Skip to main content Accessibility help

A Tempered Liberalism: Political Ethics and Ethos in Reinhold Niebuhr's Thought

  • Joshua L. Cherniss


This article examines Reinhold Niebuhr's contributions both to twentieth-century liberalism and to reflection on liberalism's relationship to political ethics. These contributions are, I argue, twofold. First, Niebuhr's account of moral psychology chastens liberal ambitions and assumptions, offering a more “realistic” liberalism (while avoiding certain weaknesses of “realist” theories). Second, Niebuhr's thought points to the importance of ethosthe combination of dispositions, temperament, and perceptions that shape individual conduct—in defining liberalism and determining the quality of political action. In articulating an ethos of humility, moderation, skepticism, irony, and self-restraint, Niebuhr offers a reformulation and defense of liberalism, and a warning against dangers that threaten liberalism both from within and without.



Hide All

1 Niebuhr's “Christian realism” has been both embraced (e.g., by Jean Bethke Elshtain) and criticized (e.g., by Stanley Hauerwas) as providing a rationale for the use of military means for moral ends. See Elshtain, Just War against Terror (New York Basic Books, 2008); Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991); Hauerwas, Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 117–30, 141–43; Hauerwas, Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997), 48–61. Others have recruited Niebuhr for their critique of American overreaching in the “war on terror”: e.g., Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008). More broadly, some (including then senator Barack Obama) have embraced Niebuhr's combination of realism and Christian hope as offering a model for incrementalist progressivism; some conservatives have invoked Niebuhr in their attacks on progressives for naive failure to recognize the importance of tradition and religious faith in maintaining order in a sinful world (See David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” New York Times, April 26, 2007, For surveys of attempts to recruit Niebuhr in recent ideological struggles, see Paul Elie, “A Man for All Reasons,” The Atlantic, Nov 1, 2007,; and Mac McCorkle, “On Recent Political Uses of Reinhold Niebuhr,” in Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power, ed. Richard Harries and Stephen Platten (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 18–41. For more scholarly attempts to appropriate Niebuhr's political vision, see John Patrick Diggins, Why Niebuhr Now (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Charles Lemert, Why Niebuhr Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); and Richard Crouter, Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith (New York:Oxford University Press, 2010), which offers a fine survey of the recent “Niebuhr revival.”

2 Kevin Mattson, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Cold War Liberalism (New York: Routledge, 2004); Eyal Naveh, Reinhold Niebuhr and Non-Utopian Liberalism: Beyond Illusion and Despair (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2002).

3 This point is suggested by Robin Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 73, 95–96, and Crouter, Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion and Christian Faith; but neither develops this line of reading, or stresses the connection of Niebuhr's articulation of a particular ethos and his reconstruction of liberalism, to the extent that I do here. This approach is also advanced—with respect to Niebuhr and others—in Mattson, When America Was Great; and Haas, Mark L., “Reinhold Niebuhr's ‘Christian Pragmatism’: A Principled Alternative to Consequentialism,” Review of Politics 61, no. 4 (1999): 605–36.

4 Wilfrid McClay, “A Man for All Reasons?,” First Things, October 15, 2007,

5 Stanley Hauerwas, A Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 447.

6 See Martin Halliwell, The Constant Dialogue: Reinhold Niebuhr and American Intellectual Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); Roger Shinn, “The Ironies of Reinhold Niebuhr,” in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original, ed. Daniel F. Rice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 83.

7 My distinction between the “theological” (or apologetic) and “ethical,” “social,” and “political” is certainly too tidy; whether Niebuhr's political thought can be appreciated and appropriated without accepting that theology, and remain viable despite that theology's weaknesses, is a complicated question, to which I return below.

8 “I cannot and do not claim to be a theologian” (Niebuhr, “Intellectual Autobiography,” in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social and Political Thought, ed. Charles W. Kegley [Philadelphia: Pilgrim, 1984], 3).

