American Oracle

The Uses & Abuses of Reinhold Niebuhr

Seldom have the man and the moment come together more felicitously than in the life of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). His furrowed brow and intense, arresting gaze were perfectly suited to the midcentury years of world war and Cold War, of mutual assured destruction and agonizing reappraisals. He may have been born with gravitas; certainly he had acquired more than his share by middle age.

Niebuhr was not afraid to make sententious, even oracular pronouncements. Nothing less would have suited his mission in life: to reassert the ethical claims of Augustinian Christianity in public life—the perversity of evil in all of us; Original Sin. This was not the sort of message suitable for Fireside Chats. It had to come from a prophetic figure, but a worldly one who kept company with presidents and prime ministers.

No other theologian can match Niebuhr’s influence in American public life. For decades he was the hero of a centrist morality play, warning American leaders against the dangers of sentimental pacifism in the 1930s and hysterical anticommunism in the 1950s, charting a course of “liberal realism” between the abstract ideologies of left and right. During the years after the Vietnam War, when liberal realism revealed itself as little more than a portentous version of Cold War...

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About the Author

Jackson Lears is the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and editor in chief of the Raritan Quarterly Review. His books include No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (1981), Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003), and Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (2009).