Niebuhr, My God, to Thee
In the early decades of the Cold War, the Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr attracted a considerable following among American intellectuals who influenced foreign policy. People such as the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who wanted to found a group called Atheists for Niebuhr, maintained that Niebuhr provided a new, realistic basis for America’s battle against Soviet communism that avoided the discredited idealistic moralism of Woodrow Wilson. In this week’s column, I’d like to look at Niebuhr’s book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, based on a series of lectures that Niebuhr gave at Stanford University in 1944. In particular, I’d like to examine Niebuhr’s charge that supporters of the free market are guilty of naïve optimism about how capitalism works. I’ll try to show not only that the charge is false but also that Niebuhr’s own economic views are based on a naïve and discredited Marxism.
To understand Niebuhr’s argument, we first need to grasp his distinction between the “children of light” and the “children of darkness,” as he uses these biblical expressions. The “children of light” believe the world can be brought under natural law but are naïve, underestimating the power of self-love to cause people to deviate from the proper path. The “children of darkness,” by contrast, understand the power of self-love but are cynical about it. They reject natural law as an ideal, speaking only of power. Niebuhr says,
Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could then be termed “the children of light.” This is no mere arbitrary device; for evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be co
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