Moral Man & Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001; originally published in 1932. 288 pp)

Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian, ethicist, and professor at Union Theological Seminary. Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, and Yale Divinity School. His views have influence countless leaders including Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, John McCain, and Madeleine Albright. In 1964, Niebuhr earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 1971.

Looking Back

Review the 20th Century and you’ll find plenty to criticize. World wars. Genocide. Massive technological advances. For every slice of progress, it seems there’s an equal and opposite setback. Two steps forward. Two steps backward.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be surprising to discover how theologians viewed the world at the turn of the 20th Century.

With the many advances and the Industrial Revolution, Christians of a certain stripe believed God would usher in a utopian state. The ills of the world would slide away and the goodwill of humanity would reign. Walter Rauschenbusch signifies one critical voice in the advancement of a social gospel.

Is It Always Sunny In Our Neck of the Woods?

With this setting, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man & Immoral Society represents a critique of the always-sunny-in-our-neck-of-the-woods mentality. Ultimately, Niebuhr advances a nuanced position, where the powers and structures of the world inhibit the rosier sentiments of his theological predecessors. Niebuhr argues,

“Nations will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye; and individuals find it difficult enough. A perennial weakness of the moral life in individuals is simply raised to the nth degree in national life” (107).

Even more, the heightened injustice upon which societal structure might operate requires a division between the person and the institution.

“One of the most important results of a spiritual discipline against resentment in a social dispute is that it leads to an effort to discriminate between the evils of a social system and situation and the individuals who are involved in it. Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolize” (248).

Strategy from Below

This schism represents a crucial element of Niebuhr’s strategy because it places a strategic emphasis on the individual to be the change agent in society. Individuals should not wait around for the political and corporate institutions to institute a just society. People must be the one degree of change they can be in the world.

“In the eschatology of the true Christian, virtue will ultimately triumph by the power of its own strength, or by the strength supplied by God’s grace. In the eschatology of the true Marxian, justice will be established because weakness will be made strong through economic forces operating with inexorable logic in human history” (155).

In other words, a collection of individuals working toward the ethical virtues of justice tears apart the injustice of society as a whole.

Moral Man & Immoral Society represents a key text in explaining the horrors of the 20th Century. Written in advance of fascism, Niebuhr plays the prophet for the horrors of Nazi Germany and the groupthink exhibited by the masses.

Moral Man & Immoral Society is an important book. A must-read for anyone interested in theological ethics.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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