In 1928, when a Detroit minister from an obscure branch of Lutheranism joined the faculty at New York’s respected Union Theological Seminary, senior professors regarded him with suspicion. They questioned Reinhold Niebuhr’s scholarly credentials, pulpit style and reputation for political radicalism. But the dynamic Niebuhr went on to become one of the most admired and influential churchmen of his time until he died in 1971 at 78. An adviser to presidents, it was a measure of Niebuhr’s impact on public life that when he retired from teaching, contributors to a Union Theological Seminary endowment named after him included poet T.S. Eliot, presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and historian Arnold Toynbee. Now the first major study of the man, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, by U.S. historian Richard Fox, faithfully documents his passionate lifelong struggle to reconcile political realism
with moral purpose.
What makes the biography fascinating is Fox’s care and compassion. He says that he sees his task as rescuing Niebuhr’s humanity “from the inertia of glorification.” Certainly Niebuhr’s origins were simple: born to German immigrants in 1892, he grew up within sight of cornfields in Lincoln, 111. He attended the obscure Eden Theological Seminary, where his minister father had trained in the German Evangelical Synod of North America. But at Yale Divinity School, although he said that he felt like a mongrel among the thoroughbreds of the eastern establishment, he began to excel: indeed, he earned a master’s degree without ever completing his bachelor’s.
Niebuhr’s first and only pastoral assignment was the small, middle-class Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. In the 1920s his thunderings against the labor practices of automobile manufacturer Henry Ford earned him a reputation as a leftist. Meanwhile, his writings achieved a wide audience through the Christian Century, the New Republic and the Nation. In 1932 he published a provocative study of economic injustice, Moral Man and Immoral Society. But it upset many liberals by asserting that force was justified when used against “malignant power.”
As his writings stirred intellectuals, it was his charismatic preaching that caught public attention. In Detroit Niebuhr had been greatly impressed by the flamboyant pulpit style of the evangelist Billy Sunday. According to Fox, he adopted his technique, becoming “the educated Protestant’s Billy Sunday.” Adds Fox: “One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: one watched him strut, gyrate, jerk, bend and quake.” Until he suffered a stroke 24 years after joining Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr lectured for 40 weekends a year—mainly on college campuses—attracting the attention of politicians including President John F. Kennedy. He also unsuccessfully sought election to the House of Representatives and the New York state legislature as a Socialist Party candidate.
One of Niebuhr’s last causes demonstrated his willingness to change his
mind despite charges of inconsistency. During the Cold War he conceded the necessity of nuclear deterrence. Then, in 1961, after the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall, Washington policymakers began discussing the practicality of the pre-emptive use of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons, leading Niebuhr to change his mind on moral grounds. He was also an early opponent of the Vietnam War.
Fox concludes that Niebuhr was less important as a theologian than his contemporaries Paul Tillich and Karl Barth. But the author fails to assess fully Niebuhr’s importance as a thinker. Still, he argues that much of his work still speaks to those who perceive shallowness in contemporary political and moral thought. Niebuhr preached that only by joining in a tough-minded struggle for social justice could men and women find themselves. Throughout his life the man who loved paradox returned again and again to the message of the Sermon on the Mount: “Who seeks his life will lose it. Who loses it will find it.”
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