On PBS this past year, director Martin Doblmeier released an hour-long film on the life of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). An American Conscience, by Jeremy Sabella, is a companion to the documentary which elaborates on the thought of the movie’s subject. Niebuhr’s life is presented in five compact chapters focused on his activism and writings. Sabella begins with a description of the subject’s time as a young pastor in inner-city Detroit where he united alongside the Catholic and Black community against the Ku Klux Klan. He also challenged business mogul, Henry Ford, in the treatment of his workers. Such activities garnered attention for Niebuhr as an ethicist.
Tireless in his work, the young pastor soon discovered the failings of the Social Gospel in which he had be trained. This led to the writing of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) in which Niebuhr advocated that the ‘moral man had to be willing to engage immoral society on society’s own power-driven terms’ (p. 26). This book led to Niebuhr’s national fame and eventual appointment to Union Theological Seminary. While in New York, Niebuhr discovered his theological voice under the influences of his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, and fellow theologian, Paul Tillich. In the 1930s, Niebuhr began to propose his ideas of Christian realism.
Sabella summarizes the concept: “In contrast to ultrarealism, Christian realism asserts that we most effectively mitigate the destructive elements in our politics, not through the relentless pursuit of self-interest, but moving beyond self-interest through pursuing the theologically rich ideals of faith, hope and love” (p. 63). Niebuhr presented this this pursuit of ideals as a work to be done not individually, but corporately by society as a whole. The resultant positive mass can affect the evil mechanisms within the world. Therefore, institutions must be changed, not just individuals.
In some ways, this understanding built on his previous work where moral man now had a platform to fight immoral man on his own terms. The collective good striving for ideals such as love can make a difference. This led Niebuhr to engage in politics throughout the Second World War and the post-war recovery. He had massive influence upon political thinkers of the day. Roosevelt asked him to serve on various committees. MacArthur had the theologian’s works translated into Japanese for the rebuilding effort in Japan. The theologian even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Niebuhr remained active until his stroke in 1952. After that event, he was only able to influence through his pen. He became lifelong friends with Rabbi Abraham Heschel and the Jesuit priest, John Courtney Murray. Sabella uses such relationships to prove Niebuhr as a religious pluralist as he sought the universal good for Christian realism. Yet, Niebuhr also openly criticized the young Billy Graham for focusing too narrowly on the conversion of individuals and not the conversion of institutions.
The last chapter of the book discusses the long-term impact of Niebuhr into the present. Making use of the documentary interviews of such well-known personalities as Cornell West, David Brooks, and former president Jimmy Carter, Sabella makes the case that Niebuhr’s influence long exceeded his lifetime.
Sabella’s work on Reinhold Niebuhr is both fair and accurate. The book is well-written and accessible even for the novice on the subject and time period. Sabella presents his figure in a positive light. There is some negative criticism towards the man—that he was not engaged enough during the civil rights movement, nor did he champion gender related causes. Such criticisms appear more anachronistic than legitimate. If there is any flaw to the volume, it is that his subject’s theology is not critiqued. The closest comment is a quote from Stanley Hauerwas’s interview where he states that he thoroughly disagreed with Niebuhr. No further information is provided as to how he disagreed. Niebuhr began with a weak foundation in theology—particularly in the area of the sufficiency of scripture. He also was light on the depravity of man, and because of this, he could contradict himself in the battles he fought against injustice. Alas, such was not the scope of Sabella’s presentation. Still, the clever reader can ascertain where Niebuhr had his weaknesses. Sabella accurately depicts the formidable influence Niebuhr held during the two decades of his active academic career. He demonstrates well the effect Reinhold Niebuhr had upon the American conscience.