9 Niebuhr to Morton White, May 17, 1956, in Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Ursula Niebuhr (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 379.

10 Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities [MNHC] (New York: Scribner, 1965), 23–24. (All works cited are by Niebuhr unless otherwise noted.) Cf. Gary Dorrien, Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995), 139–40. Even when invoking the theology of original sin, Niebuhr distanced himself from Pauline and Augustinian accounts, which he rejected as overly deterministic and literalist. See, e.g., An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Seabury, 1979), 55–57; The Nature and Destiny of Man [NDM] (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1964), 1:178–86.

11 Elizabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War (New York: Norton, 2003), 316–21, 334.

12 For explorations of Niebuhr's thought that explicate his ethics and politics in the context of his theology, see Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism; Langdon Gilkey, On Niebuhr: A Theological Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); and Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe. See also Dorrien, Soul in Society; Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism and Modernity, 1900–1950 (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2003), for an explication of Niebuhr's place in the larger fabric of Protestant social ethics and theology.

13 Judith Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 21, 23.

14 This aspect of liberalism is central to the “political liberalism” of John Rawls and his followers.

15 This strain is traceable in the thought of Kant, J. S. Mill, T. H. Green, and more recently, Isaiah Berlin, George Kateb, and Joseph Raz. For Niebuhr's (qualified) affinities with it, see Faith and Politics (New York: Braziller, 1968), 79–81, 186–95; and Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, 126–28.

16 Niebuhr, , “The Blindness of Liberalism,” Radical Religion 1, no. 4 (1936): 45; cf. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “Reinhold Niebuhr's Role in American Political Thought and Life,” in Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Kegley, 201; John C. Bennett, “Reinhold Niebuhr's Social Ethics,” in ibid., 127. Niebuhr would later identify liberalism with an embrace of democracy and capitalism, while noting disagreements among liberals over whether human liberty demanded that capitalism be unleashed or constrained. At this point, he continued to view liberalism as an ideology of the middle classes but identified optimism about human nature and progress with only some, but not all, variants of liberalism (Niebuhr, “Liberalism: Illusions and Realities,” New Republic, July 4, 1955).

17 In the following sections, I attempt to track Niebuhr's shifting usage of the term “liberalism,” specifying as precisely as Niebuhr's own usage will allow what is meant by liberalism at different points. In the concluding section, I use “liberalism” as shorthand to refer to what I have identified above as “liberalism broadly understood.”

18 See Niebuhr, “The Nation's Crime against the Individual,” Atlantic Monthly, November 1916, 609–14; Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (Cleveland, OH: Meridian, 1957), 43, 79–80; Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1985), esp. 95, 99, 109.

19 Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 13.

20 On Niebuhr's “liberal phase,” see Ernest F. Dibble, Young Prophet Niebuhr: Reinhold Niebuhr's Early Search for Social Justice (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1977); on Niebuhr's thought as excessively liberal, Wilson Carey McWilliams, “Reinhold Niebuhr: Old Orthodoxy for New Liberalism,” American Political Science Review 56, no. 4 (1962): 874–85; Patrick Deneen, Democratic Faith (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 246–60. These accounts do not distinguish as sharply as I do here between the “liberalism” that was the object of Niebuhr's early critiques and liberal theory more generally. While agreeing with McWilliams and Deneen that Niebuhr, at least in his later years, remained within the liberal tradition, my account suggests that Niebuhr's “tempering” of liberalism was a more significant modification of liberalism's hopes and orientation than these critics allow.

21 “The Twilight of Liberalism,” New Republic, June 14, 1919, 218.

22 “The Pathos of Liberalism,” The Nation, Sept. 11, 1935, 303; Moral Man and Immoral Society [MMIS] (New York: Scribner, 1947), xx.

23 “The Blindness of Liberalism,” 4–5.

