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Public Theology: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Prospects for Justice in America
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Reinhold Niebuhr and the Prospects for Justice in America
Some folks still show up to hear something about Niebuhr, the best known public theologian of the 20th century and one who has been called 'Obama's theologian'.

By Mark Jensen

About forty people came to King's Books in Tacoma, Washington, on Friday, Apr. 3, 2009, to hear historian Andrew Finstuen speak about "Original Sin and the Prospects for Justice: Reinhold Niebuhr's Vision for the Kingdom of God in America." The beginning of Finstuen's talk was a bit delayed due to parking problems caused by a big turnout across the street at the Temple Theater for Lisa Lampanelli, the self-described "Dirty Girl" and "Queen of Mean."

Currently visiting professor of the history of religion at Pacific Lutheran University, where he directs the International Honors Program, Andrew Finstuen holds a 2006 Ph.D. in History from Boston College. His first book, Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety, will be published this fall by the University of North Carolina Press. Here's a précis of Finstuen's talk:

* * *

The thought of American theologian and intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) is marked by the recognition of "the force and pervasive reality of human sin," an abiding faith in a merciful God, and a deep engagement with American society and culture. Niebuhr's attitude can be characterized as one of pessimistic hope, or, to invoke one of Niebuhr's own expressions, "pessimistic optimism." He rejects the easy optimism that Americans find so appealing and discounts the doctrine of American exceptionalism.

Though Niebuhr's origins were modest, he became an influential figure in mid-twentieth-century American life. An academic, he spent most of his career teaching at the graduate level, though he never earned a Ph.D. He came, rather, from a pastoral background. From 1913 to 1928, he led a parish in Detroit, where he wrote prolifically and published widely and became known as a harsh critic of Henry Ford. In 1928 he was recruited to Union Theological Seminary in New York by Henry Sloan Coffin. With the publication of Moral Man, Immoral Society (1932) Niebuhr entered the ranks of the leading commentators on American society.

What is neglected in the Niebuhr revival now underway, which approaches "Niebuhrmania," is an appreciation of the importance from a Christian standpoint of the doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr understood this not literally, but as a myth—but no less true for that. Contemporary Niebuhrmania also tends to leave out his concept of the kingdom of God, by which Niebuhr meant a picture of what this world ought to be.

Recent accounts of Niebuhr offered by David Brooks, Peter Beinart, John McCain, Barack Obama, Paul Elie, and Andrew Bacevich neglect crucial aspects of Niebuhr's vision. Bacevich's account in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008; paperback 2009) is perhaps the best of these, but even Bacevich neglects the Christian basis of Niebuhr's vision.

His commentators fail to highlight the Christian basis of Niebuhr's view that acknowledgment of sin is essential if there is to be progress toward justice. Niebuhr believed that a "law of love" is at work in history, but that each new realization of this law is itself also subject to corruption by original sin. In other words, Niebuhr believes that a "low anthropology" is essential if there is to be an idealistic movement that bears fruit. It is then possible, Niebuhr wrote, "to guard against the corruption of individual self-interest in establishing social institutions even though one does not expect it to be eliminate."

Both the Iraq war and the economic crisis illustrate the power of a Niebuhrian analysis. The developments that led to both are grounded in the myth of a benevolent American empire and American exceptionalism. But in Niebuhr's view it is preposterous to speak of America as "good." He rejected the idea that the United States had a corner on virtue. Democracy is needed, he believed, not because human beings are good enough to make it possible, but "because they are bad enough to make it necessary." And in The Irony of American History, Niebuhr explicitly condemns preventive war. "The idea of a preventive war," he wrote, "sometimes tempts minds, whose primary preoccupation is the military defense of a nation and who think it might be prudent to pick the most propititious moment for the start of what they regard as inevitable hostilities. But the rest of us must resist such ideas with every moral resource."

Niebuhr was a critic of liberal capitalism and its assumption that prosperity will yield justice. He does not believe that the cultivation of self-interest can be "harmless." Such a view fails to appreciate the power of the human drive for power and glory.

Niebuhr did, however, have a deep appreciation of American pragmatism. And finally, his philosophy is founded on the law of love. He calls on us to ask ourselves: "Are we doing this for ourselves?" To ask this question is the simplest way to know whether the law of love is at work in a particular instance. For the law of love only works if people are profoundly aware of self-love (i.e. original sin). All social relations must be "placed under judgment and mercy," to use biblical language.

Can we expect Americans to embrace the real Niebuhr? The prospects are grim. Jimmy Carter was the most Niebuhrian modern president, and the country rejected him.

Niebuhr rejected both faith in progress and despair as fundamentally foolish attitudes. Finstuen concluded: "Without this dance between the law of love and self-love, political, economic, and social relations fall into some form of either idealism -- an ignorance of the full weight of self-love -- or cynicism -- an ignorance of the creativity and 'residual capacity for justice' in humankind. In this way, a Christian approach to political, economic, and social relations isn't about this or that solution to inequality and injustice but rather a willingness to 'bring a full testimony of a gospel of judgment and grace to bear upon all of human life.' In this way, it is possible to 'make contact with the kingdom of God' because 'individuals recognize that judgment and mercy of God are relevant to their collective as well as to their individual actions.'"

In a spirited question-and-answer period following the talk, Andrew Finstuen took questions on how American public culture has changed over time, on Reinhold Niebuhr's relations with Henry Luce and American élites, on Niebuhr's views on the prosperity gospel, on the 1950s as an "age of anxiety," and on Niebuhr's involvement in politics.

Mark Jensen is a member of United for Peace of Pierce County and of the faculty of Pacific Lutheran University.

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Date Added: 4/24/2009 Date Revised: 4/24/2009

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