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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 413

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This is the grave of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Born in 1892 in Wright City, Iowa to a German immigrant family, Niebuhr grew up in a religious world. His father was a minister and he himself would become one of the most important religious thinkers in American history. He graduated from Elmhurst College in Illinois in 1910, then went to Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri before ending up at Yale Divinity, where he graduated in 1914 and then with a master’s from the same school in 1915. He was a pastor in the German Evangelical church, which assigned him to a parish in Detroit upon completing his studies. He stayed there until 1928. While there, he developed as one of the nation’s leading liberal pastors. Like all Germans, his church was threatened in World War I, but he took it in stride, tried to find places where compromise and understanding could occur and began to publish widely. He spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan after the war and became involved in labor causes. He was a Social Gospel minister and rejected the liberal optimism of the day, instead pushing for worker power, particularly in Detroit, where he saw the impact of Fordism. He embraced pacifism by the 1920s as well, thought this was a brief fling he would eventually reject very strongly.

He left his parish in 1928 and moved to New York as a professor at Union Theological Seminary, where he would teach and reside for the next 32 years. Now, to be honest, I’ve always found the theological debates of the mid-twentieth century a bit hard to comprehend, especially I don’t care very much about the basics of the issue. So allow me to just summarize a bit and those of you who are really into this stuff can hash it all out in comments. Niebuhr’s 1932 book Modern Man and Immoral Society was a major work that argued that people are more likely to sin as part of social groups than as individuals and is an attack on traditional liberalism but from a progressive place, by and large, and became quite popular as fascism rose in the 30s. For Niebuhr, Henry Ford was the prime example of a sinner–a self-righteous man who felt good about himself and his own accomplishments and who was actually committing great sins in the name of this pride. By consistently critiquing all aspects of liberal individualism, Niebuhr hoped to create more collective responses to the world’s problems that would center Christ and decenter the idea of the individual saving the world, which would be destroyed by pride. But to say the least, communism always was not the kind of needed collective response, as the overwhelming belief in your own righteousness there, backed up Marxist ideas about the inevitably of History (capitalized, as if history is a thing) was just as prideful and would lead to just as much suffering.

Although a pacifist for awhile, Niebuhr’s embrace of a non-communist socialism led him to support the American war effort in World War II. His theological and political move toward supporting the war became part of a larger movement called Christian realism that ended up promoting international power politics that would later comfort the realists of the Cold War world. He was a huge public supporter of FDR through the war and moved against communism pretty hard after 1945. In this, he was very influential on Cold War liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr, George Kennan, and Hans Morganthau. Niebuhr’s independent path could lead him to denounce Joseph McCarthy but support the execution of the Rosenbergs. It could lead him to support nuclear weapons but strongly oppose the Vietnam War. He was very supportive of Israel, having felt outrage at the latent anti-Semitism among Christians from early in his career and self-justified the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to create Israel through his Christian realism. Niebuhr’s ideas were almost extremely influential on Martin Luther King, who invited Niebuhr to the protests in Selma, but his declining health by this time meant he couldn’t travel.

Among Niebuhr’s many other landmarks was his composition of the famed Serenity Prayer (which many find outrageous) in 1937, his long-time distrust of idealism of any form, his long-running rivalry with John Dewey, and heavily influencing Barack Obama, whose 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech (perhaps the most absurd Peace Prize given out since Kissinger, not that I am comparing the moral position of the two, but all Obama had done was not be George W. Bush) reflected Niebuhr’s writings. In 1964, LBJ awarded Niebuhr the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A great public speaker and prolific writer, he simply was one of the most important intellectuals of the era. He died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1971.

Reinhold Niebuhr is buried in Stockbridge Cemetery, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, along with his wife Ursula, who was a theologian herself and founded the Department of Religion at Barnard. No doubt she was highly influential on her husband, but to work all that out would be more of a professional project than I can commit to for this series.

If you would like this series to profile other American religious thinkers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Walter Rauschenbusch is in Rochester, New York and Norman Vincent Peale is in Pawling, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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