Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

Search Collections

Reinhold Niebuhr
4/27/58

Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, vice president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, on leave to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and one of the most important and challenging religious thinkers in the world, talks to Wallace about the separation between church and state, Catholicism, Protestantism, anti-Semitism, communism, and nuclear war.

Watch Video



Transcript
THE MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEW
Guest: Reinhold Niebuhr
4/27/58

WALLACE: This is Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. A protestant minister, one of the most important and challenging religious thinkers in the world. Dr. Niebuhr is a critic of America's religious revival and he says that religion will not necessarily vanquish injustice or communism. We'll find out why in just a moment.

ANNOUNCER: The Mike Wallace Interview presented by the American Broadcasting Company in association with the Fund For The Republic, brings you a special television series discussing the problems of survival and freedom in America.

WALLACE: Good evening, I'm Mike Wallace. It's been said of tonight's guest, "No man has had as much influence as a preacher in this generation. No preacher has had as much influence outside the church." Reinhold Niebuhr is the vice-president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, currently on leave to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Through his writing, Dr. Niebuhr has helped mold the world's thinking in religion, morality and politics.

WALLACE: Dr. Niebuhr, the first question I'd like to put to you is perhaps a very obvious one, but I would like a kind of a capsulized answer, if I may. We hear about the necessity for a separation between church and state. If religion is good, why should our society be based upon a separation between the church and the state?

NIEBUHR: Your "if" is a very big one -- if religion is good, it may be very good and it may be bad. The separation of church and state is necessary partly because if religion is good then the state shouldn't interfere with the religious vision or with the religious prophet.

NIEBUHR: There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence, that's why there must be a separation of churches, but if religion is bad and a bad religion is one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause. Then religion mustn't interfere with the state-- so one of the basic Democratic principles as we know it in America is the separation of church and state.

WALLACE: Well, now this brings us to the issue of possible religious infringements on freedom here in the United States. I'm going to talk about several. First-off: The Roman Catholic Church opposes birth control and divorce and there is no doubt that this opposition has blocked the spread of birth control and easier divorce laws; not merely for Catholics, but for non-Catholics as well. Do you consider such measures an infringement on the rights and liberties of non-Catholics?

NIEBUHR: When you say not merely for Catholics that is the crux of the matter. A church has the right to set its own standards within its community. I don't think it has a right to prohibit birth control or to enforce upon a secular society its conception of divorce and the indissolubility of the marriage tie.

WALLACE: When you say enforce upon a society how does the Catholic Church enforce? It suggests and enforces for Catholics.

NIEBUHR: No, that's the point. Whenever a church does anything for its own group, it has that right.

WALLACE: Surely.

NIEBUHR: But when it reaches up beyond its group and tries to enforce its standards upon a society that doesn't accept these standards, and perhaps for good reason, perhaps for bad reason, but anyway this is the problem we face in pluralistic society, that not necessarily every standard that every church tries to enforce upon the society is from the society's standpoint a good standard.

WALLACE: Tell me this, sir, would you vote for a devout Catholic as president of the United States?

NIEBUHR: Well I have a simple answer to that. I voted for one in 1928.

WALLACE: Then obviously you feel that a man can be a devout Catholic without in any sense owing his first allegiance as an American to the Pope rather than to --

NIEBUHR: Well that is one of the flagrant misconceptions about Catholicism in America that if a man is a Catholic he owes allegiance to what they say a foreign sovereign, or something like that. I think that in our study in The Fund for the Republic on religion in pluralistic society we're dealing with both the policies and the attitudes, and one of the things that we have to deal with is the attitudes of Protestants to Catholics, Catholics to Protestants and Catholics and Protestants to Jews.

