The following lecture was recorded during Providence’s 2017 Christianity and National Security Conference.

Joseph Hartman, who wrote his dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr, talks about Niebuhr’s influence as a public intellectual and outlines his views of anthropology, political theory, and the practicalities of politics. He also discusses what Niebuhr’s significance is for us today.

** Our next speaker as we proceed on our crisp schedule of the conference is Joe Hartman, who teaches constitutional law here at Georgetown University and also is a scholar of Reinhold Niebuhr, about whom he’ll be speaking to us today. Niebuhr was a definitive figure in how Christians in America have understood power and authority, especially issues of war and peace. Joe is also an attorney and very active in the Anglican Church in Northern Virginia. So Joe, if you would come forward, we appreciate your being here.

What was that line, “the dogma lives loudly within”? Is that right? Every time I hear that, I think it’s something Yoda would say to Luke Skywalker. It’s just a weird phrasing. Well, as Mark said, I’m going to talk today about Reinhold Niebuhr. I was thinking, as I was preparing for this, you know, he was the subject of my dissertation and I almost feel like when I do these talks, there’s pre-Trump and post-Trump, so this is sort of pre-Trump but maybe not. We’ll see.

Niebuhr became really influential, I would say, from about the middle of the last decade through the end of the Obama years. I’ll make a case that he’s still very important, but we’ll see how this goes. Reinhold Niebuhr, if you don’t know, if you just kind of hear the name, probably one of the more influential public intellectuals of the last century. His career stretched from World War One all the way through to Vietnam, and you know, it’s hard to kind of pin him down.

He preached sermons, he wrote newspaper articles, he wrote long scholarly treatises, most famous of which are his Gifford lectures delivered in Scotland in 1939, really right as World War Two is starting. Perhaps most famously, he’s credited with writing the serenity prayer, if you know that, which gained national fame when it was selected for inclusion in a prayer book given to service members in World War Two, and probably became more famous because of Alcoholics Anonymous who used it.

I’ll give you just a quick biographical sketch, and then I want to get to some more substantive issues. He was born in the late 19th century; his parents were German immigrants, his father was a German pastor. German was his first language. After studying at Eden Theological Seminary, he went to Yale Divinity School where he earned his master’s. He spent about ten years at a church in Detroit between 1915 and about 1928. That church grew from about 60 to 700, so even early on as a pastor he was gaining notice.

But really, the meat of his career was spent from 1928 to 1960 at Union Theological Seminary where he taught philosophy of religion and applied Christianity. By the mid-40s, this is sort of astonishing, and I don’t have a graphic, but you know, he was on the cover of Time magazine’s 25th anniversary edition. So, imagine a theologian, not a pastor-pop, but a theologian on the cover of Time magazine. Hans Morgenthau, sort of a political realist of the 20th century, called him the greatest living political philosopher in America in 1962, and when he died in ’71, Time eulogized him as the greatest Protestant theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards.

And then, more recently, around 2000, Modern Library ranked “The Nature and Destiny of Man” as the 18th most important non-fiction work of the 20th century, which is quite surprising when you think that’s ahead of “A Theory of Justice,” Rawls’s book, Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk,” “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” all given a backseat to this book. So, quite significant perception there.

Now, a little bit about how this Renaissance he died in 1971 and sort of disappeared for a while, really, several of his books were reissued, articles were written, probably the most famous example of this is an interview Barack Obama gave in 2007 to David Brooks. Now, query whether he was just trying to get David Brooks to write nice things about him, but he said Niebuhr was one of his favorite philosophers. And if you know anything about Brooks, he’ll from time to time see Brooks mentioned Niebuhr.

And just one more, within the last, I think, three or four months, PBS premiered an hour-long documentary on Niebuhr. So, if you have a chance, it’s worth looking at. It’s called “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.” So, that’s kind of the background. What I want to do for the rest of the time is kind of talk a little bit about why I think he’s significant now, and I’m going to work outward. So, I’m going to start with his account, what he called human nature.

I realize that term itself, at least in the academic world, is fraught at this point, but we’re going to use it. So, start with kind of anthropology, human beings, and then work out to his political theory, and then work out to his assessment of politics, the practicalities of politics. So, it’s kind of starting individual, working out to philosophy, and then working out to more practical concerns.

Another thing you should know about Niebuhr is he tends to be claimed by both sides, which can be a good or bad thing. So, you get people as disparate as Michael Novak and Cornel West calling themselves Niebuhrians. You know, put those two together. He gets claimed, particularly during the Iraq War, he was claimed for both sides. So, people who thought we should be involved in Iraq and involved in all that was going on there said, “Well, this is something Niebuhr would do,” and there were people arguing that, “No, this is completely against what Niebuhr would be. He would be non-interventionist.”

