Niebuhr and the Ability of Religion to Generate Social Justice
Illinois State University
Towards Social Justice
Niebuhr was motivated by his desire to create social justice. While Niebuhr never articulated a clear definition of justice
in his writings, he made it clear that his overarching goal was to divine a
method to improve social justice. Niebuhr
understood justice as a relative term, which could only be discussed in its
historical context. However,
Niebuhr did believe that justice should ideally contain some basic elements.
Niebuhr asserted that justice is dependent on a ďbalance of powerĒ
(Harland 53, 1960). A just society
ensures that all people have access to the instruments of power, and differing
interests have equal opportunities to compete for resources.
A just society provides ďthe diffusion and balancing of powerĒ
(Harland 25, 1960). In addition, the highest forms of justice will incorporate
equality among the members of society (Harland 1960). So while Niebuhr would not articulate a final form of justice
because he believed it was entirely relative, he was able to identify at least
some elements that he considered to be the core of a better justice.
In order to achieve the
greatest amount of justice in society, Niebuhr considered a number of political
and social movements. Niebuhr
considered grass roots activism and revolutionary Marxism before finally
concluding that democracy was the best method to guarantee social justice (Merkley
1975). But Niebuhr was not
satisfied with traditional descriptions of democracy.
Niebuhr proposed that conventional forms of democracy, such as that
advocated by John Locke, lacked the moral resources to create greater amounts of
justice. In fact, Niebuhr also
proposed that the ideals behind traditional liberal democracy left liberal
democratic governments open to assault from forces that could actually reduce
the overall justice of a society. Niebuhr
reasoned that traditional liberal democracy created a great deal of freedom for
the individual, particularly in the realm of economics.
From this economic sphere it becomes possible for one individual to pay
low wages, create terrible work environments or harass workers.
This situation reduces the amount of justice in society, and shows the
lack of true justice in traditional liberal democracy.
Upon realizing this flaw in liberal democracy, Niebuhr suggested a method
to correct the flaws of liberal democracy.
In order to amend liberal democracy and make it more just, Niebuhr argued
for a liberal democratic culture informed with Christian values (Stone 1972). Niebuhr proposed a unique vision of liberal democracy, which
has the potential to effectively create a more just society.
This approach to redeeming liberal democracy is particularly important in
the modern context. Clearly, modern liberal democracies are still facing problems
of intolerance, crime, and social irresponsibility. In addition, recently President George W. Bush has proposed a
faith-based initiative, which would use federal funds to assist religious orders
that provide social services (Bush 2001). Thus, in the modern political context, Niebuhrís approach
of mixing government with religious values seems to have come to fruition.
Thus, the topic of the role of religious values in public life is very
relevant. In order to understand
how Niebuhr would create this more just society it is necessary to examine the
benefits and problems of traditional liberal democracy, and finally discuss the
advantages and pitfalls of incorporating Christian-influenced values into modern
The Political Thought
of Reinhold Niebuhr
Reinhold Niebuhrís vision of democracy contains two primary aspects.
First, Niebuhr was preoccupied with social justice.
Second, Niebuhr argued that religious values could play a key component
in fulfilling his desires of achieving greater social justice.
To being, Niebuhr has a true and deep concern for the fate of humanity.
Justice, for Niebuhr, was more than just a negative freedom that ensured
individual liberty and equal opportunity. Niebuhr
endorsed a stronger formulation of justice, which incorporated ideals of
empowerment and positive freedoms, such as economic equality.
Niebuhrís politics were progressive, and he was preoccupied with
improving the welfare of the masses (Tracy 1996).
Niebuhr endorsed approaches from social movements to Communist
revolutions to attain a more just society (Merkley 1975).
Additionally, Niebuhrís dedication to justice manifested itself in a
very flexible manner. Niebuhr was
willing to consider many ideas, revise, and reject those that he found incapable
of creating justice. Niebuhrís
flexibility makes him a pragmatist (Anderson 1990).
Niebuhr was willing to change his approach, if he believed his current
approach was unable to create justice (Harland 1960).
Thus, Niebuhr shows his concern for humanity by shifting to ideas which
he believes are actually capable of helping people.
Niebuhr exhibited an acute sense of social responsibility.
Niebuhr was dedicated to creating a better society, and to advance this
idea, he was willing to consider a wide array of approaches.
While it is important to realize that Niebuhr was dedicated to
progressive ideas, it is essential to be aware of the role that religion played
in Niebuhrís politics. Religion
was central to Niebuhrís progressive politics (Merkley 1975).
In fact, Niebuhrís political goal of justice results from his religious
beliefs. Niebuhr believed that
unconditional love was the core value of religion; arguing, ďa religions ethic
makes love the idealĒ (Niebuhr 57, 1960b).
Niebuhr would have society based on agape, or a love of community (Stone
1972). Niebuhrís love ethic was
absolute, pure, and entailed the individual deferring their needs before the
needs of others (Harland 1960). This
formulation of religion would provide the foundation for a public commitment to
greater social justice by establishing an emphatic bond between people and
stimulating kindness through love.
While Niebuhr did hold his love ethic in the highest regard, he was aware
of the flaw that agape love was not a practical foundation from which to build
an effective political agenda. While
there may be a need for more love in the world in order to create peace and
justice, there is a distinct problem with this approach. Simply put, it is very questionable whether each individual
can really be expected to love everyone. Niebuhrís
approach, while capable of bestowing benefits such as peaceful coexistence,
seems nearly impossible to put in the practice.
Niebuhr realized this flaw when he stated, ďall men cannot be expected
to be spiritualĒ (Niebuhr 73, 1960b). Additionally,
this selfless agape love would be competing for dominance among nationalism,
self-interest, reason, and other political ideologies.
So, love may be unable to motivate all people.
More troublesome is that Niebuhrís love ethic has the goal of being
completely selfless. A selfless
individual is at risk of exploitation from other individuals.
While this arguably may be an acceptable risk for the individual, Niebuhr
asserts that a leader does not have the right to be selfless and place his or
her followers at risk. Since modern
society is based around government and international interaction, it would be
morally irresponsible for a legislator to put her constituency at risk because
of her own belief in a selfless love ethic (Niebuhr 1960b).
