I'm amazed that Reinhold Niebuhr hasn't made a comeback since September 11. After all, he was one of America's most profound writers on war and international conflict. At the start of World War II and then again at the dawn of the Cold War he wrote sweeping books that helped readers to connect their historical situations with broad truths about God and human nature. Yet a Nexis search on Niebuhr turns up only a handful of references to him over the past year. And the few substantive essays that have appeared were written for conservative publications, whereas Niebuhr propounded a hard-nosed liberal view of the world. The situation is depressing: Niebuhr's arguments were big and ambitious, whereas our debates are small and wonky.
Niebuhr grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, and attended Elmhurst College and Yale Divinity School. As a young man he became a pastor at the Bethel Evangelical Church, in Detroit, and was active in the Social Gospel movement, which saw in Christianity a blueprint for progressive and scientific political reform.
Niebuhr soon tired of what he saw as the self-righteous naiveté of the Social Gospel activists. He wrote a series of essays exposing their idealistic pieties and became a spokesman for moral realism, arguing that reform had to be conducted by people who were acutely aware of the limits of human capabilities and the intractability of sin. Niebuhr believed that "man is a sinner in his deepest nature," as the humanities professor Wilfred M. McClay wrote this past February in First Things. "But man was not merely a sinner, but also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God's image ... still able to advance the cause of social improvement."