Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Book Comparison: "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" by Reinhold Niebuhr with "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democratic Faith

Tocqueville and Niebuhr: political philosophers positions on religion and politics

Religion plays a prominent role in government within the United States of America. This has been true ever since the declaration of independence and drafting of the constitution and continues to hold true today. Many philosophers and politicians weighed in on drafting the constitution, including but not limited to John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These political and philosophical thinkers played a crucial role in deciding exactly how religion was to be defined and the relationship between politics and religion. Two influential authors who critiqued this relationship are Alexis de Tocqueville, with his book entitled Democracy in America, and Reinhold Niebuhr with his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Although Niebuhr wrote his book over a century later, there are many similarities which both authors observed and felt compelled to point out, as well as some differing arguments as to the future of America. This paper intends to compare and contrast each individuals view points in an attempt to predict the future of democratic faith in America. It will show that, while both Niebuhr and Tocqueville agree on major points regarding religion and politics, each scholar attacks the issue using a different approach.

Reinhold Niebuhr

In his aptly titled book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues that there are two different types of people in this world: the children of light, and the children of darkness. He defines “those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law...” as “the children of light.”[1] Further, he defines the children of darkness as “the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength” and he claims that “The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self.”[2] Niebuhr uses these terms to define those who he believes to be morally good and working towards the best interest of democracy to be the children of light, while the children of darkness are those who work to promote supreme individualist ideals which (as Niebuhr argues) work against democracy. Niebuhr further develops arguments against ruthless individualism or the alternative, citing both Nazism and Marxism as examples as to why these ideologies should be avoided. Throughout the book, Niebuhr slowly develops a president for the children of light, in order to put into practice his perfected example of democratic faith.

The Children of Light

Central to Niebuhr’s argument are those he chooses to call the children of light, based off of the scriptural passage found in Luke 16:8 “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”[3] Niebuhr uses this biblical passage as his reference because, in his opinion, “the children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will.”[4] Because of this, the children of the light are naive and do not understand this power of self-interest, even among themselves, which makes them susceptible to misleading and deceptive tactics employed by the children of darkness. This is pertinent to democracy as “our democratic civilization has been built, not by the children of darkness but by foolish children of light.”[5] Niebuhr believes that the children of light need to be armed with wisdom about the self-interest which threatens the community. One of the greatest threats to democracy, as he argues, is the misleading and cynicism of the children of darkness.

The Children of Darkness

Niebuhr’s antagonists are known as either the children of the world or the children of darkness. He claims that “The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest.”[6] Not only do they understand self-interest, they use it to further malevolence in the world. A very good example of this can be found in the description of Machiavelli’s Prince, where he commands the prince to “not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity.”[7] However, Machiavelli recognizes that “a prince who wants to maintain his state is often forced to not be good.”[8] Further still, Machiavelli advises the prince to study those who have won major wars and learn from their victories, so as to “never remain idle in peaceful times, but with his industry make capital of them in order to be able to profit from them in adversities...”[9] An example of this, as Niebuhr describes, is the rise of Nazism while democratic nations stood by and watched. The children of darkness, understanding that the democratic nations were governed by the naive children of light, “skilfully set nation against nation,” which is why “the democratic world came so close to disaster.”[10] When it is further analysed, Niebuhr argues that most of the time the stupidity and foolishness of the children of light is the greater power than the malice and cynicism of the children of darkness.

The Individual and the Community

One of Niebuhr’s main arguments has to do with distinguishing between the power of the individual and of the community. He argues that the children of darkness are excessively individualist and the children of light must be infused with “wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.”[11] Niebuhr picks up upon John Locke’s principles of a community, where “whosoever therefore out of a state of nature unite into a community, must be understood to give up all power, necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community...”[12] Again, where Locke believes that men naturally organize themselves into communities,[13] Niebuhr believes “man, being more than a natural creature, is not interested merely in physical survival but in prestige and social approval.”[14] Niebuhr argues that the government must have the ability to resolve conflicts with the interest of a higher power in mind.[15] However, modern secularism, though divided into many schools, “agreed in rejecting the Christian doctrine of original sin.”[16] This, Niebuhr argues, is the cause of many problems arising within modern democracy (such as the ignorance of democratic nations toward Nazism) and has the workings of the children of darkness evident within it. Without the doctrine of original sin recognized within government, humans begin to believe that they can find perfection in and of themselves. This is Niebuhr’s main concern in regards to democracy and was particularly evident when issues concerning property are investigated.


