I have run across this quote many times in my life and always wondered about its author. Who was Reinhold Niebhur and what were the circumstances around the quote?
This quote is from the Serenity Prayer written by him around 1937. A modified version is frequently used in Alcoholics Anonymous. The longest version has these additional lines:
“Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen.
Niebuhr was known as a political theologian and is a favorite theologian of several Democratic presidents including Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama. His theological views changed somewhat throughout his career but the theme remained that pride along with selfish self-centeredness was the root of evil.
To him the sin of pride was apparent not just in criminals, but more dangerously in people who felt good about their deeds. Henry Ford was often indirectly mentioned in this context and I think it was partly due to his anti-Semitism stands.
Here is some of what is said about him on Wikipedia:
The human tendency to corrupt the good was the great insight he saw manifested in governments, business, democracies, utopian societies, and churches. This position is laid out profoundly in one of his most influential books, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). He was a debunker of hypocrisy and pretense and made the avoidance of self-righteous illusions the center of his thoughts….
“Constantly frustrated by natural limitations, man develops a lust for power which destroys him and his whole world. History is the record of these crises and judgments which man brings on himself; it is also proof that God does not allow man to overstep his possibilities.
An equally insightful but less known quote attributed to him was:
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”