Reinhold Niebuhr on the Ironies of History

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The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1872-1971) influenced generations of
political leaders, including Presidents Carter, Bush 41 and 43, Obama and numerous presidential nominees including John McCain. Best known as the author of the “Serenity Prayer,” Niebuhr became one of the most influential public theologians in American history over a career spanning a half-century. In The Irony of American History, he argued that Americans were tempted to extreme idealism, influenced by their Christian roots. Some Americans are antiwar, anti-imperialist, almost to be the point of being pacifists, embarrassed by power, especially the US as a globally dominant economic, military and political empire, and seek to prevent US intervention in the affairs of other countries as immoral. They “seek to preserve the purity of their souls, either by denouncing military actions or by demanding that every action taken be unequivocally virtuous. They exaggerate the sins committed by their own country, excuse the malevolence of its enemies and, as later polemicists have put it, inevitably blame America first. Niebuhr argued this approach was a pious way to refuse to face real problems.”

Other American idealists equate political power with virtue — might makes right. They rationalize or excuse every American fault or sin as necessary in a sinful world, and rarely if ever acknowledge America’s responsibility or mistakes in the world.

Niebuhr’s writing on politics were published during an expansionary period in America’s influence if not dominance in the world. He supported America’s involvement in World War II, development of nuclear weapons, and the containment policy against communism. However, he came to view the use of nuclear weapons on Japan as “morally indefensible” and he opposed America’s involvement in Vietnam as early as 1965, saying “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation.”

Recognizing that humans are easily misguided, uninformed, tempted by mob action, often morally weak, frail and sinful, he nevertheless did not believe they should blindly or unquestionably obey ordained authority. “Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness,” observed historian Arthur Schlesinger, describing Niebuhr’s views in a NYT op-ed. “He persuaded me and many of my contemporaries that original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectibility. Niebuhr’s analysis was grounded in the Christianity of Augustine and Calvin, but he had, nonetheless, a special affinity with secular circles. His warnings against utopianism, messianism and perfectionism strike a chord today. … We cannot play the role of God to history, and we must strive as best we can to attain decency, clarity and proximate justice in an ambiguous world.”

Niebuhr did not believe in American exceptionalism, and indeed viewed the notion that Americans were especially blessed or especially chosen as heresy. American history proved beyond a reasonable doubt the truth of the doctrine of original sin, he wrote. Americans were not innocents in the world, but often deluded. Schlesinger explained Niebuhr’s view: “Whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor — not much of a background for national innocence.

“Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem,” Niebuhr wrote, “are insufferable in their human contacts.”

A fully accurate historical record will not save human reputations, he wrote. There are few heroes or heroines without Achilles Heels. Humans will not be saved by divine benevolence, divine providence or by presuming it’s their (our) destiny to dominate the earth. They (we) can only be saved by hope in the future, faith, love, and ultimately, forgiveness.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness,” he wrote.

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