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Body Politics, Essays, Politics of Scripture

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Complex Legacy on Race — Scott Paeth

Scott Paeth authors the latest post in our Niebuhr symposium, co-hosted by the Niebuhr Society and occasioned by the Library of America’s recent publication of Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton. The symposium is envisioned less as an exhaustive review of the collection than an exploration of its usefulness for introducing students to Niebuhr and for thinking in conversation with Niebuhr about political theology. Previous posts can be found here. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact Executive Editor, Dave True at dbtrue@gmail.com

On the subject of race, as on many other issues, Reinhold Niebuhr’s legacy is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, he regularly spoke against the crimes of racism and segregation in the United States. He was well aware of the inherent injustice that infected the Jim Crow south, and he wrote eloquently about the necessity for overcoming the structural racism that continued to plague the United States through his entire lifetime (and which continues to plague us to this day). And yet, at crucial points, he pulled back from the opportunity to commit himself fully and publicly to the cause of racial justice in the United States. While he never backed away from describing racism as an injustice and a sin, his insistence that pride and self-interest infected even the noblest movements for social reform sometimes caused him to declare “a plague on both your houses” in the struggle for racial justice precisely when it was most important for him to stand unambiguously against racism and on the side of its victims.

Yet, the underlying insight that Niebuhr brought to his analysis of the social dynamics of racism in the United States, and his understanding of the nature sin as a factor in social relationships still has relevance for understanding the persistence of racism well into the 21st century. That analysis can be extended beyond the “race” strictly understood to apply to rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, particularly as expressed in the neo-Know Nothing presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, whose political success deserves a Niebuhrian analysis all its own.

When one reads Niebuhr’s writing on the subject of race, it is apparent, at least initially, that his heart was in the right place. He retained from his liberal Christian period an abhorrence for racism and a belief that it was incumbent on the Christian community to struggle against it. One can see this even in Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic, where he speaks with contempt of the “southern equivocators and the semi-southern mediators” who sought some accommodation within the Federal Council of Churches for Christians who opposed voting rights for African Americans. As he wrote: “It does not make one feel very comfortable to have a great church body seek some politic solution for a prohibition in which the ideal of Christian brotherhood leaves little room for equivocation” (113).

In a similar vein, in Moral Man and Immoral Society he wrote forcefully of the need to overcome southern segregation through a campaign of nonviolent action much like that which Martin Luther King eventually led. He writes about the “moral and rational forces” pointing in the direction of equal rights and political emancipation for southern blacks and holds up for scorn southern whites who proclaim themselves to be “completely with the Negro cause” and yet who “will not admit the Negro to equal rights if not forced to do so.” At the same time, he argues that “violent revolution on the part of the Negro will accentuate the animosities and prejudices of his oppressors.” Thus he endorses the application of Gandhian nonviolence to the racial problem in the south in way that will force southern whites to yield, while minimizing the possibility of the “terrible social tragedy” of an all out racial war, which he believed blacks would inevitably lose (332-3).

Here we see Niebuhr’s political pragmatism operating in conjunction with his moral idealism. That Southern whites must yield to the African American demand for justice is the unquestioned moral starting point. Yet that required, for Niebuhr, a careful consideration of the methods most likely to achieve that end. With the hindsight of history, his analysis seems to be both prudent and prescient. It has been noted that Niebuhr probably had as much influence– if not more — on King’s embrace of nonviolent direct action as Gandhi.

51upkxykN-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In an essay from 1942 entitled The Race Problem, Niebuhr expands his analysis to address the internment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government. The internment program is now considered one of the many great racial crimes committed by the United States; at the time, however, many Americans considered it a necessity forced upon them by virtue of the war.

For Niebuhr, this was yet another sinful manifestation of group pride in social relationships. “Group pride,” he writes, “is the sinful corruption of group consciousness. Contempt of another group is the pathetic form that respect for our own group frequently takes” (651). He condemns this unqualifiedly, but at the same time notes that, as a feature of social life, it is far more difficult to exterminate than “social idealists” have hoped. In fact, he writes “there are … no solutions for the race problem on any level if it is not realized that there is no absolute solution for this problem” (652).

Because of the persistence of group pride and egoism, human beings will always be subject to the temptation to distinguish between insiders and outsiders, and to victimize the outsider when they have the power to do so. Recognizing this fact does not absolve us of moral responsibility to oppose it, but for Niebuhr, it does compel us to ask once again what the proper strategy for addressing it might be. If we cannot fully transcend the reality of racial discrimination, we must struggle to minimize it.

