Reinhold Niebuhr
Reinhold Niebuhr; drawing by David Levine

Reinhold Niebuhr, who died only fifteen years ago, is little known among the rising generation of young intellectuals. Despite the renewed interest in religion at American colleges and universities, it is difficult today to imagine a charismatic Protestant preacher electrifying students and faculty on all the major campuses, influencing statesmen and reformers, and commanding respect, even among agnostics and non-Christians, as one of the leading intellects and social critics of the century. At a time when American culture is ominously divided between fundamentalists and secular humanists, it is difficult to recapture Niebuhr’s remarkable presence from the 1930s to the 1960s, decades that were supposedly dominated by science and secularization. How can one explain Niebuhr’s close ties with such figures as Felix Frankfurter, W.H. Auden, Lewis Mumford, Lionel Trilling, Perry Miller, Hubert Humphrey, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.? Did Niebuhr, who could admire the antics of an evangelist like Billy Sunday and yet disavow supernaturalism and any belief in personal immortality, leave us clues for narrowing the cultural rift in our country as we hurtle on to the twenty-first century?

Niebuhr’s father was a German immigrant, a minister of the German Evangelical Synod in Illinois. Like his father, Niebuhr prepared for the ministry at Eden Theological Seminary, but then went on to study at Yale Divinity School, where he struggled to free himself from his provincial German-American heritage. In 1915, when he was twenty-three, he became pastor of a congregation in suburban Detroit. There he acquired increasing prominence as a dynamic preacher and social critic, attacking the moral complacency of the 1920s, the labor policies of the Ford Motor Company, and the racism of the Ku Klux Klan. Niebuhr first became involved in politics when the mayor of Detroit appointed him chairman of an interracial committee to study the living conditions of the city’s black population. By 1928, when Niebuhr accepted an associate professorship at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, he was already a socialist and a leading spokesman for left-wing Protestants. As Niebuhr continued to search for an effective Christian approach to the national and international crises of the 1930s, he confirmed his position as a brilliant expounder and interpreter of the American jeremiad.

The American jeremiad, as Sacvan Bercovitch has defined it, is “a mode of public exhortation…designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal.”1 This kind of preaching, largely derived from the Old Testament prophets, originated in Europe but was transformed by the New England Puritans to meet the ideological needs of a people commissioned by God to build a new Jerusalem in the wilderness. As Bercovitch demonstrates, the jeremiad sermon became a vehicle for denouncing the sins of the day while reaffirming America’s historical mission. The abominations of a backsliding generation, which deserved God’s severest chastisement, provided the occasion for lamentation, repentance, and renewal of purpose. The worse the crisis, the greater the assurance that Americans could withstand any trial and fulfill their “errand into the wilderness.”

The jeremiad rhetoric could sustain the myth of America’s special mission only by addressing specific sins and such afflictions as King Philip’s War, the revocation of the Massachusetts charter, and the conspiracies of papists and savages. Judgment of the society from a transcendent point outside history served to validate or even sanctify the direction of historical change.

Niebuhr himself became an astute critic of the ways in which the Puritans’ vision of “new heavens and a new earth” became secularized and nationalized. By the time of the American Revolution, to use Niebuhr’s example, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, could preach a sermon on ” ‘The United States elevated to glory and honor’ in which he defined the nation as ‘God’s American Israel.’ “2 On the surface it might appear that Niebuhr offered the long-sought antidote to traditional pretensions of American exceptionalism and national mission. He repeatedly attacked every attempt to claim divine sanction for America’s goals and struggles. According to Niebuhr, every nation in history has committed the fatal sin of confusing its own partial and finite interests with the objective of God or some immanent divine force. The Hebrew prophet Amos, whom Niebuhr took as a model, showed that “Israel’s special mission gives it no special security in history. On the contrary it is the assumption that it has a special security and can count upon a special divine favor, which represents the corruption of pride which must be punished.”3

But as this passage suggests, Niebuhr did not deny the possibility of a nation’s historical mission; he simply denied that any nation could expect favored treatment in history or equate its own finite interests with “the destiny of man.” Niebuhr found the “natural” ground for revelation in man’s capacity to transcend himself sufficiently “to know that he cannot be the center of his own existence and that his nation, culture or civilization cannot be the end of history.”4 But Niebuhr qualified this insistence on God’s inscrutability and otherness when he affirmed his faith in the possibilities of unrestricted moral progress in history. When traveling in Germany in 1930 he sadly concluded that the followers of Karl Barth looked for salvation “above the area of history” because they lived in an “old nation” that had suffered repeated defeats. In effect, he purged the jeremiad of “false optimism” and “liberal illusions”; but the very fervor and urgency of his prophetic judgments reinvigorated the idea of American possibilities.


