Moral Man in Pandemic Society: Reading Niebuhr in 2020

By Griffin Black ~

“The morning newspaper brings reports of disaster everywhere,” theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1940, as he saw his world thrust into another war of terrifying magnitude. This line might have been written at many other moments in the history of the United States and the wider world, but one can’t help but feel a particularly unsettling resonance now.

Many people at the moment are increasingly confounded by the task of making sense of the current world. The moral morass seems inexplicable and inescapable. Global crisis is not new, of course. But one can’t deny the urgency and novelty of our current geopolitical map: a pandemic raging across borders, mass protests over police brutality and the racial injustices of the American criminal justice system that have prompted protests of solidarity in international communities, uncertainty over the security of national electoral systems, and the erosion of international cooperation and comity. Add to all of this the impending environmental crisis, and individuals everywhere—especially of younger generations—find themselves asking troubling questions. How are we humans capable of crafting a mess like this? How is this possible and why is it happening now?

Scholars of religious history, theologians, policy experts, and diplomatic leaders share similar intractable difficulties in teasing out the interactions of religious belief and political ideology in this convoluted global environment. From a theological angle, even those who ascribe to philosophical ideas like sin and human depravity find explaining current events overwhelming. Of particular interest to scholars of American religious history and politics has been the seemingly morally inconsistent positions of white American Evangelicals in the face of these national and international crises. International relations experts are investigating the intensification of religious conflict around the globe. A recent TPNRD-commissioned policy report by Matthew Nelson reveals how the coronavirus pandemic has “fostered more intense versions of already-familiar challenges” attached to religious conflict in South Asia. Nelson finds that the virus has exacerbated the deterioration of democratic practices in India, Kashmir, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, particularly with regard to discrimination against Muslims or adherents of specific Muslim sects.

In light of these global quandaries, I have found returning to Niebuhr, and specifically his treatise Moral Man and Immoral Society, a fruitful exercise.

Reinhold Niebuhr, known as the intellectual figurehead of Christian Realism, refused to view the world through rose-tinted glasses. He saw both World Wars in his lifetime – the first as a young man and the second as a prominent theologian at Union Theological Seminary. These experiences imbued his thinking with a stern pragmatism. The evil in the world could not be ignored; Americans and Christians could not look forward to a redeemed future while turning away from the duty to rectify the present. He is remembered for his outspoken critiques of Christian pacifism and liberalism and his espousal of the duty Americans had to forcefully oppose Nazi Germany. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was heavily influenced by Niebuhr, described his work as countering “the false optimism characteristic of a great segment of Protestant liberalism” and commented, “His theology is a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence.”

Moral Man was the inauguration of Niebuhr’s public realism, and its thesis remains strikingly relevant in the present day. His argument was a relatively simple one: groups of human beings are more prone to making drastic moral miscalculations than individual people are. In his words: “[A] sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic.” Groups of people are dangerous and ironically more susceptible to the temptations of self-interest. In a group “there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.”

Niebuhr sought to counter a cadre of sociologists, educators, and religious leaders who put too much faith in the improvability of human society. These thinkers, epitomized by theologian John Dewey and social scientist Kimball Young, pushed what Niebuhr believed to be foolhardy philosophies and policies based on the premise that “with a little more time, a little more adequate moral and social pedagogy and a generally higher development of human intelligence, our social problems will approach solution.”

Moral Man was meant as a reality check. Individuals are indeed capable of moral improvement through education. But the problems facing Niebuhr’s world were rooted in “collective power.” Congresses, countries, organizations, businesses, international bodies, militaries, church congregations: human collectives are less morally grounded than individuals. Governments, therefore, have the responsibility to understand the stark dangers of collective interests, especially those of economic and racial majorities. They must then institute policies that protect all citizens from the whims of these powerful group interests. In search of “political methods” for achieving “an ethical social goal for society,” Niebuhr proposed two guiding criteria:

1.Do they do justice to the moral resources and possibilities in human nature and provide for the exploitation of every latent moral capacity in man? 2. Do they take account of the limitations of human nature, particularly those which manifest themselves in man’s collective behavior?

So what can Niebuhr tell us about what we are facing now? He surely was not writing about the particulars of 2020, but we can extrapolate three key lessons:

First, the world is facing crises stemming from the moral missteps of human collectives. Current events can seem bewildering when we do not acknowledge that human collectives are less restrained by the moral codes to which we hold ourselves. Despite what we see in the world, we can still maintain faith in individual human morality.

Second, individuals might act differently when they act as part of a collectiveas voters, rally audience members, or congregantsthan they do in their personal relationships as employees, neighbors, or friends.

Third, majorities that hold social, economic, or political power do not share it unless “forced to do so.” Collective greed and self-interest exert an intoxicating power. As Niebuhr argues, “when collective power, whether in the form of imperialism or class domination, exploits weakness, it can never be dislodged unless power is raised against it.” These words strikingly echo Frederick Douglass’s proposition that “This struggle [for abolition] may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Here Niebuhr’s political theology intersected with American civil rights progress. He believed white Americans would not give up their superior position in society without being legally forced to do so. Whites could not be won over by “accommodation” and other non-coercive tactics: “But will a disinherited group, such as the Negroes for instance, ever win full justice in society in this fashion? Will not even its most minimum demands seem exorbitant to the dominant whites, among whom only a very small minority will regard the inter-racial problem from the perspective of objective justice?”

Even more bluntly, later in Moral Man he wrote, “However large the number of individual white men who do and who will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if he is not forced to do so.” Niebuhr’s thought squarely affirms the sort of agitation for racial reckoning and equality we see in American streets today. In fact, he expressed deep regret to King that he could not join in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery: “Only a severe stroke prevents me from accepting … I hope there will be a massive demonstration of all the citizens with conscience in favor of the elemental human rights of voting and freedom of assembly.”

This example of the Civil Rights Movement prompts us to ask if there is another side to Niebuhr’s coin for us to consider. If humans are capable of larger moral failings when acting collectively, are they capable of greater moral strides forward together as well? Is there such thing as collective compassion that surpasses the capabilities of the individual?

Even in the present situation, it would seem so. Take, for instance, the collective compassion and political victories of the coalitions of Americans currently protesting police violence. These groups have effected concrete change: Minneapolis officials have signaled a coming dismantling of their police force in the wake of the killing of George Floyd; police forces throughout the countryincluding the NYPDare reassessing their policies and instituting changes like banning chokeholds; Confederate monuments are being taken down, including statues of Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart on Richmond’s monument avenueand  Charleston’s own monument to pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun; and, similarly, Mississippi is moving toward removing the Confederate flag from their state flag. Arguably, the work of one concerned citizen could not have catalyzed this change.

Labeling society with the “immoral” blanket as Niebuhr does might go too far. But his thesis is a needed explanation of the moral failings we see in the headlines of newspapers and webpages. There might not be a treatise on moral society any time soon, but recent events give cause for hope. Perhaps in moments of colossal collective moral failure the possibility is greatest for collective action for change and societal betterment.


Griffin Black is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of History at Clare College, Cambridge. As a Paul Mellon Fellow (Clare-Yale University), he studies the transatlantic relationships and activities of nineteenth-century abolitionists and anti-slavery reformers. More broadly, he researches the development of conceptions of inherent human rights, citizenship, and constitutionalism in the Atlantic community. He holds an MPhil in American History from Cambridge and a BA in History from Yale University. Find him on Twitter at @gtblack95.