Yet, here we begin to see how Niebuhr’s mixture of moral idealism and political practicality could lead him to advocate a frustratingly middle-of-the-road position with regard to racial questions. On the one hand, he attests: “We cannot deal with our injustices to either the Negros or the Japanese adequately because we dare not confess to ourselves how great our sins are. If we made such a confession, the whole temple of our illusions would fall.” Yet, on the other he counsels moderation:

On the side of minority groups, a little more Christian realism would also have its advantages. Negros, for instance, tend to resist the achievement of equal rights in the Army if this means the organization of separate units for them. This policy spells segregation for them. They demand equality in mixed units and would rather have their demands denied than to compromise with their principles. (652-3)

Thus while opposing Japanese internment, he nevertheless advises Black soldiers to settle for half a loaf — “equality” in segregated units — rather than continuing to fight for total integration within the armed forces. Here we see Niebuhr’s analysis as much less prudent and far less prescient than on the question of nonviolence in the civil rights struggle.

In a later essay, focused once more on the question of African American civil rights, he asks what the Christian church has to offer in the struggle to heal race relations. He begins on a dour note, stating “the church is not now, and has not been, very creative on this issue” (676). Rather, because we cannot rely on the “automatic resources of grace and wisdom” on this question, we need to lean instead on “discriminate judgment,” or as one might put it, pragmatic judgment, in addressing the issue.

Here we can see Niebuhr’s often frustrating tendency to give more credit to those he opposes than one might think they deserve. While he argues that “every Christian … should have some sympathy for a group of Negros, who have long smarted under the contempt of their fellow men, and who now see a chance, under the changing environment, to challenge age-old customs of segregation on public busses,” at the same time he pleads hat “this does not mean that we can have no sympathy for anxious parents who are opposed to unsegregated schools.” This sympathy, he believes, emerges from the “fact” that “cultural differences between the two races are still great enough to warrant a certain amount of disquiet on the part of the parents” (677).

While one may agree with Niebuhr that “It might help if we all realized that, in all our judgments about each other across racial lines, we do not judge with pure hearts and reason,” that is a far cry from requiring that we express “sympathy” for those who sought, through means both legal and illegal (and often violent), to prevent integration on busses and in schools. Niebuhr’s desire to caution against self-righteousness in this case, as in the case of the integration of the armed forces, led him to an unconscionable reticence precisely when he should have stood strongest on behalf of those with whom to claimed to be allied.

This is a point that has been made forcefully by James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Acknowledging that Niebuhr is “widely regarded as America’s most influential theologian in the 20th century, and possibly in American history,” he nonetheless marvels at how it was possible for such a progressive Christian hero to fail to make the transparently obvious connection between the reality of the Cross in Christian thought and the lynching tree which was the prevalent reality of the American South during much of his life. “To reflect on this failure is to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination.” Given the centrality of the Cross to Niebuhr’s conception of perfect love manifested in the midst of history, this is an unforgivable lacuna in Niebuhr’s analysis.

Cone describes Niebuhr’s view of racial issues as “at once honest and ambivalent, radical and moderate.” His willingness to condemn the sin of racism and call for God’s judgment on America in light of it is counter-balanced by his insistence on the wisdom and virtue of the Founding Fathers, many of whom owned slaves, and all of whom were willing to tolerate its continuation for the sake of preserving the unity of the new nation.

Cone’s critique of Niebuhr on this score is both inescapable and withering:

Niebuhr chose to listen to southern moderates like Faulkner and Carter on race, rather than to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who regarded Faulkner’s counsel to “go slow, pause for a moment” as a “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” … Because Niebuhr identified with white moderates in the South more than with their black victims, he could not really feel their suffering as their own. When King asked him to sign a petition appealing to President Eisenhower to protect black children involved in integrating schools in the South, Niebuhr declined. Such pressure, he told his friend and Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, would do more harm than good. Niebuhr believed that white ministers from the South would be more effective.

Cone concludes that “It was easy for Niebuhr to walk around in his own shoes, as a white man, and view the world from that vantage point, but it takes a whole lot of empathetic effort to step into those of black people and see through the eyes of African Americans.”

Once again, though, the issue was the frustrating disconnect between where Niebuhr’s conscience clearly lay and his consideration for the pragmatic dimension of effective political change. It wasn’t that he was opposed to protecting black children, but that he felt his involvement “would do more harm than good.” His choice to listen to Carter and Faulkner over King was based on his exercise of “discriminate judgment” through which he discerned the need to recognize the “legitimate” concerns of southern whites over issues of desegregation rather than obey the radical demands of the gospel to bypass prudence in the struggle for righteousness:

There seems nothing in the Christian ethic about prudence, and prudence is what is demanded in such critical situations as this one. But genuine charity is the father of prudence. For genuine love does not propose abstract schemes of justice that leave the human factor out of account (677).

However, Cone might respond, the issue is less one of leaving the human factor out of account, and more which humans actually factor into the pragmatic accounting of how much risk should be undertaken on behalf of justice.

His conscience was clearly on display in his response to a later request by King to participate in a 1965 march for civil rights in Alabama, as he wrote: “I hope there will be a massive demonstration of all citizens with conscience in favor of the elemental human rights of voting and freedom of assembly,” (688) while at the same time declining the invitation to participate himself due to his stroke and declining health.

