Reinhold Niebuhr’s Warning to the American Children of Light
Seventy years ago, in an effort to raise American comprehension of the US role in the postwar world, Reinhold Niebuhr published The Irony of American History. Niebuhr’s uncommon perception of the realities of the American situation in light of Christian truth was already well established, as he had discerned the limitations of progressivism in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and foresaw the complications of Allied victory in World War II in The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness (1944). Among the postwar ironies that he detected was that the US was only successful in maintaining international security because it threatened its communist enemies with atomic incineration. Niebuhr labored to make Americans understand that victory in World War II, and the resulting American elevation to foremost world power had implications for the America’s self-perception as an innocent nation: power and innocuousness do not necessarily complement each other. But perhaps the most intriguing ironic circumstance that Niebuhr pointed to was the United States’ relative success both at home and abroad precisely because Americans had only tentatively incorporated the liberal philosophical ideals that they claimed to embrace.
Niebuhr’s healthy skepticism of reliance on human rationality made him particularly wary of the utopian aspects of ideology, pithily declaring that, “Man is mortal, that is his fate. Man pretends to be immortal, that is his sin,” in Beyond Tragedy (1937). While he considered both the United States and the Soviet Union to be “children of light” due to their universalistic conceptions of human deliverance, he also realized that the victors of the greatest war in history remained subject to the conditions of the Fall. Whereas the Soviet Union was more susceptible to the pitfalls of ideology due to the excesses of Stalinist totalitarianism, the United States was provisionally spared from an unmitigated liberalism because of the moderating effects of practical democracy, which produced “a fortunate confusion in defining the goal toward which history should move; and the distribution of power in a democracy prevents any group of world savers from grasping after a monopoly of power.” Assessing American prospects, Niebuhr commented that, “we are saved by a certain grace inherent in common sense rather than abstract theories” and this prevented Americans “from attempting to cut through the vast ambiguities of our historic situation and thereby bringing our destiny to a tragic conclusion by seeking to bring it to a neat and logical one.”
That the triumph of the West, with the United States as its leader, came as a consequence of continually advancing political liberties, economic freedom, and Soviet collapse some four decades after the publication of The Irony of American History vindicates Niebuhr’s diagnosis, even if many latterday commentators have attributed victory in the Cold War more to liberal ideology than “common sense.”
However, Niebuhr did provide explicit warnings regarding the potential future course of American history, positing that justice would be imperiled “amidst the vast concentration and competition of power in a modern technical society if the allusions and miscalculations of a liberal society are not radically qualified.” This was a particular problem in American society due to the unqualified confidence of American elites in the natural sciences, and their proclivity to “press the wisdom of the social and political sciences, indeed all of the humanities, into the limits of the natural sciences,” culminating in an
excessive determinism, which assumes most men are creatures with simple determinate ends of life, and that their “anti-social” tendencies are quasi-biological impulses and inheritances which an astute social psychological science can overcome or “redirect” to what are known as “socially approved” goals.
Niebuhr realized that an overweening faith in the powers of human rationality was a severely misplaced and perpetual threat, even if it had been temporarily forestalled by postwar prosperity.
Presently, in 2022, it is apparent that the “common sense” that Niebuhr lauded has retreated in the face of a vaunted technological elite, spelling dark prospects for the American future. Two dynamics, property ownership and gainful employment, provide clear evidence of this. During most of the 20th century, American home ownership expanded and was touted as a hallmark of American middle-class success, and both the financial and political elite supported this spreading of individual economic freedom. When Niebuhr was writing in 1952, millions of American veterans were taking advantage of the GI Bill, and young families were fueling the national economy by purchasing homes, automobiles, and appliances. Today, the percentage of younger Americans owning homes is in rapid decline, as American elites, along with other Western leaders, coalesce around the World Economic Forum’s push for “universal rentership.” According to demographer Joel Kotkin, “All this suggests a future where economic autonomy, the key to bourgeois democracy, will barely exist for most families beside the most affluent.”
Not only is individual ownership discouraged, but also economic self-sufficiency. Rapid transition toward digitalization and automation has provoked elites to despair over what to do with superfluous people. During the immediate postwar decades, American elites relied on the broad population to take up essential tasks in industry or the infantry to advance the collective goals of the state, but seventy years on, our applied science has advanced to a level that much of our population is categorized as “surplus.” Thus, Israeli academic and self-professed transhumanist Yuval Noah Harari, advisor to Klaus Schwab and darling of the World Economic Forum, to whom Marc Zuckerberg and Barack Obama sing praises, asks what will we do with the “useless class” and declares, “History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods.”
None of this would have necessarily surprised Niebuhr. He was acutely aware that the temptations of utopian liberalism would advance with technology and possibly become irresistible if peer competition with the Soviet Union ceased. Now, thirty years after Soviet collapse and the so-called “end of history,” peer competition has re-emerged as China challenges US hegemony, and one wonders if the US will be up to the task this time around. We must take to heart Niebuhr’s prescient assessment that, “We could bring calamity upon ourselves and the world by forgetting that even the most powerful nations and even the wisest planners of the future remain themselves creatures as well as creators of the historical process. Man cannot rise to a simple triumph over historical fate.”