Niebuhr Part 2: Christians in an “Immoral Society”

Last week, I analyzed the basic thesis and orientation of Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society.[1]. This week, my intention is to deal the way in which his basic thesis is flushed out in certain chapters of MMIS. I do not want to repeat Niebuhr’s biography, but merely remind the readers that MMIS represents the early work and thought of this great thinker. Over the years, he modified his views. In particular, the evident Marxist and materialist bias of the early years is not prominent in Niebuhr’s later works, some of which I intend to eventually cover.

The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century impacted the thought of the early Niebuhr. Although by the time he wrote MMIS the problems of the Russian revolution, and in particular its violence and descent into an abuse of power that Niebuhr found offensive, was beginning to disillusion Western Intellectuals, the full extent of the oppression Lenin and Stalin unleashed was not fully known. The gross inefficiencies of Communist economic organization, which would eventually doom the Soviet Union, was also not well known. In Western Europe, the economic stagnation created by the centralized socialist enterprises of Western European nations after World War II was not fully understood until much later, near the end of the 20th Century.

Finally, and most importantly, the impact of contemporary science and the end of the modern world-view, ie. seeing reality as composed of matter and force, and a Cartesian division between mind and matter, had not reached the point where writers like Niebuhr intuitively understood the distortion dualistic and materialistic thinking was making in their understanding of politics. This is a reminder that every generation is captured by worldview that is implicit in the way they see reality and can distort thinking about matters of importance. This is true of ours as well as prior generations. A fair reading of Niebuhr requires keeping these factors in mind.

The Source of Social Conflict

According to Niebuhr, the basic source of social conflicts and injustices is ignorance and selfishness. [2]Enlightenment optimism traditional held that education, both moral and political, would eventually overcome the social conflict and injustice resulting from human finitude and self-centeredness. Niebuhr recognized that this optimism was not warranted and concluded that education and increased reasonableness are not alone sufficient to overcome injustice and social conflict. [3] While human reason and our capacity to act rationality increases our ability to appreciate the needs of others and transcend our innate selfishness, there is a limit to the ability of moral imagination and sympathy to overcome natural human selfishness and class interest.

This is not to say that human beings lack moral capacity. Reason is not the only source of human moral intuition. Thus, Niebuhr writes:

Reason is not the sole basis of moral virtue in man. His social impulses are more deeply rooted than his rational life. Reason may extend and stabilize but it does not create the capacity to affirm other life than it is own.  [4]

Human social capacities are innate and do give human beings a desire to live in harmony with others, especially as concerns family life and those nearest to us.” [5] One sees in this quotation a recognition of the communal aspects of human life and their importance in social life.

While reason and education can broaden the innate moral capacity of human beings, it is not capable of completely overcoming the impact of personal selfishness, class interest, and social norms. This is particularly true where economic and class social advantages are concerned. The very sociability of human beings makes us inclined to support our own family, our own desires, and our own social group to the exclusion of others. Thus, human reason cannot achieve social harmony alone, for the irrational force of human Will to Power, and the limitations upon social reasons, make it impossible for human beings to create a fully just society. [6]

Religion and Social Conflict

The Enlightenment impacted both secular and religious thought. Progressive religious thinkers also became optimistic about the power of human reason to change human beings unjust human social institutions. This optimism was especially evident in the Social Gospel movement previously covered by these blogs. As early as MMIS, Niebuhr moves intellectuals towards a more realistic view of the role of religion in social change. Religion has a role to play, but it is limited.

Religion is fundamentally an orientation towards the Absolute (God), and that Absolute includes a notion of absolute justice and morality. In the case of the Christian religion that absolute is captured by the phrase, “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16). Faced with the absolute holiness and love of God, the Christian is faced with a sense of his or her own sinful inadequacy and failures to love. Thus, Niebuhr begins his analysis with the following observation:

If the recognition of selfishness is the prerequisite to the mitigation of its force and the diminution of its anti-social consequences in society, religion should be a dominant influence in the socialization of man; for religion is fruitful of the spirit of contrition. Feeling himself under the scrutiny of an omniscient eye, and setting his puny will into juxtaposition with a holy and omnipotent will, the religious man is filled with a sense of shame for the impertinence of his self- centered life. [7]

According to Niebuhr, there are two reasons why religion cannot completely fulfill its promise as a source of social change. First, religion deals with the relationship of people and communities with the Absolute. [8] As such, irreligious faith frequently causes those individuals to view as secondary the achievement of social justice. This is particularly evident in mystical or monastic religion where the physical world is denigrated or superseded by the spiritual world.

Secondly, as to the Christian faith, the religious ideal of absolute love can result in a sense of defeatism once it is recognized that absolute love is unachievable within the boundaries of human history, or a sense of powerlessness change the existing social order.

In my view, Niebuhr misconceives the nature of love as it functions in human society. While it is true that Christians proclaim that “God is love,” and a special kind of self-giving love revealed on the cross, this absolute self-giving love in no way creates a sense of defeatism as it is applied in political matters. To the contrary, the love of God is the strongest motive to remain involved in the business of social improvement. The defeatism, if any, is caused by the human propensity to expect too much too quicky and to be impatient with the slow process of wise and loving change.

