(Note: Reinhold Niebuhr should not be confused with his brother Richard, who is most known for his classic Christ and Culture.) I was interested that the Wikipedia article on Niebuhr linked to this David Brooks New York Times column from last year:
Back in college (or was it grad school?) one of my profs pointed us to Niebuhr's Moral Man in Immoral Society. I just came across this comment on Niebuhr's thought:
Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”
Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”
So I asked, What do you take away from him?
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.
While individuals in their personal dealings often transcend self–interest (hence "moral man"), nations dealing with other nations, or social classes with other social classes, have little or no capacity for self–transcendence ("immoral society"). Nations and classes have limited understanding of the people they harm by their unjust self–assertion; they lack appreciation for the often complicated laws and institutions through which such injustice is perpetuated; and they are more inclined to embrace rationalizations of self–interest than prophetic denunciations. These facts, for Niebuhr, explain why dominant groups rarely yield their privileges except when put under pressure by some countervailing social force.Does this give us a hint about how a President Obama might govern? Perhaps. It may also be significant that Niebuhr is credited with writing the serenity prayer: "God, grant us grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference." That's not just good Christian realism; that may well be a good philosophy for governance.
Niebuhr’s "Christian realism" was not, however, a Darwinian or Machiavellian ethic of pure struggle and the will to power. Niebuhr stressed the relevance of agape, or Christian love, not as a directly practicable political principle, but as the ideal toward which justice strives and the standard of judgment on all political achievements in history. Moral, rational, and religious appeals might be subordinate factors in the struggle for justice, but Niebuhr still counted them as real: if rational and ethical considerations alone don’t make oppressors yield just concessions to the oppressed, they often do enable them to internalize rather than contest reforms once they are established.