I think part of that has to do with the fact that he did have a long career. He did move. Early in his career, he actually ran for mayor of New York as a socialist. By the ’40s, he was a very dogged anti-communist Cold War liberal. So, there was some movement there. I think also, you have because he wrote so much on current issues, sometimes people are trying to extrapolate things from a kind of issue position, rather than a more substantive understanding of what his project actually was.

And then just to throw one more complication, Niebuhr himself once commented, “Our problem, both in foreign policy and in other affairs, is how to generate the wisdom of true conservatism without losing the humane virtues which the liberal movement developed.” So, even he himself kind of throws some ambiguity into that. But all of that being said, in all the ways people try to use Niebuhr, I think there was… I think Paul Elie had an essay called “A Man for All Reasons,” sort of anybody can claim him.

But my argument and what drew me… excuse me… what drew me to Niebuhr is that you’ve got to look a little deeper. If you’re looking for a kind of political conservative or a political liberal, if you’re kind of looking for that, you’re really not looking where you should be, because Niebuhr’s real significance is that he’s someone who’s really steeped in the theological and philosophical traditions of the West, and he offers a compelling and penetrating assessment of our predicament, our self-understanding in the modern world.

And that goes to the fact that he looked at philosophy. So, he was looking at, you know, whether it’s Enlightenment philosophy, you know, pure rationalism, or theological positions or perspectives. He was convinced that if you really want to understand a philosophy, you had to look past its claims on rationality, its claims on science, for example, and look at what it says about the meaning of life and about human beings. For him, you had to look at what a philosophy understood about the fate, about the tragic, about, again, human nature in a more abstract way.

Or a philosophical way to put this is to say, for Niebuhr, ontology and epistemology rest on anthropology. And by the way, anthropology, to allude to the earlier talk, is theological. We understand it theologically. And so, for Niebuhr, all the philosophical systems that wage war with one another ultimately have their own kind of faith, their own kind… I mean, this is sort of like presuppositionalism a little bit, regarding the meaning of life and the nature of man.

So, for Niebuhr, if we wanted to understand, you know, surface political problems or religious complications or even philosophical problems, we first had to look at, well, what are the people making those arguments saying about human beings? And are they right or not? He said we had to look at what he called the obvious facts of history. And for him, those facts were what Hegel would have termed “history as slaughterbench.” It was this kind of tragic understanding of history.

Okay, so again, anthropology. I’m going to move to philosophy, and then we’ll talk politics. Niebuhr famously began “Human Nature,” this is volume one of “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” kind of, I think, his masterwork, his Gifford lectures, with this statement: “Man has always been his most vexing problem.” Now, politics, not culture, not philosophy, not religion, but human nature. And he contends that the whole history of modern thought, which, by the way, for him, was basically going all the way back to the Reformation and the Renaissance so everything after that is this kind of modern world he’s talking about. He thought it was basically a mishap humans miss apprehending themselves. Hence, the caption above his picture was “man’s story is not a success story.”

He attributed a lot of the political chaos he saw—and remember as crazy as things seem domestically and even internationally now he’s looking at total world war. He attributed a lot of this to a misplaced optimism in human reason and human virtue—our intellectual capacity, moral capacity. He basically thought we’re naive about these things.

He traces this—and this is a longer conversation I can talk in the Q&A or you can read his argument—had to do with his perception that the modern world, as I just described it, is, you know, five hundred years. It draws on strands of classical philosophy and Christianity in ways that they’re not completely coherent so they end up kind of getting confused and intermingled in interesting ways. So in any event, Niebuhr says, you know, against the evidence, against looking at what we see around us, we still think that our rationality is capable not of ameliorating problems, making them a little better, but actually solving them.

And so you see, I mean you see this if you think about it—how do we propose solving problems? Well, there’s a couple of ways. We think about education because it’s an intellectual problem or a problem of knowledge—well, we’re gonna solve it by improving education. Not that that’s completely wrong, but that’s one trajectory you see. Another trajectory is, well, history bequeathed us all kinds of injustices and problematic social systems. Also true. We solve those by reforming social conditions, by changing, you know, by improving those social conditions. None of which Niebuhr would say shouldn’t be done, but his point would be our naivety is that we think we can actually finally solve these problems.

I think, again, the lecture—the previous, the prior speaker was talking about this idea that government actually can be ultimate, not penultimate—that we can finally achieve these things, rather than just make them somewhat better. So another quote from Niebuhr: “The hope that everything recalcitrant in human behavior may be brought under the subjection of the inclusive purpose and this purpose is of mind by the same technology which gained man mastery over nature is not merely an incidental illusion prompted by the phenomenal achievement of the natural sciences but it is the culminating error in modern man’s misunderstanding of himself. The principle of comprehension by which modern culture seeks to understand our present failure belongs to the misunderstanding about man’s life in history which contributed to that failure—the spiritual confusions arising from this misunderstanding constitute the cultural crisis of our age beyond and above the political crisis in which our civilization is involved.”

