What Would Niebuhr Say?

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

On January 31, Union Theological Seminary’s Faith in America series hosted the premiere of the film An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. Serene Jones, the seminary’s president, greeted the audience with a sobering claim. Niebuhr’s moral arguments, she said, were more essential now than at any point since the outspoken theologian, pastor, intellectual, and social activist had lectured in Union’s chapel amid the chaos of World War II.

The film’s director, Martin Doblmeier, followed with an equally arresting observation: no United States president in the past fifty years has been unfamiliar with Niebuhr. Until now.

Doblmeier wasn’t exaggerating. Jimmy Carter once quoted Niebuhr’s statement that “it is the sad duty of politics to establish justice in a sinful world.” Niebuhr’s “moral realism” permeated the war-on-terror rhetoric of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. (Obama has explicitly called Niebuhr his favorite theologian.) Hillary Clinton and John McCain both admire the man who’s often been called America’s great public theologian.

And great he was. An American Conscience tells the story of this Midwestern German Protestant with care, utilizing photographs and film clips, excerpts from writings, and interviews with fans from Andrew Bacevich to David Brooks to Martin Luther King Jr. Niebuhr was an exceptional seminary student, and a talented pastor—his father’s St. Louis church grew from eighteen to six hundred families under his leadership. Over the decades of his career, Niebuhr’s thinking evolved. Once a pacifist, he eventually advocated for “moral realism,” arguing that conflict is essential to justice. He was fiercely anti-communist, joined the Socialist Party during the Great Depression, and eventually became a primary critic of the Vietnam War. His book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, became a foundational text of American ethics, and the main source for politically diverse applications of his thought. In Moral Man, Niebuhr argues that human society will never be stronger than its sins. According to Cornel West, he applies “an Augustinian sensibility” to modern American society, emphasizing fallenness. Democracy, for Niebuhr, provided “a proximate solution for [the] insoluble problems” of human pride and ignorance.

Trumpian bravado and Niebuhrian sobriety just don’t seem to jibe. But the differences run deeper than their personalities. Trump blames outsiders—foreigners and religious minorities—for the country’s problems. Niebuhr built interfaith coalitions and defended scapegoats. He was instrumental in bringing two German theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich, to Union when they were threatened by the Third Reich for their views. He formed a decades-long friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a friendship Heschel’s daughter called “very new” in the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

Following the screening of An American Conscience, a panel—featuring Union’s Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics Gary Dorrien, former Union professor Cornel West, and Boise State Honors College Dean and Niebuhr scholar Andrew Finstuen—continued the discussion of how Niebuhr’s thought applied to contemporary politics. According to Cornel West, Niebuhr had a “jazz hand” when it came to politics and commentary: “It was distinct, it was dissident, it didn’t fit.” The three panelists speculated about how Niebuhr would have responded to the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps, said Finstuen, Niebuhr would have reminded Trump that people want power and glory as much as they want wealth. Dorrien added that he might have asked Trump a question or two about humility. West argued that Niebuhr would have seen in this presidency a crisis beyond Trump himself. He thought that Niebuhr would have considered Trump no more than a “product of the worst of the American empire…a symptom and a symbol of the American spiritual blackout.”

The blackout, said Finstuen, results from the lack of a common moral language. It also results from a shortcoming that Niebuhr shared with other white liberals of his time and ours. The panelists concurred that Niebuhr’s legacy cannot be divorced from longstanding liberal denial of systemic racism. Scholarship on Niebuhr’s muted response to racial injustice owes a debt to Union theologian James Cone, who was also present at the event. His latest book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, meditates on the lynching tree as the primary—and perhaps only true—symbol of the crucifixion in the United States. The book contains an entire chapter on Niebuhr’s lifelong silence on lynchings. Cone presents this silence as a grave moral evasion. Niebuhr—the man who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom while the FBI held a six hundred-page file on him—was too cautious to call out white liberals on their racism. According to An American Conscience, Niebuhr declined Dr. King’s call for support in Selma because he had come to share Edmund Burke’s preference for “slow, organic change,” as opposed to radical reform. During the panel discussion, Dorrien noted that Niebuhr called Billy Graham, a man whose popularity worried him, into a racial-justice stance that he himself refused to take. West noted, however, that calling white supremacy the “fundamental foundation of the American empire” would have been a difficult stance for the son of immigrants to take.

For all his limitations, Niehbuhr remains an important witness to the unavoidable sinfulness of humankind and of the state. The key to building a Niebuhrian response to today’s injustices lies, according to Dorrien, in expanding and fortifying the faith coalitions that have done the “long haul” for decades. “There’s a battle going on right now for the soul of the Democratic Party,” Finstuen observed. That battle has been joined by a new generation of activists and organizers. “There’s something going on in the spirit, soul, mind, body of young people today,” West said. As these young people forge new coalitions and strengthen old ones, they can find sustenance in the words—excerpted from Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History—with which An American Conscience concludes:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of American history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor of Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

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