Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

A Politics of Pluralism in American Democracy: Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian Realism as a National Resource in a Post-9/11 World

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

A Politics of Pluralism in American Democracy: Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian Realism as a National Resource in a Post-9/11 World

Article excerpt


Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was of German pietistic Lutheran background, a German Evangelical by denomination and a Missourian by birth. After finishing his education at Yale on a scholarship, he served as an especially successful pastor in Detroit, Michigan, where he ministered to many working-class employees from the automobile industry for several years. He became intensely involved in social activism on their behalf, and he continued to be a political and social advocate throughout his professional career, even after becoming a theological educator at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Extensive travels in Europe as it suffered the ravages of war also helped to hone his theologically sustained social insights. (1) Niebuhr's influence on contemporary American religious thought regarding social ethics has been unsurpassed. Wilfred McClay says Niebuhr was "arguably the outstanding American public theologian of the twentieth century." (2)

This essay suggests that Niebuhr's thought may be a rich theological and political resource for addressing the current context of religious pluralism now occurring in the United States of America on an unprecedented scale. It also suggests that failure to avail itself of some such resource for addressing an increasingly pluralistic religious context could be calamitous or even catastrophic for the nation. It will further suggest that a realistic politics of pluralism is a wise way of enriching a free and fundamentally stable democratic society. Finally, it will suggest that a politics of pluralism, as herein addressed and understood, is completely consistent with major tenets of Christian theology and of American democracy, with appeal beyond sectarian or partisan borders. In closing, 1 offer concrete suggestions for implementation in a tone sensitive to complex American conceptions of and commitments to appropriate relations between church and state.

Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian Realism

Through now-classic works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr became an author and architect of "Christian Realism." (3) Briefly put, Christian Realism attempts to deal with the human social condition as "the way things are," rather than how one might wish they were, and thus to aim at carefully adjusted and attainable goals for progressive improvement. It advocates an approach to political and social realities in a democratic society from a Christian anthropological perspective, accenting the doctrine of original sin and the testimony of history regarding human tendencies toward selfish social behavior. In other words, it aims to avoid either a too optimistic or a too pessimistic view of human nature and their implications for individual and, especially, for societal structures (for example, classes, companies, or governments). (4) Practically speaking, Niebuhr encouraged human individuals and groups toward self-transcendent possibilities rooted in unique human consciousness, but he also always warned against the dire dangers of undue self-interest often unawares that defeat or sabotage those very attempts at societal harmony and unity. In a word, issues of economics and plays for power tend to dominate human relations in social and political contexts; however, to an extent, careful checks and balances, what Niebuhr called "equilibrated power," can curb destructive tendencies, thus allowing comparative or relative realization of the transcendent. (5)

Additionally, Niebuhr's thought has an interesting eschatological element. For him, various eschatological sects have rightly understood only a part of the truth about the Reign of God, that is, its impact in and on human history, but have missed the whole part of the truth, that the Reign can be fully realized only at the end of history--not above but beyond history. (6) Only God's direct and dramatic intervention can institute the ideal final form of the Reign. …

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