Thinking About Religion
Volume 10 (2012)

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Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History:
A Case Study in Theology and Politics

Jon Young
Fayetteville State University

Barack Obama helped bring renewed attention to the writings of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). An essential presupposition of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, as expressed in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, reflects Niebuhr’s influence on Obama,

I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.[1]

Even though Obama did not explicitly cite the theologian, his recognition of evil, the need to use force sometimes, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason, are central themes of Niebuhr’s writings and were referenced by Obama in a 2007 New York Times interview with David Brooks in which he described Niebuhr as “one of his favorite philosophers.”  He described his “take away” from Niebuhr in these words, “I take away…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 that 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.”  (NY Times, April 16, 2007)[2]

Barack Obama was not the only source of renewed interest in Niebuhr.  In 2008, Andrew Bachevich re-published Niebuhr’s 1952 work, The Irony of American History, which he described as “the most important book ever written on American foreign policy.”  Describing Niebuhr as “our prophet,” Bachevich argues that the  Bush Administration’s approaches to the Middle East after September 11, 2001 reflect errors about which Niebuhr warned a half century earlier.   The tendency of  Americans to view themselves as chosen by God to carry out a divine purpose, which Niebuhr viewed as a form of spiritual pride, and the mistaken belief that we can “manage history, ” which Niebuhr described as intellectual pride, were evident in the efforts to  reshape the Middle East in our own image.  Niebuhr also pointed to the dangers of over reliance on military power, a warning ignored by the Bush Administration in its confidence that the superior military might of the U.S. could assure quick and easy victories in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Bachevich concludes that the failure to acknowledge the truths of The irony of American History has led to “disastrous consequences… before our very eyes…[and] to indulge further the fantasy that we can force history to do our bidding – will inevitably produce even greater catastrophes.”[3] 

With his emphasis on the limitations of human wisdom and power and his criticism of those who seek to impose their own designs on history it is perhaps not surprising that Niebuhr’s “star would rise again” in the midst of the worldwide financial crisis which undermined confidence in our economic institutions and as the quick and easy victories expected in Iraq and Afghanistan eluded our grasp.[4] The resurgence of interest in Niebuhr resulted in articles that delineated his influence on Obama, as well the continuing relevance of his thought to world politics.[5] Niebuhr’s approach to politics – one that balances a realistic awareness of limitations of human knowledge, virtue, and power with a confidence in human creativity to develop “proximate solutions to insoluble problems” – has resonated among many critics.  Nonetheless, the recent discussions reflect a persistent tendency in commentary about Niebuhr, which is to read his political writings in isolation from his theology.  This tendency is especially pronounced in the discussions of The Irony of American History, which has been the focus of much of the recent attention.  Even though in the preface, Niebuhr describes his work as an analysis of “…our nation in the present world situation, as interpreted from the standpoint of Christian faith,” his theology is often ignored.[6] In his insightful introduction to the book, for example, Bachevich makes few references to the theology that informs the criticisms for which he claims great contemporary relevance. In a symposium about Niebuhr at Georgetown University in the week after President Obama’s Inauguration, the word “God” was used only seven times – and two of these in a quote from Abraham Lincoln – in a program entitled, “Obama’s Theologian.”  Obama’s description of Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers – not a theologian -- reflects the tendency to divorce Niebuhr’s politics from his theology.  A close analysis of several of Niebuhr’s essential themes in Irony of American History – illusions of innocence; the use of power; history and God; irony and faith -- reveals that Niebuhr’s political commentary is fully meaningful only within the context of his theology and his political insights are grounded in theological presuppositions.  Moreover, this analysis will suggest that the relationship of Niebuhr’s political commentary and theology reflects the distinction between general and special revelation, that is, truths that any astute analysis can discover and truths that are derived from faith in divine revelation. 

Irony and the Illusions of Innocence

Niebuhr’s central thesis in The Irony of American History is that America’s situation in world affairs is marked by irony.  An ironic situation, Niebuhr explains, is marked by contradictions and inconsistencies between intentions and consequences that are not merely coincidental but rooted in a hidden connection.  Even though they may be guided by virtuous intentions, a nation’s actions may have evil consequences if the nation overestimates its own virtue; a powerful nation may become weak if it places too much trust in its own power; wisdom becomes folly when the limits of human wisdom are ignored; and self-conceptions without humility become pretentious illusions.    To discern irony, an observer must achieve a balance between hostility and sympathy toward the actors in an ironic situation.   An observer who is too hostile will deny the virtuous intentions of those involved in the ironic situation, while an observer who is too sympathetic will ignore the weakness and pretentions of the actors.[7]

Niebuhr’s analysis of American history in terms of irony highlights the unintended – and at times opposite -- consequences that can follow from our actions when we are heedless of the limitations of our own knowledge, virtue, and power.   This aspect of Niebuhr’s thought has resonated with Obama, Andrew Bachevich, columnists E. J. Dionne and David Brooks, and others.  As will become clearer later, however, Niebuhr’s use of irony to describe American history as well as the perspective needed to discern and respond to irony are rooted in a biblical understanding of the human situation and human nature.   Disconnecting irony, as Niebuhr uses it, from the theological framework in which irony has meaning for him, is an example of the tendency to separate his politics from his theology.

