Thursday, June 26, 2014

For Niebuhr, Christians have a stake in democratic societies because, given the realism that the Christian understanding of sin requires, Christians know "that a healthy society must seek to achieve the greatest possible equilibrium of power, the greatest possible centers of power, the greatest possible social checks of the administration of power, and the greatest possible inner moral check on human ambition, as well as the most effective use of forms of power in which consent and coercion are compounded." Democracies at their best are, therefore, able to achieve unity of purpose within the conditions of freedom and to maintain freedom within the framework of order.

It is particularly important to note that for Niebuhr democracy is a system of government that does not require the governed to be virtuous. Rather, it is a form of social organization that limits self-interested men from pursuing their interests in a manner that does not destroy community. Of course, a too-consistent pessimism concerning our ability to transcend our interests can lead to absolutist political theories. So Niebuhr is not suggesting that democracies can survive without some sense of justice. Rather he is reminding us that, as he puts it in what is probably his most famous epigram, "man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

The task of social Christianity, for Niebuhr, is not to advocate particular solutions for economic or social ills, but to produce people of modesty about what can be accomplished given our sinful condition. It is equally important that same modesty be applied to the church, which is no less under the power of sin. In fact, from Niebuhr's point of view, the sins of the church may even be more destructive given the temptation to identify religious politics with the politics of God.

Read it all.

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