As Paul Elie observes in his November Atlantic piece, “A Man for All Reasons,” ever since President Bush declared a “war on terror” in 2001, references to the mid-century Protestant American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr have proliferated. Across the ideological spectrum, intellectuals and religious leaders have invoked Niebuhr to support their varying positions on America’s proper response to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the threat of militant Islam. It is a trend, Elie notes, that seems to be intensifying rather than abating; politicians have begun to follow the lead of the pundits, so that “by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono.” After reading Elie’s article, those not yet versed in Niebuhrian thought will find it hard not to notice references to him everywhere.
So who was Niebuhr and why is a theologian who has been dead since 1971 and who published his last major book in 1952 now cited so frequently as a voice of authority? In a sentence: Niebuhr’s religious faith, far from keeping him cloistered in his church, drew him into a lifelong engagement with ideas that shaped politics and global affairs.
Born in Missouri in 1892 to a German evangelical minister, Niebuhr trained to follow in his father’s footsteps from his youth and became pastor at the age of 20. He went on to attend the Yale Divinity School and is today known as one of the preeminent Protestant theologians of the past century. Throughout his adulthood, he participated in a wide range of political activities and produced trenchant written commentary on the events of his time. In the early 1930s, he ran for a state Senate office as a socialist. With the outbreak of World War II, his pacifism gave way to a concerned advocacy for military intervention against Hitler, and he began to push back against the liberal belief in progress purely through reform. His politics continued to evolve following the war. In 1947, together with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., George Kennan, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others, he founded Americans for Democratic Action to take a stand against communism, and later supported America’s nuclear program.