For Niebuhr the contradiction between the cruel deeds of the Stalinist regime and the Marxist vision of international peace and justice which inspired these deeds is ironic because the seeming incongruities between intentions and consequences are rooted in illusions and pretentions about human knowledge, virtue, and power.  While Niebuhr was unequivocal in his belief that communism represented a “noxious creed” that had to be opposed, his primary focus is not on the ironies of Soviet history nor does he offer “monotonous reiterations of the virtues of freedom compared with the evils of tyranny.”[8] Instead, he focuses on the ironic contradictions and incongruities between theory and practice and intentions and consequences in American history.  At the same time, he points to what he refers to as the “double irony between ourselves and our foes,” that “the evil which we contend are frequently the fruit of illusions similar to our own.”[9] At a time when America had emerged as a world power in conflict with communism, Niebuhr turned his analysis to the pretentions that inform much of American thought and experience with the hope of inspiring insight and wisdom that would enable the nation to fulfill its responsibilities as a world leader.

One of Niebuhr’s most significant examples of the double irony of illusions of communism “similar to our own” is the assumption of innocence. The Marxist belief in the innocence of the proletariat contributed to incongruity between the vision of a world of peace and justice and the cruelties committed by the Stalinist regime in the name of this vision.  Marxist ideology, along with modern thought generally, rejected the concept of original sin in favor of the view that the essential goodness of humans is corrupted by institutions, but Marxism identified the institution of private property as the singular source of exploitation and oppression in human history.  The abolition of private property offers the possibility of for humans to return to an original, uncorrupted innocence, a condition of “…idyllic harmony with ‘no soldiers, no gendarmes, no policemen, no prefects or judges, no prisons, laws, or lawsuits.”[10] As the class that owns no property and has no economic interests to defend the proletariat is innocent, according to Marxist ideology, and can serve as the agent of the revolution.  The oligarchy that seized economic and political power in the Soviet Union could justify their brutal acts because they were acting in the name of the “innocent” proletariat. 

While the tyranny of the leaders of the Soviet Union betrayed their claims of innocence, Niebuhr warned that Americans must recognize the risks inherent in our own illusions of innocence, illusions that are rooted in our history.  Two major strands of early American thought, Puritanism and the Enlightenment -- despite their significantly different estimates of human nature and society -- agreed that America had escaped from the corruptions and evils of European society and that God, with America, had given humanity a new beginning in a corrupt world.  Whether interpreted through Massachusetts or Virginia, Niebuhr writes, “we [America] came into existence with the sense of being a ‘separated’ nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind.“[11] “Every nation has its version of national pride – ours was we turned our back on the vices of Europe and made a new beginning.”[12] The prosperity that America has enjoyed and the nation’s rise to power have too quickly been seen as evidence of America’s superior virtue and God’s favor.  This false sense of pride can lead to overconfidence in our own virtue, strength, and wisdom. We can too easily fall into the error of believing that “…our society is to essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions.”[13] Niebuhr suggests that for America to assume her responsibilities as a world leader, we must “slough off many illusions which were derived from the experiences and ideologies of its childhood…”[14]

For Niebuhr, the common error of both Marxist and American thought, -- despite the rich tradition of political realism in America -- is their failure to account fully for human sinfulness.  Even if they envision the goals of social organization and the means of achieving these goals radically differently, both strands of thought believed that social harmony is achievable because human needs can ultimately be satisfied.  For Marx, the productive capacity of the capitalist mode of production makes it possible to meet all human needs if control of the means of production can be wrested from the bourgeoisie, the class which uses these means to satisfy only its own narrow interests.  In the classless society created by the proletarian revolution, the sources of conflict will be removed so that social harmony can be achieved.  The Marxist dictum “From each according to his ability and to each according to his need,” envisions a social order at the “end of history” in which human productivity serves the needs of all. The vision rests on the assumption that human needs can be satisfied, that it is possible for individuals and groups to reach a point where they admit they have enough.  This assumption does not recognize that the satisfaction of some needs only gives rise to new desires, which in turn creates new conflicts since each will always overestimate his or her own needs in comparison with others. As Niebuhr states it, the Marxist vision fails to acknowledge the “perennial conflicts of power and pride which may arise on every level of abundance since human desires grow with the means of their gratification.”[15]