Thus, Niebuhr viewed love as a naÔve and impractical tool that would be
unable to achieve the hoped for results of social harmony in the Ďrealí
The realization that love
was an unsuitable approach to politics rightly led Niebuhr to other
considerations. Niebuhr ultimately
hailed justice as an imperfect but sufficient replacement for love.
Justice is the real world, relativistic, political version of love.
Justice is neither as powerful nor transcendent as love.
In fact, love is more important than justice (Harland 1960).
However, Niebuhr claimed that justice was ďthe relative social
embodiment of love and as such it is an approximation of loveĒ (Harland 23,
1960). Niebuhr argued ďharmonious social relations depend upon the
sense of justice as much as, or more than, upon the sentiment of benevolenceĒ
(Niebuhr 29, 1960b). Niebuhr
believed that justice was a necessary component for a good society, and an
imperfect but suitable replacement for a love ethic.
Niebuhr maintained that a society with greater justice was also a society
with greater amounts of love. Justice
is simply an imperfect replacement for love with more realistic goals.
As mentioned previously, Niebuhr argued that justice derives from an
equitable division of resources whether economic, political, or otherwise.
Thus competing factions would not be influenced by a love ethic that
might deny themselves potential benefits (Niebuhr 1960b).
But under a justice ethic they would be restrained from monopolizing or
exploitative behavior. Through this
thought process, Niebuhr realizes that his goal is to create a just society
because a society mobilized under the superior love ethic is too difficult to
achieve and ultimately unwarranted because of the efficacy of justice.
Thus it is possible to witness the important and influential role that
religion played in shaping Niebuhrís thought.
Justice was central to Niebuhrís thought; intimately held because of
its close association with his religious ideals.
It is evident that politics and religion were interactive for Niebuhr,
and justice was a goal he felt motivated to seek because of religious
a better understanding of the source of Niebuhrís political thought, including
an understanding of the importance of progressive change and religion in
Niebuhrís life, it is now possible to begin the discussion of how Niebuhr
would achieve greater social justice. This
study intends to examine the role that religion played in Niebuhrís quest for
justice. Primarily, Niebuhr
asserted that religious values could create a democracy that was more just.
This study will examine what values Niebuhr argues need to be
incorporated into democracy, and how those values will improve society.
In addition, this study will also discuss the potential benefits and
problems with Niebuhrís religious approach to democracy.
Niebuhr argued that
democracy was the political system that had the most potential to create justice
in society. Niebuhr considered
other political solutions to the problem of justice.
Perhaps most infamously, Niebuhr flirted with the idea of Communismís
ability to establish political and economic justice (Niebuhr 1960b).
Ultimately, Niebuhr realized that Communism was a utopian vision that
placed too much power in the hands of the few (Niebuhr 1960a; Niebuhr 1977).
Realizing these flaws in Communism, Niebuhr began to consider other
possibilities to form a more just society.
Niebuhr believed that democracy had the ability to create social justice
because of its purported dedication to ideals of political equality, compromise,
and liberty. In addition, Niebuhr
believed that democracy provided a political system that was conducive for
fashioning a more just society because the source of power was the citizens, who
could then direct government according to their own needs.
Niebuhr believed that
liberal democracy could attain a more just society because it was based upon
ideals that sought the overall betterment of society.
Niebuhr admired ideals such as pluralism, liberty, equality, democratic
elections, and the capacity to change. Niebuhr
argued that liberal democracy has ďa touching faith in the possibility of
achieving a simple harmony,Ē where people can coexist and settle disputes in a
non-violent manner (Niebuhr 7, 1960a). A
liberal system is really interested in achieving the betterment of both
individuals and society as a whole (Niebuhr 1960).
Niebuhr admired this goal. Niebuhr
decided that liberal democracy was a political system that was consistent with
his own values of achieving social justice.
Niebuhr argued that liberal democracy was a system with core values that
were positive and utilitarian; this approach was capable of increasing social
justice. Niebuhr also approved of
free democratic elections, because through them it was possible for the citizens
to voice their needs and take action to have their concerns met. Since Niebuhr argued that liberal democracy had potential to
generate greater amounts of justice, he chose it as his ideal political system.
not only approved of the positive vision of liberal democracy, he also respected
the sense of responsibility that was inherent in liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy is generally understood to be a free society, with
certain rights such as freedom of speech, open elections, equality, protection
of privacy, the right to assemble, religious tolerance, and so on. Niebuhr admired the guaranteed rights and liberties which
liberal democracy provided (Niebuhr 1960a).
Many of these values, such as equality, are consistent with Niebuhrís
own description of a just society. Liberal
democracy is a system in which an individualís rights are protected to some
extent. Since rights are clearly
labeled, and a system is established by which these rights can be defended, a
situation in created where individuals are aware of their rights and are in a
position to gain new rights or halt the removal of existing rights.
Thus, liberal democratic societies are ones in which justice has some
type of formal protection. This
system makes liberal democracy resistant to tyranny and injustice.
Niebuhr admired this burgeoning responsibility in liberal democracy.
Thus, Niebuhr admired the values behind liberal democracy that were
optimistic while providing for the protection of what justice has already been
While Niebuhr admired the
value system that formed the liberal democratic thought, he also approved of the
institutional political system of liberal democracy.
Niebuhr attested that the most important instrumental manifestation of
liberal democracy was the emphasis on controlled power.
Liberal democracy distributes power among different branches and
individuals, creating a situation where there is no centralized or all-powerful
figure (Niebuhr 1960a). Niebuhr
argued this distribution of power was an ingenious method to prevent tyranny
from arising. A system of diffused
power relations allows individuals to seek power in their own society. Because the power is so heavily divided, no individual or
faction can easily establish a monopoly on all the power (Stone 1972).
The accumulation of power in the hands of a few would have negative
tyrannical implications and would be detrimental to the sanctity of liberal
democratic ideals. So,
liberal democracy allows for people to satisfy their need to achieve power
without endangering the democratic character of society as a whole.