Niebuhr begins his discussion of property by describing the historical thought, especially with regards to religion. He moves on to point out two fallacies within modern secularist thought, which has split itself between bourgeoisie thought and liberal thought. Within bourgeoisie thought, excessive individualism has again crept up as the foremost problem among secular democracies. Niebuhr argues that because of the excessive individualist thought, greed and isolationism would drive individuals into doing anything it took to gain more power. [17] Property, in this sense, is an equivalent to power and the excessive want for more power usually results in aggression in order to gain. The Christian view of property is what Niebuhr decides to be most fitting in the current context. He states that the “sinful selfishness of men, however, had destroyed this ideal possibility [no distinction between ‘thine and mine’] and made exclusive possession the only safeguard against the tendency of men to take advantage of one another.”[18] Liberal thought and Marxism encountered different problems than excessive individualism but each had a similar problem. Niebuhr argued that “the socialization of property as proposed in Marxism is too simple a solution to the problem.”[19] Niebuhr links liberalism and Marxism and are mislead due to the illusions of the children of light. “Liberalism makes this mistake in regard to private property and Marxism makes it in regard to socialized property,”[20] he argues. Marxist and liberal theories have underestimated the power in which property holds, such as over economic positions and the human desire for more property as such. Thus, Niebuhr argues:

“The best possible distribution of power for the sake of justice and the best possible management of this equilibrium for the sake of order. None of these propositions solves any specific issue of property in a given instance. But together they set the property issue within the framework of democratic procedure. For democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.”[21]

Alexis de Tocqueville

Sent on a mission from the French government to investigate American jail systems; Alexis de Tocqueville wandered all over America and did not limit his observations to that of only the jail system. Tocqueville wrote extensively on the system of government in the United States which was quite new to him: Democracy. Thus, three years after his return to France, Tocqueville had published his first volume of Democracy in America, the second volume begin published five years after the first. The book covers a wide variety of issues regarding the state of democracy in America, including the separation or religion from politics, self-interest well understood, and the pursuit of material well being. These are considered to be the key issues to democracy, especially regarding religious faith, according to Tocqueville. Tocqueville has the belief that religion and politics must both change in order to work properly.

Separation of Religion and Politics

Tocqueville speaks very highly of the separation of religion and politics in the United States, stating that “all attributed the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of church and state.”[22] Tocqueville was unfamiliar with this type of a system as the governments in Europe all tied their religion to politics. He believes that this very separation is what gives religion the amount of power he perceived during his time in America. In his position, he is comparing American systems to European systems. When it comes to the topic of religion and politics, there is a stark contrast. There are several reasons in which Tocqueville states as to why it is an abysmal idea to tie religion to a particular government. For one, Tocqueville believes that “in allying itself with a political power, religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.”[23] This is because not ever person believes in certain forms of government; this is evident in the variety of choices one has while voting. Through allying with one of these governments, religion isolates certain people while gaining, albeit temporary, power.

Yet another of Tocqueville’s qualms with allying religion and politics lies in the inherent instability of governments. As he observed, “in Europe, Christianity has allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of the earth. Today these powers are falling and it is almost buried under their debris. It is a living (thing) that someone wanted to attach to the dead: cut the bonds that hold it back and it will rise again.”

Finally, the problem of religion and politics as one can be observed in the death of a religion. Tocqueville argues that religion does not need government to be powerful and therefore, there is no need for the two to be allied. This can be seen in the discussion of religion, where “alone, it can hope for immortality; bound to ephemeral powers, it follows their fortune and often falls with the passion of a day that sustain them.”[24]

Self-interest Well Understood

Tocqueville spends a great amount of time arguing for the doctrine of self-interest well understood, not to be confused with individual self-interest. Basically, self-interest well understood is a way of life which pierces all aspects of life and it is found in everyone whether rich or poor. It is where citizens devote time to one another, in sort of an enlightened love. They sacrifice a part of themselves for the good of the nation and make it a way of life to work toward virtue. However, it alone will not make men virtuous but teach many to be “regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves... if it does not lead directly to virtue through the will, it brings them near to it insensible though habits. [25]

This philosophy of self-interest well understood is limiting to some. “The doctrine of self-interest well understood perhaps prevents some men from mounting far above the ordinary level of humanity; but many others who were falling below do attain it and are kept there. Consider some individuals, they are lowered. View the species, it is elevated.”[26] This doctrine helps work against the weaknesses of men, in that it “turns personal interest against itself, and to direct the passions, it makes use of the spur that excites them.”[27] Not only does self-interest well understood protect against the laziness inherent to men, it directs interests away from solely personal and focuses them onto something less destructive to democracy.