NIEBUHR: Now the ordinary Protestant, Jew or Secularist has a stereotype about Catholicism. It consists of Spanish Catholicism, Latin-American Catholicism and, let us say, a Catholicism of O'Connor's "Great Hurrah." Now there are types of Catholicism like that but this doesn't -- this doesn't do justice to the genuine relation that Catholicism has had to Democratic Society. Not only in our country but in Germany, in France since the war, in Germany after the First World War, the Germany of Adenauer, these are the creative relationships of Catholicism to a free society that the average American doesn't fully appreciate.

WALLACE: You feel then, are you saying that we do not properly understand our Catholic brothers? That there is ...

NIEBUHR: We don't properly discriminate. We never discriminate properly when we're dealing with another group and one of the big problems about religion is that religious people don't know that they are probably as flagrant in these misjudgments as irreligious people.

WALLACE: We don't discriminate sufficiently. We discriminate against occasionally too much.

NIEBUHR: Yes, that's right.

WALLACE: Let's turn to some criticisms of the Protestant Church. You've admitted in your writings that the Catholics have been far more successful than the Protestants in abolishing racial segregation in their churches. How come?

NIEBUHR: Well, how come? I tried to analyze in my article in a rather heretical way and I said that the churches that are most obviously democratic are most obviously given to race prejudice. I mean the churches that have absolute congregational control. Now, in the 17th and 18th centuries there was a kind of Protestantism that said, "If you could only get rid of the Bishop, then you'd be a true Christian".

NIEBUHR: Well, you might get rid of the Bishop and get to the local Ku Klux Klan leader. That, on the whole, has been the fate of certain types of Protestantism. They get under the control of a White Citizens Council while the Catholic Church has an authoritarian system, yes, in which the Bishop expresses the conscience of the whole Christian community and they say there are some things that you can't do on this matter. There must be equality of all men before God and in a democratic society. Now that's one of the great achievements. I think that the achievements of Catholicism on race are very, very impressive.

WALLACE: And I imagine that you deplore then the comparative impotence on the part of certain Protestant Churches in this respect?

NIEBUHR: I certainly do. I said in my article that I thought it was that we Protestants ought to humbly confess that the theater and the sports have done more for race amity, for race understanding than, on the whole, the Protestant Church in certain type, in certain parts of the nation.

WALLACE: I'll ask you a question now about which we could talk for many hours and ask you for a simple and straightforward answer. Doctor Niebuhr, how do you account for Christian anti-Semitism toward Jews in the United States? Do we sufficiently appreciate our Jewish population here?

NIEBUHR: I don't think we do. I account for it I'd say I'd account for it, first on the basis of the general human failing. We misjudge anybody who's different from us and the Jews diverge from our type, ethnically and religiously. That's their chief offense, but there are particular causes. I've long ago felt, I have many Jewish friends and I very I think creative Jewish friends, and I've long felt that the average Christian didn't realize the tremendous capacity for civic righteousness among our Jewish people. Now.....

WALLACE: What do you mean by that by civic righteousness?

NIEBUHR: Well, let me mention Stanley Issacs here in New York. People that have a concern for the public good, Senator Lehman, Frank Altshul oh I can mention. Now I know there are Christians that also have this but there is not a sufficient appreciation in the Christian community of this particular quality of Jewish life.

WALLACE: Well why does the Jewish stereotype unhappily survive?

NIEBUHR: Well that's a long story. He came out of the Middle Ages, was transferred here, according to our American historians, through populism. The Jews were the money-lenders of the Middle Ages so there's a stereotype of the slightly or more than slightly dishonest business man and this stereotype covers and obscures all the facts.

WALLACE: It would look, Doctor Niebuhr, as though all of our major religions are becoming more influential. I say it would look that way because we hear so much about religious revivals with church attendance increasing, college students returning to religion, the apparent success of the evangelists. Yet, in large measure you have criticized this revival. Why?

NIEBUHR: Well, that's a long story, too. I wouldn't criticize the whole revival. I've criticized - the revival wherever it gives petty and trivial answers to very great and ultimate questions about the meaning of our life. There has been a religious revival because -- let me put it like this, the people that weren't traditionally religious, conventionally religious, had a religion of their own in my youth. These were liberals who believed in the idea of progress or they were Marxists. Both of these secular religions have broken down. The nuclear age has refuted the idea of progress and Marxism has been refuted by Stalinism. Therefore people have returned to the historic religion.

