Why Niebuhr Matters

Why Niebuhr Matters

by Charles Lemert

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Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a Protestant preacher, an influential religious thinker, and an important moral guide in mid-twentieth-century America. But what does he have to say to us now? In what way does he inform the thinking of political leaders and commentators from Barack Obama and Madeleine Albright to David Brooks and Walter Russell Mead, all of


Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a Protestant preacher, an influential religious thinker, and an important moral guide in mid-twentieth-century America. But what does he have to say to us now? In what way does he inform the thinking of political leaders and commentators from Barack Obama and Madeleine Albright to David Brooks and Walter Russell Mead, all of whom acknowledge his influence? In this lively overview of Niebuhr's career, Charles Lemert analyzes why interest in Niebuhr is rising and how Niebuhr provides the answers we ache for in the face of seismic shifts in the global order.

In the middle of the twentieth century, having outgrown a theological liberalism, Niebuhr challenged and rethought the nonsocialist Left in American politics. He developed a political realism that refused to sacrifice ideals to mere pragmatism, or politics to bitterness and greed. He examined the problem of morality in an immoral society and reimagined the balance between rights and freedom for the individual and social justice for the many. With brevity and deep insight, Lemert shows how Niebuhr's ideas illuminate our most difficult questions today.

Editorial Reviews

Alan Wolfe

"From beginning to end this book is a wonderful read—brisk, intelligent, and relevant, filled with delicious asides, personal reflections, and unexpected turns."—Alan Wolfe, Boston College
Harvey Cox

“Reinhold Niebuhr, as a theologian and political thinker, has never been more urgently relevant than he is today. Charles Lemert has eloquently located Niebuhr's work in its original setting while highlighting its critical importance to the international moral dilemmas we currently face. This well-crafted book is for anyone interested in the interaction of religion, politics and morality.”—Harvey Cox, Harvard University
Choice - P. L. Urban

"A gifted and creative expositor, Lemert provides careful analyses of Niebuhr's most important works, the develoment of his thinking in response to his own life history and concurrent world events, and his study of thinkers like Augustine and Max Weber. . . . Scholars and laypersons alike will find this volume valuable. Highly recommended."—Choice
Craig Calhoun

“Reinhold Niebuhr's account of moral engagement in the face of both impersonal social systems and more personal forms of evil does indeed matter today. So does his example. Charles Lemert tells Neibuhr's story with feeling and analyzes his writings with intelligence. I'm both moved and grateful.”—Craig Calhoun, President, Social Science Research Council

Walter Russell Mead

"A lifetime of academic study and theological reflection has prepared Charles Lemert to write this lucid and moving interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr. Lemert, one of America's most distinguished sociologists, can portray the influence of thinkers as diverse as Max Weber and St. Augustine on Niebuhr's work. Gifted with a crystal clear writing style, Lemert has produced that rarest of treasures: a serious scholarly work that wears its learning lightly and that is immediately accessible to the interested lay reader."—Walter Russell Mead, Editor-at-Large of The American Interest

Library Journal
As part of this Yale University Press series, well-known social theorist Lemert (social theory, emeritus, Wesleyan Univ.; Social Things: An Introduction to the Sociological Life) examines the relevance of one of America's most famous theologians. According to Lemert, Niebuhr's (1892–1971) liberal and social theological theories are needed in modern-day America not only to counter conservative religious thought influencing today's politics and to help us deal with our declining global dominance, but also to assist us in not overlooking the rights of the individual in the name of progress and political necessity. The chapters follow Niebuhr's growth as a minister and theologian, and examine how his writings dealt with the social and political problems that he saw arising out of the struggle between individual rights and the unethical decisions of governments and industries. VERDICT While Niebuhr diagnosed these problems during the early and mid-20th century, his relevance to current issues in America are easy to follow from Lemert's clear presentation. Any reader with an interest in social theory or Niebuhr himself will find this a rewarding read.—Scott Duimstra, Capital Area Dist. Lib., Lansing, MI

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why niebuhr matters

By charles lemert


Copyright © 2011 Charles Lemert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17833-3

Chapter One

reinhold niebuhr tamed cynic

Winters, the farmlands are barren. Time moves slowly. The setting sun softens the late afternoon for an instant. Dark falls hard. Months later, winter is forgotten. The land is flush with cattle and corn. Summer's heat throttles the pulse. The sun sinks late through the cruel humidity. The knowable world nods off for a time, exposing its sweaty nether parts to the night.

Into such a place in 1892 Reinhold Niebuhr was born. Wright City, Missouri, was then a small, isolated town on the near American prairies, huddled in the embrace of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers hard on America's first east-west trail. Today the trail is paved over by a national highway. Interstate 70 crosses the Mississippi River to the west at St. Louis. Road and river cut and quarter the country as they did when the road was dirt. At St. Louis, North ebbs into South as West overtakes East. In Niebuhr's time the sections strained. To imagine Huckleberry Finn's float downriver from Hannibal, near St. Louis, deep into the South at Memphis, you must feel the bitter discrepancy that may never fade. America's South, while decidedly not North, is neither East nor West.

