Why Niebuhr Matters

Why Niebuhr Matters

charles lemert
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Why Niebuhr Matters
    Book Description:

    Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a Protestant preacher, an influential religious thinker, and an important moral guide in mid-twentieth-century America. But what does he have to say to us now? 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? 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17833-3
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. why niebuhr?
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. 1 reinhold niebuhr: tamed cynic
    (pp. 1-22)

    Winters, the farmlands are barren. Time moves slowly. The setting sun softens the late afternoon for an instant. Dark falls hard. Months later, winter is forgotten. The land is flush with cattle and corn. Summer’s heat throttles the pulse. The sun sinks late through the cruel humidity. The knowable world nods off for a time, exposing its sweaty nether parts to the night.

    Into such a place in 1892 Reinhold Niebuhr was born. Wright City, Missouri, was then a small, isolated town on the near American prairies, huddled in the embrace of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers hard on America’s...

  5. 2 evangelical preacher: wheat and tares
    (pp. 23-44)

    In Detroit, from 1915 to 1928, Niebuhr had established himself as more than a pastor. His national reputation as a political analyst was already strong when he left for Union Theological Seminary in New York. His admirers in Detroit were not surprised that he had been drawn away. But when he began his career as a seminary teacher in New York, it was far from evident that Reinhold Niebuhr would become an enduring figure in the history of twentieth-century America. Many of the faculty at Union Seminary were not even certain that he was qualified to join their distinguished academic...

  6. 3 powers, pulpits, and politics: moral man and immoral society
    (pp. 45-100)

    Reinhold Niebuhr’sMoral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932, was written in his first years at Union Seminary. It was the least theological of all of his books, and among the most political. It was addressed to the global crisis of those years. In 1929, just after the beginning of Niebuhr’s second academic year at Union, the Depression exposed what he soon came to describe as the economic contradictions of industrial capitalism.¹ What he had experienced in the 1920s in Detroit came crashing in on the liberal, modern world after 1929.

    In 1932, the year ofMoral Man, global...

  7. 4 sin, self, and society: nature and destiny of man
    (pp. 101-144)

    Niebuhr joined the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary under awkward circumstances. In 1928, the year he started, Union was easily the most prestigious graduate school of theology in the United States, perhaps in the world. Yet Niebuhr had had little advanced training. His only graduate degree was the one-year master’s from Yale. He did not have the doctorate. His qualifications for a teaching post at a world-ranking institution were, at best, the national and international recognition of his public political and religious writings and the work in the Detroit years. He was not yet a scholar by any means....

  8. 5 nations, global politics, and religion: irony and american history
    (pp. 145-192)

    As Niebuhr’s discovery of Augustine in the 1930s allowed him to reclaim, you might say, the deep religious aspects of sin and the complexities of human nature, so the political realism that came from that rediscovery owed a considerable debt to what may have been his single most formative academic experience.

    While still a youth at Eden College in Missouri, Niebuhr came upon a teacher who would shape him, personally and intellectually, for the rest of his days—shape him, perhaps, more even than the Detroit years and the Yale education. The person was Samuel D. Press, a teacher of...

  9. 6 political recovery and globalization: knowing the difference
    (pp. 193-212)

    Words Reinhold Niebuhr first uttered sometime in the 1930s or 1940s are recurrently thought to have been the words of anyone but him—St. Francis of Assisi, a German who claimed the right to them, some unknown author.¹ The words are familiar the world over as the Serenity Prayer:

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

    courage to change the things I can;

    and wisdom to know the difference.

    The prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs for recovery from addictions of all kinds. Every day and night of the year,...

  10. notes
    (pp. 213-236)
  11. acknowledgments
    (pp. 237-238)
  12. Index
    (pp. 239-252)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-253)