Niebuhr Study Guide: Section V

Niebuhr Study Guide: Section V

Introduction | Section I | Section II | Section III | Section IV | Section V | Section VI

Section V: The Union Seminary Years: Niebuhr as Public Intellectual

Related Web Elements

Radio Program
Listen to the online version of the radio broadcast and read the complete transcript of the show.

Interview with Max Stackhouse
Listen to and read the complete transcript of the interview with the Princeton theologian.

A "Mike Wallace Interview" with Reinhold Niebuhr
An edited transcript of a 1958 interview intending to stimulate public discussion of the basic issues of survival and freedom in America during the 1950s and 1960s.

Correspondence with Henry Sloane Coffin
A letter from the Union Theological Seminary president to Niebuhr about his acceptance of a teaching postion in 1928.

Letter to Joseph Rauh
A note from Niebuhr to the legendary attorney and crusader for equal justice.

Correspondence with Margaret Mead
A note from Niebuhr to the famous anthropologist accepting her submission to Christianity and Crisis.

FBI Loyalty Investigation Report
A 1952 document conjecturing on the role Niebuhr played in dealings with Communist organizations.

House Resolution Commemorating Niebuhr
A transcript of the resolution passed by the Congress commemorating the centennial of Niebuhr's birthday, including a copy of Arthur Schlesinger's piece in the New York Times.

Letters from President Carter and Mayor Kollek
Read notes from these two famous politicians who acknowledge that Niebuhr's ideas played an influential role in their lives.

Correspondence with Vice-President Humphrey
In this exchange between old friends, Niebuhr congratulates Humphrey on a valiant fight in his campaign for the Presidency.

Chapter by Sherwood Eddy
A letter from Eddy asking Niebuhr to critique his typescript of a chapter on Billy Graham.

Speech at the World Council of Churches Assembly
Listen to Niebuhr's 1948 main conference address in Amsterdam in which he asserts that repentance should be the church's primary role and not social reconstruction.

Comments on Tillich
In a letter to Bishop Scarlett, Niebuhr notes why he can never totally accept Tillich's "ontology of love."

"Christianity and Communism"
Listen to Niebuhr's 1960 address, given at the height of the Cold War, in which he talks about the rise of Communism, the dangers of utopianism, and its threat to religious thought.


Reinhold Niebuhr spent the decades of the 1930s and 1940s as a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. During these years, he not only taught courses for future ministers and played his share in Union's governance, but he also pursued the career that he had already launched during his Detroit days as what we would now call a "public intellectual" (or "public theologian"). We might define a "public intellectual" as someone who has scholarly credentials, such as the holding of an advanced degree and the publication of learned books, and who directs that learning towards a broader audience in the hope of influencing public opinion and affecting the formulation of policy by governmental leaders on issues of broad social concern. This unit explores the meaning of that term; how understanding the concept helps explain the eminence that Niebuhr attained during the decades of depression, world war, and cold war; and why there are few if any theologians since Niebuhr's time who have been able to play the public role so characteristic of his career.

Study Questions
1| Venues for Niebuhr's activism included a variety of organizations not affiliated with a specific political party but aiming at the propagation of a distinctive social and political program. These included, in his early career, the Fellowship for Reconciliation, with a pacifist agenda and, later, the Americans for Democratic Action, which attempted to provide common ground for a wide spectrum of anti-Communist progressives. He was also active on the campus circuit, speaking frequently from the pulpits of college and university chapels. He served as a contributor and editor of a number of periodicals, including the Christian Century and Christianity and Crisis, and participated actively in the work of ecumenical groups such as the World Council of Churches in postwar conferences on issues such as the Zionist cause. What kinds of venues of this sort exist today? How effective are they in mobilizing public opinion and affecting public policy?

2| In the 1940s and early 1950s Niebuhr was frequently recruited by the State Department and other branches of the federal government to serve as an observer and consultant on a variety of issues involving the rebuilding of Europe and the combating of Communism in the early days of the Cold War. (This despite the fact that the FBI had been keeping a file on him for many years due to his involvement in various left-leaning political groups.) In the early 1960s, during the Kennedy administration, he was regarded as a sort of "establishment intellectual" whose ideas exerted a powerful influence on, or at least a legitimation for, that government's policies. (Among them was Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.) Jimmy Carter was fond of quoting or referring to Niebuhr, and Bill Clinton was sympathetic with his trend of thought. What was there about Niebuhr's thought that appealed to these presidents and their advisors?

