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The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense

With a new Introduction by Gary Dorrien

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, first published in 1944, is considered one of the most profound and relevant works by the influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and certainly the fullest statement of his political philosophy. Written and first read during the prolonged, tragic world war between totalitarian and democratic forces, Niebuhr’s book took up the timely question of how democracy as a political system could best be defended.

Most proponents of democracy, Niebuhr claimed, were “children of light,” who had optimistic but naïve ideas about how society could be rid of evil and governed by enlightened reason. They needed, he believed, to absorb some of the wisdom and strength of the “children of darkness,” whose ruthless cynicism and corrupt, anti-democratic politics should otherwise be repudiated. He argued for a prudent, liberal understanding of human society that took the measure of every group’s self-interest and was chastened by a realistic understanding of the limits of power. It is in the foreword to this book that he wrote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

This edition includes a new introduction by the theologian and Niebuhr scholar Gary Dorrien in which he elucidates the work’s significance and places it firmly into the arc of Niebuhr’s career.

224 pages | 5 1/4 x 8 | © 1944, 2011

History: American History

Philosophy: Political Philosophy

Political Science: Political and Social Theory

Religion: Philosophy of Religion, Theology, and Ethics


“Dr. Niebuhr is in our time one of the ablest spokesmen among theologians. And he brings to his chosen task rare gifts and wide-ranging interests.”

New Republic

“[A] brilliant and creative vindication of democracy . . . a theology of Western culture which remains intellectually unsurpassed.”

Larry Rasmussen in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life

Table of Contents

Introduction by Gary Dorrien

Foreword to the 1960 Edition

Foreword to the First Edition

I.                    The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

II.                  The Individual and the Community

III.                The Community and Property

IV.                Democratic Toleration and the Groups of the Community

V.                  The World Community

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