The key to Niebuhr’s influence was his ability to modernize the jeremiad during the decades when a growing number of college-educated intellectuals were acquiring new power in government, the press, the universities, and religious establishments. Beginning in the 1920s, when there was increasing cynicism over the political idealism exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and the industrial paternalism exemplified by Henry Ford, Niebuhr showed how tough-minded realism could expose the hollowness of official pieties without sacrificing a belief in man’s limited but godlike capacity for self-transcendence. If we look at Niebuhr’s many jeremiads between 1925 and 1965, we find that he exuberantly denounced the “moral pretensions” of Henry Ford, the “paganism of pleasure” of southern California, the self-indulgence of America’s consumer culture, the sentimentalism of pacifists, the arrogance of modern science, and the “strategy of hate” of the Communists.

No Puritan minister surpassed Niebuhr in devising a comprehensive taxonomy of sin, which for Niebuhr was occasioned, though not caused, by man’s existential “situation” of finiteness and freedom. If sin was inevitable, it was always the result of human choice and took different forms in different societies. Greed, for example, had become “the besetting sin of a bourgeois culture”; Americans had also been prone to the spiritual pride fostered by illusions of innocence, virtue, and omnipotence. While Niebuhr’s thought moved through radical and conservative phases, he always sought to tame, chasten, and purify the American liberal tradition. This effort to recover an authentic American mission appealed to Henry Luce and Whittaker Chambers as well as to Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen.

Richard Wightman Fox encountered both the liberal and conservative legacies of Niebuhr’s thought in the mid-1960s when he was an undergraduate at Stanford and took courses from two “devoted Niebuhrians,” Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak.5 Niebuhr’s delight in irony and paradox left an enduring imprint on postwar historians who were rejecting the “progressive” approach to American history. Radical historians of Fox’s generation have a special need to recover “the historical Reinhold,” as Fox puts it. The dogma that “sin corrupts the highest as well as the lowest achievements of human life” may be both jarring and instructive for some of them. Niebuhr himself remained an inveterate reformer and an outspoken critic of social injustice. But his theology also sanctioned an acceptance of evil, and it could have a chilling effect on hopes for human betterment. Moreover, Fox points out the limitations of Niebuhr’s social and political criticism, which created the illusion of fearless inquiry and openmindedness. Yet Niebuhr helped to forge the ideological armor that in effect shielded the prevailing official premises in America at the beginning of the cold war from criticism.

Fox finds Niebuhrian irony in some of Niebuhr’s own responses to events. After the bombing of Hiroshima, Niebuhr signed with twenty-two other theologians a statement that “we have sinned grievously against the law of God and against the people of Japan.” But in a letter to James B. Conant, Niebuhr wrote that “the eventual use of the bomb for the shortening of the war would have been justified. I myself consistently took the position that failing in achieving a Japanese surrender, the bomb would have had to be used to save the lives of thousands of American soldiers who would otherwise have perished on the beaches of Japan.” According to Fox, Niebuhr “took for granted that only unconditional surrender was acceptable. That perceived necessity made the bomb the weapon of choice. It was the quintessential revelation of ‘how much evil we must do in order to do good,’ of how much guilt accrues even to those who have ‘defeated tyranny.’ ” Still, he also wrote in a magazine article about the “moral advantage” the United States would have gained by first demonstrating the power of the bomb “without the wholesale loss of life.”

Niebuhr endorsed the execution of the Rosenbergs, but later said, Fox writes, that it was a “moral” as well as a “political” mistake. During the McCarthy years, he was, Fox concludes,

caught up in a web of contradictions, unaware of his own part in creating the atmosphere of suspicion that he bemoaned. Ironies proliferated: while one organ of the federal government ran his alarmist message on the Communist threat, another held up his wife’s citizenship because of the heightened fear of subversion.