Niebuhr's Wright City is just fifty miles to the west beyond St. Louis, a city swallowed in the gathering currents, more a rest stop than a destination. In the nineteenth century, St. Louis, still young, was already a relic of America's European roots. Its stout German culture could not, even then, anchor it against the forces that tug at places like these. In American lore, vast but fixed spaces excite the restless. From the first openings to the West, American culture learned to think of hope and power as the special promises of these open spaces. Ordinary life, however, requires cramped virtues hardened by the realities of small, if boring, settlements. Getting by in close quarters demands endurance over hard time.

When Niebuhr was born, Wright City was far enough beyond St. Louis to have been where pioneers began to sense the dreadful thrill of the West. Even now, when fields far from city lights are bare, you can feel the difference. Winter's northwesterly winds cut to the bone, thirsty for the rivers they had been seeking since they left the Rocky Mountains. In the nineteenth century, the land and the waters produced strong but modest young men and women, willing to husband the land and cultivate the nation. They were the stock that came from afar to claim the land and a new life. To them Reinhold Niebuhr was born. From them, he learned that America had to outgrow the innocence it was reluctant to shed.

Gustav Niebuhr, Reinhold's father, had come to the United States from Germany in 1881. After casting about in Illinois, farm and city, Gustav studied for the ministry. He was eventually assigned a parish in California, where he and his wife, Lydia, had their first two children. He was, however, a German immigrant destined for life in the Midwest, to which they soon returned. Reinhold, their third child, was born in Wright City just more than a decade after his father came to America. Thereafter, when the family moved, it would be easterly but always to small towns—first to St. Charles, closer to St. Louis; then to Lincoln, Illinois.

In Illinois, Reinhold passed his boyhood to good effect. When his father died in 1913, Reinhold was twenty, at the beginning of adult life. The father's sturdy character toughened the son's interior sense of purpose. Had Gustav lived a long life, he probably would have remained well within the Teutonic geography of the American interior. But Reinhold, heir to his father's moral culture, would obey a different conscience. He admired his father, but he set an independent course.

At the time of his father's death in April 1913, Reinhold was intent on moving east to Yale Divinity School. That fall, after spending the summer filling his father's vacant pulpit, Niebuhr made the move to Yale. There he would receive his only serious scholarly training beyond the parochial schools of his youth. The Niebuhrs, father and son, lived in times different by more than a generation. The son would be a pioneer of another kind—more restless in his way, determined to unsettle the map of America's moral geography. Reinhold's idea of the Church, for example, was surely aroused by his father's faithful service to local parishes. But Reinhold would serve only one parish for any length of time. His primal space was the Church universal—a spiritual dimension eerily like the American idea of space, a place everywhere in time.

Gustav Niebuhr had been a pastor in the German-speaking Evangelical Synod—a denomination of fewer than 200,000 members, most of them then in settled churches in Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. For this smallish number there were some seven hundred pastors, making the average congregation remarkably large for a day when many frontier towns could not count three hundred inhabitants. This robust ratio of pastors to communicants reflected two basic facts of church life in the near West late in the 1800s.

For one, out there pastors served as community leaders much as the Puritan divines had in the colonial era. Preachers were more, much more, than preachers. They too were frontiersmen—farmers, cowboys, even outlaws when conditions demanded. They were among the true men of their villages—closer to Clint Eastwood's preacher in Pale Rider than to the milquetoasts of lesser cinema. In immigrant congregations where worship and business were conducted mostly in German, the pastors were, by training and position, the ones most likely to speak English. They were thus interpreters of the interests of the German community to the dominant English-speaking society to which they had joined their fates.

The second telling feature of church life in these frontier communities was the pastor's home—a singular institution the importance of which reached beyond a pastor's standing in the community. The parsonage, a uniquely Protestant kind of home, is an uncommonly important social institution for the nurturing of both religious and secular leaders. Growing up under the righteous gaze of a moral community instills a kind of self-awareness not well learned in domestic seclusion. The parson and his family must display a moral perfection expected but not widely practiced in the community.

Imagine the effects of the parsonage on its children. They grow up in a panopticon, a community of judges inspecting the preacher's life for flaws that might excuse their own. The preacher, as in earlier times, is meant to be the parson—literally the person who models the community's improbable standards of human conduct. Anyone able to endure childhood in the parsonage will stand up well to one of life's significant tests. Many fail. But a preacher's child who passes is likely to have learned how to be an independent yet responsible person. No wonder so many leaders in various fields are preacher's kids.