Niebuhr argued that a well-formulated liberal democracy should be able to
avoid problems with unchecked powers running rampant (Niebuhr 1960).
Niebuhr supported the controlled political atmosphere that was created in
a liberal democracy because he felt it was a secure system resistant to
injustices, such as the arbitrary abuse of power.
While political control was
the primary instrumental benefit of liberal democracy, Niebuhr also approved of
the malleable nature of liberal democracy.
Niebuhr argued that liberal democracy is one of the few political systems
that is open and accepting of internal criticism (Niebuhr 1960a).
More importantly, the internal criticism is actually capable of eliciting
change in liberal democratic society. Since
liberal democracy is democratic, and responsive to its citizens, it is possible
for individuals to create change, albeit slowly at times (Niebuhr 1960a).
Additionally, Niebuhr was receptive to the fact that change was never
complete in a liberal democracy. Since
change in liberal democratic society is dependent on a legislature and executive
branch at the least, as well as opposition from other groups, all of the
solutions achieved will be proximate (Harland 1960).
Niebuhr believed that absolute solutions were not possible in an earthly
context. In fact, a belief in
absolute solutions can be dangerous according to Niebuhr (Niebuhr 1960a). Liberal democracy is a system designed where ongoing dialogue
is necessary and proximate solutions are the only variety of solutions possible.
So, Niebuhr approved of the ability of liberal democracy to be flexible,
as well as its dedication to incomplete but plausible solutions.
Overall, Niebuhr approved of liberal democracy because it appeared to be
a system with values with benefited society encapsulated in a system that
controlled power and prevented tyranny.
in Liberal Democracy
Despite his positive
endorsement of liberal democracy as a political system with the potential to
enact just practices, Niebuhr also suggested that liberal democracy was
seriously flawed. Niebuhr argued
that these flaws were so extreme that they were a legitimate threat to liberal
democracyís continuation as well as the justice that liberal democracy was
capable of achieving. The major
flaw of liberal democracy is its optimistic evaluation of human nature.
Niebuhr argues that liberal democracy is ďa wave of boundless social
optimismÖ[which rejects] the Christian doctrine of original sinĒ (Niebuhr
16, 1960a). This initial optimism
about human nature evolves into a sense of aggressive individualism, which has
created a destructive modern society. In order to understand this flaw of liberal democracy, and
its evolution into a destructive force, it is necessary to first establish the
source of liberal democracyís optimism about human nature.
Liberal democracy assumes that people are essentially rational creatures.
John Locke and utilitarian thinkers present theories that are based on
the individual being ruled exclusively by an unadulterated inner reason (Niebuhr
1960a). This inner reason guides
individuals to the understanding that counterproductive for the individual to
act purely selfishly; instead, it is better to act to improve the situation of
the group. Unfortunately, the
premise that reason has an inherent moral component is flawed; reliance on
reason alone is incapable of creating moral behavior.
Too often, theorists such as Locke propose that reason can ďtransmute
egotism into a concern for the general welfareĒ (Niebuhr 27, 1960a).
Liberal thinkers assume that people are rational and always behave
rationally, and thus for the good of humanity and not their own self-interest.
The belief that people are
rational, and hence good, has led to an endorsement of strong individualism in
modern society. Liberal democracy
presupposes that people will act rationally, and those rational actions will
improve society. So few political
or economic restraints are placed upon people because liberal democrats assume
achievements by individuals in these areas will benefit all.
Some individuals utilize this freedom to amass large amounts of power
that can be difficult to control. In
addition, the growth of individualism creates an atmosphere that is oblivious to
the unavoidable interdependence of individuals within a society; thus, a
situation is created where those who are in need of assistance may have
difficulty finding it. An
individualistic society may be one without concern for the general welfare and
without adequate social programs to assist the less fortunate (Niebuhr 1960b).
Individualistic societies also generate laws and measures to influence
and protect the individual, and not the group.
Thus groups may either exhibit large amounts of power or be subject to
great amounts of suffering which traditional liberal democracy is not designed
to address (Niebuhr 1960b). Hence,
liberal democracy is an optimistic system that fosters an individualistic
approach to all aspects from society, including government and economics.
The fundamental flaw of this
optimistic approach, according to Niebuhr, is that neither humanity nor
instrumental reason is as benevolent as liberal theorists presume.
Niebuhr argues, ďhuman intelligence is never as pure an instrument of
the universal perspective as the liberal democratic theory assumesĒ (Niebuhr
29, 1960a). Niebuhr believes that
people are not always completely rational, and that irrational impulses are very
powerful. Among the powerful forces
that play a role in the human condition is self-interest (Harland 1960; Merkley
1975). Modern liberal thinkers
assume that self-interest is weak and unimportant.
Niebuhr argues the opposite. Niebuhr
views self-interest as an intrinsic and powerful force in human nature.
Niebuhr does not believe that poorly designed institutions produce evil
people (Niebuhr 1960a). Niebuhr
believes that people are naturally capable of evil, whether consciously or
unconsciously (Harland 1960). Niebuhr
believes that original sin is real, and influences all people to act in an
antisocial manner (Niebuhr 1960a). This
different understanding of human nature leads to a significant split between
Niebuhr and traditional liberal democracy; Niebuhr is assaulting the very
foundation of liberal ideas. Niebuhr
asserts that liberal democracyís positive evaluation of human nature leaves it
open to exploitation by self-interested forces, or even tyranny.
Essentially, liberal democracy is a system that has not erected
sufficient defenses against the more negative aspects of humanity.
This optimistic view of human nature has, in accordance with Niebuhrís
predictions, led to a negative impact on society.
For example, while the United States maintains a political realism which
admits the evils of human nature, oftentimes the lessons of a self-interested
humanity are forgotten when the economic sphere is considered (Niebuhr 1960). The
United States is an intensely capitalist system, and it is often assumed that
the forces of capitalism will benefit all of society.
