U. S. Representative David Price on the Influence of Reinhold Niebuhr

July 17, 2020

In this excerpt from a podcast with National Humanities Center Robert D. Newman, U. S. Representative David Price reflects on the transformative experience of reading the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Price notes how his exposure to Niebuhr in a Yale Divinity School classroom continues to shape his thinking about human nature and American democracy.


Robert D. Newman: I’d like you to reflect, if you would, on some humanities moments, profound junctures that go back to the humanities in your own personal or public life that were transformative.
U.S. Representative David Price: I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a moment but I can tell you about an intellectual experience that really did transform my way of thinking and influences me to this day. It has to do with when I first went to Yale Divinity School. I never became a clergyman, obviously, but I certainly got a good liberal arts education at Yale Divinity School and feel that was a time of great intellectual development for me.

One important part of that was being introduced to the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, who at that point was a very influential theologian, but he had a wide influence way beyond theological circles. He used his theological understanding—essentially understanding of human nature—to elaborate the way “small-d” democratic politics can and should work.

There’s an aphorism—which I can’t quote exactly—that’s associated with him but it sums this up rather neatly. He said once that our positive understanding of human nature makes democracy possible. Our negative understanding of human nature makes democracy necessary.

In other words, our understanding of human nature has a lot to do both with the positive possibilities we strive for in our society, the kind of aspirations that we have for a more perfect union, for expanding opportunity, for a just society. At the same time we understand that even the best intentions in politics can become distorted, can go astray by virtue of self-interest and the will to power. Therefore, it’s important that no one’s power be absolute and that we have the kind of checks and balances that, of course, we aspire to anyway in our American system.

He also understands power in this vein. In other words, we’ve always had a preoccupation in American political thought with power, and that comes partly from the Calvinist tradition, from some of the theological roots of our culture, but that, too, can lead us astray because we’ve tended to concentrate on political power as the most potent danger. Of course it can be extremely dangerous but sometimes we’re oblivious to other kinds of power. Economic power, let’s say. We don’t have a full appreciation for just how oppressive and how limiting that can be.

Moreover, we don’t always appreciate how political power can check other forms of power—as it goes back to the Antifederalist position we were discussing earlier. You don’t ever suppose that you can do away with, or have the luxury of, a totally libertarian society. Power is going to be exercised. There are going to be disparities in power. Power is going to be organized in some way, and the way we do our politics is going to have a profound influence on this. It’s much better to be intentional about that, deliberate about it, than it is to make glib assumptions about power being benign or, for that matter, power being completely dangerous.

There has to be a balance between a notion of using power, utilizing power, and checking power. Niebuhr argued very, very persuasively that our understanding of human nature, particularly coming out of our religious traditions, was an important resource. Not just Enlightenment optimism about human nature. Not just the classical liberal assumptions about natural harmonies in society. No, no. There are real conflicts and there are real abuses that are possible. At the same time, sometimes coercion is necessary. So, it’s that understanding of power, theologically rooted, that just transformed my way of thinking about politics.