Let Liberal Churches Stop Fooling Themselves

by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philsophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics in their field, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis.

This article appeared in the Christian Century July 4-11, 1984, p. 682 (reprinted from the March 25, 1931, issue).  Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Religion without a constantly replenished force of penitence easily becomes a romance which brutal men use to hide the real sources of their actions from themselves and from others. That is why romantic religion is dangerous and that is why liberal religion is not now an effective agent of moral redemption in our contemporary society.


Recently a well-known liberal clergyman returned from Europe and reported that he was highly gratified to find so many evidences of conciliation in Europe’s political and religious life. He gave it as his opinion that the Continent was slowly but surely approaching the longed-for goal of harmony and peace. It so happens that the Europe about which this optimistic judgment was made is, in many respects, in a more perilous position than it was in 1914. France and Italy keep watch over each other with shrewd and narrow eyes. Poland maintains an unbearable military autocracy because she fears both Russia and Germany. The Germans express themselves with increasingly unrestrained resentment against the Polish depredations upon German minorities. Worst of all, the growing anger of the German people over the economic slavery to which the treaty of Versailles condemns them, voiced particularly in the Hitler movement, threatens not only the parliamentary government of Germany but the whole peace of Europe. There is no real health and there are only a few signs of convalescence in the body politic of continental Europe. But liberal religion has a dogma and it views the contemporary world through the eyes of this dogma. The dogma is all the more potent in coloring opinion because it is not known as a dogma. The dogma is that the world is gradually growing better and that the inevitability of gradualness guarantees our salvation.

The liberal church has held to this dogma ever since John Fiske and his school made the doctrine of evolution acceptable to the religious mind and heart. . . . It has given a note of romantic and unreal optimism to the preaching of the liberal church and has prevented it from making any realistic estimate of the moral problems of our day.

The real fact about our civilization is that it is flirting with disaster. There is as yet no proof that we have the social imagination to bring the economic intricacies of our common life under the control of reason and conscience. Europe, faced with the anarchy of tariff barriers, knows that some kind of economic reciprocity must be developed, but lacks the moral energy and good will to overcome her confusion. America insists on large debt payments from Europe but refuses to accept Europe’s goods. All of the Western nations are anxious to sell Russia the machinery which she needs, but arouse warlike passions when Russia tries to pay for the machinery with her raw products. We conduct our international relations, in other words, with a social imagination hardly worthy of primitive savages.

If modern civilization faces disaster in its international life because it cannot bring its intricate economic relations under social control, we face moral confusion in our urban life because an impersonal megalopolitan life has robbed men of whatever shreds of social responsibility they once had. . . .

Meanwhile the church lives in a comfortable world. . . . The liberal church[’s] optimism is really the optimism of the middle classes who rose to power in the 19th century and who naturally interpreted the whole course of history in terms consonant with their own good fortune.

A pessimistic determinism may not be any closer to the facts than an optimistic determinism, and the remnant of optimism with which the Marxian saves himself may also be illusion. If another world war came upon us at the present juncture it is very questionable whether we would have the sense to use the occasion for the purpose of building a new world. Very probably new types of fascism would arise out of it, rather than a new cooperative world. The fact is that both pessimistic and optimistic determinisms are dangerous to the moral life.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the pessimism which is sweeping the religious life of Europe and is robbing many of its sensitive spirits of the last shred of ambition to save their world from collapse. For the Barthians the world is too evil to be saved and all moral striving is, though necessary, futile. Salvation lies completely outside of the field of social responsibility; and less or more decency in human relations is irrelevant to the business of redemption. The Barthians make a much more realistic analysis of the moral facts of modern civilization than do the liberal Christians from whom they have dissociated themselves. They consign the world of history to the devil. They are done with the illusions of the middle-class world. But one may be pardoned for suspecting that they are complete pessimists partly because they represent that part of the middle-class world which has discovered the hypocrisy of its moral pretensions and the unsoundness of its moral life but which is not willing to take the heroic measures which are necessary to save modern civilization.