This was certainly true of the Niebuhr parsonages. All three children, and a good many of their children, went on to leadership positions in American religious and cultural life.

Reinhold's older sister, Hulda (1889–1959), became a national leader in Christian religious education. So, too, did Reinhold's eventual wife, Ursula (1909–97), who founded the Department of Religion at Barnard College. Their daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, is one of the most respected literary editors in American publishing and author of a most wonderful book on her father's political and religious work, Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War (2003).

Reinhold's younger brother, Helmut Richard (1894–1962), became the Sterling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Yale. Helmut would be known formally as H. Richard Niebuhr, author of still-classic works in the social and theological history of American religion: Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), Kingdom of God in America (1937), and Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1960).

Helmut's son and Reinhold's nephew, Richard Reinhold Niebuhr, would become the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard and, like his father and uncle, one of America's influential theologians. Helmut's grandson, Gustav, was for many years a prize-winning New York Times religion editor before becoming a professor of journalism and religion at Syracuse University.

Parsonage upon Niebuhr parsonage turned out children who became national leaders. Yet in so distinguished a family, it was Reinhold who led American religious and political thought to new, if still unrealized, possibilities.

It is not often that one can trace so grand an adult life as Reinhold Niebuhr's to the child's family experience. Families do not determine what is to come from the child; but they can, for better or worse, set the individual on a life course. In Niebuhr's case, his life's work was a creative effort to map the unstable middle ground between social justice and individual freedom—social values that do not naturally grow in ordinary soil. Gustav and Lydia Niebuhr's small-town family in Illinois was one of the rare domestic plots in which they did.

One often repeated story of the family is of Reinhold as a boy. When his father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, the child said, as boys often do, that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps—in this case to be a minister. Astonished by the seriousness, if not the originality, of the boy's response, Gustav asked why. Reinhold said, again without apparent hesitation: "Because you are the most interesting man in town." Interesting, no doubt; especially in towns like those of rural Missouri and Illinois, where, I can say from personal experience, very little is interesting.

Yet what must have been more deeply interesting, apart from the father's role in the community, was Gustav's way of dealing with his children. He was, by all accounts, a strict authoritarian in the family; but also, in Reinhold's experience, a man of surprising grace. When Reinhold was but ten, Gustav surprised him by asking the boy's advice on the prospect of moving the family to a parish in Lincoln, Illinois. In German families in those days such a thing was not done. Fathers were keepers of the line meant to hold children and women to the straight and narrow. Gustav's readiness to take seriously a boy's opinion was, Reinhold would later say, a measure of the father's "passion for American egalitarianism and American freedom, which for him, meant freedom in the family."

As the father, so the children—the Niebuhr family were, in their way, bred on the contradictions of their religious denomination. They were as able to obey the strict Calvinist discipline as to enjoy the Lutheran idea of Christian liberty. By later standards, these were a strange breed of evangelical, but evangelicals they were. They were not alone among American evangelicals, but surely they stood out for their discipline in keeping faith with the two contradictory wings of Protestant Christianity.

This sort of cultural double-consciousness is encouraged in immigrant communities where the old ways and the new must somehow work together; all the more so among Germans like the Niebuhrs. Their tolerance of religious differences was consistent with their honest willingness to hold true to their German culture (then, early in the 1900s, the pinnacle of intellectual and cultural authority around the world), while at the same time taking on the new American values (then still the brash but honest values of individual freedom). Religiously, Calvinism demanded judgment (as did the Germanic culture), hence the rule of justice; Lutheran principles of spiritual liberty spawned resistance to domination (like the spirit of the American pioneers), hence the heart's openness to freedoms.

In Niebuhr's day, German-Americans were—as through much of American history—the largest group of non-English immigrants. Religiously, the Germans came in all denominations. Mennonites predominated in rural Pennsylvania, Lutherans in the upper Midwest, and Catholics in the big cities. Those of the Evangelical Synod of North America (or, to be geographically precise, of the American Midwest) were unlike other German religious groups in the way they held together the opposing elements of Reformed and Lutheran thinking.

From the secular outside, this may seem to be a distinction without a difference. But historically it is a difference of religious traditions as distinct as that between the Shi'a and the Sunni—both of the same religious faiths, each with a difference as to how religious doctrines are to be understood.

Reformed Protestants are of the lineage of John Calvin (1509–64), the French theologian and founder of theocratic Geneva whose teachings led to Puritanism. Lutherans, of course, follow in the tradition of Martin Luther (1483–1546), the German priest who broke doctrinally with Roman Christianity. As Calvin's teachings led to religious dissent, Luther's led to one of the more tradition-bound of the Protestant sects. Both wings of the early Protestant movement were evangelical. Together they disestablished Roman Christendom in Europe. Each, thus, was radical in its way. But while Calvin's God was stern, he was also a god of dissent and hard work in the world. Luther's God was more generous and forgiving, but a god who meant to enforce a strict line between church and world. Thus, appearances aside, the Puritans were dissenters, hence political trouble for the authorities. The Lutherans were traditionalists, conservatives who made trouble only by accident of their religious beliefs.

