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?
The Philosopher of the Post-9/11 Era
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.
So does his example. Charles Lemert tells Neibuhr's story with feeling and analyzes his writings with intelligence. I'm both moved and grateful. 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. He was much more of an Adlai Stevenson kind of guy.
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He was either a liberal or a social democrat. He was irreversibly shaped by his encounter with Henry Ford in open shop, Detroit, in the s. Bill mentioned Jimmy Carter. Three presidents have mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr. Lyndon Johnson gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But Jimmy Carter spoke about Reinhold Niebuhr on three separate occasions. One was in May of Niebuhr probably was talking about building our way, not bulldozing, but still. The expectations and demands on a person are a much higher standard.
He just went on this riff. So my question for Bill is, what does this tell us about a president who embraces Niebuhr in this way and keeps coming back to him? And then, I would ask you, E. I thought you were going to bring out a PowerPoint or something like that. I think Carter may have at some point been a serious student of Niebuhr. True, but that seems fairly obvious. Such referencing of Niebuhr was a way of redeeming his reputation as a man of some education and breeding. The biblical passage —. I never have known what it means. By the way, as we were talking I did think of something else in Niebuhr: that he was a tremendous influence on Martin Luther King.
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King is not an example of a political leader, but an example of a social leader, a movement leader. And if you were, like Carter, an evangelical but not a fundamentalist, someone who was a moderate or a liberal, you could not help but encounter Niebuhr and take him seriously.
You can debate, as Bill suggested, exactly how he applied Niebuhr. I think we knew that he was a thoughtful Christian. He lost because of stagflation and the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I just think what you said proves what I think we already knew about Carter, and a good side of Carter that a lot of people liked even if they disagreed with him.
But there must be more to it than that.
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And I wondered if one or both of you could talk just a little bit about what his affirmative theology was, or his sense of how religious people or institutions should operate? I think that Niebuhr wanted to stress — and yes, he is counterpunching when he does this — that there is no resolution to the problems of politics in this life. You can ameliorate suffering here and there, and you are obliged to try to do so. They pay me by the word. For Niebuhr, it is something much more disturbing. And John Dewey even.
That may be the view, but then, how should they proceed? When you were a minister in a poor parish in Detroit — a place you love — at a time of union organizing, low wages and all the struggles going on. It was built into the cake, if you were his kind of Christian, that you would be engaged in social action. What he was about was trying to think through not only what was the most effective form of social action, but also how should one think about that social action as a Christian. He came to believe — he started out as a socialist, and still maintained some of the socialist aspirations — nonetheless he came to see utopianism as both theoretically flawed and also as ineffectual in politics.
The book title was No Final Victories. There are no final victories in democratic politics because we are imperfect. The world is imperfect.
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All political systems are imperfect, so you have to just keep fighting. And, at least to me, that is probably the most rational way to approach democratic politics. Niebuhr lived in a time when you could count on Christian culture as a propulsive force, when your real task was how to channel that, how to correct it, how to keep it from its worst excesses and make it more self-aware and self-critical.
Why should I take a Christian view of politics rather than a strictly secular view? What does the Christian modifier contribute to all of this? Looking at Obama, his public statements, the degree to which he invokes the Bible, or religion, or father, or morality, do you see any other specific figures besides Niebuhr and traditions like the social gospel shining through his words?
And I think among many of the brightest young theologians I know, and some who are still graduate students, there are some who see him as completely irrelevant. Stanley Hauerwas is —. And Stanley Hauerwas — to talk about a counterpuncher — he has pretty much made a career out of eviscerating Reinhold Niebuhr at every turn, including in his own Gifford lectures. And people like me. But the theologians, I think they see him as a back number. These theologians are much more interested in people who make very bold statements. And in that sense, ambiguity is indeed part of the complaint. Or at least, if you know, in the divinity school or in the political science world in which you work.
And the guy who occupies it —. So, probably, most political scientists of my generation know a little bit about Niebuhr. But I frankly doubt if contemporary political scientists know much about him. And maybe they should, I think, from a political-science point of view, not from a theological point of view.
That part, along with the hope part.
It seems to me that Niebuhr went out of fashion somewhere in the s and that was partly a product of the anti-war movement, which saw him as more of a realist. And, you know, there was a rebellion against realism. I think that the journalistic and political comeback of Niebuhr has some parallels now in the academy.
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And he had a very interesting little letter in The New York Times after Arthur Schlesinger wrote his piece that I think was probably friendlier to Niebuhr than Harvey would have been circa or I want to ask Cox about this. Bill is absolutely right about Hauerwas. Hauerwas, by the way, played a big role in the symposium about Niebuhr I quoted earlier. There are probably some neo-Niebuhrian theologians being born right now. Living in those years, it is not surprising that individualism and what might be called the sort of defense of the integrity of the individual over against collectivities and groups of any kind became one of his greatest themes.
That is not, it seems to me, so large a concern now. To take it to a theological level, one sees a lot of concern, particularly among the young, that our churches are not organizations in which people really are experiencing community, being bound together. And I think there is a lot more interest, particularly among the younger people, with finding a more vibrant and vital form of community than Niebuhr really has to offer, because Niebuhr is very guarded.
He offers a very low level of social trust, Niebuhr. The culture and theology against which he was counterpunching then is just very different from the kind of theology and society in which it would be useful to have counterpunching now. As you said — or as E. I mean, he was very aware of issues like the firebombing of Dresden and strategic bombing in general and the use of nuclear weapons and the moral calculus involved in those things. And his whole critique of Nazism was rooted in the idea that it was demonic in general, but in particular, demonic in its treatment of the Jews.
But everything in his history — all of his associations with people like Abraham Heschel and lots of other Jewish leaders, and his writing about Nazis, says this was all very important to him. But it mattered to him. It mattered to him enormously.
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But he had very good relations with Jews, both religious and secular. From that time on, he was a firm, though sometimes qualified, backer of the Zionist cause. So it was a big part of him.