For half a century Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) wore many hats: preacher, professor, theologian, activist, writer, and was one of the towering political and theological intellectuals of the twentieth century.
Born into a religious family in Wright City, Missouri, his father was a minister in the local Evangelical Church. When he died, young Reinhold took over but soon left to pursue a master’s degree at Yale Divinity School. He returned to the pastorate, but this time in the industrial city of Detroit, where during World War I and for a decade afterward he saw firsthand the exploitation of the working class. His fiery sermons grew his congregation as his articles in important journals increased his reputation. Union Theological Seminary in New York noticed, and in 1928 invited him to fill the position of associate professor oChristian ethics. He remained at Union until a series of strokes led to his retirement in 1960.
Niebuhr was a pacifist in his 20s and 30s, but as World War II loomed it became problematic, he said, to hold a position that “abandons any realistic chance of establishing justice and preserving peace.” Many saw Niebuhr as a progressive liberal, yet others understood the deeply conservative stream in his thought. He had a deep sense of the tragedy of life and the fallibility of humans.
Intellectuals seldom use the word sin, but Niebuhr did, meaning the human tendency to do wrong and hurt others. Unpopular though the term is today, sin reflects a symbolic truth, conceived not as the transmission of guilt from Adam and Eve, but rather a “disease of the soul” in the sense that all human ideals are affected by self-interest, which impairs our ability to act as fully responsible moral agents.
Niebuhr’s Christian Realism takes seriously the “theology of the cross” for it creates a means of understanding ultimate reality. Life often appears to us as tragedy, yet underlying the sufferings of our existential world is the Christian vision of hope. Though a theologian and master of ethical thought, his primary interest was always politics and the poor. How does one apply the ethic of love to everyday life? Theology provided Niebuhr with the means to understand human responsibility in suffering situations.
A workaholic, always on the move, preaching, writing, running off to conferences and delivering lectures, Niebuhr engaged the public on the big issues of his lifetime – World War I, the exploitation of labor, the rise of fascism, World War II, the Cold War, racism – and argued that all citizens, including religious Christians, should get involved politically. Joining the real world means compromises must be made, often settling for the lesser of two evils. Love is not enough to challenge power and privilege in society, nor is reason, nor is education. They are indeed relevant, Niebuhr acknowledged, but social justice is best achieved through active political engagement, seeking a more equitable balance of political and economic forces.
An excellent documentary film (“An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story”), which appeared earlier this year, makes clear the theologian’s continuing relevance to today’s issues. Among other notables, President Jimmy Carter remarked that Niebuhr was “always in my mind in a practical way;” Andrew Young, who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., stressed that Niebuhr “kept us from being naïve about the evil structures of society.” Others said that he went “politically to the Left and theologically to the Right.”
Niebuhr’s depression-era books “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932) and “The Nature and Destiny of Man” (1943) provided readers with an abundance of insights into the human condition: “Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet.” And this, probably the most-cited of them all: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
If Niebuhr were with us today, imagine how bracing it would be to have his commentary on matters before us. What would he say about the bromides of prosperity gospel; pastors who live in multimillion dollar mansions while fleecing the flock; “guilt-free life” psychologists; wars that fail to meet even the minimum standards of Just War theory; tax plans for the ultra-wealthy that disadvantage working-class individuals and families; and the coarsening of society, even the presidency itself?
In these years of a troubled America, a champion of democracy and social justice such as Reinhold Niebuhr would be a godsend. The public today engages this charismatic, ethical teacher most often (perhaps unwittingly) when reciting the world-famous Serenity Prayer, which he composed during World War II:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or Aim Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at email@example.com.