Niebuhr argues that this assumption is overly optimistic, and displays
too much faith in individualism by allowing individuals to pursue their own
economic interests without restraint. Niebuhr
argues if individuals are allowed to pursue their economic ends without any type
of control, an individual can obtain sufficient property so that he will become
ďstrong enough to become an instrument of aggression and usurpationĒ (Niebuhr
99, 1960a). Thus some individuals
will gain unwarranted and potentially dangerous economic superiority by gaining
capital. In order to continue
pursuing economic greatness, individuals with capital will exploit workers under
poor conditions and at low wages. Those
without capital will be ground down by society (Niebuhr 1960b).
Since liberal society creates an individualistic atmosphere, workers have
very little recourse because society undermines incentives for organizing
collectively. Thus, the optimism of
liberal democracy produces a society that is fundamentally unjust to some and
undercuts the original goal of justice.
Perhaps most threatening is
the irreversible situation that is created by the optimism of liberal democracy.
Optimism creates a situation where the beguiling can take advantage of
the naÔve. Once those who have
achieved power have obtained it, they will be unwilling to relinquish any of the
power they have obtained (Niebuhr 1960b). The
powerful factions in society will act to maintain their power, and continue the
powerlessness of other factions. The
gulf between the two groups will widen over time, and more injustice will be
enacted upon the powerless. Thus,
it will only become harder to remedy this inequity as time progresses.
As the powerful classes gain supremacy, they will progress into a more
oppressive and unethical class (Niebuhr 1960b).
In the final summary, liberal democracy is a theory that is based upon
the optimism of humanity because it assumes humanity is rational and thus moral.
This optimism leads to a lack of societal controls on individuals.
However, the base nature of humanity insures that at least some
individuals will take advantage of this situation to exploit others for their
own benefit. As the exploiters gain
power, they will become even more unethical and unwilling to relinquish power.
Thus, the situation will only become increasingly unjust.
For Niebuhr, liberal democracy is a system with potential, but which
contains fundamental flaws that have resulted in injustice and an insecure
for Liberal Democracy
Niebuhr was aware of the
flaw of optimism in liberal democracy. Since
he maintained faith in the ability of liberal democracy to achieve justice, and
since justice was his overarching goal, Niebuhr sought a method that could
repair the flaws of liberal democracy. Ultimately,
Niebuhr would argue that religion was capable of countering the structural
problems of liberal democracy. Niebuhr
argued that religion could solve the flaw of optimism, as well as impart other
important values that would allow liberal democracy to achieve the justice its
ideals promise. Before discussing
the values that Niebuhr believed religion could impart to democracy, it is
necessary to discuss which religion Niebuhr would use to improve democracy.
Niebuhr favored, without question, a Judeo-Christian approach (Merkley
1975). In fact, Niebuhr
consistently maintained that other world religions, such as Eastern religions,
did not contain the proper values or were too Ďmysticalí to effectively
spread the necessary values (Niebuhr 1960a).
Additionally, Niebuhr did not consider any one form of Christianity to be
perfectly suited to the establishment of a more perfect liberal democracy.
example, Niebuhr argued that the Catholic Church was too centered on natural
law, with its implicit optimism of human nature, and thereby was unsuitable for
improving democracy (Niebuhr 1960a). Likewise,
Niebuhr asserted that the traditional Protestant approach placed too much
emphasis on individualism, which led to the problem of the individual gaining
power and wreaking havoc without any type of societal restraint (Niebuhr 1960a).
Finally, Niebuhrís approach rejected fundamentalism, both highly
emotional and intensely spiritual versions.
Niebuhr argued for a religious approach that utilized reason, as a
controlling factor against the irrationality and dogmatism of religion (Harland
1960). Niebuhr endorsed a unique
Christian approach, which was progressive in tone, subdued, and intellectual
(Tracy 1996). Niebuhrís religious
values most closely resemble the Protestant Social Gospel movement of the 1920s
(Merkley 1975). It is a religious
approach that is concerned with assisting society and open to self-criticism.
Social gospel combined idealist goals with a realistic approach. Social gospel understands that failures will occur due to
human fallibility (Merkley 1975). Niebuhr
utilized a Protestant social gospel background, informed by an acceptance of
secular ideas of justice to formulate the values which liberal democracy
The most important value
which liberal democracy could extract from a modified Protestant approach is an
understanding of the depraved nature of humanity.
Liberal democracy, while admitting that people are flawed, ultimately
assumes that humanity is essentially good.
Due to his religious background, Niebuhr saw humanity through a dualistic
lens. Niebuhr was a strong advocate
of the original sin doctrine, and believed that humanity while capable of good,
could also do unspeakable evil (Harland 1960).
The rise of fascist regimes from democratic governments, which occurred
during Niebuhrís lifetime, adds legitimacy to this conclusion of a base
humanity. Niebuhr argued that a
modified Protestant approach would indoctrinate people with an understanding of
humanity as capable of evil (Niebuhr 1960a).
Individuals informed by this approach would understand the flawed nature
of humanity. Niebuhr believed that
if humanity began to question its own inherent goodness, then measures would be
undertaken to protect society from its own members (Niebuhr 1960a).
Furthermore, the religious approach may motivate people to believe in
their own faults more intensely. Thus,
the defense mechanisms humanity enacts against itself may spread beyond the
purely political and into the economic or private spheres as well.
Since a truly Protestant democracy would be willing to address the banal
nature of humanity, it would be able to design a system that is more impervious
to control by evil and self-interested groups.
Hence a modified Protestant approach to government and economics would be
an important boon to creating a more just society.
While Niebuhrís modified
Protestant doctrine is capable of solving his primary complaint with liberal
democracy, Niebuhr also believed that his approach would spread other important
values to modern liberal democracies. One
of the primary values that Niebuhrís Christianity would lend to liberal
democracy is a greater degree of respect for the individual.
This is not the radical individualism of liberal democracy, which views
the individual as atomistic and separate from others.
Instead, this conception of the individual moves beyond self-worth and
grants worth to other individuals as well.