The error in American thought is not so much the tendency to ignore self interest but to remain
blind to the “lust for power in the motives of men,” which is the fundamental expression of sin. The liberal bourgeois ideology that informs much of American thought equates self-interest with rationality and, hence, trusts that individuals will prudently moderate their own self-interests with the common good.  Moreover, it assumes the competition of self-interests is self-regulating so that it will “…make for justice without political or moral regulation.”[16] The social harmony that supposedly follows from unfettered pursuit of self interests, Niebuhr points out, is possible only if the power supporting each interest is equivalent, which is never the case. Moreover, rationality serves not to moderate self interest, but to seek more and more power to control government’s authority to pass and enforce laws and direct spending in ways that serve a specific interest group.  For much of American history, the social conflict that emerges from competing self interests was ameliorated by ongoing economic expansion, which was made possible by the nation’s vast natural resources and technological ingenuity. Niebuhr points out -- in an observation that has been further confirmed by American experience since his death – that “economic expansion cannot go on forever and ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice…”[17]

Underlying both strands of thought, Niebuhr argues, is a conception of human nature that fails to acknowledge the reality of sin.  As sinful creatures, we are egoistic and self-centered; we tend to overestimate our own needs in comparison to the needs of others and to claim greater legitimacy and truth for our knowledge than is warranted from any external perspective. As a world power with relations to many nations, the failure to recognize our own sinfulness has important consequences. We may easily discern that our opponents’ claims to serve universally valid ideals are merely a pretext for the pursuit of self interest.  But we are frequently blind to the motives of self interest in our own actions and too quickly assume our own innocence, virtue, and self righteousness in our own intentions, even if our deeds sometimes fall short of our intentions.   We will likely fail to acknowledge that others will never interpret our intentions as favorably as we interpret them.  Such presumptions will only lead to resentment by others.  The awareness of our own sinfulness, Niebuhr suggests, leads to humility and charity that are necessary for relationships between individuals as well as nations.[18]

The Use of Power

The use of power was a consistent theme of the whole of Niebuhr’s writings. America’s sudden rise to the role of world leaders combined with the nation’s relative inexperience in the uses of power made this theme especially important in The Irony of American History.  “Communism,” he writes, “is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of a moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends.”[19] The communist leaders in Stalinist Russia viewed their acts of brutality as a “final revolutionary push” to achieve the Marxist aim of a classless society free of exploitation and oppression.   The supposed goodness of their goal of bringing happiness to all justified the use of violence and force. 

Niebuhr identified two equally mistaken views in American thought about the appropriate response to communism. The “realists” place too much trust in the use of power, thinking that power is the final and only arbiter in political matters.  They propose ruthlessness similar to the communists when they proclaim that the goodness of the American cause and the evil of the communists “justify our use of any weapon.”   An idealist approach believes that appeals to reason and ideals alone are sufficient to bring about a just world order.  “All the arguments of idealists [about establishing a world government] finally rest upon a logic which derives the possibility of its achievement from its necessity.”[20] To demonstrate the logical necessity of a development or an action does not guarantee that it can be achieved since the world does not always conform to our logical deductions.  Idealism places too much trust in reason as the arbiter of self against self and does not recognize the extent to which reason is corrupted by self interest and sinfulness.  Our final goals in whose name we use power, Niebuhr understood, are never as pure and good as we imagine them.[21]

The conflict with communism points to one of Niebuhr’s most important claims about moral principles and the use of power.  He suggests that there is no purely moral solution to our dilemmas, but no viable solution can disregard moral factors. He did not disavow the use of power.  We must “…continue to take morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.  We must exercise our power.”[22] The use of power is not self-legitimating, but must serve interests broader than our own, such as “to preserve civilization.”  Niebuhr acknowledges that the use of power is always morally hazardous because we are humans, not God, and so we can never foresee all the consequences of our actions. On this point, Niebuhr’s arguments echo his earlier justifications for America’s entry into World War II. Arguing that Nazism represented an assault on civilization, he described failure to oppose it as a form of “connivance with tyranny.”  He argued that “…failure to defend the inheritance of civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression result in consequences even worse than war.”[23] Our use of power must be guided by an awareness of our limitations of wisdom and virtue and informed by the awareness that all of our actions stand under the judgment of God, that there is a dimension of meaning and judgment above the immediate conflict. 