Fox’s biography comes as close to being comprehensive as we are likely to see in an imperfect, Niebuhrian world. Based on meticulous research which includes numerous interviews and a declassified FBI file, the book is written with a verve, grace, and depth of understanding worthy of its subject. Fox is remarkably successful in fusing criticism with sympathetic appreciation and in relating Niebuhr’s evolving thought to his public career and private self-scrutiny. He also recaptures Niebuhr’s frenetic pace of life as he churned out articles and criss-crossed the country, lecturing with a packed suitcase beside the podium. Anyone who heard Niebuhr speak will confirm the accuracy of Fox’s descriptions:


One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: one watched him strut, gyrate, jerk, bend, and quake. He whirled his arms, rubbed his ears and his balding scalp, stretched his hawkish nose forward. His whole lanky frame was in motion. One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: to catch the stream-of-consciousness flow of analysis and anecdote—sometimes shouted, sometimes whispered, but always at the velocity of an undammed flood—demanded a concentration that few could sustain during an entire sermon.

Fox is fully aware that Niebuhr was addressing from two perspectives the most critical issues of his time. Believing that man cannot escape from history or social responsibility, he became an ardent advocate of causes: he wanted to make capitalism democratic, to fight racism and anti-Semitism, to support the Allies’ struggle against Nazi Germany. He demanded the admission of Jewish refugees to the United States, defended Israel, wanted to protect Western Europe from communism, and opposed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Fox shows how Niebuhr’s response to such issues illuminated the intellectual history of an entire era.

But for Niebuhr the most urgent political needs could never be separated from timeless questions of freedom, guilt, divine judgment, and the meaning of history. It is extremely difficult to describe the dialectical tension Niebuhr discovered between immediate political crises and the crisis we all face when we confront eternity. Fox presents a masterly account of the continuities and disjunctions in Niebuhr’s thought. He is less successful in conveying the power and profundity of Niebuhr’s best work, especially The Nature and Destiny of Man published in 1941 and 1943. Fox devotes more space to the criticisms of Robert Calhoun, a Yale theologian, than to Niebuhr’s trenchant analysis of man’s attempt to overcome his inherent insecurity by a will-to-power or an escape from freedom. It is less important that Niebuhr presented a mistaken and oversimplified view of the Renaissance than that he made a convincing case for the doctrine of original sin and suggested a way to conceive life’s relation to eternity without retreating into mysticism or a belief in supernatural salvation.

But Niebuhr himself would have to admire Fox’s use of a Niebuhrian method to expose Niebuhr’s own internal conflict between the roles of celebrity and prophet. “Reinie,” as his friends knew him, always hungered for influence and acceptance as a 100 percent American. Even before the United States entered the First World War, he was proud to repudiate his own past by writing an article for The Atlantic called “The Failure of German-Americanism.” He courted the honors he received, which included a Medal of Freedom bestowed by President Johnson. He gladly denounced communism for Life and Look and was not averse to appearing on the cover of Time’s twenty-fifth anniversary issue. Late in life he confessed, “I am scared by my own lack of patriotism,” when he took satisfaction in America’s embarrassments in the “fantastic war” in Vietnam.

Niebuhr was also painfully conscious of the dangers of playing pundit. As Fox points out, his insights into the sin of pride and its many disguises arose from his own internal struggles. At Yale Divinity School, where he felt like “a mongrel among thoroughbreds,” Niebuhr found little satisfaction in scholarship. He was too restless and impatient to become a scholar or systematic theologian, although he taught for decades at Union Theological Seminary and declined prestigious chairs at Harvard and Yale. Niebuhr was sensitive both to the inadequacies of his historical knowledge and to the ego-inflating hazards of his public role. He knew very well that he never achieved the humility and independence for which he yearned, and it was this inner tension that made him such a powerful figure.

Fox seems especially drawn to the militant Niebuhr of the early 1930s. In a brilliant paragraph he imagines how the author of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) would have reviewed The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944). The younger Niebuhr, a prominent figure in the Socialist party and the leading spokesman of radical Christianity, “would have scoffed [at the latter book’s] confidence in justice through adjustment, its belief that the debates of the ‘open society’ operated equally in the interests of all.” Fox admits that such objections could probably have been met “by a skilled New Deal apologist,” but finds it especially troubling that the older Niebuhr felt no need to consider that

even a democratic society of apparently total openness operated ideologically: its respected intellectuals as well as its ordinary citizens ignored or dismissed potential challenges to its preferred self-images. As the younger Niebuhr had insisted, reason was always the servant of interest in a social situation.

At the depth of the Depression the younger Niebuhr scorned the sentimentality of reformers who relied on the power of reason, ideals, or goodwill. In the name of Protestantism, as Fox puts it, he totally repudiated “the historic liberal Protestant quest for the Kingdom of God.” Writing in Harper’s in 1932, Niebuhr predicted that “it will be practically impossible to secure social change in America without the use of very considerable violence.” The next year he called himself a “Marxian.”

