economic power. A nation which once relied heavily on coal exports and is now more desperately in need of exports than ever, is not only unable to export coal but also unable to produce enough coal for home consumption. Consumer restrictions on coal, gas and electricity will probably continue for years to come. Food rationing is now severer than during the war and will undoubtedly become more severe.

Britain is now exporting 111% of its 1938 export total. But the government has just announced that it must reach 140% if it is to maintain present living standards when the Canadian and American loans run out and interest must be paid on them. One special difficulty is that Britain has allowed its industrial plant to deteriorate ever since the first World War and has not kept pace with American technical developments. Now it is too late to do very much about it because there will be little money to spare from pressing immediate needs for such capital expansion.

Public buildings of all kinds, including churches, can probably not be built for years because every resource must go into the building of houses. It must be recognized, of course, that some of the pressure on the British market comes from the general lifting of the standards of the poor. Britain has undergone a vast process of equalization which began long before the labor government came to power. No one is inclined to challenge this development and it is significant that however vexatious the present restrictions are, it is generally agreed, that any government in power would be bound to maintain most of them.


The debate on the government’s decision to quit India no later than June 1948 has not yet taken place. But it is safe to say that the opposition will not be as vigorous as seemed probable at first. Advices from India support the government rather strongly. It is felt that the promise to quit India has robbed the two parties in India of the chance to blame their difficulties upon the imperial power and may possibly prompt them to reach an agreement. It is recognized, of course, that the policy is a risky one. India may fall into anarchy. But this risk must be taken, if no good purpose is served by staying on and prolonging the present inconclusive negotiations. It must be observed that the economic weakness of Britain contributes to the situation. India has long since ceased to be an economic asset and has become an economic liability. There is a bare possibility that Britain will have a more lively trade with a free India than with one bound to it.

Such missionary authorities as have spoken on the subject, seem to be in favor of the government’s action; and some may have actually advised the present action.


Britain feels about Palestine very much as it feels about India. It is harassed with dozens of problems of its own and feels impatient and frustrated because of its inability to bring contending factions together. The Bevin plan for Palestine was bound to fail; and Churchill’s advice that the whole matter be turned over to the United Nations, was then accepted. I do not quite understand why the plan of partition, which seemed imminent before Mr. Bevin offered his plan, should not have been considered. One difference between British and American opinion upon this subject is that Arab protests, which are hardly heard in America, are very vocal here. One might argue that Britain pays too much attention to the Arab chieftains who can hardly represent the real opinion of the Arab world. But the difficulty is that a good part of the Arab world lives in such poverty and misery that it has no vocal, certainly no effective, opinion. There is, in short, a genuine impasse to which American opinion has not done justice.