Niebuhr points to Abraham Lincoln as “the perfect model of the difficult task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization while having a religious vantage point over the struggle.”[24] Lincoln did not have the luxury of being a detached observer because he had a responsibility to use his power to preserve the nation.   Recognizing that both sides “prayed to the same God,” Lincoln understood that appeals to God were often little more than efforts to sanctify one’s own desires and motives.  Yet, he remained aware of an “over-arching Providence” that is a source of meaning and judgment that transcends human understanding.  He balanced the use of power with this religious awareness.  It was this balance that informed his approach of “with malice toward none and charity to all” after the war.[25]       

Niebuhr’s discussion of power in The Irony of American History is incomplete apart from his significant previous theological reflections about the relationship of power to Christian love.  His reference to Abraham Lincoln’s “spiritual attainments” is not sufficient to convey the full import of his theology.  Niebuhr recognized that the pervasiveness of sin could lead one to the conclusion that one must choose between disavowal of the use of power or acceptance of the self-interest as the norm for the use of power. To such a suggestion Niebuhr counters that the worst heresy is to say that because of human sinfulness we have a right to construct a Machiavellian politics or Darwinian sociology as normative.[26] He rejects various versions of Christian liberalism which he brands as “sentimentalism” or “utopian” in their apparent belief that preaching love can resolve the conflicts of the world. At the same time, he insists that for Christian faith the law of love is normative.  “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (RSV; Luke 10:27). This law expresses the ideal possibility of the harmonious relationship of self to God, self to self, and self to other.  It is the end toward which history is moving as represented in the symbol of the “Kingdom of God,” but this a kingdom that cannot be achieved by humans, but only by God’s action in history.  Within the fallen world, the “law of love” serves as a regulative ideal that must guide actions and thought.  The law of love obligates Christians to seek justice by opposing all forms of brutality and violence that degrade the human spirit and destroy freedom. In the fallen world, achieving justice requires a balance of power since inequities of power lead inevitably to exploitation and oppression. The goal of the use of power must always be to maintain a balance of power to protect humans from the risks of tyranny. 

History and God

In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr argued that in its conflict with Communism, America stood opposed to a regime that sought to realize the “logic of history” that had been revealed by Marxist ideology. The parallel to the natural sciences is evident:  just as the discovery of the laws of nature made possible the mastery of nature, so too the discovery of the laws of historical development delineated in dialectical materialism supposedly made possible the mastery of history.  Allusions to Biblical faith are also evident: the dynamics of dialectical materialism serves as a secularized version of Providence, just as the Marxist vision of the “end of history” when the “state withers away” and with it all class distinctions, oppression, and exploitation functions as a secularized version of the Biblical Kingdom of God.  “The Communists are not dangerous because they are godless,” Niebuhr writes, “but because they have a god… which sanctifies their aspirations and their powers as identical with the ultimate purposes of life.”[27] Communist ideology rested on the arrogant illusion that it could discern the “logic of history” and direct and manage history based on that logic.  They believed that they were acting for the good of all humanity, by enabling humans to “manage history” and thereby become the “masters of their destiny.”

As he exposes the dangerous consequences of the communists’ dreams of managing history, Niebuhr also delineates similar dreams in America’s self-understanding.  Though not stated as explicitly as in Marxism, American dreams of managing history are rooted in the belief that Americans established a new form of democracy superior to all previous forms of government and that history is moving toward the realization of similar governments around the world.  The belief in the superiority of American democracy suggests that Americans have a “messianic role” in world history as the “tutors of mankind in pilgrimage to perfection.”[28] Americans, Niebuhr warns, must be vigilant to avoid arrogant presumptions similar to the communists.  History will no more conform to the designs of “democratic dreamers” than to “communist planners.”   “The paths and progress of history,” Niebuhr writes, “have… proved to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand.”[29]

The checks and balances of American democracy and the “grace inherent in common sense” have prevented a communist-like monopoly of power designed to realize an ideal end in history.  Yet, the desire to play God and to conceive of ourselves in a messianic role remains a temptation.  Andrew Bacevich contends in his introduction that the Bush Administration’s policies in the Middle East in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, reflected beliefs that history is moving toward a realization of American-style democracies throughout the world.  The failure to achieve the expected quick military victory in Iraq and the difficulties of establishing democracy in the region confirm Niebuhr’s warnings about managing history.  American leaders would be wise to understand Niebuhr’s observation, “The course of history cannot be coerced from a particular point in history and in accordance with a particular conception of its end.”[30]

Niebuhr’s critique of efforts to “manage history” is grounded in his theology.  The course of history ultimately lies beyond human understanding.  “The real difficulty in both the communist and liberal dreams of a ‘rationally ordered’ historic process is that modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.”[31] We must remain aware, Niebuhr suggests, that the “true God can be known only when there is some awareness of the contradiction between divine and human purpose, even on the highest level of human aspirations.”[32]

Niebuhr’s analysis, moreover, is based on his conception of humans as both creators and creatures of history, a conception that is grounded in his theology.  We are creators of history because we are free to envision creative new realities and sometimes to realize these possibilities through individual and collective action.  At the same time we are creatures of history because we are free only within the limits of our knowledge, virtue, and power.  Our knowledge is fragmentary, limited, partial, and shaped by the historical moment in which we live so that any designs we have for the future will be imperfect and will have unintended consequences. Regardless of how noble our intended goals, our actions are never as virtuous as we believe because egoistic self-interest will distort even our best of intentions.  No matter how powerful we may be, power alone will never enable us to achieve all of our intended goals, and the risk of overconfidence in our own power may corrupt our goals.  It is of our very nature always to overestimate our creative capacity and forget that we are also creatures. Political action is another arena in which we reenact the Biblical account of the Fall – we seek to be like gods and forget that we are not.