24 The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness [CLCD] (New York: Scribner, 1960), 17, 21; The Irony of American History [IAH] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 159. For the views attributed to Niebuhr in this paragraph, see MMIS, xxii, xviii–ix, xxiv, 42–43, 342; “A Critique of Pacifism,” Atlantic Monthly, May 1927, 637; “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, ed. Larry Rasmussen (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991), 237; NDM, 1:1–3, 114, 124–25, 182–83, 281; 2:74; Christian Realism and Political Problems [CRPP] (New York: Scribner, 1953), 106; MNHC, 30–31;”Humour and Faith,” The Essential Niebuhr, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 56.

25 MMIS, 6–7, 13–14; Faith and Politics, 41; Reflections on the End of an Era (New York: Scribner, 1934), 230.

26 MMIS, 179; see also 134, 157–58, 170, 177, 187, 192, 234–35; Love and Justice:Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. D. B. Robertson (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1957), 259.

27 MMIS, 232–33.

28 Love and Justice, 270; “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” 245, 248–49, 252; Pious and Secular America [PSA] (New York: Scribner, 1958), 39. Even as he renounced pacifism, Niebuhr warned that those who were willing to engage in war for the sake of justice need the prophetic testimony of moral absolutists, “lest we become callous to the horror of war, and lest we forget the ambiguity of our own actions and motives” (“Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” 253).

29 MMIS, 243–44, 269.

30 Cf. Mantena, Karuna, “Another Realism: The Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (2012): 455–70.

31 MMIS, 247–48, 250–52.

32 MMIS, 174; cf. Max Weber, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” in Political Writings, ed. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 360–62.

33 Quoted in Schlesinger, “Reinhold Niebuhr's Role,” 199.

34 MMIS, 238; cf. 256.

35 Ibid., 171.

36 Pavlischek, “Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism, and Just War Theory,” in Christianity and Power Politics Today: Christian Realism and Contemporary Political Dilemmas, ed. Eric Patterson (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), 53–71.

37 “Logical Consistency and the Nuclear Dilemma,” Christianity and Crisis, April 2, 1962, 48.

38 Pavlischek, “Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism, and the Just War Tradition,” 60.

39 See, e.g., NDM, 1:10–11; An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, 59–60.

40 NDM, 2:122.

41 Love and Justice, 205.

42 “The Moral World of Foster Dulles,” New Republic, December 1, 1958, 8.

43 Love and Justice, 205.

44 IAH, 3, 11, 14–15, 16.

45 CRPP, 36–38; IAH, 3, 20–22, 65. Here Niebuhr's analysis of the interaction between ruthlessness and moral pretense harks back to his criticisms of Henry Ford, discussed above.

46 Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, ed. Harry R. Davis and Robert C. Good (New York: Scribner, 1960), 12–13; Two Forms of Utopianism,” Christianity and Society 12, no. 4 (1947): 67; IAH, 4.

47 See, e.g., CLCD, xiii–xiv. In CLCD Niebuhr remained a critic of liberalism; while he continued to warn against liberal sentimentality and naiveté, by 1947 he was identifying himself with liberalism as a political cause and movement.

48 On Cold War liberalism, see Mattson, When America Was Great; Mueller, Jan-Werner, “Fear and Freedom: On ‘Cold War Liberalism,’European Journal of Political Theory 7, no. 1 (2008): 4564, who stresses the affinity between “Cold War liberalism” and what Judith Shklar labeled “the liberalism of fear.” For a classic statement of this position, much indebted to Niebuhr, see Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Vital Center (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949).

49 Thus, Cornel West has called Niebuhr an “organic intellectual of the corporate liberal establishment” whose ideas were “skillfully deployed in the service of a Europeanist ideology that promoted U.S. hegemony in the world” (West, The American Evasion of Philosophy [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989], 163; West, Prophetic Fragments [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988], 144). See also Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York: Norton, 1997), 289–90, 299–303; Mark L. Kleinman, A World of Hope, a World of Fear: Henry A. Wallace, Reinhold Niebuhr, and American Liberalism (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000).

