he role of private charity versus that of state-sponsored social programs remains a hotly contested issue in Right vs. Left politics, with the Right typically favoring a heavy or total reliance upon private charity, and the Left typically calling for a more robust emphasis on state-provided programs. What is often presumed, however, in this political discourse is that Christianity, like conservatism, requires a total reliance on private charity to deliver services to the needy. This could not be more wrong.
The reason the political debate is back in the news is a recent essay in Democracy Journal concerning the conservative premise that voluntary charity could or should supplant state programs aimed at addressing joblessness, illness, accident, and old age. In the article, Mike Konczal labeled such conservative ideation "the voluntarism fantasy," pointing out that in the American context, "complex interaction between public and private social insurance… has always existed in the United States."
As well, Konczal argues, it should. Konczal reasons that, rather than state support for social programs working against the institution and practice of private charity, it provides a better stage for it. Such a minimum guarantee, he writes:
"As Christian theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, like the noblesse oblige of pre-industrial days, 'philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the privileged are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.'"
Arguably his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society is Reinhold Niebuhr's important early study (1932) in ethics and politics. Widely read and continually relevant, this book marked Niebuhr's decisive break from progressive religion and politics toward a more deeply tragic view of human nature and history. Forthright and realistic, Moral Man and Immoral Society argues that individual morality is intrinsically incompatible with collective life, thus making social and political conflict inevitable. Niebuhr further discusses our inability to imagine the realities of collective power; the brutal behavior of human collectives of every sort; and, ultimately, how individual morality can mitigate the persistence of social immorality.
This new edition includes a foreword by Cornel West that explores the continued interest in Niebuhr's thought and its contemporary relevance.
This addition to Westminster John Knox Press's Library of Theological Ethics series brings one of Reinhold Niebuhr's classic works back into print. This 1935 book answered some of the theological questions raised by Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and articulated for the first time Niebuhr's theological position on many issues. The introduction by ethicist Edmund N. Santurri sets the work into historical and theological context and also assesses the viability of some of Niebuhr's positions for theology and ethics today.
The New Republic has another Reinhold Niebuhr essay from the 1950s available on their site. This one is Niebuhr's reflection on justice and the death penalty. Excerpt:
While this exhaustive analysis of the whole problem of capital punishment achieves its interest primarily because of the light it throws upon one of the most curious ironies of Anglo-Saxon justice, it should have the additional attraction to American readers, that it may sensitize their conscience in regard to a moral problem in which our nation has adapted the standards of the “mother” country without realizing that these standards were the dubious by-products of a great legal tradition.
Liberalism has a much richer and more varied history than much of the present discourse suggests. It is neither simply the product of the Enlightenment nor necessarily bound to anti-religious secularism and self-interested individualism. So, part of what I want to do is rehabilitate liberalism by describing a theologically and socially robust alternative to the secular, individualistic form it so often takes in current social and theological discourse. H. Richard Niebuhr provided me with a perfect exemplar of this position. So, I put his more theologically profound and historically nuanced version of liberalism in conversation with both critics and defenders of contemporary liberalism, showing that the debate in most social and religious circles is stunted and inadequate.
The most compelling evidence for Ursula's role as coauthor in her husband's later writing comes from Niebuhr himself. In the introduction to his 1965 book Man's Nature and His Communities, he includes this passage:
I will not elaborate an already too intimate, autobiographical detail of a happy marriage except to say that this volume is published under my name, and the joint authorship is not acknowledged except in this confession. I will leave the reader to judge whether male arrogance or complete mutuality is the cause of this solution.
It is troubling that a work of joint authorship would be published under only one name. Even so, one can imagine how it might have come about. Reinhold had suffered a series of debilitating strokes beginning in 1952. He continued to work, though at a much slower pace. As his strength declined over the last 19 years of his life, he was increasingly dependent on his wife. Like many stroke patients, he suffered from depression, and she tried to keep his spirits up- that was one reason, she acknowledged, for the conversations she recorded. They were trips down memory lane or around the headlines of the day.