3| Conversely, Niebuhr seldom if ever turns up in the public discourse of political figures such as Richard Nixon (see Niebuhr's letter to Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey), Ronald Reagan, or either of the Bushes. More broadly, leaders of "mainline" denominations have had difficulty in gaining access to George W. Bush in particular, even though the latter and his vice president both belong to a mainline denomination (the United Methodist Church). Billy Graham, on the other hand, has often been publicly praised by such figures, and is especially cited by the younger Bush as a formative influence in his spiritual development. Why should Niebuhr have fallen out of favor with latter-day conservative political leaders?

4| "Public intellectual" is a phrase that appears frequently in the media today; it was the subject of a book by Richard Posner published in 2001 by Harvard University Press, and one can obtain a doctorate in the field at a Florida university. Posner attempted to quantify the impact of such figures by compiling a list of the hundred twentieth-century figures most often cited in both academic and popular media venues. Of his top one hundred, none is a theologian as such; only C.S. Lewis, the English literary scholarly who also wrote essays and fiction with Christian themes, comes close. Why should this list be so "secular"?

5| Since Niebuhr's death in 1971, it is hard to think of any theologian representing what are now called the "mainline" Protestant churches who has played a role similar to Niebuhr's in public discourse; Harvard's Harvey Cox, the University of Chicago's Martin Marty, and Princeton's Cornel West probably come as close as any to claiming that place, but the breadth of their influence when compared with Niebuhr's is questionable. On the other hand, Niebuhr and Paul Tillich were theologians who, in their heyday, commanded a broad audience of literate Americans, some of whom were not particularly attracted to traditional religion but who found the messages of these men compelling nonetheless in their analysis of the human condition and its implications for social policy. The following may all be elements in this shift in intellectual climate:

  • The increasingly academic character of the writing of professional theologians.
  • A Time cover story in April, 1966, asking "Is God Dead?" signaled a new and, for many, a radical shift in religious thought and a growing gap between the academy and the "person in the pew."
  • The impact on theology of "identity politics" beginning around the same time, in which much energy was directed towards making Christian thought relevant to the situations of women, African Americans, Latinos, gays, and other particular groups, rather than addressing the more general "human condition" postulated by earlier theologians.
  • The emergence of widespread popular interest in "spirituality" as opposed to "religion," in which the former usually meant an eclectic blend of beliefs and practices aimed at attaining a change in personal consciousness, while the latter referred to a somewhat moribund institutionalization of the spiritual impulse in the various mainline denominations. (For a take on Niebuhr's own spirituality, in an older sense of the term, see the learning guide, "The Final Years: Niebuhr's Spirituality.")
  • The emergence, beginning in the 1970s, of a "New Religious Right" that attracted neo-conservative theological sympathizers from more traditional backgrounds such as Lutheran-minister-journalist-turned-Catholic-priest Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the journal First Things. The journal Christianity Today, founded as an evangelical counterpart to the Christian Century, continues as a moderate and widely-read voice within the evangelical community as well.
  • The discomfort that latter-day liberal politicians — with a few exceptions, such as Jimmy Carter — have demonstrated with overtly religious language in their public discourse.

What would Niebuhr make of these developments were he alive today? How might he adapt to present-day circumstances in reconfiguring his role as "public intellectual/theologian"? Who would most likely be his most receptive audience?

Talking Points
1| A wide diversity of such advocacy organizations exist today, and are found all across the religious and political spectrum. Some are focused on particular causes, such as the environment or abortion, while others cast a wider net. Since the 1970s those associated with the Religious Right, such as Focus on the Family, have been particularly active and politically effective. Others, such as People for the American Way, have served as advocates for liberal causes, but have not generated as much public attention. The difficulties that the Democratic Party has experienced in bringing an overtly religious vocabulary into its discourse have weakened its historic linkage with groups such as those in which Niebuhr participated. The campus chapel circuit has nearly disappeared as colleges, including many affiliated with mainline denominations, have become more pluralistic and secularized, and mainline denominations have lost interest in subsidizing campus ministries. Both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches have become controversial through their involvement in political causes, in the United States and abroad, perceived as liberal or radical. This has led to considerable dissent among their more conservatively inclined denominational members, such as the Eastern Orthodox churches. In general the ecumenical movement, which flourished in the 1960s through the impact of Vatican II, has fallen into relative obscurity among "mainline" Protestants in recent years. Finally, an emergent gap between the intellectual and religious realms within the academy and liberal politics as well as the internal divisions that have emerged within the mainline denominations over issues such as abortion and homosexuality have contributed to a diminishing number of venues from which views like Niebuhr's can today be publicly promulgated effectively.