So what Niebuhr is saying is despite all the technological advances we see around us, we misunderstand ourselves and therefore we misunderstand and misapprehend how we can address the problems we face. Famously, for Niebuhr, if you know anything about him, you will know this part of his argument was we needed to recover an understanding of the Christian idea of sin that would be kind of antidote to this naive confidence in human beings’ essential goodness.

He, he ultimately, a little bit more history, he started out as a social gospeler and he ultimately broke with the social gospel movement in part because he just said, “This is naive optimism about human nature and the reality is we’re not what you’re saying we are.” And, and you know, Niebuhr would point both to the biblical revelation and also, again, just say, “Look around you.” He famously said, I am paraphrase here, but you know, the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith is original sin. Read the newspaper.

And so again, by sin he’s, he’s not, it’s a problematic term for all kinds of reasons, again, we can talk about in the Q&A, and that people misunderstand what Christians mean when they talk about sin. What Niebuhr’s talking about is this kind of fundamental brokenness, this kind of fundamental bent away from good—pridefulness, failure, self-importance, partiality, and even moral corruption. And so for Niebuhr, he thought if we can at least recover this conceptually, recover a better understanding of human nature such that we don’t have this kind of misplaced optimism that’s going to be frustrated and going to result in brutal government because government’s going to be frustrated when the optimism doesn’t achieve the result, we can still act but we act more realistically, which is why I think Niebuhr falls into the category of a political realist.

Okay, okay. So let me, let me move from the sort of, if you think in anthropology terms, he’s thinking, understand this kind of divided human nature in which we need to appreciate the brokenness of man. Okay, that’s where you start moving out to his political philosophy which was very much a defense of democracy but what he does is, is rethink and, and almost say upend but offer a different account of a defense of democratic politics or democratic political theory.

And I think we tend to think of, and I think I’m thinking here of, you know, if you, I mean, Jefferson is a great example, sort of read some of the French philosophers, this kind of idealistic idea that we’re gonna free human beings, you know, democracy, the nobility of man. Niebuhr said had none of that. His famous line was, and follow this, man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. In other words, because we have good, because we’re, you know, you can do theological, we’re creating in the image of God, the idea of democratic politics is actually possible. This can work and because we’re corrupt, we need it.

It’s not, you know, it’s not a defense of a kind of return to some kind of authoritarianism and very much the opposite precisely because with authoritarianism, it’s the same thing the founders worried about, you don’t want to consolidate power in a fallen person either. So his defense of democracy is very much grounded on this kind of ambiguity of human nature, really a theological account of human nature rather than some kind of myth of progress or myth perfectibility, some kind of idealism.

So Niebuhr says, “The same radical freedom which makes man creative also makes him potentially destructive and dangerous. The dignity of man and the misery of man, therefore, have the same root. This insight justifies the institutions of democracy more surely than any sentimentality about man, whether liberal or radical.” So in other words, democracy offers us a means to exercise the divine freedom we’re given but also preserve some modicum of political order. Look at my time, okay.

So you’re kind of simultaneously grounding your politics or your political theory in the strength and weakness of human beings. Okay, so that was quick but you’ve got the human nature, man is divided and broken, politics, well, we need democracy. This is the way to work out that problem, that question, well, what does it actually look like in practice? And maybe this is where I think the title Mark gave me was, you know, Niebuhr for today, again, we’re post Trump so we can talk about how this fits but I think it does.

I’m gonna talk about humility, yeah, in the children of light and the children of darkness. Yeah, I was waiting for that, I mean, really, the New York Times, come on, humility, you know, you used to have that, okay. So Niebuhr says, “Democracy, therefore, requires something more than a religious devotion to moral ideals.” In other words, kind of idealism. “It requires religious humility.” I’m going to echo the last speaker again, every absolute devotion to relative political ends and all political ends are relative, is a threat to communal peace. But religious humility is no simple moral or political achievement.

It springs only from the depth of a religion which confronts the individual with a more ultimate majesty and purity than all human majesties and values and persuades him to confess, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God.” And so for Niebuhr, what he’s saying here, and I think it’s very much for the last speaker was saying, is if you understand the penultimacy of your political ends, not that you don’t pursue them but if you recognize that there’s a certain humility and grace that comes with political action that can be lacking if your politics is ultimate, because if your politics is ultimate, your opponent is your enemy and indeed is the enemy of all that is good and just.

If your politics is politics is penultimate, not necessarily so. And that ties, and I’m speeding through this because I want to leave time for questions, that ties to Niebuhr’s account of tolerance. The failure to recognize—and he’s talking here about these idealists again—the failure to recognize the corruption which inserts itself into the statement of moral law by even the most disinterested idealists leads to the naive and politically dangerous conviction that their own ideals are perfect.

