Last year, Barack Obama cited Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) as one of his favorite philosophers. The choice contrasted with George W. Bush’s famous citation in 2000 of Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher. Citing a deceased theologian with a German name seems sophisticated, and Jimmy Carter likewise often pointed to Niebuhr, and justifiably so. Niebuhr was probably the 20th century’s finest ethicist in the liberal Protestant tradition.
Despite lay fans like Obama and Carter, who are themselves liberal Protestants, Niebuhr is today rarely embraced by the modern Religious Left, which prefers utopianism to Niebuhr’s school of Christian realism. Niebuhr would appreciate the irony, because he himself was once a sort of utopian who shared the pacifism and socialism of Social Gospel enthusiasts after World War I. The rise of Nazism jolted Niebuhr back to the reality of transcendent evil, and he steadfastly endorsed World War II, even while criticizing the Allied bombing of German cities and questioning the atomic attacks on Japan. Later, he supported Western resistance to Soviet communism, though he opposed the Vietnam War almost from its start.
Niebuhr always remained left of center politically, endorsing the New Deal and welfare state, and heartily endorsing civil rights. A Lutheran, he taught for 30 years at Union Seminary in New York, which was then America’s flagship liberal seminary. Today, like most once distinguished liberal seminaries, Union is a shadow of its former influence. But in Niebuhr’s day it hosted some of America’s great theological minds, including Niebuhr’s colleague and close friend, Paul Tillich.
Often described as neo-orthodox, Niebuhr did share that movement’s belief in the power of human sin. But he did not share neo-orthodoxy’s attempt to salvage the supernatural aspects of Christian orthodoxy. Niebuhr did not believe in biblical miracles, a physical resurrection or an afterlife for individuals. He criticized neo-orthodoxy’s main proponent, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, for his adherence to supernatural and extra-rational Christian doctrines. Ironically, at least in the 1950s, he was politically to the right of Barth, and he was chagrined by Barth’s sometimes accommodating stances towards Soviet communism.
Niebuhr’s unrelenting conviction that humanity is sinful, and his denial of transcendent salvation through supernatural intervention, confines him to a rather grim worldview. It also somewhat limits his appeal to orthodox Christians, as a theologian, if not so much as an ethicist. Evangelicals in the mid-20th century did not admire Niebuhr, but evangelicals were then on the periphery of American culture, with liberal Protestants still at the pilot’s wheel. Today, searching for serious political philosophers, some evangelical intellectuals appreciate Niebuhr as superior to most other prominent Protestant ethicists of his era. Despite their ascension to America’s largest religious demographic, evangelicals seemingly still lack moral and political thinkers of Niebuhr’s caliber. Regretfully, evangelical left academics are often filling the void, espousing the pacifism and utopianism that Niebuhr rejected.
Adlai Stevenson, a cerebral Democrat who, like Obama, appealed to intellectuals, admired and befriended Niebuhr. Lyndon Johnson awarded Niebuhr the Medal of Freedom in 1964. But perhaps it was Hubert Humphrey who was the politician to whom Niebuhr was closest. Both helped found Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) as a voice of mainstream, anti-communist liberalism in America. Wittily in his address at ADA’s founding in 1947, Niebuhr obliquely denounced pro-Soviet left-wingers by declaring, “I never believed in my country right or wrong, especially when it wasn’t my country.”
Niebuhr’s anti-communist liberalism was in sync with Humphrey’s until the Vietnam War, which Niebuhr opposed as “fantastic,” even though he understood the nasty outcome of a communist Southeast Asia. He thought U.S. involvement in Asian land wars unwise and unwinnable, though he had tacitly endorsed the Korean intervention. He speculated that Vietnam’s surrender to communism could be accepted if anti-communist Vietnamese relocated to Thailand and were protected with “massive” U.S. military power, as recounted in Richard Wightman Fox’s biography.
Vice President Humphrey was not persuaded, and in 1966 he made his pro-war case at the 25th anniversary dinner of Christianity & Crisis magazine, which Niebuhr had founded to rally support for World War II. The gala was at New York’s famous shrine of progressive Protestantism, Riverside Church, and Niebuhr’s declining health prevented him from attending. So Humphrey visited Niebuhr’s apartment beforehand and discussed Vietnam. Niebuhr’s later described his friend’s adherence to President Johnson’s war policy as “very sad.”
At the dinner, Humphrey stalwartly tried to enlist Niebuhrian realism in his case for Vietnam. “We reaffirm our intention of using military power of almost limitless quantities in measured limited degree,” the Vice President told 400 mostly liberal Protestant listeners. “In Vietnam we have one — and only one — military objective: the halting of forceful conquest of South Vietnam by North Vietnam.”
Tying the Vietnam War to a larger social justice agenda, Humphrey insisted: “We reaffirm our intention to sustain the struggle against the forces of Communist expansion, against the forces of poverty, illiteracy, famine and disease for as long as the cause of freedom requires it.” According to the New York Times, he even bitingly criticized the rising chorus of anti-war protests, observing that among the failings of “the great tradition of social protest in America” were oversimplification, political naiveté and sweeping impatience with “everybody in authority.”
Commenting on the speech, Niebuhr privately regretted that Humphrey had tried “claiming my anti-Nazi stance of the 1930’s with the present war.” And he lamented that his friend was “in a tragic position of outdoing the Machiavelli of the White House, meanwhile losing all his friends.” Despite the Vietnam disagreement, Niebuhr eventually would support him for president in 1968. When approaching death, Niebuhr once rose from his bed upon seeing President Richard Nixon on the television, exclaiming, “That bastard!” Niebuhr evidently never voted for a Republican, though reportedly he was willing to support Nelson Rockefeller, had he won the Republican nomination.
Rejecting Christian orthodoxy, Niebuhr even dismissed much of Christianity’s Just War tradition as untenable. He constructed his own purportedly more realistic rationales for war in defense of justice. His exertions were brilliant, and his proposed worldview was justifiably influential across nearly a half century. Obama and other political liberals who admire Niebuhr could look to far worse. But orthodox Christians of all stripes might begin to look for alternatives who balance Niebuhr’s reasoned pessimism about humanity with equal hopefulness about an active Christian Providence.