Christianity, as a whole, appreciates ďthe unique worth of the
individual and locates that dignity in the position he holds before GodĒ
(Harland 171, 1960). In fact, this
sense of the individualís worth before God was one of the root sources of
equality in modern times (Niebuhr 1960a). Niebuhr
argued that by enhancing the role of Protestantism in society, the ideal of
equality would gain more importance. That
dedication to equality would lead to greater justice (Harland 1960).
Niebuhr argues that by superimposing over society a superior, divine
being which views all people as equal, individuals will begin to internalize and
act upon equality values themselves. As
people gain respect for others in this manner, they will treat each other more
civilly and assist each other more often. Therefore,
understanding the equality of human beings on a spiritual level would lead to
legislation that enhances political, economic, and social equality. Niebuhr firmly believed that his brand of Protestantism would
create a more equal, and therefore a more just society.
Another value that Niebuhr
desired for his modified Protest theory to pass to liberal democracy was a
greater degree of humility. For
most Christian sects, pride ďis the very quintessence of sinĒ (Niebuhr 135,
1960a). Niebuhrís religious
approach would emphasize the importance of humility.
This emphasis on humility should lead to a more humble populace.
Humility leads to tolerance, which is important because modern democratic
societies will also be diverse societies composed of many groups of different
people (Niebuhr 1960a). A tolerant
society is a more peaceful, less acerbic, and less violent society, which should
be more just. In addition,
tolerance of others should positively affect the willingness of different groups
to assist each other, and engage in productive negotiation in the political
arena. Tolerance and humility would
reduce the arrogance in a society and may lead those in power to understand the
tenuous nature of their opulent lifestyle.
Thus, social assistance programs may be more plausible in a more humble
nation. Niebuhr argued that
tolerance was a core value of his modified Christianity, and that stressing
tolerance would lead to a more just society.
An example of the benefits
of a respect and tolerance in society can be witnessed through a discussion of
economic justice. Niebuhr
consistently maintained that economic justice was a vital issue for any society
seeking to achieve a more complete justice (Merkley 1975).
Niebuhr asserted, ďthe property issue mustÖbe continually solved
within the framework of the democratic processĒ (Niebuhr 115, 1960).
Should the upper classes respect workers as individuals and begin to view
their own position humbly, it seems possible that some type of mixed communist
and capitalist economy could more easily be established.
Thus, working classes would benefit from respect and humility in society,
and a greater degree of justice would be conceived.
Niebuhr believed that Protestant derived values in society would enable
society to begin to achieve these concrete goals.
Finally, Niebuhr believed that the incorporation of his modified
Protestant approach would lead to a democracy in which the sense of authority
flowed from above. Niebuhr argued
that using religion in politics would lead people to the understanding that
there is an authority beyond the state. If
people believe that there is an authority above government, individuals will not
blindly follow the government (Harland 1960).
This higher source of guidance provides individuals with the moral
strength to critique the government. A
government that is under question by an active moral force is a government that
is in a position to create greater social justice because people will be more
inclined to raise problems in government or society, and thereby address
societal concerns. Further, if the
higher source was a moral source, than people would be motivated to seek more
moral and just goals (Niebuhr 1960a). Additionally,
a questioning religious approach would keep people more involved in government,
and participation is necessary for democracy (Dahl 1998).
Niebuhrís modified Protestant approach to liberal democracy supplies a
crusading spirit that will help ensure that unjust laws are not perpetuated in
an unjust society.
Niebuhr asserted that the
value of a higher authority was particularly important for liberal democracy to
incorporate into its rhetoric. Niebuhr argued that the assumption that a secular government
was the highest authority was a situation was ripe for tyranny.
Niebuhr argued that too much secularism, without religious values, led to
moral nihilism and despair (Niebuhr 1960a).
The state is unable to fulfill the entire moral and spiritual needs of
the individual; the state simply lacks the depth to supply meaning for an
individual. If the state is relied
on as the sole authority, than a vacuum is created.
This vacuum could be filled quickly by a secular religion, such as
Nazism. Niebuhr believed that a
Christian society would be less susceptible to the guiles of Nazism.
A Christian society would have an alternative value system at work, to
compete with the secular religion of a fascist government.
In fact, he argued that a modified Christian society would be able to
identify and mobilize against such a fascist evil (Merkley 1975).
The modified Protestant theology of Reinhold Niebuhr provides for a
superior authority to the government that can prevent the invasion of
authoritarian forces into democratic society.
Ultimately, Niebuhr argued
that a modified Protestant theology was necessary to preserve liberal democracy.
The introduction of the religious ideas of the evil potential of
humanity, respect for others, tolerance, and the introduction of a greater
authority could create a more just liberal democratic society.
In the end, Niebuhr endorses values that would benefit almost any
society. Niebuhr felt that these
values would make a society that was more civil, altruistic, willing to enact
barriers against self-interest, and capable of intercepting and emasculating
tyrannical forces. Niebuhrís
desire for civility and a peaceful life is not ridiculous and should be admired.
Niebuhr also encompassed pluralist ideas such as diffusion of power,
equal access, and compromise (Dye and Zeigler 1978).
For Niebuhr, religion is not at odds with liberal democracy.
Instead, Protestant tinged religious values enhance current, weakly held
democratic values. In Niebuhrís
view, the passage of the individual through religious ideals is one method to
construct a stronger (and even more democratic) liberal democracy.
of Religion in Democracy
When Niebuhr proposed a
Protestant-derived democratic government, he set forth a plausible and
compelling ideology. Niebuhrís
approach to liberal democracy contains at least three primary advantages.
Niebuhr describes a system that promotes justice, gives moral definition
to society, and utilizes an effective method to spread values.
To begin, Niebuhr prescribes a system that, if followed, will increase
the amount of justice in a society. While
Niebuhr only articulated a few values that he believed were necessary for
justice, such as balance of power, equality, and open access, it is clear that
his Protestant democracy fulfills these goals (Harland 1960).
For example, Niebuhrís approach includes an understanding of the base
nature of humanity. Comprehension
of this issue should lead a society to implement policies that control the
amount of power that individuals, because of their imperfect nature, are allowed
to obtain and control. Additionally,
Niebuhrís approach openly calls for equality among citizens because of the
equality of all before God; equality was a value that Niebuhr recognized as
necessary in truly just societies (Harland 1960). Through this equal treatment, people are given equal
opportunity and equivalent treatment before the law.