2| President John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" combined an active challenge to Communism on the foreign policy front with generally liberal social programs. Niebuhr had by this time became publicly associated with a strong anti-Communist message combined with an opposition to McCarthyism. His tough-minded emphasis on "Christian realism" also resonated with the Kennedy ethos. Niebuhr's pragmatic social liberalism, forged during the days of the New Deal, was also very compatible with the Kennedy administration's priorities. Carter and Clinton, who could also be described as Christian pragmatists, found Niebuhr's message attractive for similar reasons: both interpreted the Christian message in terms of social responsibility. Neither believed that the United States had a monopoly on virtue in world politics, but were convinced that the United States had an obligation to use its wealth and power to try to advance peace and social justice in parts of the world where its influence might prove effective.

3| The example of FDR's New Deal helped convince Niebuhr to turn away from more radical politics and endorse governmental intervention in the economic and social orders to help bring about the kind of social justice that he believed the scriptures — especially the Hebrew Prophets — mandated. He also abandoned his original pacifism in favor of a policy of cautious intervention into armed conflict when abstention from such action would lead to even worse results: World War II was the model here. In latter years, Niebuhr became increasingly dubious about American intervention abroad when no clear success was indicated, such as was the case in Korea or Vietnam. His The Irony of American History contained his main indictment of American pretensions to righteousness in foreign affairs when his own nation's motives were far more mixed than political rhetoric maintained. Neither of these has been congenial to Republican administrations, which have advocated governmental pullbacks in the realm of public welfare and tended towards interventionism in foreign policy. Old-style Evangelicals, personified in Billy Graham, emphasized personal conversion and morality: Graham, for example, claimed to have been more shocked by Richard Nixon's foul language when his tapes were played rather than by his involvement in the Watergate scandal. (Niebuhr publicly criticized Graham for holding religious services in the White House, suggesting too cozy a relationship between government and prophetic ministry.) Such a message was explicitly apolitical and often implicitly conservative, and harmonized better with Republican policy stances. Niebuhr also criticized Graham for holding prayer services in the White House, as seeming display of "civil religion." Later "New Religious Right" spokespersons such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have openly sided with the Republican party and have promoted an interpretation of American history involving America's providential destiny as a new divinely chosen nation, a position that Niebuhr explicitly repudiated in The Irony of American History.

4| The list was compiled from citations in recent indexes, so that, even though some earlier figures like Lewis continue to be cited, those most frequently mentioned are likely to be contemporary figures. The list's composition does suggest, however, that American intellectuals have become increasingly detached from religious thought and institutions in their orientation, and conversely that "mainline" theologians are not addressing issues of public policy. These trends certainly reflect a shift of emphasis in both camps — especially the latter — since Niebuhr's heyday in the 1930s and 40s.

5| Niebuhr would doubtless be dismayed that the "mainline churches," which would now include more liberal Catholics and many Jews, had suffered such a diminishment of their capacity to speak to and effect contemporary affairs. He would probably call loudly upon seminary faculty to address their concerns to a broader audience, and take a more aggressive stance towards mobilizing denominational opinion in a progressive direction. He would have been a natural in the media world of the early twenty-first century. He was strong-minded, quick-witted, and rarely at a loss for words, as his interview with Mike Wallace illustrates. He would most likely have continued to contribute to progressive Christian journals, especially the Christian Century; written a syndicated column for the newspapers; and appeared on TV shows such as Crossfire, where his wit and eloquence would have been put to good use. (Whether he would maintain a "blog is uncertain.) His audience would probably consist of a broad spectrum of those in the left and center of today's political issues, although some contemporary religious conservatives also claim him. Those at either end of the political and religious spectrums, however, might well dislike him because of his insistence that no political position can be identified easily with God's will because of the gulf between that will and limited human perceptions of it and prideful attempts to claim it as their own.

Further Reading
Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography
by Richard Wightman Fox
Pantheon, 1985
*Chapters 6-10 deal with this period in his life.

A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York
by Robert T. Handy
Columbia University Press, 1987

"The Clergy" from Encyclopedia of American Social History New York
by E. Brooks Holifield and edited by Mary Kupiec Cayton, Elliott J. Gorn, and Peter W. Williams
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993, III, pages 2465-2474.

"Religious Liberalism, Fundamentalism and Neo-Orthodoxy" from Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History
by Charles H. Lippy and edited by Mary Kupiec Cayton and Peter W. Williams
Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001, Vol. I, pages 713-722.

Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline
by Richard A. Posner
Harvard University Press, 2001

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Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.