Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was an American pastor, educator, theologian, and political philosopher whose intellectual creativity and social involvement made him the leader of a major reconstruction in religious ethics.
Niebuhr was born on June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Mo., where his father was pastor of a German immigrant Evangelical church. After attending Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, and the Yale Divinity School (B.D., 1914; M.A., 1915), he was ordained in the Evangelical Synod (now within the United Church of Christ). While he served as pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit from 1915 to 1928, his inherited piety met the social challenges created by the industrial system, and he began to attract wide attention as a writer and lecturer.
In 1928, Niebuhr joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, New York City. Soon the Great Depression sharpened his criticism of the social order, and in 1930 he ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket. In 1931 he founded the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and in 1935 began to edit its quarterly Radical Religion (later, Christianity and Society).
With the rising threat of Nazism, however, Niebuhr gave increased attention to halting totalitarianism. Abandoning his antiwar stand, he left the Socialist party and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization of which he had been national chairman. In 1941 he founded Christianity and Crisis and became the first national chairman of the Union for Democratic Action. After World War II, he was a principal founder of Americans for Democratic Action, an organization of the noncommunist Left. He also served as an advisor to the U.S. State Department.
In 1952, Niebuhr suffered the first of a series of strokes that impaired his health, but he continued to teach at the Union Theological Seminary until his retirement in 1960. Still writing books and essays, he sometimes fired a polemic at reactionary or militaristic politicians. Subsequently he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in Stockbridge, Mass., on June 1, 1971.
Throughout his career, Niebuhr remained fervently Protestant, although he cultivated warm relations with Roman Catholics, Jews, and secular humanists. It seems surprising, therefore, that such a confirmed theologian should have had so profound a secular influence. Political scientist Hans Morgenthau called him “the greatest living political philosopher of America.”
Niebuhr developed intellectually through criticism of his past positions, spinning the intricate threads of his thinking in some 20 books and about 1,000 articles. His student writings, published posthumously, show a pietistic, nonpolitical ethic. Study at Yale broadened his horizons, and the Detroit pastorate awakened him to social problems. The landmark book of his early career, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), shows considerable—though not uncritical—acceptance of Marxist themes. Here he set up his double criteria for the methods of political action: (1) Do they appeal to every human moral resource; and (2) Do they take account of human moral limitations?
Niebuhr’s next step explored aspects of Christian tradition that had been rejected by liberal theology. He looked especially at Saint Augustine’s philosophy of history and Kierkegaard’s insights into selfhood. Urging that biblical myths be taken “seriously but not literally,” he reinterpreted the meaning of ancient doctrines of creation, the fall, and sin. For this reason his theology was sometimes called “neo-orthodox,” a term that he disliked. At the heart of human nature he saw freedom and anxiety, which are the preconditions for both creativity and sin. These themes are developed in The Nature and Destiny of Man (2 vols., 1941 and 1943).
Niebuhr’s interest in human finitude and sin made him a critic of utopias: the “soft” utopias that promise progress without conflict and the “hard” utopias (Marxist, among others) that use an idealized future to justify present cruelty. Out of this theological position came his “political realism,” in which politics seeks proximate solutions for insoluble problems. It is a realism with a tragic sense of life, an expectation of the persistence of sin, a skepticism about idealistic illusions, and a conviction that society is improvable but not perfectible.
Niebuhr had a deep distrust of theological systems. Instead, he sought to examine experience, especially as illuminated by the biblical heritage, and to formulate insights that could be spun out in social, historical, and personal meanings. His final word for the human situation was grace—the forgiving and empowering love that he found in the cross of Christ, and the grace he found in the lives of persons and of societies.