The Politics of Original Sin
Reinhold Niebuhr is among the most politically and theologically influential--and most misunderstood--American thinkers of the twentieth century. This misunderstanding is the product of a tendency among Niebuhr's admirers and critics alike to overlook the elaborate interplay of the theology and politics in Niebuhr's thought. I argue that Niebuhr understood himself as a preacher to religion's "cultured despisers," and that Niebuhr construed this role in fundamentally theological terms. As a consequence, there is a dynamic theology underlying his political engagement with the broader culture. Chief among the "cultured despisers" drawn to Niebuhr's thought were the political realists who dominated early Cold War politics. They were particularly compelled by the political insights of Niebuhr's Christian Realism, and proceeded to incorporate these insights into own realist visions. I argue that in the act of appropriating Niebuhr the political realists unwittingly absorbed much of his theology; and in neglecting to recognize the theological underpinnings to Niebuhr's political insights, they ended up misconstruing Niebuhr in important ways. I seek to demonstrate that fully appreciating Niebuhr's contributions to political discourse requires an awareness of how theology suffuses even his most overtly political writings. This project consists of two parts. Part One examines the theological formation of the concept at the heart of Niebuhr's Christian Realism: namely, the doctrine of original sin. From the outset, Niebuhr maintained that elaborating the full political implications of original sin required a theological structure. Through sustained conversations with theological contemporaries Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Emil Brunner, and his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold elaborated the distinctive theological anthropology, understanding of grace and redemption, and account of the dynamic interplay between faith and history underlying his exploration of original sin and its political implications. Niebuhr's Christian Realism, I suggest, is inextricably theological. Part Two analyses Niebuhr's reception among three of the most prominent midcentury political realists: Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Arthur Schlesinger. Although they were among Niebuhr's most astute interpreters, all three figures wrongly presumed that they could extricate the political elements of Niebuhr's thinking on original sin from the theological structure in which this thinking was embedded, and import only these political elements into their own realist visions. Their uses of the concept of original sin indicate that they both adopt far more of Niebuhr's theology than they ever intended to, and misconstrue some of his most profound insights. I close by considering what a theologically grounded Christian Realism has to offer political discourse.