In other words, you’re gonna have a bunch of he’s running around trying to tell everybody else how to live all the time. But if we’re aware of our own fallenness, we can act politically. Absent this humility, your political opponents become your political enemies, as I said, and the temptation to leverage the full powers of the state upon recalcitrant elements becomes

oo strong to resist. Okay, a little bit more—a couple of comments in closing, and then I want to open up to questions. So you get this idea of humility, this idea of tolerance, or grace—maybe another way to put it in political life. I think the other two pieces of this are forgiveness and hope.

Niebuhr argues that man does not know himself truly except as he knows himself confronted by God. In this sense, that’s why I say the anthropology is itself theological. You start with this confrontation, and Calvin, beginning his Institutes, has the same idea: knowledge of man, knowledge of God. That’s how you find out who you are—in this confrontation with God, we become fully cognizant of our sin.

And if we’re sinners, the obvious consequence is not only that we will sin, but even when we’re well-intentioned, we may harm the interests and offend the rights of others. Given the technological scope and scale of our society today, given the problems we face, of course, this becomes magnified because our ability to have destructive consequences as a result of our good intentions is much greater. Niebuhr argues in that context that if mistakes are going to happen—and they’re gonna be well-intentioned mistakes—then forgiveness is even more critical.

Forgiveness is the only proper response. Again, from Niebuhr, to the contrite recognition that our actions and attitudes are inevitably interpreted in a different light by our friends as well as our foes than we interpret them. It’s the final oil of harmony in all human relations in a broken world.

Niebuhr discusses the final “oil of harmony” in human relations within a broken world, highlighting the truth that collective human life is invariably tainted by the sin of pride. He acknowledges the pervasive nature of injuries and injustices across different groups, a pertinent issue in contemporary politics. Niebuhr suggests that some harms caused cannot be remedied solely through retributive justice.

He delves into the concepts of forgiveness, faith, hope, and action, emphasizing the Christian faith’s hope in divine power to complete what human efforts cannot. Niebuhr argues that recognizing God’s sovereignty liberates individuals from bearing the full burden of responsibility, fostering humility and forgiveness.

He quotes Niebuhr on life’s lack of simple congruities in history, pointing out that scientific advancements and social triumphs over historic injustices cannot eliminate life’s inherent incongruities. Niebuhr contends that achieving serenity amidst these incongruities, rather than annulment, is the ultimate wisdom of life.

Niebuhr stresses the indispensability of hope, faith, and love in human endeavors, noting that no virtuous act stands unchallenged from different perspectives. He concludes by urging listeners to embrace forgiveness as the ultimate form of love, essential for navigating the complexities of human existence.

In discussing Christian ethics amidst human fallenness, Niebuhr navigates the tension between the command to love one’s neighbor and the moral responsibility to act against injustice. He posits that while striving to approximate the law of love, humanity inevitably falls short, recognizing the complexity and ambiguity inherent in moral decision-making.

Niebuhr’s approach is characterized by a refusal to prescribe a rigid ethical system, instead advocating for a nuanced understanding of human limitations and the imperfection of all human actions. He encourages individuals to act responsibly while recognizing their inevitable imperfections and the need for forgiveness.

Regarding the widespread removal of Christian symbols from public spaces, Niebuhr would likely critique this as emblematic of broader societal conflicts over culture and religious authority. He might argue that such disputes often reflect deeper struggles over identity and values, underscoring the loss of grace and humility in public discourse.

Niebuhr would caution against facile claims of being on the “right side of history,” emphasizing the Christian understanding of historical ambiguity and the ultimate justice enacted by God. He would likely view attempts to align with historical progress as simplistic and potentially divisive, calling instead for humility and a recognition of humanity’s collective sinfulness.

In response to questions about Niebuhr’s relevance today, the lecturer critiques attempts to reduce Niebuhr’s thought to mere relativism or historical irony. Instead, he emphasizes Niebuhr’s synthesis of Christian theology and modern thought, advocating for a serious engagement with both traditions.

The lecturer agrees with the audience member’s characterization of Niebuhr as blending Augustine’s insights on sin with a modern critique of human agency. He clarifies that Niebuhr’s approach critiques perfectionist ideals of action and agency, which is, I’m looking for the morally untainted action that I can choose. I’m thinking of a much more prosaic example, but when people argue, “Well, why do you give money to something? It was totally selfless—no, but you got a tax break,” or “Oh, I felt good,” is there any such thing as real altruism? I think Niebuhr, if you guys have this kind of conversation, would be like, “Who cares? No, probably not. Now go give money.” It’s that kind of thing.

So, I don’t know if that’s fine. He can take me off right now. That’s it. Thank you.