Reinhold Niebuhr, the LDS Nature of Man and Political Philosophy

The official word from the LDS Church on politics is neutrality, particularly on political parties and candidates. The Church officially has little to say about political philosophy directly, though some of its leaders have spoken about the importance of freedom (particularly religious) and other principles.

Nonetheless, the Church’s teaching on the nature and proclivities of “man” in his natural state since the fall of Adam offer a major critique of the most famous political arguments made by the philosophies of the utilitarians, German Romantics, John Locke, Karl Marx and the like.

Perhaps no one has articulated these critiques better than the modern philosopher/theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, particularly in his book “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.” While Niebuhr wasn’t Mormon himself, his Christian beliefs were the foundation of his political thought.

Mormon theology places great emphasis on man’s mortal nature (the natural man) since the fall of Adam as the basis for the plan of salvation under Jesus Christ. Man’s state of nature with a physical body subjects him to temptation and evils of self-interest. Evil is the source of human suffering and is exactly why our political institutions are both needed and why they fail. As Niebuhr famously said: “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Niebuhr famously criticizes the political philosophers who developed the most well-known arguments for both liberal democracy and Marxist thought for having failed to adequately recognize man’s nature, or as we say the natural man.

Adam Smith, for example, naively believed that when a man’s actions are led by self-interest, he is also “led by an invisible hand to promote an end that is not his intention.”  He also instills a general morality in man who is given freedom to act selfishly without intervention from governmental institutions. Indeed Smith postulated that if we could just get government out of the way, man would act righteously.

Ultimately, the philosophers of our age, whether libertarian or Marxist, have placed too great an emphasis on the relative ease of mankind to elevate itself above self-interest. For Marxists, it was class systems that needed to be removed so that man could actualize his true nature of goodness. Lenin even articulated the end of government once these conditions were reached… a golden age for mankind. For the modern proponents of individualism, they just need government out of the way for man to reach his potential of goodness.

At the end of the day, Mormon teachings indicate that no matter what economic or political conditions exist, man will tend by his nature to be self-interested. While individuals can certainly rise above self-interest, temptation will always be among mankind while in their mortal state.

It is the power of individuals in a democracy that help keep order in the community and in its government. It is also the power of the community/government that helps keep order among individuals.

Niebuhr argued that three regulatory principles are appropriate in political philosophy: equality, freedom and order. These require a proper balance of individualism and community power. Too much emphasis on individualism generally leads to a deficiency of equality and order among individuals, while Marxism is void of freedom, and rarely achieves equality.  The ideal situation is the democracy with adequate protections of individual freedoms and relative economic equality.

Mormons well understand the nature of man and the corruption of self-interest.

"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

Doctrine & Covenants 121:39

Perhaps because of this very scripture it is easy for many Mormons to be skeptical of governments exerting too much power over individuals. However, the same principle ought to lead them to be wary of the corruption of unchecked individualism and the authority that can be exercised by wealthy individuals and the gross inequalities that inevitably exist under these conditions. There is a better answer somewhere between the extremes of Marxism on the left and libertarianism (excessive individualism) on the right. Perhaps that explains the relative success of the United States after the New Deal, along with European nations who follow a similar (or greater) balance of liberal freedom and social justice. 

Showing 8 reactions

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  • Nick Reddoch
    commented 2017-09-18 11:32:50 -0700
    Great post about the virtues of a moderate political perspective. A curb on the strong shift to the right would be nice.
  • Glynn Wilcox
    commented 2015-02-26 07:12:27 -0800
    Wonderful overview.
  • Thomas Mcaffee
    commented 2015-02-25 12:52:49 -0800
    Reinhold Niebuhr rightly perceives the whole project as one of striking some balances. All said and done, there are many perfectionistic utopians out there. They it should be extremely do-able, if not relatively easy. Like so many things, muddling through May be all we’re up to, and avoiding the evils of the extremes is important. One of my favorite 12-step sayings is: “Progress, not Perfection!”
  • Justin McAffee
    commented 2015-02-25 12:10:59 -0800
    Great comments everyone. My father gave me Niebuhr’s book as a gift one year, and ever since I have understood exactly why my father has been such a moderate his whole life. I think a lot more Republicans were years ago. Unfortunately, it seems as though they are a dying breed, and are losing way to stiff-necked ideology of extreme individualism.
  • Eli Blake
    commented 2015-02-25 09:09:39 -0800
    Good point.

    In fact, Niebuhr is absolutely right that people are fallible. But in the end this is just as much an argument against the kind of anti-government Libertarianism we see more and more on the right as it is against Marxism.

    It has been pointed out that there has been no ‘Libertarian state’ (the crony capitalist model that is rampant in the third world where the government is notoriously corrupt and ineffective being as close as you can realistically find.) But there is a reason for this. In places where there is a complete vacuum of power (remote or tribal areas in those countries) you instead of governments, you have local bullies like gangs, warlords, criminal enterprises, or ‘rebel’ groups motivated by greed, tribalism or religious fanaticism running the show.

    So a very old lesson: in a power vacuum, sooner or later someone will fill the vacuum and run it for themselves. Contemplate the Gadianton robbers, for example.

    Much better to have a stable and reasonably strong democratically elected government whose leaders people can periodically fire when they feel their needs are not being met.
  • Eli Blake
    followed this page 2015-02-25 08:58:22 -0800
  • Paul Webb
    commented 2015-02-25 01:31:16 -0800
    Thought the political process is slow and painful to watch and frustrating to participate in, the most common outcome is one that tends to balance policy somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. This article implies the middle may just be the most productive place to be.
  • Justin McAffee
    published this page in Blog 2015-02-24 12:42:48 -0800

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