Tocqueville felt so strongly about self-interest well understood, he believed that “the minds of moralists of our day ought to turn, therefore, principally toward it. Even should they judge it imperfect, they would still have to adopt it out of necessary.”[28] Some would argue that this doctrine would not mesh well with religion. Because religion is based on relinquishing one’s rights in order to obtain a higher good, they would argue that self-interest well understood offers no reward worth taking to a religious person. Tocqueville adamantly believes this to be false, and painstakingly builds up an argument against such thinking.[29] “I therefore do not see clearly why the doctrine of self-interest well understood would turn men away from religious beliefs, and it seems to me, on the contrary, that I am sorting out how it brings them near to them.”[30]

Material Well-being

Tocqueville acknowledges the fact that in a democracy, there is an innate attraction to material goods and provides interesting insight as to why this is. Tocqueville claims that while the degree to which people feel it differs, material well-being touches all Americans.[31] The reasoning that Tocqueville uses when describing why it is American’s feel the incessant need to pursue material prosperity is twofold. Because he uses Europe as a contrast, it appears that America is much more into material goods than it actually is. This is because Europeans are still shaking off the effects of the aristocracy, and under this regime, material prosperity was not a factor. This is because the rich have possessed wealth without troubles while the poor are too poverty stricken to be able to even think or dream about material well-being.[32]

America’s obsession with material goods draws from their history. Because America was recently settled (at the time of authorship of Democracy in America, that is), “most of the rich have been poor... now that victory is gained, the passions that accompanied the struggle survive it; they stand as if intoxicated in the midst of the little enjoyments that they have pursued for forty years.”[33] On top of this, there did not exist a poor person in America that Tocqueville encountered too poverty stricken to be unable to dream of riches. It seemed to him that, through the equality of democracy, even the poorest American citizen was able to pursue material well-being.

Material well-being has the most profound effect upon democratic faith. Through the constant pursuit of material well-being and the equality conditions under a democracy, Tocqueville argues that the citizens will become restless. This recklessness “also encourages a new form of belief in human perfectibility.”[34] Though the element of perfectibility has been around for a long time, it is because of the new social order, which democracy offers as equality, which makes it achievable for the average citizen. Tocqueville offers the alternative to democracy, aristocracy, but argues that it offers “complacency and resignation.”[35] Because of this democratic faith, according to Tocqueville, is “The political and social conditions resulting from the equality that undergirds ‘the dogma of the sovereignty of the people’”[36] Then; it is as a result of the pursuit of material well-being that democratic faith transforms from a divine object to something of humanity.

Changes religion must undergo

As a result of the relatively new form of government America has created, Tocqueville argues that religion must change in order to accompany politics. “I find that for religions to be able; humanly speaking, to maintain themselves in democratic centuries, they must not only confine themselves carefully o the sphere of religions matters; their power depends more on the nature of the beliefs they profess, the external forms they adopt, and the obligations they impose. “[37] Of religion he also writes “that one ought to retain only what is absolutely necessary for the perpetuation of the dogma itself, which is the substance of religions, whereas worship is the only form.”[38] Tocqueville also touches upon this subject while speaking of Catholicism in that it is different than that of European Catholicism, because it “escaped the authority of the pope...”[39] Basically, Tocqueville approaches the divide between religion and politics, in the new form of American democracy, from the viewpoint that it is religion which must change in order to keep up with the politics.

Conclusion and Comparison

Both Niebuhr and Tocqueville agree on a variety of points. They both advocate measured equality, allowing that excessive individualism be kept in control while dismissing the notion of social control. Each of them believes that material prosperity provides a challenge to democracy and especially religion within democracy. Both scholars argue that democracy is a viable and successful form of governing and they each acknowledge the special role that religion plays when it comes to politics within democracy. However, it is here that the biggest contrast can be viewed from each of their works. Niebuhr advocates that government “must guide, direct, deflect and rechannel conflicting and competing forces in a community in the interest of a higher order.”[40] Tocqueville, on the other hand, believes that it is religion which needs to change in order that it functions best within society. Each scholar takes an opposing view when it comes down to how to make changes in a democracy, with Niebuhr arguing politics should change, while Tocqueville argues that it is religion which has, and should continue, changing. Each scholar believes in democratic faith, however, they have different ideas on how to act upon it.


Deneen, Patrick J. Democratic Faith. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government, Edited by C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 1980.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] This passage found in the King James Version, accessed from, is also quoted on the inside cover of Niebuhr’s book.

[4] Niebuhr, The Children of Light and Darkness, 11.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 70.

[8] Ibid., 77.

[9] Ibid., 60.

[10] Niebuhr, Children of Light and Darkness, 11.

[11] Ibid., 40.

[12] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc. 1980) §99.

[13] Ibid., §15-16.

[14] Niebuhr, Children of Light and Darkness, 20.

[15] Ibid., 44.

[16] Ibid., 16.

[17] Ibid., 103.

[18] Ibid., 91.

[19] Ibid., 106

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 118.

[22] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 283

[23] Ibid., 284

[24] Ibid., 285

[25] Ibid., 502

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 503

[29] Ibid., 281, 505 (to cite a few)

[30] Ibid., 505

[31] Ibid., 506

[32] Ibid., 507

[33] Ibid.

[34] Patrick J. Deneen, Democratic Faith, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), 222.

[35] Ibid., 223

[36] Ibid.

[37] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 420.

[38] Ibid., 422

[39] Ibid., 275

[40] Niebuhr, Children of Light and Darkness, 44