…an appreciation for human sinfulness””which Niebuhr drew from his Christian faith””helps us guard against unchecked power in government. But an appreciation for human potential””drawn from the Biblical notion that human beings are made in the image of God””should also lead us to value human freedom. As Niebuhr famously put it in his foreword, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Importantly, Niebuhr grounded democracy’s necessity in the nature of mankind, without qualification, not in cultural or social factors unique to the West. What is true about human nature in the West is also true of human nature in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Niebuhr then suggests””contrary to the realists who want to appropriate him””that the goodness of democracy should lead us, by love of our neighbor, to make its spread a part of our foreign policy. Niebuhr’s well-known complaint against Wilsonianism wasn’t that it was idealistic, but that it was naive. In Children of Light and the Children of Darkness he applauds the idealism of democracy, even as he understands that it will inevitably be hypocritical: “Hypocrisy and pretension are the inevitable concomitants of the engagement between morals and politics. But they do not arise where no effort is made to bring the power impulse of politics under the control of conscience.” The effort itself is sound in principle; better to be a failed idealist than a successful cynic.
This is the part of Niebuhr that today’s realists fail to hear.