As a young Protestant pastor, Reinhold Niebuhr entered a Detroit labor parish in 1915, prepared to establish social justice through the nurturing of human love. In the crucible of social conflict, Niebuhr discovered that the key problem was not one of personal ethics but of social structure and strategy. Detroit industrialists were no less moral in their personal relations than the average laborer, but in a system of competitive capitalism, operating by the impersonal laws of market, profit, supply, and demand, direct application of the “simple teachings of Jesus” to the social sphere was impossible.
As a result of this practical conviction, Niebuhr wrote a book that strongly shook the American theological scene. Although tempered by liberal theology, Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932) marked the beginning of social realism in contemporary American Christianity. Gone was the idealism of the liberal period; the Kingdom of God was not humanity’s to build, not simply in this generation but in any generation. The kingdom was the “impossible possibility” standing over against humanity eternally, the ideal perfect community of mutual love, judging all humanity’s attempts to emulate it. The only possible possibilities were transient and imperfect forms of justice.
Accompanying these insights came Niebuhr’s rejection of absolutism in ethics: There are no absolute goods and evils. The problem of ethics is the never-ending task of finding “proximate solutions for insoluble problems.” Accompanying this position, classically formulated in Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935), was a growing shift in emphasis from the liberal stress on society as the molder of humanity to the nature of humanity as the key to the nature and problems of society. The orthodox doctrine of Original Sin became increasingly relevant for Niebuhr in understanding the problems of culture. Humanity is essentially self-centered, seeking self-aggrandizement and domination over others. Although this tendency can be checked to a large degree on the personal level within the small confines of the interdependent family, in the larger dimensions of community, group, nation, and hemisphere, personal pride is compounded into impersonal, immoral, irresponsible pressure groups seeking their own untempered ends in hypocritical self-righteousness.