50 For a corrective to which see Mattson, When America Was Great.

51 PSA, 51, 55–56, 58–59.

52 MNHC, 69–70.

53 Love and Justice, 299.

54 IAH 3, 19–20, 170, 173–74; PSA 40; CRPP 30.

55 “‘Favorable’ Environments,” Messenger, August 18, 1953: 6,

56 Niebuhr to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., August 10, 1956; Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr, 382. As such, Niebuhr represented a more critical and progressive version of “Cold War liberalism,” which had significant political influence in American politics through organizations such as Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), of which Niebuhr was a founder and leader, and was represented by politicians such as Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, as well as intellectuals such as Niebuhr, Schlesinger, and (across the Atlantic) Isaiah Berlin. See Mattson, When America Was Great.; and Joshua L. Cherniss, A Mind and its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin's Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 68–87.

57 Niebuhr's thinking on Vietnam evolved over time, though he expressed doubts and criticisms from the 1950s on. (See Dorrien, Soul in Society, 136–39). In general terms, he offered four lines of argument against the war. Two of these related to the validity of the goal of propping up the anti-Communist Diem regime of South Vietnam: this failed to be a compelling goal because (1) a Communist victory in Vietnam did not pose a vital strategic threat; and (2) the Diem regime had failed to govern well, or to earn the loyalty of its people due to its failure to invest its struggle with Communism with necessary “moral substance.” Niebuhr quoted Charles C. Brown, Niebuhr and His Age (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2002), 233. The other two related to the military means America had adopted, which Niebuhr argued (3) could not hope to achieve the ends used to justify them, and (4) were intrinsically morally evil. See e.g. Ronald H. Stone, “Interview with Reinhold Niebuhr,” Christianity and Crisis, March 17, 1969: 50. To these charges, Niebuhr added that U.S. intervention was both morally dubious and doomed, because it had been inspired by a concern for “the pride and prestige” of an “imperial nation” (quoted Brown, Niebuhr and his Age, 236).

58 Quoted in Brown, Niebuhr and His Age, 238.

59 “Indicting Two Generations,” The New Leader, October 5 1970, 13–14.

60 The Christian Century, December 31, 1969, quoted in Bennett, “Reinhold Niebuhr's Social Ethics,” 136.

61 “Prayer,” in The Essential Niebuhr, 73.

62 “The King's Chapel and the King's Court,” in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, 269–70, 272.

63 MMIS, xxv.

64 CRPP, 195–96.

65 “Study in Cynicism,” The Nation, May 1, 1943, 637.

66 See CLCD, 43–46; MNHC, 56–58.; “A Matter of Popular Will,” New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1955. His critique of faith in an enlightened elite, and his rejection of simple dichotomies between the ethical demands of politics and those of personal morality, distinguished Niebuhr from other “realists” (e.g., E. H. Carr, George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, and Hans Morgenthau) with whom he has been associated in recent accounts (e.g., Sleat, Matt, “Legitimacy in Realist Thought: Between Moralism and Realpolitik,” Political Theory 42, no. 3 [2014]: 314–37). A case for seeing Niebuhr as positioned between “realism” and a more idealistic political philosophy (in this case, just war theory) is made in Colm McKeogh, The Political Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr: A Pragmatic Approach to Just War (New York: Macmillan, 1997), though McKeogh tends to exaggerate Niebuhr's affinities with traditional just war theory.

67 CLCD, viii; cf. xii–xiv.

68 The emphasis that he placed on the interplay of ideology and personal character in shaping the sensibilities and judgments of individuals, and the importance that he attributed to such sensibilities and judgments in the making of policy, also distinguished Niebuhr's analytic approach from postwar “realists,” such as Hans Morgenthau, who were apt to focus more narrowly on matters of national interest. Cf. Kenneth W. Thompson, “Niebuhr and the Foreign Policy Realists,” in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited, 141–42.

