Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892–1971), Theologian and Social Critic

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Niebuhr, Reinhold
(1892–1971), theologian and social critic.

Reinhold Niebuhr, often considered America's greatest Protestant theologian and one of its most influential social critics, had a major impact on twentieth-century political life. Niebuhr helped shape the field of Christian social ethics; promote movements for Christian socialism and political realism; create organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Socialists, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Americans for Democratic Action; and found New York's Liberal Party. He established the journal Christianity and Crisis, and in the 1940s served as an adviser to the U.S. State Department. His ideas provided the philosophical justification for the New Deal and offered a critique of idealistic foreign policies. For this reason he was admired by political figures on both the left and the right, including President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick.

Born into an immigrant German community in Wright City, Missouri, Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, and Yale Divinity School. From 1915 to 1928 he served as a pastor at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, where the oppressive labor conditions of parishioners in the automobile industry tempered the optimism of his liberal theological training. In 1928 he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, New York, a position he held the rest of his life. Deeply influenced by the neo-orthodox theological ideas of Karl Barth, Niebuhr abandoned the romanticism of the Social Gospel and accepted the notion that the moral capacity of humans is limited by original sin. He found in the ideas of Augustine a basis for Christian ethics that took a "realistic" appraisal of human nature. In Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) Niebuhr gave a theological basis for explaining the difference between personal and organizational ethics: Since collectivities are the extension of individual egoism, they are by definition incapable of sacrificial acts. This basic insight led to the conclusion that collectivities—especially businesses and governments—can only express self-interest.

Niebuhr scorned "moralism"—altruistic excuses given to justify self-interest. In his two-volume work The Nature and Destiny of Man he condemned the "sentimentalism" of optimistic views of human nature—including those of Mohandas Gandhi and Karl Marx. Niebuhr regarded history as characterized by irony rather than progress. He argued that love on a social plane can only be realized in justice. Although a pacifist in his youth, Niebuhr came to acknowledge the necessity of limited force in quelling violence and righting social wrongs. Social movements and "countervailing power" were necessary, he believed, in the face of oppressive organizations and unjust societies. He supported labor unions and government intervention, and he advocated movements for the civil rights of African Americans as early as 1932. Though prosocialist, he condemned Stalin and communism. During the rise of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he also criticized excessive U.S. presidential power. A persistent commentator on current events, Niebuhr was said to have held the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. More than any other American public figure, he bridged the worlds of religion and public life.

See alsoChurch and State; Journalism, Religious; Publishing, Religious; Religious Studies.


Brown, Robert McAfee, ed. The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr. 1986. Fox, Richard. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. 1985.

Kegley, Charles, ed. Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought. 1984.

Lovin, Robin. Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. 1995.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. 1944.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Christian Realism and Political Problems. 1953.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. 1935.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Leaves from the Notebook of a TamedCynic. 1929.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Man's Nature and His Communities. 1965.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. 1932.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man. 1941.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist. 1940.

Mark Juergensmeyer