An economist on Marketplace this morning referred to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s worldview as a familiar frame of reference for both presidential candidates. Niebuhr’s view of ethically ambivalent individuals yearning for perfectibility, yet caught in a sinful state and working in a fallen world, is found in the attitudes of both John McCain and Barack Obama, according to the Marketplace commentator.
Niebuhr’s theology was formed in the Great Depression and he taught applied Christianity in the New Deal era, a time that saw the depths of human depravity and greed, as well as the heights of sacrifice and service. He brought theology into the wider public conversation as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and as a social activist. He helped found Americans for Democratic Action and was politically involved throughout his life, giving particular attention to the rights of workers.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. asked in a 2005 essay in the New York Times why Niebuhr isn’t remembered and provides an overview that demonstrates why his worldview remains salient.
Schlesinger cites Neibuhr’s cautionary view of religion in public discourse: “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”
Never the less, Niebuhr also saw the religious claim of human willfulness and fallibility as a corrective to the modern argument that things were “getting better and better in every way.”
Niebuhr understood our capacity for evil is matched by our capacity for good and claims to moral behavior are a corrective necessity, and more.
Schlesinger says the tragedy of 9/11 revived the “myth of our national innocence,” a concept Niebuhr called into question with substantial critique based on religious teaching.
Since Schlesinger’s essay, Niebuhr has received increased attention, mostly because Barack Obama has referred to him. It’s striking that a theologian who died in 1971 remains relevant on social analysis thirty years later.
Perhaps it’s because Niebuhr brought perspective to individual responsibility and the state of human fallibility as well as insight into the way we organize systems that perpetuate injustice and privilege. This tension between individual culpability and systemic injustice has been largely overlooked in the emphasis on extreme individualism that is found across the culture in the U.S. The evangelical right has focused on individual responses to a few key issues of moral concern, the so-called culture wars issues, and the mainline has been largely absent from the public dialogue or torn apart internally so it didn’t reach outside its own walls to engage in public discussion.
Niebuhr operated from a position in the academy and he was not seen as having an affiliation with a denomination. His relative independence gave him the room to engage in social movements and offer commentary free of the institutional constraints that denominational connections impose.
He also wrote in a pre-electronic age. Television was in its infancy and the written word remained influential. He edited The Christian Century from 1922 to 1940, for example. His ideas, while provocative enough to attract attention in their own right, did not face the kind of competitive overload we face today.
But this begs the question why we don’t have a theological basis for mainline dialogue today. In the final analysis, Niebuhr engaged the culture he found and spoke to people in language they could understand. He connected with people who had real issues that called for the application of theology in a practical way. And finally, he used the tools available and he acted. Perhaps that’s the difference.