NIEBUHR: But now when the historic religions give trivial answers to these very tragic questions of our day, when an evangelist says, for instance, we mustn't hope for a summit meeting, we must hope in Christ without spelling out what this could mean in our particular nuclear age. This is the irrelevant answer, when another Evangelist says if America doesn't stop being selfish, it will be doomed. This is also a childish answer because nations are selfish and the question about America isn't whether we will be selfish or unselfish, but will we be sufficiently imaginative to pass the Reciprocal Trade Acts.

WALLACE: In other words, translate religion into a kind of active morality.

NIEBUHR: Yes, a morality of justice and reciprocity.

WALLACE: Well, let me ask you this: Now, we're constantly being told, Dr. Niebuhr, by our political and by our church leaders, that in our fight against Communism, we are on God's side that we're God-fearing people, they are atheists - the Russians, the Communists are atheists - and therefore we must ultimately win. What about that?

NIEBUHR: I don't know whether any religious leader would say that we must ultimately win, because we're on God's side. If they do say that, it's bad religion, because....

WALLACE: Well, haven't we heard from the the Old Testament that "right is might"?

NIEBUHR: No, no - well, that right is might ... but in the Old Testament, the God of the Prophets never was completely on Israel's side. There was a primitive national religion, but it was always a transcendent God who had judgment first in the House of God. This is the true religion. It has a sense of a transcendent majesty and a transcendent meaning so that that puts myself and the foe under the same judgment." Judge not that ye be not judged." Why do we judge each other...

WALLACE: But we do, we do!

NIEBUHR: That's true religion.

WALLACE: We do here, sir, do we not? For instance, we're told by many of our leaders, including President Eisenhower, that we will help strengthen ourselves as a nation through religion and going to church. And it is perhaps I infer from what I hear that our political and our religious leaders say, "If we can find a religious revival, this will give us strength to fight godless Communism." We do hear that.

NIEBUHR: You may hear that. I wouldn't agree with that. I tell you, among other reasons why: I know that the Communists are atheistic and godless, but I don't think that that's what's primarily the matter with them. What's primarily the matter with them is that they worship a false god. That's much more dangerous than when people don't believe anything; they may be confused, they may not have a sense of the meaning of life, but they're not dangerous.

NIEBUHR: The fanatic is dangerous. The Communists do have a god, the Dialectic of History, which guarantees everything that they're going to do and guarantees them victory; that's why they're fanatic. So, all this talk about atheistic materialism and God-fearing American I think is beside the point; it's a rather vapid form of religion.

WALLACE: Well, what is ...In a sense, I feel unavailing in asking these questions, because obviously, you, Reinhold Niebuhr, cannot sit here and give definitive answers to these questions. But all of us want - are searching for - answers to these questions. What is our way out? You have said when I say our way out, what is our solution? You have said that not only can't religion solve our problems, you have said our reason can't, our intelligence can't, science can't...Why can't they, and what can?

NIEBUHR: Well, that brings us to the ultimate question, about the Biblical and the Christian and the Jewish interpretation of the meaning of human existence. When I say these can't, I won't say that they don't contribute; that you don't have to have a lot of science, a lot of rational approach to the problems of life. The more complex the world situation becomes, the more scientific and rational analysis you have to have, the less you can do with simple good will and sentiment.

NIEBUHR: Nonetheless, the human situation is so, and this is why I think that the Christian faith is right as against simple forms of secularism. That it believes that there is in man a radical freedom, and this freedom is creative but it is also destructive. And there's nothing that prevents this from being both creative and destructive. That's why history is not an answer to our problem, because history complicates, enlarges every problem of human existence. Now, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries didn't believe this.