The distinction between justice and love embedded in Niebuhr’s thought (and om the thought of many of his followers) misconceives the nature of justice. Justice is not something different than love. Justice is the practical application of love in finite and sinful human society. Because human beings are sinful and finite, human society reflects the finitude and sinfulness of its inhabitants. Under these conditions, justice will never be absolute because human love is never fully absolute. Instead, for the Christian, human society is in a process of translating the gospel of love into concrete forms. This is not just true in society. It’s true in the family, marriage, business, every social organization.

This leads to an analysis the role of eschatology in Niebuhr’s thought. The apocalyptic visions of various religions represent the emergence of an ideal society or situation for a religious group. This religious ideal is particularly evident in Jewish and Christian eschatological thinking. Marxism secularized that apocalyptic vision into an ideal society that can be achieved within history and justified the use of violence in the achievement of the “classless society”.

There’s no area of Niebuhr’s thought that is more likely to have changed over the years than this particular area. Although at the time of MMIS Niebuhr was aware that the Russian regime showed signs of substituting an oppressive political elite for an economic elite, the full implications of this revelation had not yet dawned on Niebuhr and others. [9]

Any attempt to forcefully create a perfect world within history is doomed and inevitably results in misuse of power, social violence and tragedy that one sees in 20th century Marxist and Nazi regimes. The propensity to use violence and distort a society in the search for social improvement is not the sole preserve of the upper classes, the middle class, or the proletariat. All classes, in fact all human beings, when placed into power abuse that power. Real social improvement is never revolutionary, but evolutionary involving the cooperation of all of a society.

The Morality of International Affairs

One of the most insightful and important chapters in MMIS has to do with the morality of international affairs. In this chapter, the perceptive social realism of Niebuhr is abundantly evident. He gives many examples to sustain this thesis that international affairs are inevitably selfish and self-centered.

Niebuhr sees the modern nation state as the central and most important social institution. [10] Families, neighborhoods, cities, territorial jurisdictions, business organizations, religious organization and other institutions all these are secondary to the central institution of the nation state. At this point I think Niebuhr makes an error that is endemic in modern thought. The modern nation-state is the result of a long process by which families gather together into tribes, tribes gathered into giving cities towns and other social groupings, and those other social groupings began to coalesce in such a way that the modern nation state was formed. Each of the fundamental levels are important. The greatest single error of the modern social theory is placing too much emphasis on the nation-state while ignoring the other social institutions that make it possible.

This being said, there is no question but what the modern nation state, and its relationship with other nations, and increasingly and its relationships with its own people, does not feel restricted by any form of common morality in its exercise of power. Interestingly, there is a movement to create international courts, the United Nations, and a variety of other institutions for the very purpose of moderating this facet of the modern nation-state. In my view, the movement toward the development of an international legal system may be motivated by a subconscious understanding that the currently existing system of nation states is morally and legally inadequate.

The problem is created by the fact that nation-states are unable to create a collective in which the selfish interests of the collective can be sought on a wider scale. [11] Naturally, the larger the nation state the more effective it is in seeking its own best interests to the exclusion of the interests of others. One particularly perceptive passage, Niebuhr quotes Washington’s dictum that “Nations are not to be trusted beyond their own self-interest.” [12] This was true in every age of human history, not just the modern age.

This tendency to act without concern for the interest of anything or anyone but the nation state results in a huge element of hypocrisy that cannot possibly be avoided given human sin and finitude. Niebuhr gives so many examples that it’s impossible to not realize that the United States has been guilty of this kind of hypocrisy in its history just as have other nations. However, it is important to recognize that there are certain actions which a democratic government cannot do if the voters believe that the action would be immoral or unjust. The final American unwillingness to participate in the Vietnam War is a good example of where a social moral judgment made impossible the continuing prosecution of the war. On the positive side, there’s no question but what the entrance of the United States into the Second World War, which was partially motivated by selfish and secular motives, was accompanied by the moral motive to defend democracy.

Finally, Niebuhr understands that it is impossible to fully ameliorate the selfish tendencies of nations by the use of international authority, which is never impartial and also is itself a source of hypocrisy and injustice. [13] International organizations are often under the control of dominant groups and are therefore used to undermine justice as often as support its extension.


I hoped to conclude these blogs as they relate to MMIS this week, but the book is simply too dense and difficult to permit that to happen. Next week, I will, by some means, find a way to conclude these blogs.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] MMIS, at 23.

[3] Id at 34-35.

[4] Id, at 26.

[5] Id.

[6] Niebuhr is obviously familiar with Nietzsche and makes numerous references to the Will to Power and its impact upon human society in his work. In my view, this is an aspect of the early Niebuhr that reflects his materialism and an implicit division between the subjective ability of human reason to apprehend a moral course of action and a deterministic idea of how social groups work. Obviously, I disagree with this implicit bias of the early Niebuhr. See, MMIS at 35

[7] Id, at 54.

[8] Id, 52.

[9] Id, at 114. “In modern Russia a csass nt ve developing which dependd for its power not upon economic strength but upon the ability to manipulate political power.”

[10] Id, at 83.

[11] Id, at 84.

[12] Id, at 84.

[13] Id, at 110-111.