A revealing look at an American theological icon

Richard Fox. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. Harper & Row, 1987.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud

In my graduate program in Christian ethics in the mid-1980s, Reinhold Niebuhr loomed larger than life. The greatest American theological ethicist of the 20th century. The thinker all subsequent theological ethicists must come to terms with—whether to agree or disagree.  If you called someone a “Niebuhrian,” everyone would have some sense of what you meant—a Niebuhrian would be pessimistic about idealistic ethical hopes, ready to use necessary violence when appropriate, linked in with the political elite of the U.S.

Among other manifestations of the shadow of Niebuhr that I experienced was the opportunity I had to take a quite enjoyable seminar with Roger Shinn, recently retired as the “Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics” at Niebuhr’s old school, Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Shinn was a gracious teacher and showed a great deal of respect for my pacifist, Anabaptist views—while making clear his own perspective as a Niebuhrian of the first order.

In 1985, Richard Wrightman Fox, a young historian at Reed College in Oregon, published what was immediately acclaimed as a definitive biography of Niebuhr. In rereading Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, I was impressed anew with a fine account of the fascinating life and thought of an American theological icon who remains of utmost importance (see this report on Niebuhr’s influence on Barack Obama).

Fox wrote this book as an expression of admiration for Niebuhr; his is a sympathetic account throughout. However, because of Fox’s skill as a historian committed to telling the whole story as best he can, the biography comes off as anything but a hagiography. I recommend it highly, even though I do not share Fox’s admiration for Niebuhr. The book is so good because one finds here ample material to draw one’s own conclusions concerning Niebuhr’s contribution.

This is how I would sketch the trajectory of Niebuhr’s life based on Fox’s account. He grew up as the favored son (of three, with one sister) of immigrant German parents. From early on, it was clear Reinhold would follow his father’s steps in pastoral ministry in a denomination made up almost exclusively of German immigrants with the odd title of the German Evangelical Synod (this group began merging with other Protestant denominations in 1934, ultimately becoming part of the United Church of Christ).

Niebuhr’s eagerness to establish his identity as an American fueled his enthusiastic embrace of the American war effort in World War I, though as a minister he was freed from obligations to join the Army. In the aftermath of the Great War, especially following a visit to Germany to see firsthand the devastation left by the conflict, Niebuhr swore to be through with war (though clearly his “pacifism” was utterly of an emotional type and never found strong theological grounding).

Ambitious, assertive, socially adept, a strong preacher, and effective writer, Niebuhr entered the fray as the pastor in the automobile-centered boom city of Detroit following a brief foray in higher education (he attended two unaccredited German Synod schools before completing an MA at Yale Divinity School—Fox reveals that Niebuhr was a mediocre student who gained admission to Yale at a time when the seminary was in an expansion mode after having reached a nadir of enrollment and influence at the turn of the century and who was even himself surprised when he was granted his degree, apparently due to the influence of a friendly professor).

Niebuhr was in the right place at the right time. With Detroit’s rapid growth, his congregation also grew quickly. Niebuhr found himself immersed in labor issues. With his communication skills and straightforward style, he delighted periodical editors and social activists. One of his classic books, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, emerged from his pastoral years. Niebuhr was destined for a bigger stage, though, and by the late 1920s, due to strong financial support from a wealthy Christian social activist named Sherwood Eddy, Niebuhr moved to New York City in 1928 and joined the faculty at Union Seminary (the Seminary only agreed to hire him because Eddy paid his full salary during his first year).

Niebuhr found a home at Union. Despite misgivings from many of the senior faculty due to his lack of educational credentials, his radical politics (Niebuhr joined the Socialist Party and actually ran for Congress as a Socialist in 1932), and his informality, students flocked to his classes and his publications gained the Seminary much favorable attention. The Depression years and especially the labor struggles pushed Niebuhr away from his post-World War I affirmation of pacifism, setting him up for his most famous move in the latter part of the 1930s where he overtly condemned pacifism and strongly affirmed American intervention in the war against fascism in Europe.

In the ferment of the Depression and World War II years, Niebuhr produced his most enduring writings, including books such as Moral Man and Immoral Society, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Christianity and Power Politics, and the two-volume Human Nature and Destiny. With his active and very public affirmation of the American war effort, his prolific writing (along with his books, he wrote regularly for various important journals of opinion and in 1940 founded his own immediately influential journal, Christianity & Crisis), and his highly visible position at one of the country’s preeminent seminaries, Niebuhr moved the from the leftist fringes to the center of political discourse in the U.S.

Niebuhr found himself on the cover of (highly nationalistic and pro-Cold War) Time Magazine in 1948, marking his assent to the heights of his fame and influence, now as the “court theologian” of the American power elite. Ironically, Fox tells us, at this same time that Niebuhr gained such status, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI launched an investigation of Niebuhr’s leftist past. During the McCarthy era and the  Red Scare, Niebuhr did feel some vulnerability, though he did his best to show himself a true patriot. This included “naming names” of other 1930s leftists, including at least a few who felt deeply betrayed by Niebuhr given their own clear anti-Communist sentiments that had been voiced even back when Niebuhr identified himself as a “Marxian.”

Interestingly, with his new status, Niebuhr’s own focus in his writing changed from theological ethics to contemporary politics. These writings did not gain much positive attention at the time and have since pretty much completely disappeared. While always raising concerns about temptations of American toward pride and failure to respect the limits of it power (he opposed the Vietnam War during his final years), Niebuhr’s main message was one of affirmation of America’s side in the Cold War and of the need to expand American military power.

I cannot escape the impression that Niebuhr’s influence has followed mostly from his ability to write and speak clearly and forcefully (his most important writings remain interesting, accessible, and relevant today) and from his message affirming America and providing a theological sanction for “necessary violence.”  He conveyed quite effectively a message welcomed by people in power and those Christians who wanted to orient their values toward the people in power while holding on to some semblance of Christian faith. He became the theological voice for post-World War II Cold War liberalism (ironically, at the same time he left theology behind as an area of interest).

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