Niebuhr’s analysis of the limits of human creativity leads him to suggest that the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are relevant to the risks inherent in political affairs. In a passage that deserves to be quoted in its entirety, Niebuhr writes:

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 foes as it is from our own standpoint.  Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.[33]

A politics that acknowledges the limits of human knowledge, virtue, and power recognizes the necessity of taking morally hazardous to oppose injustice and tyranny, but it undertakes these actions with humility and without the arrogance that arises from certitude, whether that certitude comes from a religion, ideology, or science.  Moreover, it values and takes into account the perspectives of others and seeks to take action with them.  Finally, it is open to the contrition that comes from the awareness of one’s own shortcomings and failures. 

Irony and Faith

Despite Niebuhr’s explicit focus on world historical events, his analysis is informed by theology and cannot be understood fully if his theology is ignored.  His use of irony to describe American history is derived from the Christian interpretation of humans and the human condition as ironic.  Human beings are prone to good and evil, greatness and pettiness, creativity and destructiveness. These seemingly inconsistent attributes are grounded in the nature of human freedom as envisioned by the Bible, i.e., that humans are finite and free, creators and creatures, bound always to the vicissitudes of nature and yet always transcendent of nature.  The source of human error is the pretentious failure to acknowledge the limits of freedom. The central theme of Biblical history, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, shows that human actions are “infected with a pretentious denial of human limits.” The builders of the Tower of Babel are scattered because of their pretentions efforts to reach into the heavens. Prophets warn that the mighty nation’s confidence in its own strength will lead to God’s judgment. Human pretensions about virtue are revealed to be despised by God.  The Biblical history contains many ironic incongruities as the most obvious forms of success can become failure – the rich “fool” is admonished for looking to his riches for security.  Yet failure can become success: Jesus preferred the company of the sick to the healthy, the poor to the rich, sinners to the supposedly righteous.  Christian faith has it origin in the irony of a child born in a manger who was King; the “stone which the builders rejected” became the “head of the corner.”[34] The human situation is ironic from a Christian perspective, finally, because it places its ultimate security in a God who exposes human pretentiousness:  humans seek to be God and the true God exposes their pretensions and illusions.  Christian faith proclaims that humans stand under the judgment of a loving God who nonetheless demands justice, a “divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.”[35]

An ironic interpretation of the human situation stands in sharp contrast to a pathetic or tragic interpretation.  A pathetic vision suggests that humans are at the mercy of chaotic forces beyond their control.  Such a vision suggests that a human being, as Niebuhr writes, “…has been caught in the web of mysterious and fateful forces in which no meaning can be discerned and from which no escape is possible.”[36] Freedom is an illusion; humans are victims of circumstances.  Hence, their suffering is not the result of any error on their part, and since they are not responsible for their suffering, no meaning or lessons can be discerned in it.  As Niebuhr points outs, elements of pathetic experiences can be seen in life and history, the most obvious of which is suffering resulting from a natural disaster. If such experiences become a guiding principle for defining the human condition generally, the resulting vision stands in sharp opposition to the ironic interpretation grounded in Christian faith. 

A tragic interpretation of the human condition affirms that human beings are noble creatures because they are free, but the assertion of human freedom consists of rebelling against the forces that govern the universe, or “defying the trampling march of unconscious powers.”[37] Human freedom often creates irreconcilable conflicts that lead to tragic choices -- as exemplified by the conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of religion in Sophocles’ Antigone.  Antigone must defy the laws of the state to fulfill her religious obligations to her brother, while Creon must punish Antigone for defying the law of the state.  In Niebuhr’s analysis, the actions of the Stalinists could be interpreted as an example of the tragic choices humans must at times make in the name of a good cause, not unlike the decision of the American government to achieve peace by using the atomic bomb.  The communists, however, rather than admit the incongruity of their intentions and actions seek to explain away the contradictions, as when Bukharin argued that “…national rivalries between Communist states is an ‘impossibility by definition’” since the communist world will be made up by “unselfish and harmonious units… in a world of peace.”[38] If one accepts a tragic vision as the guiding principle for interpreting the human situation, then the conflicts between nations can come to be seen as competing conceptions of the good that can resolved only by the tragic choice of doing evil for the sake of a conception of the good.