At that very moment, however, Reinhold seems to have been chastened by the criticisms of his younger brother, Helmut Richard Niebuhr, who had become a professor at Yale Divinity School. Although Richard later destroyed all his correspondence, Fox has found sufficient evidence to suggest that Reinhold was vulnerable to his brother’s remonstrance that Moral Man was still “too romantic” about human nature and the promise of controlling historical change. Prodded by Richard’s perceptive criticisms and by a fear that he had nearly forsaken his father’s biblical heritage, Niebuhr’s interest gravitated toward theology and the goal of finding a Christian alternative to the illusory hopes of communism. At the 1937 Oxford Conference on Church, Community, and State, a gathering of over four hundred delegates from forty countries, Niebuhr set the dominant tone by attributing the world crisis to original sin—a doctrine he redefined in psychological terms and expounded two years later in his famous Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh later published as The Nature and Destiny of Man.

Niebuhr gave comfort to conservatives; he has even been hailed as the father of neoconservatives. Yet as Fox convincingly demonstrates, he remained a liberal activist. He rejected, to be sure, many of the components of the traditional liberal creed, such as the belief that social evils are wholly the result of ignorance and environmental circumstances and the faith that human goodness, guided by scientific reason, can create a just and fraternal world. Yet for Niebuhr the very contingencies and uncertainties of history were a spur to social and political action. The “children of light” could not assume that capitalism would become more just, that communism would become more democratic, or that Nazism would be defeated. Niebuhr’s “tragic view of life” opened the way for a pragmatic use of power to contain evil and achieve proximate justice.

Fox devotes considerable attention to Niebuhr’s involvement in public affairs from the formation of the Union for Democratic Action in 1941 to his government-sponsored tour of Germany in 1946 and his meetings with George Kennan’s Policy Planning Staff in 1949. It appears that some historians have greatly exaggerated Niebuhr’s influence on foreign policy, in part because Kennan was reported to have referred to him as “the father of us all.” In 1980 Kennan could not recall having made such a remark, and, according to Fox, Kennan thought that Niebuhr’s political judgments and foreign-policy views were “unexceptional.” Kennan was attracted by Niebuhr’s philosophical perspective and Niebuhr praised Kennan’s book, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950, for its “rigorous and searching criticism of the weaknesses in our foreign policy.” Yet Niebuhr also felt that Kennan’s exclusive emphasis on national self-interest “is not the proper cure for an abstract and pretentious idealism.”6

If the State Department disregarded Niebuhr’s warnings against national egotism, numerous government officials invoked his name to justify a “realistic” approach to global issues, especially in the Kennedy administration. McGeorge Bundy referred to him as “probably the most influential single mind in the development of American attitudes which combine moral purpose with a sense of political reality.” As Fox sums up this influence on the Kennedy circle: “He helped them maintain faith in themselves as political actors in a troubled—what he termed a sinful—world. Stakes were high, enemies were wily, responsibility meant taking risks: Niebuhr taught that moral men had to play hardball.”

Although Niebuhr was an ardent Anglophile, he was primarily concerned with the place and responsibilities of America in an unpredictable world. In the mid-twentieth century America had become “a vivid symbol of the spiritual perplexities of modern man” precisely because America exemplified the most promising and most dangerous tendencies of industrial civilization. American power generated the “illusions to which a technocratic culture is already too prone”—especially the tendency to equate “the mastery of nature with the mastery of historical destiny.”7 Yet of all political systems, only democracy could do justice to man’s paradoxical nature. Only America could protect the world from the tyranny and misguided messianism of the communists. In making such judgments Niebuhr knew that he risked the “subtler form of egoistic corruption” that infected even “the highest forms of Christian prophetism.”8 But that admission revealed the subtlety of his reformed jeremiad.

In 1970, after Niebuhr had suffered for eighteen years from the effects of a debilitating stroke, the old prophet, Fox tells us, fumed as he watched the evening news and contemplated the extension of the Vietnam War. When Richard Nixon appeared on the screen, Niebuhr “pushed himself up off the mattress and spat out the words, ‘That bastard!…’God told us to love our enemies, not to like them,’ he would say. Having no enemies meant that one lacked strong convictions. It was one more of the human paradoxes in which he always delighted.”

This Issue

February 13, 1986