The American Covenant and the American Dream: Can We Restore Our Sense of Community?

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

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Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) described a struggle between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.[1] The Children of Light share a mutual respect for fellow members of the community and work to help them realize their individual and social goals. The Children of Darkness, by contrast, are cynical and self-centered. They seek economic and political power and care nothing for their fellow citizens, much less the American Dream. According to Niebuhr these differences have real consequences: “. . . for evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard for the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind [sic], or the total order of the world.  The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels.”[2]

Niebuhr argues that in a successful democracy and economy, individuals as well as the community require the freedom and the means to pursue their goals. This freedom is not a “freedom from” but a “freedom to.”

It is obvious that we must depend on government to play a part in fulfilling our individual and social goals. Our original understanding of American Individualism was shared by liberals and conservatives alike. It is well within our sense of community and our American Dream. Indeed, the basic tenet of the American Dream is that we can build a society where individuals are encouraged and enabled to pursue their own dreams and happiness. That is the individualism of Thomas Jefferson that we can call civic individualism. It features an idea of community where individuals can pursue individual goals as well as shared social goals. Government plays a role in accomplishing those shared goals.

Those Children of Darkness who use the term individualism to describe their anti-community, anti-American Dream ideology, are false prophets. Their ideology seems at root to be unadulterated greed and selfishness. They appeal to what is worst in us rather than what is best. Unfortunately liberals, moderates, and conservatives who still believe in the American Dream have been disenfranchised by those political strategists. They have successfully polarized us all. We no longer share a sense of community.

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Photo by Chris Chidsey

Niebuhr quotes scripture that refers to the children of this world as being more “wise” (i.e., more cunning) than the Children of Light. Our democratic civilization was built, not by the Children of Darkness, but by “foolish” Children of Light. The naïveté of the Children of Light can cause great harm. According to Niebuhr, “the result of this persistent blindness to the obvious and tragic facts of man’s social history is that democracy has had to maintain itself precariously against the guile and the malice of the Children of Darkness.”[3] Meanwhile, well-meaning but naïve state leaders treat their opponents with trusting mutual respect. They assume the Children of Darkness (or Wrath) will respond to reasonable arguments made in goodwill. They simply “never see it coming.”

Naturally all citizens feel vulnerable relative to the powers available to government. It can tax us; and it can spend our money. It can be inefficient and wasteful. It may help other groups of the community more than it helps our own. History has borne witness that our fears and suspicions can come true.

It is no wonder that many of us have lost our sense of community and our trust in the American Dream.


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