The question for us becomes how we can learn from Niebuhr’s example in the context of the contemporary struggle against racism and discrimination in the United States. Can we heed the lesson of Niebuhr’s critical conscience, which impelled him to speak forcefully against racial injustice and on behalf of equality, not once, but regularly, and which was powerful enough to draw no less than Martin Luther King into its orbit, while at the same time recognizing that we need to go beyond Niebuhr’s reticence and embrace an ethic of engagement which refuses to take the “wide and broad gate” that allows compromise with persistent racism?

The fact that more than fifty years after the greatest triumphs of the civil rights era, it is has become increasingly necessary to proclaim that Black Lives Matter in response to the regular shooting of African American men and women by police, that there is legitimate doubt as to whether any black life is safe in police custody, that voting rights are perpetually in danger of being eroded through “voter fraud” legislation and voter suppression tactics, and that segregation of American public life, in schools, in neighborhoods, and in electoral politics remains an ever-present reality even as we enter the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency demonstrates that we are far from a “post-racial” society. The need to speak out, not with moderation, but with boldness, on these issues, to refuse to compromise morally with those who wish to equivocate, has never been more pressing. We need to capture the passion of Niebuhr’s spirit while learning the lesson of his failure to “walk around in someone else’s shoes.”

As we enter the 2016 electoral cycle, we greet the prospect that it will be shaped by a political clown who combines many of the worst qualities of Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. The fact that his influence has now legitimized open discrimination on the basis of religion in the United States adds an additional urgency to the need to speak out loudly in opposition to those who would recapitulate the moral crime of Japanese Internment, but this time directed toward Muslims (and, if we’re honest, really all of those of Arab or South Asian descent). Niebuhr’s lesson for us is that, in the face of injustices such as these, we need to be willing to allow our passion for justice to guide us, even if into risky waters, rather than fail to stand up boldly when the opportune moment confronts us to do so.


Scott R. Paeth is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. He works in the fields of Christian Social Ethics and Public Theology. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. He is the author or editor of seven books, including “Exodus Church and Civil Society: Public Theology and Social Theory in the Work of Jurgen Moltmann” (Ashgate, 2008); “Public Theology for a Global Society: Essays in Honor of Max Stackhouse” (Eerdmans, 2010); and “The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (WJK, 2013).

One thought on “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Complex Legacy on Race — Scott Paeth

  1. Thank you for the close look at Niebuhr on race. I’m 150 pages into Charles Marsh’s bio of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” and it is noticeable that DB was not 100% solid in his support of the Jews. E. g., he refused to conduct the funeral of his brother-in-law, who was Jewish, because the deceased had converted to Christianity but not been baptized. Bonhoeffer was very ashamed of himself later and repented bitterly for his failure. But the young Bonhoeffer still has his idealism about him, and he had learned from Niebuhr and especially the activists at Union that Christian ethics must be concrete. Perhaps intellectuals like Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr are not quick to put into practice their ideals. Bonhoeffer seems to move deftly in helping draw up the Bethany declaration in which the resisting Christians in Germany challenge the Aryan clause that the national Lutheran church had embraced. (In consultation with Barth, the great theologian counseled them to make make such a big deal of the Aryan clause. It was an intra-Church squabble. Barth later regretted this counsel, says Marsh. “Strange Glory” is a great read! Let me offer an anecdote. I took a class from Joseph L. Allen on Reinhold Niebuhr at the Perkins School of Theology in the 90s. One day Dr. Allen spoke on Niebuhr’s view of love in the second vol. of Nature and Destiny. It had been a difficult passage for me. By the time Allen explained it, everything was clear. Yes, love was sacrificial! Then Allen quietly said, Now that doesn’t seem quite right to me, that love is always sacrificial. I tend to agree with Paul Ramsey that love is giving a person what she needs. Ha! Ha! I’m no scholar or social commentator. I thought of this anecdote when reading your account of James Cone’s difficulties with Niebuhr: You write, “[H]e (i.e. Cone) nonetheless marvels at how it was possible for such a progressive Christian hero to fail to make the transparently obvious connection between the reality of the Cross in Christian thought and the lynching tree which was the prevalent reality of the American South during much of his life. ‘To reflect on this failure is to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination.’ Given the centrality of the Cross to Niebuhr’s conception of perfect love manifested in the midst of history, this is an unforgivable lacuna in Niebuhr’s analysis.” I wonder if Niebuhr exalted view of the cross as sacrificial love eclipsed any thought of it as a shameful lynching. As “strange fruit,” in the words of the haunting song. Work should be done here. I kind of feel that now is a time to dig deeper and construct new responses to our broken situation. I’m 61 years old, and I’m no historian nor a diligent theology student. I don’t even know why everything seemed to go to pot with the murdering of MLK, Jr. I’m sure Black Lives Matter will make a difference. Perhaps the young generation is on the right path. I’m not sure, but I want to keep studying and maybe become an activist myself. Thanks.

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