When Reinhold Niebuhr died in June 1971, the New York Times obituary described him as “a theologian who preached in the marketplace, a philosopher of ethics who applied his belief to everyday moral predicaments, and a political liberal who subscribed to a hard-boiled pragmatism.” That apt summary sufficiently explains why Niebuhr mattered to his time. What it doesn’t explain is why Niebuhr matters to ours. After all, in the 1980s and ’90s, Niebuhr was seldom referenced in political debates. It was only after the trauma of 9/11 that he became the most talked-about theologian in American discourse, referred to by everyone from Senator Barack Obama to Senator John McCain.
Since then, several attempts have been made to explain Niebuhr’s revival. A feature in the Atlantic unsatisfactorily claimed it was because “Niebuhr, better than any contemporary thinker, got to the roots of the conflict between American ideals and their unintended consequences, like those the United States now faces in Iraq.” The intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins’s final book, Why Niebuhr Now?, never entirely answered the question in its title.
The latest effort comes from Charles Lemert, a sociologist and professor emeritus at Wesleyan University. It is an installment in the Yale Press’s valuable Why X Matters series, whose topics include Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, and the Dreyfus Affair. Like the authors of other entries in the series, Lemert is not so much a critic of his subject as president of the fan club. Comparing Augustine’s City of God to Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man, he writes, “Books like these are important because they were so quick to a historical moment that they reset the calculus of what man’s human destiny might be.” Whichever way this convoluted sentence is read, it is too flattering. Lemert softens Niebuhr’s early commitment to Marxism, which was mercifully short-lived but nonetheless very real.
As did Diggins, Lemert devotes equal time to Niebuhr the theologian, Niebuhr the philosopher, and Niebuhr the political analyst. Lemert mixes biography with discussion of Niebuhr’s ideas, and adds a dose of meditation on the state of the world for usually-not-good measure:
What Niebuhr leaves to our time are his theories and practical politics of an honest, true-to-historical-fact realism—a political realism that refuses to abandon high moral principles to short-term practical compromises.
In addition, Niebuhr was able to extract from scriptures lessons and ideas accessible even to nonbelievers. Thus, secular men like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. found Niebuhr’s account of man’s eternal sin valuable because it offered permanent insights into human nature. One “reason why there were once, and still are, Atheists for Niebuhr is that his religious views, though firm, even harsh, were offered with such a clear and balanced grasp of the nature of secular modernity,” Lemert posits. “So much of what passes today as evangelical religion in America is openly, even aggressively, hostile to what some evangelicals call secular humanity.” This indeed is a key to Niebuhr’s continued appeal: Like his disciple Martin Luther King, Niebuhr wrestled honestly with a secular world but from a ground buttressed in the rich tradition of religious thinking.
Less convincingly, Lemert argues that Niebuhr has been recovered because of the decline of the West, and the revival of political religion: “So far as one can tell in the short run, both threats are seismic shifts in the global order; and both are strangely connected in ways that are not easily explained by techno-troubles and economic crises—the dark underbellies of globalization.” This is a bizarre explanation, considering that Niebuhr’s popularity arguably reached its zenith in 1948, when he was featured on the cover of Time’s 25th-anniversary issue. The West’s global dominance at the time was at its apex, and among all the threats menacing the globe, political religion did not seem salient.
Politically, Niebuhr offers a framework for America to engage with the world—he was an ardent opponent of isolationism in the 1930s—without succumbing to evil. “Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous,” he wrote in The Irony of American History.
Echoing Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, Niebuhr suggested that the best position was between two extremes: that of assuming a pose of pure righteousness, and that of refraining from living up to international responsibilities. This can easily become a way of justifying evil, of absolving oneself of one’s sins—which is why Niebuhr insisted on shedding the myth of innocence from the beginning. Doing so is the first step towards wisdom, and nobody taught that principle better than Niebuhr. For that alone, he matters to our time, as to his.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer to Salon.