The fact is that no one who looks at the facts of contemporary society from any high or even decent moral perspective can be an optimist, and no one who tries to meet its moral problems can be a complete pessimist. Moral energy creates its own optimism. The gospel is certainly not optimistic in regard to the world. Jesus had none of the evolutionary optimism which is the chief characteristic of modern liberal Protestantism. He did not see God in the processes of nature, working inevitably toward a glorious consummation. But he did believe that God would bring ultimate victory. It is this theistic root of optimism to which modern liberalism appeals, but it does so prematurely.

A real faith in God must arise out of conflict with the world, otherwise it is the world and not God in whom one reposes confidence. The ethical struggle demands a sharp antithesis between the real and the ideal. It is not easy to maintain this antithesis without losing confidence in the possibility of realizing the ideal, or to restore that confidence without effacing the distinction between the two. In fact, this task is so difficult that it can never be done in terms of pure reason. The purely rational approach betrays us either into pessimism or optimism.

It is the genius of morally vital religion that it is not too consistent in regard to this problem. It has an ideal for which the forces of nature and history offer only the slightest opportunity of triumph, yet those who give themselves to it with complete abandon never lose confidence that it can be realized. That is the foolishness of religion which has the root of wisdom in it. Only those who submit completely to the will of God know how potent that will is and are able to interpret the future in its terms. The mistake of the liberal church lies in its identification of an easy evolutionary optimism with the desperate and heroic optimism which can arise out of and be justified by only a heroic defiance of the forces of nature which so largely control the life of human society.

The romanticism of the liberal church is revealed not only in its view of history but in its estimate of man. It holds, on the whole, to a Rousseauistic view of human virtue. It has made an easy identification of this view with the Christian estimate of man as the child of God. The result is that it fails to understand the diabolical aspects of human life, particularly those aspects which are revealed when the selfishness and greed of individuals are compounded and express themselves in the predatory group. The fact is that all large economic and political groups are much more predatory than they are social in their dominant passions. That is what gives modern society its great moral problem. The ever-increasing capacity for social cohesion and cooperation increases rather than decreases the conflict of selfish interests. If that fact is not clearly discerned, there is no possibility of dealing realistically with our total moral problem.

Man is neither totally depraved nor naturally virtuous. He is a creature of impulses which are in themselves neither good nor evil but which tend to become more and more evil as they express themselves through instruments which increase their force and in a society which constantly enlarges the potential evil which resides in them. In our kind of world the expansive desires of man need constantly more inner and social restraint if they are to be prevented from reducing society to anarchy. The liberal church is easily fooled by the little amenities which have always veiled the nakedness of the lust for power. It is fooled as well by the superficial harmony of interests which society creates by subjecting the interests of one portion of the population to the interests of another. Any contemporary view of any society reveals a kind of peace; but it is a peace without justice and the battle is bound to be reopened. When it is reopened those who have taken a superficial view of the situation are inevitably betrayed into a position of hostility toward those who disturb the peace rather than toward those who would like to perpetuate privilege by the perpetuation of peace.

One could hardly expect that the church would ever become sufficiently potent to persuade those who hold unequal privilege and power to divest themselves of it voluntarily in any large numbers. But if it deals realistically with the facts of human nature, it could create an atmosphere in which the eternal social struggle could become a series of tensions rather than open conflict. It could do this merely by helping people to see themselves as they really are, by destroying their illusions about themselves, by puncturing their nice self-deceptions. It would need only to make the insights of the gospel available and in performing this task it could avail itself of the unmistakable evidence of modem psychological and economic sciences. Religion is very easily used to obscure rather than to reveal the primitive forces which control so much of human action. Religion without a constantly replenished force of penitence easily becomes a romance which brutal men use to hide the real sources of their actions from themselves and from others.

That is why romantic religion is dangerous and that is why liberal religion is not now an effective agent of moral redemption in our contemporary society. Premature confidence in human virtue is on the same level with premature confidence in human history. In fact, they come to one and the same thing. Man is nature and yet the child of God. History is nature and yet the dominion of God’s will. But the nature in man and in history is the stuff with which moral purpose in man and in God must work. It is the business of true religion to preach judgment without reducing man to despair and to preach hope without tempting him to complacency. That double purpose can best be accomplished by a rigorous analysis which shows the sharp distinction between the real and the ideal and by vigorous action which reveals the potency and the potentialities of the moral will.