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Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith

Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

This modified version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” may be the most recognizable prayer in America, with the possible exceptions of the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4), the ubiquitous meal blessing “God is great, God is good,” and Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez (2000) based on 1 Chronicles 4:10. Niebuhr is not yet so famous as his simple prescription for serenity (wrongly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in the 1971 film Billy Jack and in Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons, 2000, 143), but Richard Crouter in Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith predicts a resurgent appreciation for Niebuhr in the academy and public square. Indicative is Niebuhr as President Obama’s favorite philosopher (117) and the claiming of Niebuhr’s mantle for various causes across the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Crouter opens his first chapter, “Why Niebuhr in a New Era?” with a quote from E. J. Donne, Jr., expressing longing for “a new Reinhold Niebuhr to inspire a new generation of religious liberals… But it is doubtful that even Niebuhr could be Niebuhr now” (3). Crouter and Donne in their nostalgic wistfulness might reframe William Wordsworth’s ode to John Milton, “London, 1802” in this fashion:

Niebuhr! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
America hath need of thee, often
She forfeited her ancient English Dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again.
Teach us to heroically use our power
Give us manners, virtue, freedom, restraint
Tamed cynic, cheerful godliness your way
May lowly duties on ourselves, too, lay.

For Crouter, Niebuhr’s strength and endurance is demonstrated by his ability to speak and write in aphorisms that have memorable content and style and take a “long view of history” (19-40). This enables Niebuhr to speak beyond his own time. Crouter presents Niebuhr as singularly insightful into the human “ambiguity” of being both noble and sinful (41-58). Crouter portrays Niebuhr as adept at irony (77-95), witty with words (59-76), and able to appraise political policy using principles and terminology of the Christian faith (96-115) in ways that appeal to and stymie religious and secular thinkers alike.

Two upshots of Niebuhr’s broad appeal are that religious interlocutors accuse Niebuhr of stoicism or secularism in Christian garb, while secularists bemoan Niebuhr’s relentless religious rhetoric. Apparently the adage, “if you try to please everybody, you won’t please anybody” does not apply. Niebuhr manages to please and displease, in different ways, almost everyone who reads him. Yet still they read on.

Crouter’s second chapter argues that Niebuhr encourages us to deepen our awareness of how history shapes our lives. This can have a humbling effect on our human pretensions. To borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, “We are in history as fish are in water” (22). Crouter also quotes Cicero, “not to know history is to forever remain a child” (26) not only in the sense of childish ignorance, but in understanding one’s era and context as a small spot on the enormous canvas of history, a spot possessing commonalities but not uniformity with other spots. Niebuhr challenges us to live like the Hebrew Prophets by confronting the “moral obtuseness and hypocrisy” we encounter in our own circumstances (24).

Crouter in chapter three explores Niebuhr’s doctrine of a fallen humanity that is individually and collectively enslaved to hubris. “There is a universal tendency to overestimate one’s virtue, to have a relatively easy conscience and think that I have truly earned or merited all the good things that have ever happened in my life” (47). Yet in self-reflective moments we realize that “our deeds or thoughts differ” from our moral ideals (46). Mindfulness of our limits paradoxically prompts us to strive for something better in the lofty ethic of Jesus, “a permanent reminder of the highest form of love” (51).

Just as the Apostle Paul’s preaching that the cross of Jesus was “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23, KJV), so Niebuhr’s insistence on staring squarely at human sin and its consequences confounds secular utopians and self-righteous patriots who hold a high opinion of themselves or of human nature. Niebuhr also warns us against viewing all institutional and individual sins as being equivalent, or allowing ourselves to fall into fatalistic, passive despair. We as individuals and institutions bear sin’s mark, but some individuals and institutions bear more guilt and carry more responsibility because of their enormous power to do harm or good. Influential institutions require corresponding accountability to ensure necessary reforms. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).

Crouter’s fourth chapter, “Connecting Wit with Words,” highlights examples of Niebuhr’s pithiness, including the “Serenity Prayer” in its original form (74). “In [Niebuhr’s] hands, double-edged sayings are deployed not for their own sake—to be admired as clever—but to illumine the dilemmas of human existence” (61). Pretentious, uninformed people hide behind “lofty, general, and imprecise terms” (75), but Niebuhr’s nuance is noteworthy, since “What seems true at one level is deceptive at another” (66).

Crouter is unabashedly partisan in favor of the Obama administration throughout his book, but this is perhaps most evident in the fifth chapter revisiting Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952). Utilizing Niebuhr, Crouter takes to task alleged excess in American politics and economics, particularly American military dabbling in Iraq. Niebuhr’s own journey from pacifism to active opposition against Nazism and Communism arose, according to Crouter, not just because “America was worthy of being defended, but the morality of the world order was itself under attack” (90). In this way, “Niebuhr himself was the model of a harsh critic and strong defender of America” (92).

Crouter’s sixth and seventh chapters endeavor to answer Niebuhr’s Christian opponents such as Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas, as well as Niebuhr’s secular detractors who assume and promote “a firm division between secularity and religion” (116). Reality simply fails to conform itself to such neat and tidy categories, or in Stephen J. Gould’s phrase, to “non-overlapping magisteria” (cf. 137).

Similarly, Crouter relates Niebuhr’s derision for academic and professional specialists whose “intelligence is exhausted in the field of his [or her] specialization” (119). What we yearn for, avers Crouter, are more thinkers like Niebuhr who can offer “practical guidance, not just more information,” who speak like political analysts “on the world stage,” and speak like pastors to “the troubled hearts of parishioners” (122), who are expansively wise enough to be timeless, and timely enough to apply their wisdom to contemporary events. Crouter concludes that Niebuhr’s cognitive-behavioral approach combines the principle that “the unexamined Christian life would be an utter contradiction” (128) with the ancient integrity of Micah 6:8, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (139).

Crouter provides easily digestible fodder for Niebuhr enthusiasts and would-be aficionados, but not always with tasty flavor. Though Crouter eschews impenetrable jargon, Crouter seems reluctant to write with the lively gusto he extols in Niebuhr. Rather than consistently forming a solid, coherent work as a whole, Crouter’s book occasionally appears to this reviewer as a cobbled collection of several distinct essays whose unifying theme just happens to be Reinhold Niebuhr.

Crouter’s partisan politics (though he does offer one caution to Obama about overly cozy relationships between clergy and politicians—a caution that jangles oddly given Obama’s overt absence from church during the first two years of his term) is risky, carrying with it a potential loss in objectivity. Bashing the Bush administration and lauding Obama is popular in the current intellectual zeitgeist, but it gambles that dissenters will give Crouter a pass. There are hazards to wedding scholarship with partisan politics. One hazard is limiting one’s audience. Would Niebuhr approve?

In spite of these problems, Niebuhr neophytes and experts together owe Crouter applause for enlivening the conversation concerning Niebuhr as a twentieth-century “public in-tellectual” (3, 9) and controversial German-American theologian. Crouter recounts Niebuhr’s significance to past generations, reveals constituencies within the present generation who claim Niebuhr’s mantle, and attempts to establish Niebuhr afresh. In so doing, Crouter not only calls for but contributes to Niebuhr’s enduring relevance.

Cite this article
Benjamin B. DeVan, “Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:4 , 483-485

Benjamin B. DeVan

Emory University
Benjamin B. DeVan teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University