Niebuhr is not the most optimistic guy in the world. I suppose that's why he's referred to so often as a realist. In this book, he puts out chapter after chapter indicting the true motives of people and communities and how self-serving we really are. One of his favorite themes seems to be hypocrisy, in particular the tendency to pursue the highest moral good and justify our use of dishonest or less-than-moral actions in that pursuit. In other words, we spin immoral actions to say that it is for the greater moral good. My head swims with examples.
But that's not even the reason that I'm bringing it up. Niebuhr has something to say about dissent:
For self-criticism is a kind of inner disunity, which the feeble mind of a nation finds difficulty in distinguishing from dangerous forms of inner conflict. So nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals upon the same Golgotha, not being able to distinguish between the moral idealism which surpasses, and the anti-social conduct which falls below that moral mediocrity, on the level of which every society unifies its life. While critical loyalty toward a community is not impossible, it is not easily achieved. It is therefore probably inevitable that every society should regard criticism as a proof of a want of loyalty.
Again, my head swims with examples. Accusations of being anti-American, anti-freedom, anti-UCC, anti-Christian and any other anti- that one feels like adding to the mix come to mind. Neibuhr suggests that these accusations come from our own egoism, our own sense of being preservers of truth, which leads back to his commentary on justifying the use of morally dubious actions with the preservation of the greater moral good.
And all this leads me to one of my favorite bloggers and self-critiquing evangelicals, the Internet Monk, who just the other day put up a fabulous post on the culture war:
Evangelicals should come to terms with this: they are in every way virtually identical to suburban, white, upper middle class American culture. They are not as bad as the worst of that culture, but they are increasingly like the mainstream of that culture and are blown about by every wind of that consumerized and materially addicted culture. In fact, go to many evangelical churches and the culture is so present, so affirmed, preached and taught that one would assume that there is nothing whatsoever counter cultural about the affirmation that Jesus is Lord.
Really, that's more a recommendation to read the whole thing than a solid tie-in. The link is that iMonk is willing to address such a critique at the group with which he at least partially identifies. Niebuhr offers a critique similar to the above in his book, but chiefly levels it at liberal Protestants instead.
The overall point here, if there is one, is to note that critique in and of itself is not disloyalty. I am reminded of something one of my seminary professors said: 'The reason that Amos was so angry was because he loved the people so much.' That's not to say that all critique is prophetic or helpful or loving or loyal, only to say that it is necessary lest any group or individual only listen to their/his/her own ego.