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Class, Race, and Democratic Life: How to Read Niebuhr in 2016

niebuhr in hat

Daniel A. Morris 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 explores the 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


As we inch toward the presidential elections of 2016, crawling through a seemingly endless desert of soundbites, debates, and TV advertisements, we would do well to step back and revisit Reinhold Niebuhr’s Cold War liberalism. The new collection of Niebuhr’s Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton, shows that Niebuhr’s political reflections are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote, and can guide us through the political wasteland in which we currently find ourselves.

This collection highlights two particular issues that captivated Niebuhr’s attention and should command ours, as well. One of these issues is economic injustice. Throughout his career, Niebuhr voiced deep objections to the virtues and consequences associated with free market economies. (For a discussion of Niebuhr’s implicit critique of the virtues of the ideal capitalist moral agent, see my book Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr.) Another issue is racial injustice. Although Niebuhr could have addressed racial injustice more effectively (many argue that he actually exacerbated racial injustice), he did dedicate a substantive amount of ink to this problem. Several texts in Sifton’s collection show his concern. The most important and relevant feature of these two impulses for American society and political life in 2016—45 years after his death—is that Niebuhr linked his critiques of economic and racial forms of injustice, largely because he perceived both to be threats to our democratic aspirations. We would do well to listen to his calls for democratic renewal and racial and economic justice today. (In this post I will present some of his democratic reflections on economic injustice; in a second post I will explore his reflections on democracy and racial injustice.)

Even as Reinhold Niebuhr denounced Soviet Communism, he still articulated clear and powerful critiques of free market economics. He often couched his economic commentary as part of a larger discussion of social and political change in the modern West. The transition to modernity often achieved greater degrees of freedom, he thought, but they also ushered in new and different challenges. In short, the social and political “progress” of the modern West was morally ambiguous. This was clear in his assessment of capitalism. One of his most vehement and enduring objections to unrestrained capitalism was that free market philosophers naively assumed that lack of regulation would lead all people, individually and collectively, to their greatest good. In an April, 1957 essay titled “Theology and Political Thought in the Western World,” Niebuhr chastises advocates of laissez-faire economics, calling the basic theory “heretical, from the Christian standpoint…The self-interest was not as harmless as the theory assumed; and the trusted ‘pre-established harmonies’ did not exist” (870). Niebuhr’s point draws on his Augustinian understanding of sin. Contrary to the position of free market theorists, self-interest is not harmless. In fact, self-interest is the essence of sin. Borrowing Marx’s basic distinction between owners and workers, Niebuhr argues that these two groups of people will never live in basic harmony as long as self-interest is the only motivation that guides them.

But capitalism isn’t problematic only because it gives a free reign to sin, or only because it naively assumes certain forms of social harmony, or only because it reflects deficiencies in character (although Niebuhr thinks those are root problems, to be sure). Unfettered capitalism is also problematic because it augments economic and social inequality. Niebuhr argues in “Theology and Political Thought in the Western World” (and elsewhere) that the transition to capitalism resulted in “dynamic disproportions of power.” Workers in the modern West watch helplessly as the gulf of wealth and income separating them from the ownership class widens. Niebuhr claims that this dynamic began with the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in “horrible injustices” for European workers (684).

As he surveyed the economic injustices that resulted inevitably from unrestrained capitalism, Niebuhr frequently drew a strong and clear connection to politics. In short, he saw the widening gaps of income and wealth inequality as detrimental to democracy. His Augustinian account and defense of democracy sought to minimize the harmful effects of sin by spreading power out to as many institutions and people as possible. Democracy may offer the closest political approximation of such a distribution of power, but unrestrained capitalism brings us farther away from an economic approximation of this goal. Thus, for Niebuhr, democracy and capitalism work at cross purposes: democracy offers a flattening of power that is welcome to his Augustinian sensibility, while capitalism results in dangerous concentrations of power. Niebuhr articulates the anti-democratic effect of economic inequality by observing that the “social distress among industrial workers was responsible for their defection from the hopes of a democratic world” (870). We cannot effectively rule ourselves together if the vast majority of us are dominated by an economic elite and consumed with the problems of basic economic insecurity.

Looking back at them right now, Niebuhr’s mid-20th century reflections on free market societies and economic inequality are obviously prescient. The problems that he identified in unrestrained capitalism are worse now than when he wrote. Thomas Piketty shows that economic inequality in the United States is now at unsustainable levels, for the same reasons that drew Niebuhr’s attention. Piketty writes that “what primarily characterizes the United States at the moment is a record level of inequality from labor (probably higher than in any society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world, including societies in which skill disparities were extremely large).” [1] Can American Christians see through the xenophobia and fear-mongering of the 2016 presidential primaries and prioritize the pursuit of economic justice? In other words, can American Christians recall the charge that Niebuhr gave throughout his career?

What remedy did Niebuhr suggest for the widening gulfs of wealth and income in the modern West? One of the most important was the cultivation of robust labor unions to counteract economic inequality. Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics gives us several documents that showcase his commitment to labor unions as a much-needed corrective to the inevitable inequality of laissez-faire economics. In an essay on the so-called Goldwater revolution (in which he calls Goldwater’s supporters “a group of Yahoos” [687]), Niebuhr portrays unions as a crucial institution to limit capitalist excess and inequality. Despite capitalism’s tendency toward inequality, “the free market societies had a common wisdom—transcending bourgeois economic interests—and gradually, though reluctantly, created a new equilibrium of power by giving the workers the right to organize and bargain collectively” (684). The importance of unions for economic justice is central to his piece excoriating Goldwater. Unions are necessary to achieve an “equilibrium of social and economic power.” FDR’s reforms were the vehicle for America to secure “post-industrial economic justice.” Unions allowed workers to contribute to decision-making processes regarding early retirement and the pace of work. “Now all these problems are considered, together with wages, hours, and fringe benefits, and are subject to mutual bargaining by fairly equal partners” (684-5).

And if Niebuhr supported labor unions in theory, he also did so in practice. Sifton includes in this volume a letter that Niebuhr wrote to solicit donations to support workers in the textile strike of 1934. Local and state governments in the south responded harshly to the strikes, sometimes with lethal force. “The Emergency Committee for Strikers’ Relief appeals to you and your friends to furnish food, medical care and clothing to the families of the strikers, to the wives and children of the dead and wounded,” Niebuhr wrote. “The workers must eat today; they must be cared for immediately. We must not let them and their families picket the mills with hungry stomachs” (606). Here again, the contemporary relevance of Niebuhr’s writing is startling, as unions are in a much more vulnerable position today than they were in his time.

[1] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, M.A.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 265.

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