NIEBUHR: Now we're living in a nuclear age, and the science that was supposed to be automatically for human welfare has become a nuclear-- a science that gives us nuclear weapons. This is the ironic character of human history, and of human existence, which I can only explain, if I say so, in Biblical terms. Now I don't mean by this reason that I will accept every interpretation of Christianity that's derived from the Bible as many people wouldn't accept my interpretation. But that's what it means for me.

NIEBUHR: And this is why I think there is and ultimate answer in a true religious faith, but it doesn't give you any immediate answers, it doesn't...Now, one of the young physicists at the Institute asked me, he said, "I know that there's a general religious frame which I accept" -I wouldn't say that they all accept, but he says he accepts - "but does it give you a particular answer?" And I said, "No, it doesn't give us a particular answer." You can't say that religion or irreligion will give us a particular answer to the nuclear dilemma.

NIEBUHR: I think I have one answer, that is partly religious and partly secular; and that is to say, we ought to at least recognize that we and the Russians are in a common predicament. That would be religious in the sense, "Judge not lest you be judged." We judge the Russians because they're living under despotism and we don't like it, but we've gotten into a fix now where we're living in a common predicament, and we ought to recognize this common predicament. That doesn't mean that the Summit Conference ought to be held, or that it would succeed, but we ought to really at least recognize the common predicament of Communists and democrats - or Americans, whatever.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this: I think it was Bertrand Russell who fairly recently said - and other people have said it along with him -that if it came to Communism or nuclear war, Communism or possible incineration, they'd choose to live under Communism. How do you feel about that?

NIEBUHR: Well, about Bertrand Russell, I know that he's a great philosopher, or logical mathematician, but I think my friend Sidney Hook is right about him. He said, "All the achievements in this field are no substitute for common sense." Now what Bertrand Russell is saying is that capitulation to Communism is better than a nuclear war. But that isn't the point.

NIEBUHR: We have to risk a nuclear war in order to escape capitulation to Communism. For all I know, we may stumble into this terrible war. But no nation can say, 'We will capitulate to tyranny rather than accept a speculative fate - to accept an absolute fate in alternative to a speculative one - no nation can do that.

WALLACE: But people say - people who believe that chances are say, "I would rather 'live and fight another day than give it all up right now. I would even rather live under a totalitarian government, without freedom, momentarily, in order that I may live to fight for my freedom at a later time,"

NIEBUHR: Well, I can see that individuals would say that. I would simply say that in terms of collective destiny that's not a live option. A nation will not say that, and a complex of nations will not say that. And I think that the people that say that are really too rationalistic. Politics deals with a common-sense approach to the imponderables of history, that I think are obscured by a certain kind of rationalism.

WALLACE: Dr. Niebuhr, tell me this: Is freedom necessary? The Russians, we are told, do not have freedom, and yet they have a productive society. Is freedom necessary for our society?

NIEBUHR: Well, I should think it was, but that's a rather searching question that I couldn't answer very simply. The answer is simply, I'd say, freedom is necessary for two reasons. It's necessary for the individual, because the individual, no matter how good the society is, every individual has hopes, fears, ambitions, creative urges, that transcend the purposes of his society.

NIEBUHR: Therefore we have a long history of freedom, where people try to extricate themselves from tyranny for the sake of art, for the sake of science, for the sake of religion, for the sake of the conscience of the individual this freedom is necessary for the individual. But secondly, you see, ultimately it's necessary for a society, because every despotic society -for instance, the Russian society - lives on the basis of a rather implausible dogma - the Marxist dogma of world redemption through Communism.

WALLACE: Implausible to whom?

NIEBUHR: To us.

WALLACE: Yes. All right. But obviously not implausible to hundreds of millions of people.

NIEBUHR: No, one of the great perplexities about this is that it's implausible to the whole of European society because we have our own history, but the predicament is that - as you quite rightly point out - it's not so implausible in Asia and Africa. That's our predicament, that this despotism, which we regard with abhorrence, is rather too plausible in decaying feudal, agrarian, pastoral societies. That's why we must expect to have many a defeat before we'll have an ultimate victory in this contest with Communism.

