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Religion: The Definitive Reinhold Niebuhr

5 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

He attended two second-rate church schools, a boarding academy and a seminary. Raised in a German-speaking home, he entered Yale Divinity School in 1913 still struggling to master English. When he joined the faculty of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary in 1928, the Old Guard grumbled because this novice with the Midwest twang had no doctorate. He raised eyebrows when he wore a rumpled suit to a tuxedos-only reception and poured hollandaise over his entire artichoke instead of dipping the leaves into the sauce.

The “uncouth country bumpkin with decidedly dubious scholarly credentials,” as Historian Richard Fox characterizes him, was the young Reinhold Niebuhr. Over the next four decades he was to become the nation’s best-known theologian and political preacher, his Teutonic scowl etched on the face of 20th century American Protestantism.

Despite his stature, there has until now been no full-dress biography of Niebuhr, who died in 1971 at age 78. Fox, who teaches at Oregon’s Reed College, fills the gap with Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, to be issued next week by Pantheon (340 pages; $19.95). It is an admirable work, appreciative but not uncritical, enriched but not burdened by meticulous research. Though Niebuhr’s ideas are skillfully woven into the story, Fox offers a life, not a theology text.

The son of an immigrant clergyman, Niebuhr first won national notice, fresh out of Yale, as the pastor of Detroit’s Bethel Evangelical Church between 1915 and 1928. He rebelled against the older clergy in his German Evangelical denomination, agitating for Americanization of the church and supporting U.S. entry into World War I against Germany. “I am getting to be a violent American patriot,” he confessed to a friend.

Niebuhr’s strategy of reaching beyond the confines of Detroit’s German community helped swell Bethel’s membership sixfold in the years after the war. There was another lure: the pastor’s preaching. He was, writes Fox, “the educated Protestant’s Billy Sunday,” who would “strut, gyrate, jerk, bend and quake.” Bethel’s growing prestige strengthened Niebuhr’s hand when he took on Henry Ford, castigating the legendary automaker and other industrialists. He ended up a thoroughgoing Christian Socialist, evoking the biblical prophets and a bit of Marx as he thundered against the exploitation of labor.

From Detroit, Niebuhr traveled around the country on one social crusade after another. After moving to Union seminary, he remained as much preacher as scholar and commonly taught his last Friday class with a packed suitcase behind the lectern so he could rush off to weekend speaking engagements.

The Union years saw head-spinning political changes in Niebuhr. Although he ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket, he later came to accept the capitalism, tempered by welfare programs, of the New Deal. Niebuhr led the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, but later railed against isolationist clergy and supported America’s entry into World War II.

Unlike many leftists, he was notably consistent in distrusting Communism as dogmatic and needlessly violent. After World War II, Niebuhr became a kind of intellectual chaplain of the cold war, defining Communism in 1953 as “an organized evil which spreads terror and cruelty throughout the world.” These views did not preclude the FBI from subjecting him to a “full-field” loyalty investigation.

Among his other talents, Niebuhr had a gift for aphoristic paradox. He addressed the dilemma of the new nuclear age by decreeing atomic weapons to be “our ultimate insecurity and our immediate security.” One of his best-known lines appeared in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944): “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Niebuhr, who considered himself a “teacher of social ethics” rather than a theologian, became more interested in spiritual themes as his thought matured. His major statement of theology appeared in The Nature and Destiny of Man (two volumes, 1941 and 1943). Fox shows how profoundly Reinhold’s evolution was influenced by the counsel of his younger brother H. Richard, a brilliant Yale theology professor who was painfully aware that he always stood in Reinhold’s shadow.

Niebuhr’s most important achievement was countering what he considered the naiveté of activist Protestant liberals by rediscovering sin. In their viewpoint, humanity was good by nature, awaiting perfection through social reform and education. Although Niebuhr was thoroughly a modernist in theology and did not believe in the literal truth of Scripture, he found the doctrine of the Fall–humanity’s lapse from its original moral purity–to be a telling myth. The race, he asserted, is ineradicably given to self-deception, and in the real world the search for moral righteousness is filled with ambiguity. His approach became known as Christian Realism.

Fox’s book is the subject of a forthcoming issue of Christianity and Crisis, a biweekly journal of opinion founded by Niebuhr in February 1941.[*] In one article, William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia notes that few students today seem inspired by Niebuhr’s thought, and questions “what his lasting place in the history of American thought, of theology, of political philosophy, will be.” But Fox’s depiction of Niebuhr in his prime makes him stand tall in comparison with today’s political pulpiteers. A reading of the biography, followed by a good dose of Niebuhrian realism, might benefit the religious right and left. –By Richard N. Ostling

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