Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr

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The recent outburst of popular religiosity in the United States is a most dramatic and unforeseen development in American life. As Europe grows more secular, America grows more devout.

In the midst of this religious commotion, the name of the most influential American theologian of the 20th century rarely appears - Reinhold Niebuhr. It may be that most "people of faith" belong to the religious right, and Niebuhr was on secular issues a determined liberal. But left evangelicals as well as their conservative brethren hardly ever invoke his name. Jim Wallis's best-selling "God's Politics," for example, is a liberal tract, but the author mentions Niebuhr only twice, and only in passing.

Niebuhr was born in Missouri in 1892, the son of a German-born minister of the German Evangelical Synod of North America. He was trained for the ministry at the Synod's Eden Theological Seminary and at the Yale Divinity School. In the 1920's he took a church in industrial Detroit, the scene of bitter labor-capital conflict. Niebuhr's sympathies lay with the unions, and he joined Norman Thomas's Socialist Party. Meanwhile, New York's Union Theological Seminary, impressed by the power of his preaching and his writing, recruited him in 1928 for its faculty. There he remained for the rest of his life. He died in 1971.

Why, in an age of religiosity, has Niebuhr, the supreme American theologian of the 20th century, dropped out of 21st-century religious discourse? Maybe issues have taken more urgent forms since Niebuhr's death - terrorism, torture, abortion, same-sex marriage, Genesis versus Darwin, embryonic stem-cell research. But maybe Niebuhr has fallen out of fashion because 9/11 has revived the myth of our national innocence. Lamentations about "the end of innocence" became favorite clichés at the time.

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).

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Mary Jane VanEsselsttyn - 9/22/2005

The article about Pastor Niebuhr is one of the most important news stories recently published on this website only it doesn't go far enough.The reason may be that journalists are afraid of offending readers who are politically correct. The aberrant version of Christianity,preached by the christian right is derived from Puritanism and is not without the same hypocrisy mentioned in the honeest article.The Americanized version of christanity is based on the Old Testiment and has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus christ but is being sold to gullible Americans as the Gospel truth in order to promote their neeoconservative agenda in the name of we may be able to understand how Puritanism is at the root of our most crucial problems and responsible for American Utopianism that has been directing our Foreign policy since WW1.Since the Protestant Reformation Calvinist Doctrine has shaped modern society and our culture of greed which now appears to be returning our country to barbarism and a new Dark Age.I suggest that those who are interested in dicovering the truth of our heritage investigate for themselves rather than taking the word of the experts. There are some excellent books on the subject of the Protestant Reformation that are very enlighting to those of us who have been kept in ignorance of our own history or who choose to live in denial because of our self righteousness and Utopian worldview that have been ingrained in the American pyche since our Puritan ancestors set foot in the new World.The zealous colonists claimed to be chosen by God to establish the New Jeruselem on earth by perfecting mans fallen nature that cannot be perfected.Since they beleved that once all of society conformed to their own perception of the kingdom of God the exterminaton of the heathens who helped them survive the severe New England winter wss justified. It easy to see why Niebuhr was rejected by fellow Christians. Thanks to the Cold War and McCarthyism Niebuhr and others were accused by the right as Communist sympathizers that caused fearful Americans to leave their mainline churches for Evangelicals who quarranteed their salvation for the right belief that also came to include the politically correct.Didn,t Jesus teach that those who chose to follow his teaching would be rejected by the religious establishment but would inherit the kingdom of God, he taught, was not of this world. I know many who read my comments may be outraged at my criticism of American Utopianism we inherited from Puritan mythology but it may be time we awaken from our fantasy world by overcoming our own ignorance before it is too late to save the Titanic.