As writing became more difficult for him, her editorial role increased to the point where we can say that she was not only editor but also coauthor. Perhaps it was hard for him to admit even to himself the full extent of her contribution to his late writings. Perhaps she, for the sake of his pride or morale, did not insist that her name be included. One can see how it might have come about that her name was not included in jointly authored pieces in these last decades of his life.
Whatever reason for the pretense then, there is no reason for it now. It is time for scholars to examine more fully Ursula Niebuhr's influence on her husband's work not just in the last years but throughout their marriage. This acknowledgment does not diminish Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the most influential U.S. theologian of the 20th century.
The New Republic has posted another of Niebuhr's articles for the magazine online. This is a reprint of his 1957 piece, "Our Stake in the State of Israel." Here's an Excerpt:
The history of the new state of Israel is thrilling in many respects. It represents a remarkable co-operation of ‘‘capitalistic’’ Europeans and American Jews with the essentially socialistic Jews of Israel. For the prevailing political ideology of Israel was determined by the Polish Jewish socialists, turned Zionists, so completely typified by the robust Prime-Minister of today, Ben-Gurion. The collective farms or ‘‘kibbutzim’’ are, in fact, based upon rather doctrinaire socialist principles of the 19th Century, and are probably too consistently collectivist in their attitude toward family life to satisfy our robust individualism. A witty Jewish Oxford don, a friend of Chaim Weizmann, has given it as his opinion that Israel is served by the German Jews, who became honest and skillful ‘‘bureaucrats’’ and scientists, and by the Polish Jews who furnish the ideology and the political skill of the new state. Certainly the effective leadership of the state is divided between the German and the Polish Jews.
The co-operation between the religious Jews and the essentially secular idealists in the new state is equally worthy of note. Zionism is a political dream of religious origin, and before the Nazi period it was nourished only among those who were poor and orthodox, rather than among the ‘‘liberal’’ and assimilated and prosperous Jews. Hitler’s persecutions changed all this and made Zionism popular in the congregations of liberal Judaism. From a religious standpoint one might say that it became too popular because the liberal rabbis were as preoccupied with Hitler for two decades as they are now with Nasser, so that even a Christian, with sympathies for Zionism, such as the present writer, can appreciate the protests of the anti-Zionist ‘‘Council for Judaism,’’ which believes that political and nationalistic preoccupations of the rabbis imperil the religious substance of Judaism as a monotheistic faith.
Reinhold Niebuhr in the early ‘30s ridiculed the Social Gospel in his classic Moral Man and Immoral Society, which ushered in what Niebuhr called “Christian realism.” In the years of the Great Depression, this premier social ethicist pushed aside the optimism of the Social Gospel for the language of sin, power politics, transcendence and realism. He made the case that individuals might operate with altruistic motives, but society is made up of classes and groups who have clashing interests. In this howling arena, where each group demands to be heard and seeks power, the voice of Jesus calling for selfless love may only be a future vision, and the best we can realistically end up with is “rough justice,” which is the compromise amid countervailing power relations. Reform is possible, but it comes through struggle between capital, labor, and an assertive national government.
Niebuhr in these early days was an ardent socialist, but later, upon giving up Marxism, he adopted a welfare state realism in the Roosevelt era that put him in the mainstream of liberal democratic politics. He was, among other things, a co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action. In domestic politics, Christian realism was a strategy of balance-of-power relations between capital, labor, and assertive national government. As an aside, Walter Reuther, the union leader, was influenced by Niebuhr’s thinking, and Barack Obama is well-read in Niebuhr’s writings.
Internationally, Niebuhrian realism was a theory of balance-of-power interrelations among nations, which American strategists applied particularly to the USSR. This legacy was toxic. In defense of Niebuhr, he said that he hated that Cold War ideologues considered themselves Niebuhrian. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the neo-conservative ideologues promoted imperialist expansionism, a rationale that led the U.S. into, among other things, the fiasco in Iraq. This neo-con adventurism is the sorriest misuse of Niebuhr’s thought. It should be said, however, that Niebuhr’s persistent prophetic public call to stop fascist tyranny prior to World War II is one of the high points of the social ethical tradition.