Imagine, then, the improbability of a religious group like the Evangelical Synod of North America. Though smallish and remote, unlike other nineteenth-century sects this group of evangelicals kept its poise in the crosswinds of Protestant disputes. Others hunkered down in one or another doctrinal corner. Niebuhr's Evangelical Synod stood against both currents—one religiously traditional, the other dissenting. Churchgoers of this temperament are ready to tolerate substantial differences in the rules and conditions of religious life.

As time went by, the German Evangelical Synod joined in 1934 with other denominations of like disposition to become the Evangelical and Reformed (or, E and R) Church, which in time joined with the Congregational Church to become today's United Church of Christ. Naturally, through the transitions the pure contradictions of the nineteenth-century Evangelical Synod softened or fell away. Still, when the E and R merged with the Congregationalists in 1957, Niebuhr drew upon a lifetime of experience with religious differences in his own evangelical tradition to say:

The union of the Congregational and Evangelical and Reformed churches represents ... a rather unique achievement in the history of Protestantism and not only of American Protestantism. That achievement can be most briefly designated by recalling that all previous Protestant mergers have been "family reunions"; that is, they have united or reunited churches of the same faith such as Lutherans, Methodists or Presbyterians, who had become divided by some historic contingency. This church merger unites two churches which had a different polity, theological orientation, and a different cultural history. They had little in common, in short, except the common element which ecumenical Protestantism has increasingly developed, particularly in the religious pluralism of our nation.

By "cultural differences" he meant the Germanic discipline that predominated in his Evangelical and Reformed Church and the English traditions of liberty and dissent that were stronger among the Congregationalists in America.

Years later, in the 2000s, the United Church of Christ, or UCC, barely a million members and shrinking, is easily America's most liberal, even radical, mainstream Christian group. No other American denomination has been as aggressive in its pursuit of what the UCC calls open and affirming attitudes toward the politically oppressed—today gays and lesbians, as a century before the Congregationalists had been first among equals as abolitionists and, a century after that in the 1960s, leaders among civil rights activists.

In Niebuhr's youth, as today, the evangelical quest for freedoms forged on the blunt edge of social and economic justice can be overwhelmed by the easy moral fixes of American ethical individualism. Still, here and there, religious people willing to do the hard work of establishing socially just structures can be discerned in churches like those of Niebuhr's religious experience. Groups like these are among the saving remnants of the best that American liberalism could be. Inside the churches, the preaching can be as foolish and sterile as anywhere. Yet somewhere deep behind their human failings, these groups, like a goodly number of secular ones, find and keep the gospel of a better world—a social vision founded not in utopias but in the realities of this world and chastened by considered appeals to higher powers. Liberal realism, whether secular or religious, succeeds over time only so long as it practices the art of working against hard but necessary differences.

In 1915, after finishing two years of study at Yale, and but two years after his father's death, Niebuhr became the pastor of the Bethel Church in Detroit.

Nineteen fifteen was a fateful year. Europe was already at war, soon to involve the United States. America, spared the agony for a while longer, continued its rapid rise to the center of global industrial wealth. If 1914 was the end of the nineteenth century in Europe, the United States would not truly enter the realities of the twentieth century until the crash of 1929. In the fifteen-year interim, America solidified its global position among industrial powers. Only the Depression brought American down to the hard realities Europe already knew. Between 1915 and 1929 the United States enjoyed distinct economic advantages that in time would fix its ascendancy in world affairs.

Automobile manufacture was of course essential to the new industrial system—to its economic benefits and its social injustices. The Ford Motor Company was founded by Henry Ford in 1903. By the 1920s Ford had made Detroit an epicenter of global changes. Ford, the person and the firm, were then the embodiment of corporate greed sugarcoated with artificially high wages that in reality degraded working families. It did not take long after his arrival in 1915 for Niebuhr to find his way among working people in Detroit. Through them he touched the duplicitous underbelly of the modern factory system. Ford's much vaunted $5-a-day wage was, Niebuhr saw, a pittance over the long run of a year's labor. During a typical year, factories were regularly closed down for vaguely stated reasons, often for extended periods of time. In the interim no provision was made for the working families, which meant that their actual annual income was, in most cases, anything but the largess Ford claimed. Niebuhr soon took up the cause of labor.


Excerpted from why niebuhr matters by charles lemert Copyright © 2011 by Charles Lemert. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles Lemert is University Professor and Andrus Professor of Social Theory Emeritus at Wesleyan University and Senior Fellow of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University.

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