Also, respect and tolerance for others will help increase the
opportunities for all people to be granted access to the decision making
process. Thereby, equal access will
be granted in Niebuhrís modified democracy.
It is without question that if the values Niebuhr targeted as key in his
religious democracy were successfully transferred to the populace, a more just
society would be created. Niebuhr
articulated that his values would create a society which would be more civil,
open, and malleable than current liberal democratic governments.
While Niebuhr never clearly defined his conception of justice, a society
that treats its members fairly and is resistant to tyranny would be a society
which has begun to achieve a greater justice.
But Niebuhrís approach was capable of achieving more than its primary
goal of creating a more just society. A
religious approach to politics could act to give ďmoral definition and
direction to American public life and policyĒ (Neuhaus 59, 1984).
Niebuhr presented a blistering argument against the reliance on reason
alone in politics, and its inability to give appropriate guidance to individuals
or defense against evils, such as fascism (Niebuhr 1960a; Niebuhr1977).
Niebuhr believed that a wholly secular approach was detrimental to
society. Modern society is violent,
materialistic, and seemingly unable to address serious social problems from
violence in schools to American businesses fleeing to foreign shores.
Niebuhr would approach modern social ills as having originated not from
structural issues, but because of the inherent moral flaws in secular and
liberal democratic thought, such as too intense of a focus on individualism and
private property. If this is the
case, by utilizing a Protestant approach, Niebuhr has supplied a potential
solution to these societal ills. Niebuhr would impart to society a Protestant based morality
that would lead people to move beyond selfish considerations and promote greater
social justice. Of course, the idea
of an active, overt religion in politics carries dangerous connotations of
legislating morality (Neuhaus 1984). Yet,
it is important to consider the greater utility.
If religion in politics could preserve democracy, promote justice, and
create civility, it is necessary to consider the role religion should play in
the public sphere. Niebuhr presents
a bold challenge to traditional liberal democracy. Niebuhr is bluntly asking:
what is more important, personal liberty or the overall health of
society? Modern conditions of
sweatshops and poverty give weight to Niebuhrís argument that traditional
liberal democracy must be challenged with a more religiously moral approach to
political life. When considering
this it is important to remember that Niebuhr is not calling for a theocracy.
Instead, he is advocating retaining current liberal democratic procedures
of elections and free discussions, only now informed with his own version of
Protestant values. Niebuhr simply views his religious values as tool to preserve
democracy, increase justice and civility, and prevent society from
While Protestantism would
create a more just and permanent society, there is potential beyond that in
Niebuhrís religious liberal democracy. A
religious method is also useful not only because of the values that it imparts,
but because of how effectively it transmits values.
There is very little question that religion effectively transmits moral
values (Neuhaus 1984). But religion
is also very skillful at spreading political values (Wald 1997).
For example, it is argued that one reason the United States labor
movement was never strongly communist was because of the influence of the
anti-communist Catholic Church among the ethnicities who comprised the majority
of the labor unions (Karson 1951). Thus,
religion would impart Niebuhrís values, as well as traditional values, of
liberal democracy more effectively than secular education.
By entrenching these democratic values more deeply in its members, a
society could become more democratic. A
Christian approach, according to Niebuhr, would be particularly suited for this
because it already contains democratic values.
For example, Christianity emphasizes the importance of the covenant
between humanity and God, an agreement that resembles the social contract basis
of liberal democracy (Neuhaus 1984; Niebuhr 1960a).
This approach would be particularly effective in the United States.
Not only is the United States a particularly religious nation when
compared to other Western societies, but also its roots are also very religious
(Wald 1997). After all, among the
original settlers of the United States were the religious Puritans.
Interestingly, the Puritans also utilized limited democratic methods when
selecting the leaders of their churches (Fischer 1989).
Thus, religion is a powerful tool for transmitting values, and
particularly Protestantism because of the role of the covenant and other
democratic values in the Protestant faith.
Niebuhr, in his writings,
recommends an approach to democracy that draws heavily from Protestant sources
for its moral basis. This approach
has the potential to create a more just society.
Furthermore, a more religious society may develop into a more civil
society, and may also be more successful in transmitting democratic values on to
future generations. Due to these
benefits, Niebuhr describes an unconventional approach to democracy that must be
considered. Niebuhr is not
proposing an abstract value system. Instead,
he is suggesting that there will be very real material benefits from this shift
in position away from traditional liberal democracy to one more informed by his
Protestant derived values. The true
utility of this position only heightens the strength of the challenge that
Niebuhr places against liberal democracy.
of Religion in Democracy
Niebuhrís depiction of a
Protestant style democracy that would generate a more just society appears to be
nearly flawless and capable of only bestowing benefits on a population.
Unfortunately, Niebuhrís approach is not perfect.
Niebuhr faces the problems of being ethnocentric, impractical, and
subjective. Primary among the
drawbacks of Niebuhrís approach is the ethnocentric approach it utilizes. Niebuhr openly admits that he believes only Christianity can
fulfill the needs of democratic society (Niebuhr 1960a).
Niebuhr openly dismisses other religions as incapable of fulfilling this
role. Further, Niebuhr believes
that specifically only a Protestant derived ethic can appropriately fulfill the
needs of democracy. Thus Niebuhr
alienates not only other religions, but also even different strains of
Christianity. In addition, a
reliance of traditional Christianity could leave women marginalized.
Traditional Christian approaches emphasize the role of men in the Bible,
and refers to God in the masculine gender (Goldberg 1979).
Thus, Niebuhrís approach may not appeal to as many people as he
originally conceptualized. This approach contradicts Niebuhrís own devotion to
pluralism and tolerance, values he believed should be among the core values of
democracy. Niebuhr displays a lack
of sensitivity for other religions and cultures in his bold statements on the
superiority of Protestantism. In
fact, Niebuhr is actually committing the sin of pride by assuming that
Christianity somehow has monopolized all potential Christian values.
