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Arthur Schlesinger, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Doctrine of Sin

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., one of the paladins of American
liberalism, remembers the late Reinhold Niebuhr in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times.
Schlesinger and his generation were shaped by Niebuhr’s “rediscovery”
of the doctrine of sin in the middle years of the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, Niebuhr’s conception of sin was concerned more with the
sinfulness of social structures, than with the sinfulness of persons.
After all, his most oft-quoted book title was Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932).

In any event,┬áNiebuhr’s influence was indeed vast, and
Schlesinger’s puzzlement as to why his influence has waned deserves
careful thought.

Consider this passage from Schlesinger’s article: The
notion of sinful man was uncomfortable for my generation. We had been
brought up to believe in human innocence and even in human
perfectibility. This was less a liberal delusion than an expression of
an all-American DNA. Andrew Carnegie had articulated the national faith
when, after acclaiming the rise of man from lower to higher forms, he
declared: “Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to
perfection.” In 1939, Charles E. Merriam of the University of Chicago,
the dean of American political scientists, wrote in “The New Democracy
and the New Despotism”: “There is a constant trend in human affairs
toward the perfectibility of mankind. This was plainly stated at the
time of the French Revolution and has been reasserted ever since that
time, and with increasing plausibility.” Human ignorance and unjust
institutions remained the only obstacles to a more perfect world. If
proper education of individuals and proper reform of institutions did
their job, such obstacles would be removed. For the heart of man was
O.K. The idea of original sin was a historical, indeed a hysterical,
curiosity that should have evaporated with Jonathan Edwards’s
Calvinism.