For Niebuhr, the essential difference between pathetic, tragic, or ironic interpretations is their different understanding of human freedom.  Freedom is not merely tragic or illusory because it is understood within a larger frame of meaning, which can be discerned only by faith.    Hope beyond tragedy is possible, but such hope presupposes faith, as Niebuhr explains in the following:

The Christian preference for an ironic interpretation is derived not merely from its conception of the nature of freedom…It is also derived from its faith that life has a center and source of meaning beyond the natural and social sequences which may be rationally discerned.  This divine source and center must be discerned by faith because it is enveloped in mystery, though being the basis of meaning.  So discerned, it yields a frame of meaning in which human freedom is real and valid and not merely tragic or illusory.  But it is also recognized that man is constantly tempted to overestimate the degree of freedom and forget that he is also a creature.[39]

As this passage suggests, Niebuhr’s political analysis is grounded in a “frame of meaning” that is derived from faith.  Niebuhr’s political analysis even in The Irony of American History, one of his least explicitly theological writings, is meaningful only within the context of his theological beliefs. Readers who divorce Niebuhr’s political writings from this theology tend to affirm his analysis of freedom and acknowledge the tragic choices that freedom creates.  Such readings are not so much incorrect as incomplete, since for Niebuhr tragic conflicts are not final.  The recognition of the limits of freedom may lead to repentance, contrition, and humility, and hope.


More than 40 years after his death, Reinhold Niebuhr once again has become an important voice in American political and religious discourse.  These recent discussions have often considered Niebuhr’s political commentary in isolation from his theology.  This analysis of The Irony of American History, whose republication in 2008 has spurred much of the recent discussion, has argued that this work that focuses on politics and history is also a work of religious reflection and that his political analyses draw their meaning from his theology.  Niebuhr delineates similarities in the guiding assumptions of the communist leaders in the Soviet Union and the bourgeois liberal tradition of which America has become the most powerful representative in an effort to show that the “evil against which we contend are frequently the fruit of illusions similar to our own.”  Claims of innocence, whether in communist or liberal bourgeois thought are “illusions” or “pretentions” in the light of the persistence of human sinfulness; the use of power must be moderated by a recognition that all of our actions stand under God’s judgment; efforts to “manage history” based on theories of historical development are politically dangerous in part because they fail to acknowledge the difference between God and humans.  Niebuhr’s analysis of American history in terms of irony, rather than pathos or tragedy, is grounded in a Christian conception of the human condition. 

The final paragraphs of The Irony of American History provide a good example of the inadequacy of divorcing Niebuhr’s political writing from his theology.  The final two sentences are often quoted. 

For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory. [40]

The point frequently derived from this quote is that our own blindness, hatred, and vainglory threaten our national survival as much as the ruthlessness of our enemies.  The passage, in such readings, urges Americans to avoid viewing world conflicts exclusively through a lens that sees only the errors of our enemies.

 Though correct as far as it goes, this reading fails to capture the full significance of Niebuhr’s analysis.  In the sentences immediately preceding this passage, Niebuhr speaks to the relationship of his conclusions to Christian faith.  “Strangely enough,” he writes,” none of the insights derived from the [Christian] faith are contradictory to our purpose and duty of preserving our civilization. They are in fact pre-requisites for saving it.“ (my emphasis)  In the paragraph immediately preceding this passage, Niebuhr delineates the relationship of politics to faith in terms of the possibility of living in a “dimension of meaning” that transcends the current struggle.

There is, in short, even in a conflict with a foe with whom we have little in common the possibility and necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom, and power available to us for the resolution of the perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities; and to a sense of gratitude for the divine mercies which are promised to those who humble themselves.[41]

Political analysis, this passage suggests, leads to religious awareness. The incongruities and ironic contradictions disclosed by Niebuhr’s analysis of America’s political situation suggest that all systems of thought which strive to explain and give meaning to historical drama and human destiny within it - - whether liberal, democratic, Marxist, scientific, humanistic, as well as those who claim to speak for God -- are incomplete.  Recognition of this incompleteness points to the possibility of faith that seeks its “ultimate security beyond all the securities and insecurities of history.”[42]

The relationship of Niebuhr’s political analysis to this theology may correctly be compared to relationship of general to special revelation.  In the first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man Niebuhr makes the distinction between truths “that belong to general revelation in the sense that any astute analysis of the human situation must lead to it” and truths dependent upon a “further revelation of the divine.”[43] An astute analysis of the political situation points to an awareness to human limitations.  Much of Niebuhr’s writings -- especially The Irony of American History -- can be described as “astute analyses” of factual events and situations that are evident to any observer.  The fact that Niebuhr has influenced many political leaders and thinkers both in his lifetime and even today is a tribute to the “astuteness” of his analysis for which theological presuppositions are not immediately evident or necessary.[44] General revelation provides a common ground of reflection and experience with readers who do not share his theological presuppositions.  General revelation alone, however, is insufficient to provide a complete understanding of life and history because it fails to resolve the incongruities it exposes.  Divine revelation accepted by faith, Niebuhr writes, “…completes our ignorance without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge; and in which contrition mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.”[45]