Plus, Niebuhr may be denying society access to important, alternate
values. Niebuhr has presented a
situation where it would be difficult to build a diverse society, with true
toleration, if everyone was expected to internalize Protestant values.
In other words, Niebuhr has designed a system meant to improve a diverse
society, yet his solution depends on reducing the amount of diversity in the
society. This is an important flaw
in Niebuhrís approach. It is
necessary to consider other religions, and in particular what they could add to
democratic values. In addition,
using solely Protestant values would increase the difficulty in spreading
democracy if a component of creating a new successful democratic regime involves
converting people to a new religion. It
is evident that Niebuhrís ethnocentric approach is a flaw, and may prevent his
approach from being effective.
While the narrowness of
Niebuhrís approach is of concern, perhaps a more fundamental flaw is the
difficulty of implementation. Niebuhr never clearly identified any processes that would be
used to introduce Protestant-like values into mainstream American culture.
Lack of a distinct plan makes it difficult to consider Niebuhrís
approach a viable one. Albeit this
study was limited, and Niebuhr may have discussed real instrumental plans in
other writings. However, none were
encountered in this survey. This problem is magnified when the religious nature of
Niebuhrís approach is considered. Traditionally,
American society is composed of a private and a public sphere.
Religion is usually relegated to the private sphere, while government is
in the public sphere. Additionally, there has been a tendency to separate state and
religion in American political culture. Niebuhr
is describing a system where the private becomes public by changing religionís
traditional sphere of influence. Establishing a more public religion is not necessarily an
improper goal, but it is difficult. It
is especially difficult when Niebuhr does not describe a method of
implementation. This lack of detail
on Niebuhrís part seems to undercut his desire for practical solutions (Stone
1972). A lack of overt solutions
may even imply that Niebuhr considered covertly spreading these values.
Outright manipulation would be very circumspect, especially in a free,
open, and democratic society. It
seems questionable whether democracy can be spawned from an approach that, if
covert, appears to be paternalistic. Democratic
self-determination seems difficult in a society that attempts to manipulate and
care for its citizens like children, be secretly dispensing religion to make
individuals better citizens. While
Niebuhr may identify a general strategy to improve American society, he does not
fully describe the process by which this would occur.
This is particularly damaging when Niebuhrís dedication to pragmatic
solutions is considered.
The final problem with
Niebuhr using his Protestant values in modern society is the subjectivity of the
entire undertaking. Niebuhr never
provides an accurate measure of justice in society, insisting that it is always
relative (Harland 1960). This makes it difficult for a society which incorporates
Niebuhrís values to be aware if it is implementing all of Niebuhrís values,
or even to the proper extent. Furthermore,
by introducing religion into politics, Niebuhr could create a situation where
people acted under dogma without clear thought. Thus, Niebuhr could be creating a situation ripe for
fanaticism. In this circumstance,
it is likely that policies would be implemented which amounted to the government
legislating morality and exerting heavy levels of influences over the private
lives of individuals. Niebuhr
sought to preserve democracy, yet there is a danger in his approach because a
reliance on religious values could lead to the end of traditional civil
liberties. In this case, the desire
to preserve morality would lead to infringement on many individual freedoms, so
that non-Christian speech could be silenced or lifestyle choices declared
illegal. Niebuhr was aware of this
possibility and opposed to dogmatic ideologies; therefore he always argued that
reason should be an important part of his Protestant religious values (Niebuhr
1977). Niebuhr was aware that
secular reason had divulged important truths and could ďbe an instrument of
justiceĒ (Niebuhr 72, 1960a). Furthermore,
Niebuhr was cognizant that religious movements had carried out injustice in the
past, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials (Harland
1960). So Niebuhr was certain to
maintain that reason would still be a factor in his new democratic values, only
now reason would be supplemented with spiritual values.
Of course, whether or not reason is capable of justice in this scenario
should be questionable, since rationality was insufficient in preserving justice
the past (Niebuhr 1960b). Nonetheless,
while there is a problem with the subjective, dogmatic use of religion in
society, Niebuhr is able to provide at least a minimal check by using
rationality to counter fanaticism. While
the question of correct implementation is a question for any ideology, Niebuhr
only barely suggests a barometer by which a society can determine if its
religious democracy is creating justice. Thus,
Niebuhr has created a situation where justice is still difficult to measure, and
fanaticism may actually be more likely. This
is a distinct problem with his approach.
Niebuhr faces a number of problems in his approach because he was ethnocentric,
vague, and very subjective. These
problems may undermine his ability to spread his Protestant values throughout
society and government, and thus create a more just society.
Niebuhr has, apparently, left this part of his project for individuals to
solve in their own manner. Niebuhr
has supplied the basic goals and values that would ensure greater social
justice; he has given society a basic blueprint.
The responsibility of society is to critique this viewpoint, improve upon
it, and utilize it in a manner appropriate to their situation in order to
generate a greater deal of social justice in their particular social context.
When considering Reinhold
Niebuhr and his argument that a religiously informed democracy would become a
more just one it immediately becomes clear how dedicated Niebuhr was to the idea
of justice. Justice was very
important to Niebuhr, because of his understanding that justice was born from
religion and the Cross (Harland 1960). Justice,
then, was more than a social good; justice was partial fulfillment of a
religious ideal and thus of great importance.
In response to this primacy of justice, Niebuhr presented an alternate
value system which he believed was capable of transforming political culture
into one which was not only more just, but more secure for just systems as well. In addition, the pragmatic aspect of Niebuhr is evident in
his argument of justice improved through Protestantism. Niebuhr believed that religion would be an effective and
lasting way to spread values. So he
suggested utilizing religion to transfer political values because he believed it
was a viable solution.
pragmatic stance is particularly important when the era in which Niebuhr wrote
in considered. Niebuhr wrote his
works on justice and democracy following the Second World War and during the
Cold War (Merkley 1975). Niebuhr
viewed the Soviet Union as an imperialistic threat, and knew that the Communist
Party of the United States answered to the Soviet Union (Niebuhr1977; Merkley
1975). During the Cold War there
were Soviet and American spies reporting to the Russian government.
