Reinhold Niebuhr, Washington’s Favorite Theologian

A new documentary called "An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story," tries to capture and explain why Niebuhr is experiencing something of a renaissance.

Sin, irony, tragedy. These words leapt out of the pages of Niebuhr’s books and speeches. Humanity was fallen and redeemed through God’s grace, Niebuhr wrote. But that redemption is always incomplete and we can never rise to the standards set forth in the Bible. Only by accepting our limitations could we make the best out of an imperfect situation. In a world full of evil, we must choose good, but we must accept that we can never get rid of sin entirely. The irony of our situation is that we must often do what is considered evil for the sake of good.

 

Reinhold Niebuhr, it seems, is everyone’s favorite theologian. Then-candidate Barack Obama told David Brooks in 2007 that Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” There is “serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain,” Obama said. “And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

President Jimmy Carter said, “Niebuhr was always present in my mind in a very practical way, particularly when I became President and was facing the constant threat of a nuclear war, which would have destroyed the world.” In his 2007 book, John McCain dedicated a chapter to Niebuhr. And presidents and senators are not alone. Since the conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in 2002 that “I’m amazed that Reinhold Niebuhr hasn’t made a comeback since September 11,” Niebuhr has experienced a revival among theologians, historians, public commentators, and politicians.

A new documentary called An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, tries to capture and explain why Niebuhr is experiencing something of a renaissance. It is directed by Martin Doblmeier, who has worked on dozens of faith-based films. (The John C. Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis, which publishes this journal, co-hosted a screening of the film in March.) “The questions Niebuhr raised in his time,” Doblmeier said in an interview with The Christian Post, “are all themes that seem in the forefront for many Americans today and Niebuhr is an insightful companion for those kinds of reflections.”

Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian of the nuclear age. He became a public intellectual after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. To a country run by mainline Protestants, who had long ago abandoned Armageddon, rapture, and the end times, Niebuhr needed them to believe that the end was possible, and perhaps probable. By the early 1940s Niebuhr was well-known among theologians as a professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary who published largely in the Christian press. By 1948 he was on the cover of Time magazine, which promoted him as a figure who could help Americans understand the new predicaments they faced. Hiroshima created a world suitable for Niebuhr’s theological grand drama and launched him to fame.

Sin, irony, tragedy. These words leapt out of the pages of Niebuhr’s books and speeches. Humanity was fallen and redeemed through God’s grace, Niebuhr wrote. But that redemption is always incomplete and we can never rise to the standards set forth in the Bible. Only by accepting our limitations could we make the best out of an imperfect situation. In a world full of evil, we must choose good, but we must accept that we can never get rid of sin entirely. The irony of our situation is that we must often do what is considered evil for the sake of good.

Jimmy Carter could quote by heart from Niebuhr’s 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society. It contained what many believe is one of Niebuhr’s most important insights: Individuals were capable of overcoming sin, he argued, but groups were not. “Individual men may be moral” because they “are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind,” Niebuhr wrote. But to empathize with others is “more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups.” Man could become moral but he was always destined to live in an immoral society.

With this book Niebuhr parted ways with his pacifist past. As Cornel West says in An American Conscience, “Part of the greatness of Reinhold Niebuhr is that he was willing to risk his popularity in the name of integrity.” When pacifists took exception to Niebuhr’s use of Christianity to endorse violence, “he had to engage them and tell them I have changed my mind owing to these kind of arguments and insights that I have learned.”

Niebuhr’s debates were never this civil. A reviewer wrote in 1933 of Moral Man and Immoral Society, “To call this book fully Christian in tone is to travesty the heart of Jesus’ message to the world.” The reviewer took issue with the text because Niebuhr implied that Christians must sometimes resort to violence when dealing with groups. Niebuhr traded barbs with pacifists for the rest of the decade. “If modern churches were to symbolize their true faith,” he wrote in 1940, “they would take the crucifix from their altars and substitute the three little monkeys who counsel men to ‘speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil.”

Read More