Niebuhr’s analysis of sin highlights the relationship of general revelation to special revelation.  One needs no “further revelation of the divine” to recognize the pervasiveness of sin in human behavior and history. That human beings are egoistic, self-centered, and prone to intellectual and spiritual pride as well as sensuality is evident to any astute observer using reason alone.  For Niebuhr, the solution to the reality of sin is dependent upon divine revelation accepted by faith. To accept the law of love as normative requires one to believe that the biblical history reveals the ultimate truth about nature of God and the limitations and possibilities that define human beings.  For Christian faith, the law of love is revealed most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which in Niebuhr’s interpretation affirm the sinfulness of human beings and the hope of grace that comes from God.  For Niebuhr, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ point to an “..eternal ground of existence which is, nevertheless involved in man’s historical strivings to the very point of suffering with and for him [which] can prompt men to accept their historical responsibilities gladly.”[46] Niebuhr’s lifelong concern for politics and ethics reflected his acceptance of historical responsibility to be a proponent of justice – as demanded by the law of love --  in a fallen world whose ultimate hope lies beyond history.

Despite the tendency of readers to divorce Niebuhr’s political writings from his theology, the incompleteness of such an approach is comparable to the incompleteness of general revelation divorced from special revelation.  A complete understanding of even a book such as The Irony of American History whose explicit focus is on political situations and experiences remains incomplete apart from a theology that helps to resolve the incongruities and limitations it discovers.  Stated differently, political analysis, in Niebuhr, is dependent upon theology in the same ways that general revelation is dependent upon special revelation, knowledge upon faith, and historical existence upon a transcendent and eternal ground.[47]


[1] Text of President Obama’s Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 2009 from MSNBC, Last accessed October 13, 2011.

[2] David Brooks gives this account of the interview: 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.  New York Times, April 16, 2007. Last accessed on October 14, 2010.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History¸ with a New Introduction by Andrew J. Bachevich. (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008). See Bachevich’s “Introduction,” pp. ix – xx.

[4] The phrase, Niebuhr’s “star is rising again” is from Krista Tippett’s introduction of Niebuhr’s work in Speaking of Faith, American Public Radio Program, August 13, 2009; Broadcast of symposium at Georgetown University, “Obama’s Theologian” in January 2009.

[5] See Liam Julian, “Niebuhr and Obama,” Hoover Digest, April 1 2009. Joseph Laconte, “Obama Contra Niebuhr” January 14, 2010, The American:  The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute.  See Fred Kaplan, Slate Magazine, December 2009, for analysis of Niebuhr influence on Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Two recent collections of essays offer a comprehensive discussion of   Niebuhr’s thought: Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original. Edited by Daniel F. Rice, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2009; Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power. Edited by Richard Harries and Stephen Platten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.  This collection of essays is dedicated to President Barack Obama.

[6] Irony of American History, p. xxiii.

[7] Irony of American History, pp. xxiii-xiv; 153.

[8] Irony of American History, p. 173.

[9] Irony of American History, p. 16.

[10] Irony of American History, p. 19; Niebuhr is quoting Engels.

[11] Irony of American History, p. 24.

[12] Irony of American History, p. 28.

[13] Irony of American History, p. 25.

[14] Irony of American History, p. 42.

[15] Irony of American History, p. 30.

[16] Irony of American History, p. 33.  Make a note about how much the economy must be regulated.

[17]Irony of American History, p. 29.

[18] For Niebuhr, sin is a response to anxiety, which he describes as the “…internal precondition of sin” that arises from the awareness that we are both finite and free.  Like all other animals we are bound to nature, but, at the same time, we transcend nature.  We are free to envision and bring into being new realities. In our transcendence we become aware of our finitude and limitations. We know we will die.  The ideal response to anxiety is “…faith in the ultimate security of God’s love that would overcome all immediate insecurities of nature and history.”  Instead of faith, however, we fall into the sins of pride and sensuality.  The former, for Niebuhr, consists of seeking to “…raise our contingent existence to unconditioned existence,” while the sin of sensuality consists of seeking to “…escape from freedom by losing oneself in some natural vitality.”  The sin of pride manifests itself in the quest for power and the illusion of human self-sufficiency, greed, intellectual pride, moral pride, and spiritual pride.  Niebuhr’s analysis of sin has its roots in the writings of St. Paul, Augustine, Luther, and especially Kierkegaard, whose analysis of the relation of anxiety to sin Niebuhr calls “the profoundest in Christian thought.” Sensuality, for Niebuhr, is an expression of self-love, deification of another to escape self-love, and finally, the effort to plunge into unconsciousness. See The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. I, pp. 182-186.  With his analysis of sin as pride and sensuality, Niebuhr affirms that humans are sinful in both intellect and will.  In this regard, Niebuhr’s view is consistent with Merold Westphal’s conception of “noetic corruption,” which he uses to point to the depravity of the human intellect and will.  I am indebted to P. Eddy Wilson’s paper, “The Hiddenness of God as a Cluster Problem,” in Thinking About Religion, Vol. 7, (2007) for introducing me to the Westphal’s conception of noetic corruption.

