Reinhold (“Reinie”) Niebuhr was born 125 years ago, on June 21, 1892. His picture was on the cover of the March 8, 1948, issue of Time magazine, their 25th anniversary issue. His last major book was published in 1952 and he died in 1971. But in just the last week he has been prominently mentioned in an article in The New Yorker (here), and the major subject in some religious publications (such as here and here).
Who Was Reinhold Niebuhr?
I used to tell my Introduction to Theology students in Japan that Reinhold Niebuhr was the greatest theologian born in Missouri. (They knew that I was from Missouri.) That, I believe, is manifestly true still today.
Son of a German Evangelical Synod pastor, Reinie, as he was called by his friends, went to college and seminary in Missouri and Illinois and then earned B.D. and M.A. degrees at Yale Divinity School. But he became a pastor at an early age and never completed doctoral studies.
After thirteen formative years (1915~28) as pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Niebuhr was elected to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. He taught Christian social ethics until his retirement in 1960.
Niebuhr lectured and preached widely and wrote profusely. He gained prominence in the theological world with the publishing of his Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics in 1932.
In 1939 Niebuhr delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Those lectures were the basis of his most important book, two volumes published under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943).
Reinie died three weeks before his 79th birthday (just about the same exact age that I am now).
Although educated in liberal schools, Niebuhr became an outspoken critic of theological liberalism. (I referred to that criticism in my book The Limits of Liberalism; see especially pages 27-28). Thus, he became one of the most important proponents of what has usually been called neo-orthodox theology.
Niebuhr’s influence, however, extended far beyond the world of theology. With his distinctive emphasis on “Christian realism,” he created waves in the secular world as well.
Reinie was criticized from various sides. As his early biographer Jane Bingham wrote in Courage to Change (1961), “. . . if his ideas were too orthodox for the liberals, they were too liberal for the orthodox; and if too secular for the religious, they were too religious for the secular” (pp. 44-45).
But Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has stated quite accurately (in this 2005 article) that Niebuhr was “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.” And his influence was and is particularly notable in the world of politics.
Through the years Niebuhr has been highly evaluated by many in that world, including President Carter and President Obama—and James Comey.
Niebuhr's Relevance Today
Two days ago (June 8) was widely designated as “Comey Day.” Former, and fired, FBI Director James Comey spent hours that day testifying before both open and closed sessions of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Recent background stories about Comey have reported that his senior graduating thesis at College of William and Mary (in 1982) contrasted Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell.
Niebuhr’s influence on Comey was/is also seen when a sleuth discovered that “Reinhold Niebuhr” was the name of Comey’s secret Twitter account.
One of Niebuhr’s central points may be particularly related to Comey’s statement about DJT being a liar. Niebuhr wrote much and convincingly about sin and emphasized, as one author succinctly stated (p. 89 in this book), “Dishonesty is sin’s final expression.”
This is a good time to remember Reinie and the relevant things he wrote.
NEW MOVIE/BOOK ABOUT NIEBUHR – In March of this year, “American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story,” a new documentary film was released on DVD. Jeremy L. Sabella’s book with the same name was also published in March. (June 10, 8:30 p.m. -- After posting this article early this morning, June and I were able to watch the documentary this evening, streamed from our local PBS channel. It was excellently done and I highly recommend it.)