How is Reinhold Niebuhr's opinion on humanity different from that of other religious groups?   

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Reinhold Niebuhr began his ministry career as a theological liberal who basically believed that innate human goodness would triumph over and rectify the complex social and political problems in the post-industrialization society of America. Niebuhr's first parish was in Detroit, Michigan, home of Ford Motor Company, a fact which had a lot to do with the development of Niebuhr's thinking. Each week Niebuhr gave sermons ("little moral homilies" he called them) about how human goodness would right the wrongs of society and every week he saw the great disparity between the worker class who labored at Ford Motor Company and the middle and upper class who all gathered at his church. He saw the suffering and material want of the laborers and the personal and material complacency and smug satisfaction of the middle and upper classes. He saw how the disparity and exclusion was entrenched and immovable despite his sermons and point of view. He began to search for a way to make Christianity practical because he saw too plainly in daily reality that optimistic liberalism relying as it did on the goodness of humankind was impracticable and moreover invalid to social and political truths.

Niebuhr's sermon's began to directly address the social and political issues he saw played out in front of him in his silently listening parishioners each week. As Niebuhr's thought expanded and his principles were formed, his first premise of thought was that divine selfless love cannot change society because it cannot be active in a humanity that is inherently not good. Nonetheless, he saw it as an imperative that Christians attempt to act faithfully in accord with this divine selfless love to whatever affect might be successfully achieved in the attempt to correct social and political injustices. In the same way that he rejected liberal Christian views founded on a belief in human goodness, he also rejected Marxist doctrine because he saw that it too was founded on belief in human goodness, which would triumph after capitalism was done away with. In the end analysis, Niebuhr's ideas were not embraced by any preceding religious thought because (1) he opposed the confidence in the goodness of humankind and (2) his views were too liberal for orthodox religion yet too orthodox for liberal religion.

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