69 “Beria and McCarthy,” The New Leader, January 4, 1954, 3–4 (italics added); contribution to Our Country, Our Culture,” Partisan Review 19, no. 3 (1952): 302–3.

70 Niebuhr's use of such terms as “Manicheanism” and “millenarianism” may reflect his theological background (and, particularly, his debts to Augustine); however, these terms were used by many other critics of political radicalism and extremism in the twentieth century, who did not share his theological roots (e.g., Raymond Aron, Daniel Bell, Lewis Coser, and Judith Shklar, among others).

71 Love and Justice, 292, 296; “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” 248; NDM, 1:205.

72 “Democracy and the Party Spirit,” 3; “Beria and McCarthy,” 4.

73 “The Relevance of Christian Realism,” Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, 121–22; cf. CRPP, 119–20.

74 Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr on Christian Realism, 128.

75 Love and Justice, 266; “The Relevance of Christian Realism,” 121–22. See also CRPP, 119–20.

76 CRPP, 163–64.

77 Bacevich, The Limits of Power, 7–8; cf. 9–12, 188–89.

78 “Liberalism: Illusions and Realities.”

79 Kenneth W. Thompson, “Reinhold Niebuhr's Theology of History,” in The Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Nathan A. Scott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 102; Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, 92–93; PSA, 91. That Niebuhr's model of character and temper were a politician who journeyed from agnosticism to a fatalistic theism, and a largely secular Jewish civic activist, suggests that he did not see Christian faith or doctrine as a necessary foundation for cultivating a soberly virtuous spirit; indeed, in his discussion of Butzel and elsewhere he suggested that Christians had much to learn from the practical examples of Jews and secularists. This appreciation for and readiness to learn from other viewpoints itself represents part of a liberal-democratic ethos, combining humility, respect, and dialogic openess. It also underlines the extent to which the ethos sketched here was recognized by Niebuhr as one appropriate to liberal political actors—and was represented, for Niebuhr, above all by (often secular and/or Jewish) political activists like Butzel or the members of ADA, who were “exuberant, skeptical, and energetically committed” (Sifton, The Serenity Prayer, 321).

80 “Humour and Faith,” in The Essential Niebuhr, 51–57, 60. Cf. Crouter, Reinhold Niebuhr, chap. 4, on Niebuhr's use of humor as a pedagogic device.

81 Love and Justice, 177.

82 IAH, xxiv, 154.

83 Irony itself was for Niebuhr associated with pride, blindness, and sin; the sense of irony, to the contrary, is a capacity that allows us to recognize, wrestle with, and limit our pride, blindness, and sin.

84 IAH, 168. Cf. Naveh, Reinhold Niebuhr and Non-Utopian Liberalism, 121, 186.

85 In the Battle and Above It,” Christianity and Society 7, no. 4 (1942): 3; cf. IAH, 153, 170–72.

86 See Mattson, When America Was Great.

87 CLCD, 151–52; CRPP, 103; “Reply,” in Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Kegley, 443 (italics added).

88 IAH, 146; “Editorial Notes,” Christianity and Crisis, April 1, 1946, 2.

89 Thus, Niebuhr broke off in his criticism of the Christian pacifist E. Stanley Jones, asking, “But who am I to pass judgment on Stanley Jones? He's one of the great Christian saints of our time” (Robert McAfee Brown, “Reinhold Niebuhr: A Study in Humanity and Humility,” in The Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Scott, 1).

90 PSA, 60; cf. MNHC, 21–22.

91 Love and Justice, 121–24.

92 Cf. George Kateb, “On the Moral Distinctiveness of Representative Democracy,” in The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 36–56.

93 E.g., Melvin Rogers, The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 122–23.

94 “Barthianism and the Kingdom,” Christian Century, July 15, 1931, 924–25; MMIS, 67–69.