Niebuhr would have been aware of this threat (Haynes 1996).
In addition, Niebuhr was aware of the atrocities of Stalinís government
(Merkley 1975). Thus, Niebuhr
prescribes a method that he believes will quickly and completely indoctrinate
political values, and therefore hopefully help prevent the spread of Communism.
In this context, it is understandable why Niebuhr would consider
realigning the private to the public sphere, in order to preserve a better
social order. Niebuhr had a true
and legitimate fear of Soviet imperialism. Niebuhr also displayed pragmatism through his willingness to
accept justice and not love as his guiding force. Another example of his pragmatic side was his decision to
maintain reason as a part of his value system in order to prevent the dogmatic
aspects of religion from becoming too influential. Thus, when examining Niebuhrís argument that his Protestant
values should become a part of liberal democratic values, it is possible to
witness Niebuhrís commitment to justice as well as his pragmatic nature.
While it is obvious from this examination that Niebuhr was willing to be
flexible and dedicated to justice, the actual effectiveness of his approach is a
questions of greater concern. Niebuhrís
argument that religious values should be utilized in public policy are
compelling, and seem as if they may be capable of creating a better society.
But there are criticisms that assert that religion is not always an
effective tool to control behavior (Browne 1974).
Thus, Niebuhrís values may not even have their intended effect.
An issue of equal concern is the lack of actual recommendations made by
Niebuhr to introduce these values into society.
Furthermore, the ethnocentric approach of Niebuhr is highly contentious.
Placing religious values strongly in the public sphere is difficult,
particularly since Niebuhr chooses the single religion and the only values that
he believes must be used to save society. This
is an alienating approach, and brings into the question the justice and
practicality of Niebuhrís doctrine. These
are serious flaws, yet the benefits of Niebuhrís approach could be so great it
is still necessary to consider using religion to improve public life.
fact, the questions Niebuhr proposed are still very relevant today.
As mentioned previously, President Bushís has put forth initiatives to
allow religious organizations to compete directly with other services for
federal assistance. Under this new
plan, churches would directly provide services, and a separate charitable
foundation would no longer be necessary. The
implications seem relatively clear: the
federal government will be supporting certain church-based social programs, such
as drug abuse counseling and poverty assistance (CompassionateÖ 2001).
Such a program raises a number of questions, among them the problematic
situation of the state endorsing some religions over others by choosing which
churches receive funds, further entangling church-state relations, as well as
the problem of churches potentially being placed under federal guidelines (Rosen
2001). Yet, this approach may also
have benefits. For example, it is
argued that churches are less bureaucratic and more cost effective.
Plus, anecdotal evidence indicated that social programs are more
effective when mixed with religious content (ďCompassionate ConservatismĒ
2001). For example, drug abuse
programs with a religious tone may be more effective because they impart
strength and inspiration. This may
be particularly effective in the United States, due to the strong religious
culture in this nation. Hence, it
is clear that the questions Niebuhr asked decades ago are still relevant today. Essentially, it is necessary to ponder whether it is
acceptable to further entangle church-state relations, in order to serve the
greater social good. There is not a
simply answer to this question, but it is necessary to consider the
implications, both positive and negative, and attempt to derive a compromise
which promotes the collective good without overly sacrificing the integrity of
the church-state split.
this vein, it is worthwhile to consider solutions that are able to incorporate
religious values without any legal entanglements.
A more feasible approach, which would be more plausible in a society
which attempts to separate church and state, is one in which churches are
mobilized towards civic goals. In
other words, churches are co-opted to discuss how religious values relate to
civic values such as toleration, covenants, or civic responsibility.
All religions can be targeted, and there could be attempts to label civic
values similar to the ones Niebuhr identified in Protestantism as necessary for
democracy. This is without a doubt
a difficult process: to reach all of these churches, extract the proper values,
and convince church leaders to utilize religious services to enhance political
values. This would be similar to
the political role played by the African-American church, which often encourages
voter registration, voting, as well as providing politicians an opportunity to
address the congregation and inform worshippers (Harris 1995).
The Christian Coalition has also used a similar bottom to top flow of
power to gain influence with their particular religious values.
In addition, unlike Niebuhr, this approach would better maintain the
split between the secular and the religious.
The state would not be expected to favor one approach, instead religious
institutions would simply be heightening the political as well as spiritual
ethics of their congregations. This
approach, which emphasizes the role the citizens play in controlling the tone of
government policy, is also beneficial because it involves individuals actively
utilizing the democratic process. Niebuhr
would approve of this because an active democracy is one that is secure and more
likely to address social problems. There
are difficulties with this approach, but it seems to be an approach that is less
alienating than Niebuhrís method.
using churches as informal governmental information centers does not address the
problem of churches providing social services, which the Bush plan encompasses.
That is a fault: that with the African-American church model, the religious
community is less able to serve the population with social welfare benefits.
But using churches as informal civic gathering points avoids the legal
issues of Bushís plan raises. The
potential benefits of the Bush plan should not be ignored, however, but should
be refined in an on-going dialogue to attempt to define an acceptable way to
further empower churches to attack social ills.
It is necessary to maintain flexibility when addressing modern social
problems and not shut down possible solutions.
It is necessary to address these problems, while preserving out liberty,
and the balance between the two can be fragile.
Niebuhr provides one approach that attempts to balance the two.
Until that balance in perfected, however, a split between church-state is
most likely preferred for both sides. In
the end, Niebuhr introduced a unique approach to politics.
In many ways, Niebuhrís move away from the rational to the more
spiritual is an illiberal approach. Yet,
his overall goal is still a liberal democracy; Niebuhr is just considering a
different route that utilizes religion. Niebuhr
argued that religion should be used not to legislate morality, but instead to
create a more just society. It is
necessary to consider this model seriously, because of the potential benefits.
While there are problems with Niebuhrís methods, he is still able to
provide an outlook which could further thinking about the role of religion and
politics, and the ability of the two to interact and generate a more just
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