Friday, June 12, 2009

The politics of Original Sin

James Nuechterlein in "Sin, Theodicy & Politics" describes Reinhold Niebuhr on human nature and the limits of political possibility:
.... Christian realism rested, in brief, on certain assumptions: that the imperfections of the world stem from fallen human nature; that the realities of self-interest, aggression, and the human will to power have to be reckoned with; that to improve the world it is necessary to work with those forces and not dream of obliterating them. Though the perversities of fallen humanity can, with considerable effort and ingenuity, be manipulated in the direction of the common good, they cannot entirely be overcome. Thus the anti-utopian imperative at the heart of Niebuhr's politics.

As the meeting place of power and morality, politics was inescapably for Niebuhr an arena of tension, ambiguity, and uncertainty. The central problem of politics is power, the inevitable temptation of people—most especially when acting collectively—to use whatever advantages are theirs to further their own interests over those of others.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Niebuhr's argument for democracy differed so radically from that of most on the religious left in his day. For them, democracy rested on the possibility of human perfectibility. Niebuhr, by contrast, famously insisted that while it is humanity's capacity for justice that makes democracy possible, it is humanity's inclination to injustice that makes democracy necessary.

Niebuhr's version of liberal democracy—whether directed to domestic or international concerns—rested on the concept of the balance of power. A serious politics requires at all times elements of deterrence, of checking power with counterpower. Realism, Niebuhr said, means that you achieve the common good not just by unselfishness but by the restraint of selfishness. Since power is never in stable equilibrium, so neither is politics: it is an ongoing process, not an achieved end. There can be no dream of perfect justice. Politics has to do with the relatively better, or even the lesser evil. .... (more)
First Things - Sin, Theodicy & Politics

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