95 MNHC, 25; Niebuhr quoted in Schlesinger, “Reinhold Niebuhr's Role,” 199.

96 Love and Justice, 120.

97 Ibid., 270; PSA, 93, 103, 118, 122; CRPP, 163; IAH, 158.

98 “Beria and McCarthy,” 4.

99 Robin Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 6–7, 95.

100 See, e.g., NDM, 1:25; CLCD, 31–33; CRPP, 42.

101 The Contribution of Religion to Social Work (New York: New York School of Social Work, 1932), 40, 42, 47, 59; IAH, 144–45.

102 For Niebuhr's objections to the just war theory as overly systematic, see McKeogh, The Political Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

103 See, e.g., Lovin, Niebuhr and Christian Realism, 80–97.

104 “Ten Fateful Years,” Christianity and Crisis, May 1, 1944, 4.

105 “Pacifism and the Use of Force,” The World Tomorrow, May, 1928, 218; The Essential Niebuhr, 222; Beyond Tragedy (New York: Scribner, 1937), 210; “Humour and Faith,” 57.

106 CRPP, 184; “The Jew and the World,” The Nation, July 4, 1936, 27; “Democracy and the Party Spirit,” 4.

107 IAH, 107, 157; Kenneth Thompson, “The Political Philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr,” in Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Kegley, 248–49.

108 Cf. Halliwell, The Constant Dialogue, 59.

109 IAH, 83. See also The Self and the Dramas of History (New York: Scribner, 1955), passim. Niebuhr's conception of “dialectic” was, he claimed, more indebted to the practice of Plato's dialogues and Kierkegaard's writings than to Hegel's theory of the dialectic (Niebuhr to Morton White, in Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr, 380; Shinn, “The Ironies of Reinhold Niebuhr,” in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited, ed. Rice, 83).

110 IAH, 8–9; see also 22, 58–59, 72, 80–85, 100, 106–8, for Niebuhr's attacks on technocracy.

111 IAH, 107.

112 McClay, “A Man for All Reasons?”; cf. Gary Dorrien, “Christian Realism: Reinhold Niebuhr's Theology, Ethics, and Politics,” in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited, ed. Rice, 24. In “The Continuing Irony of American History,” First Things, February 2002,, McClay also suggests that Christian faith may be necessary to sustain belief in the “dignity of man.” Yet such a belief is manifestly a mark of secular thought (for a recent statement, see George Kateb, Human Dignity [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011]). Whether Christianity provides a more cogent foundation for claims to human dignity—as opposed to making it possible to sustain commitment to human dignity—is another matter.

113 This tendency to eschew attention to ethos is pronounced in the “political liberalism” of John Rawls and the many liberal theorists who have adopted his approach to political theorizing. It is also apparent, however, in the insistence on an institutional focus of more “realistic” liberal theorists, such as Jeremy Waldron and (more equivocally) Judith Shklar (the latter of whom otherwise shares much of Niebuhr's pessimism). See Waldron, , “Political Political Theory,” Journal of Political Philosophy 21, no. 1 (2013): 123; Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 22–23, 214–21, 233–37, 242–45.

114 Cf. G. A. Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Sharon Krause, Liberalism with Honor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Krause, Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

115 See Lester, Emile, “British Conservatism and American Liberalism in Mid-Twentieth Century: Burkean Themes in Niebuhr and Schlesinger,” Polity 46, no. 2 (2014): 182210.

My thanks to Eric Beerbohm, Richard Boyd, R. Bruce Douglass, Loubna El Amine, David Golemboski, Michael Lamb, Mac McCorkle, Joshua Mitchell, Jan-Werner Mueller, Michael Rosen, Nancy Rosenblum, and Richard Tuck; to the anonymous referees for Review of Politics; and to Catherine Zuckert for her generous editorial guidance.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

A Tempered Liberalism: Political Ethics and Ethos in Reinhold Niebuhr's Thought

  • Joshua L. Cherniss


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.