[19] Irony of American History, p. 5.

[20] Irony of American History, p. 40

[21] While the recognition of sin does not require revelation and can be discerned by reason alone, the solution to the problem of sin, for Niebuhr, requires revelation.  He makes a telling comment in an article about his response to America’s involvement in World War II.  “My view of human character and historical existence is like may be wrong; but I have arrived at it by as honest an analysis of human behavior, including my on, as I am capable of.” As this comment suggests, his conception of sin is not dependent upon special revelation and can be discerned by reason alone.  “An Open Letter (to Richard Roberts,” in E.D. Robertson, Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1957). P. 268.

[22] Irony of American History, p. 5.

[23] “The Christian Faith and the World Crisis,” in E.D. Robertson, Love and Justice:  Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1957), p. 279.

[24] Irony of American History, p. 172.

[25] Irony of American History, pp. 171-173.

[26] “The Christian Church in A Secular Age,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr:  Selected Essays and Addresses. Edited by Robert McAfee Brown. (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1986) p. 86.

[27] Irony of American History, p. 173.

[28] Irony of American History, p. 71.

[29] Irony of American History, p. 78.

[30] Irony of American History, p. 79.

[31] Irony of American History, p. 88.

[32] Irony of American History, p. 173.

[33] Irony of American History, p. 63.

[34] Irony of American History, p. 159-161.

[35] Irony of American History, p. 155.

[36] Irony of American History, p. 166.

[37] Irony of American History, p. 167.  Niebuhr quotes Bertrand Russell here.

[38] Irony of American History, p. 20.

[39] Irony of American History, p. 167-168.

[40] Irony of American History, p. 174.  See Bacevich’s introduction, pp. xx and E.J. Dionne’s comment in the radio program, “Obama’s Theologian,” for examples of analyses of this quote that does not consider the full context of the quote.

[41] Irony of American History, p. 174.

[42] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. Volume I:  Human Nature; Volume II; Human Destiny. (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1996), ii.320.

[43] The Nature and Destiny of Man, i., p. 15.

[44] In his obituary for Niebuhr, Alden Whitman – June 2, 1971 – The New York Times obituary describes how many of those influenced by Niebuhr were not even aware that he was a theologian and that individuals of various faiths sought his counsel.  New York Times, June 2, 1971.

[45] The Nature and Destiny of Man, ii., p. 320.

[46] The Nature and Destiny of Man, ii., p. 321.

[47] My reading of the relationship of Niebuhr’s political commentary and this theology is influenced significantly by Langdon Gilkey’s, On Niebuhr:  A Theological Study. (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2001).  “Niebuhr’s theology is a ‘God-centered’ theology and not a humanistic or naturalistic one.  As a consequence, it cannot possibly be understood – as many have sought to do – as primarily brilliant social commentary with the pious icing, so to speak, of theological or Biblical rhetoric.  Such an interpretation is clearly untrue to Niebuhr’s texts; but even more, it completely falsified what he wished to say in every line he wrote.  Without God – and God’s judgment and mercy – there are only the possibility of idolatry and destruction or despair and enervation; without God, therefore, there is hope of neither meaning nor renewal in life and history.  Without God – and the agape of Christ – mutual love descending rapidly into the self-interested calculation of survival, remains our only ‘norm’ and the secure establishment of the self and its community our only moral ideal.” p. 188.


  • Gilkey, Langdon. On Niebuhr:  A Theological Study. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Julian, Liam. “Niebuhr and Obama,” The Hoover Digest. April, 2009. accessed September 10, 2011.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. “The Christian Church in A Secular Age,” in Brown, Robert McAfee, editor. The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr:  Selected Essays and Addresses. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History¸ with a New Introduction by Andrew J. Bachevich. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. “An Open Letter (to Richard Robert) in Robertson, E.D., editor. Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1957, pp. 267- 271.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. Volume I:  Human Nature; Volume II;  Human Destiny. Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1996.
  • Speaking of Faith, American Public Radio Program, August 13, 2009; Broadcast of symposium at Georgetown University, “Obama’s Theologian” in January 2009. accessed September 10, 2011.
  • Whitman, Alden. “Obituary for Reinhold Niebuhr,” New York Times, June 2, 1971.
  • Wilson, P. Eddy.  “The Hiddenness of God as a Cluster Problem,” in Thinking About Religion, Vol. 7, (2007).


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