WALLACE: But you believe in an ultimate victory? Why are you so sure of an ultimate victory?

NIEBUHR: I'm not so sure. I hope for an ultimate victory, but I think that when we believe that something is right, there's a serious ambivalence about it. On one hand, you say, because it's right, it must be victorious. On the other hand, you say, it's right whether it's victorious or not. And this is what I believe about a free society.

WALLACE: What is your personal attitude about atheism? We've heard from certain atheists that the whole conception of God is unworthy of free men. They say - the atheists do - that it's almost, in a sense, contemptible for man to fall on his knees before God. What is your personal attitude toward atheists?

NIEBUHR: Well, you are asking two questions there. My personal attitude toward atheists is the same attitude that I have toward Christians, and would be governed by a very orthodox text: "By their fruits shall ye know them."

NIEBUHR: I wouldn't judge a man by the presuppositions of his life, but only by the fruits of his life. And the fruits - the relevant fruits - are, I'd say, a sense of charity, a sense of proportion, a sense of justice. And whether the man is an atheist or a Christian, I would judge him by his fruits, and I have therefore many agnostic friends. That's an answer to one question.

NIEBUHR: I might say that the debate between atheists and Christians is rather stale to me, because the Christians say, "You must be a Christian, or you must be a religious man, in order to be good, "and the atheists will say - as you quoted one of these atheists as saying - "It's beneath the dignity of a free man to bow his knee to a god, as if he were a sinner," or something like that;

NIEBUHR: well, that is the truth about man - that he has a curious kind of dignity, but also a curious kind of misery, and that these forms of agnosticism don't understand. And the idea that the eighteenth century always talked about the dignity of man, but I rather like Pascal's phrase, "The philosophers talk to you about the dignity of man, and they tempt you to pride, or they talk to you about the misery of man, and they tempt you to despair," and then, says Pascal - this was written in the Cartesian age - "Where, but in the simplicity of the Gospel, can you hear about both the dignity of man and the misery of man?"

NIEBUHR: That's what I say to the atheists. But on the other hand, I also say, it is significant we always start arguing with each other, because it is significant that it is as difficult to get charity out of piety as to get reasonableness out of rationalism.

WALLACE: Final question. One minute to answer it. Do you think that because you're a Christian you're a more valuable man in our society, or more worthy in the eyes of God, than an atheist like Bertrand Russell?

NIEBUHR: I think I've already answered that, Mr. Wallace. Certainly, anybody who says, "in the eyes of God," is pretentious. How do I know about God's judgment? One of the fundamental points about religious humility is you say you don't know about the ultimate judgment. It's beyond your judgment. And if you equate God's judgment with your judgment, you have a wrong religion.

WALLACE: Dr. Niebuhr, I surely thank you for coming and spending this half-hour with us. God speed to you, sir. Reinhold Niebuhr is a man of God, but a man of the world as well. Dr. Niebuhr would seem to be saying that if a nation would survive and remain free, its citizens must use religion as a source of self-criticism, not as a source of self-righteousness.

WALLACE: Next week, we go after the story of how the cold war with Communism threatens to put our own individual freedoms into a deep freeze. Our guest - you see him behind me - will be Cyrus Eaton, one of the country's industrial giants, a capitalist, a multi-millionaire, a man who has gotten the most out of the American way of life.

WALLACE: And now, to protect it, he seeks harmony - what he calls an "honorable peace" - between us and international Communism. And as a first step, despite some considerable criticism, he has sponsored controversial meetings between Soviet and American scientists and intellectuals. If you're curious to know what Cyrus Eaton thinks of our government's restrictions on cultural exchanges between us and Russia, his views on our military budget, our security programs, and their effect on our individual freedoms, we'll go after those stories next week. Till then, Mike Wallace, good night.

Closing credits

Voice of Firestone commercial

Digitization credits