George Dennis O'Brien

John Patrick Diggins was raised a Catholic but said “in the early 1950s I lost my faith and found my mind.” He went on to be a distinguished American intellectual historian, the author of books on such diverse cultural figures as Abraham Lincoln and Eugene O’Neill. He died in 2009 before completing a manuscript of the present book. (The final version was assembled by his partner, Elizabeth Harlan, and his most prized student, Robert Huberty). Given Diggins’s personal history and academic specialty, it is not Niebuhr’s theology that is the focus of this brief study, but Reinhold Niebuhr as a critic of American history. On that subject he remains a powerful voice.

In the brief compass of 117 pages, Niebuhr is placed in conversation with commentators on America from John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville to Henry Adams and Walter Lippmann. Diggins’s brief summaries of the various commentators on the American soul are pointed. The only limitation is that it can be difficult to capture the depth of the great quarrel about the American soul when major thinkers like Thorstein Veblen or John Dewey appear only as walk-ons.

Reinhold Niebuhr died in 1971. Why Niebuhr now? Because political advocates left and right have recently claimed his legacy as their own. The right applauds his legitimation of American military power, the left lays claim to his deep concern for social justice. If Niebuhr right and left seems a paradox, it is because paradox is central to his thought. Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize speech, in which he acknowledged the paradox of a peace prize given to the commander-in-chief of two wars, was straight Niebuhr—as was noted by many commentators.

Through the crises of the Depression, World War II and the cold war, Reinhold Niebuhr was an ever-present figure in public debate in books, preaching, articles, speeches and as a consultant to the State Department. The cover of the 25th anniversary of Time magazine featured his picture. (The article was by Whittaker Chambers.) Given the gloomy history of poverty and war through which he lived, one can understand the appeal of his thought. Niebuhr saw human beings as free but finite. The inevitable failure to resolve freedom and finitude shadows even our best actions. A quip that appeared in the London Times Literary Supplement was a special favorite of Niebuhr: “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”

To the dismay of rational or religious idealists who see clear human progress through reason or ardent faith, Niebuhr posited the persistence of sin. Why? The realism of power. Diggins comments on Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932): “Niebuhr agreed that individuals may use their capacity for reason and the love of God to transcend their natural drives and self interest, but he argued that the individual conscience is lost as soon as human behavior becomes collective.”

Given the paradox of power, it is easy enough to see why right-wing political conservatives claim Niebuhr. Individuals can be moral, but collective behavior leads to overweening government. To them, socialism is sin. The left has its own concerns about collective power. It is not the government that is the true enemy, it is the concentrated power of industrial capital that threatens the quest for a just society. In the 1920s Niebuhr was a pastor in Detroit. He was appalled by urban poverty and during his life was deeply involved in the labor movement. The collective power of labor was needed to check the sovereignty of corporations. He supported New Deal legislation and helped found the “left wing” Americans for Democratic Action.

In 1928 Niebuhr moved to Union Theological Seminary in New York as professor of practical theology. What stance should a professor of practical theology take toward the growth of Nazism and the war which eventuated from German aggression? John Dewey, a consistent critic of Niebuhr, spoke from the presumed standpoint of reason and liberalism in a 1939 article “No Matter What Happens—Stay Out!” If reason said, “Stay out!” so did many Christian commentators caught up in Oxford Group pacifism. Niebuhr rejected isolationism and pacifism as idealistic; neither knew sin. Peace with Hitler would not come from rational dialogue or prayer; it required the assertion of military power. Power is not, however, self-justifying; it too stands convicted of sin. Niebuhr defended the war but publicly condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a sin against the law of God and the Japanese people.

For Niebuhr, sinful use of power can be a special American temptation. If America is John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” patriotism will take on a high moral gloss. Americans will go to war only for the very highest motives. The great Civil War anthem begins, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” World War I would “make the world safe for Democracy.” Niebuhr’s comment is telling:

The paradox of patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. Loyalty to the nation is the highest form of altruism when compared to lesser loyalties and more parochial interests. It...expresses itself, on occasion, with such fervor that the critical attitude toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified character of the devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and the freedom to use power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations.

Given our present wars pursued for nothing less than freedom, Niebuhr’s warning about sin remains.

Theological Postscript: Not many theologians make the front page of anything. Another theologian to make a Time cover was Stanley Hauerwas in 2001, the same year that he delivered the Gifford Lectures, the same lectureship that was the basis of Niebuhr’s major work, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1939). Hauerwas devoted two long lectures to questioning Niebuhr as a theologian. There is something to that charge.

Diggins notes that Niebuhr never offered any argument for the existence of God, and God is never mentioned in the titles of his many books. What impressed Niebuhr was sin: “the only empirically verifiable truth of Christian faith.” Hauerwas questioned whether God can be reached by “empirical truth.” Do we need “sin” to believe Lord Acton’s epigram, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Sin is a peculiarly religious notion that reaches beyond mere history. Hauerwas argues that Niebuhr, like William James, justified only the will to believe, not belief itself. There can be practical consequences. Niebuhr’s empirical history can, when pressed, necessitate war. For Hauerwas, God’s Word in Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek.

George Dennis O’Brien, a philosopher, is former president of the University of Rochester.