Reinhold Niebuhr–Journalist (and Obama’s Theologian)


There’s much chat these days about the late Reinhold Niebuhr being the theologian whose thinking most influences President Barack Obama’s ideas, a suggestion with which the president concurs (hear Krista Tippett’s discussion with journalists David Brooks and E. J. Dionne on the NPR program, “Speaking of Faith”).  In that light, I’ve resurrected a column I wrote 13 years ago.

Reinhold Niebuhr–Journalist

By Allan R. Andrews


First published June 23, 1996, in Pacific  Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Japan.  At that time, Andrews was Managing Editor of the newspaper and a weekly columnist.



Although he started a magazine and wrote for several others, few remember Reinhold Niebuhr as a journalist.

Niebuhr certainly rates as one of the most renowned American theologians of the 20th century.

Because of his German heritage, and probably because of his close association with German thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr is often erroneously thought to have come out of the German theological academy.

He didn’t. He was born June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Mo., and attended the graduate school at Yale University, though he never finished because of boredom and the press of family needs.

(Writer’s note:  It has been called to my attention that Niebuhr did indeed complete BD and M.Div degrees at Yale but left before completing his doctoral program).

Nevertheless, more than any other philosopher or theologian writing in the first three quarters of the 20th century, Niebuhr is a politician’s–and a journalist’s–thinker.

One recent commentator claims Niebuhr is “one of the very few theologians to whom secular and humanist thinkers pay attention.”

Niebuhr, who died in 1971, never thought of himself as a theologian and lacked the usual credentials associated with the ivory tower. He thought of himself as a pastor, and much of his thinking came from his 13-year tenure as minister at Detroit’s Bethel Evangelical Church.

His incisive mind, however, put him on the faculty of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he lectured and wrote for 32 years.

As a thinker, Niebuhr stated his goal was “to establish the relevance of the Christian faith to contemporary problems.”

The magazine that Niebuhr founded to that end, Christianity and Crisis, folded in 1994. It was never a big seller, but it served as a philosophical editorial page, provoking many movers and shakers who read it.

Many think its collapse signaled a failure of liberal theology, but Niebuhr was admired and listened to by conservative thinkers as well. One of the most appreciative studies of Niebuhr was written by the late conservative evangelical philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary, Edward J. Carnell.

Niebuhr’s major writings included two massive studies, one entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man, which is credited with dispelling the notion of the perfectibility of society, an idea that had persisted in liberal American thought through two world wars and continues to exert an influence on American social policy.

The other of his great works, Moral Man and Immoral Society, propounded Niebuhr’s conviction that one gets a clearer picture of what drives a human being not by studying the individual but by studying the groups in which that individual behaves. Groups–including those of organized religion–he thought often were influences of egoism and evil.

I can’t do justice to his thinking here, but several American politicians–knowingly or not– have built their philosophy of society and humanity out of exposure to Niebuhr’s thinking.

My appreciation of Niebuhr is more pedestrian and takes some extrapolation.

Just a year after Niebuhr left the church in Detroit, he published a little book of journal entries from his years in Michigan. The book was released in 1929 under the title Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.

Journalists frequently are accused of cynicism. Rather than deny such a label, I find comfort in Niebuhr’s notion of a “tamed cynic.”

In this book, Niebuhr addressed the church, but as I reread it last year it struck me he could just as easily have been talking to journalism.

Was Niebuhr thinking of columnists when he wrote of his preaching task, “I don’t know whether I can ever accustom myself to the task of bringing light and inspiration in regular weekly installments”?

Aren’t journalists as well as preachers taken to task with these words: “all these momentary simplifications of the complexities of life cannot be finally satisfying, because they do violence to life”?

If Niebuhr didn’t intend it when he wrote, I certainly thought of Washington, D.C., and other centers of power when I read: “I have to work in the twilight zone where superstition is inextricably mixed up with something that is–well, not superstition.”

“America worships success,” he wrote. “And the only kind of success the average man can understand is obvious success.”

We journalists major in reporting obvious success; it’s the not-so-obvious ones we miss.

A 1994 book listed 25 stories that journalism underplayed in the past decade. It includes the issues of labor law violations and environmental pollution and several political issues that were never tracked during presidential campaigns.

The Center for Diseases Control consistently argues that journalists should stop playing up bizarre medical stories such as cannibalistic bacteria and devote more time and energy to the less sensational, more boring but more important stories of medical research related to cancer or AIDS. Had he been a journalist, Niebuhr would have followed and investigated those kinds of stories.

Also in 1994, in an article entitled “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Evening News,” a Wisconsin Presbyterian minister, Randall K. Bush, wrote: “Given the changing complexities of the world, a voice like Niebuhr’s would be most welcome today–one able to speak with discernment about the state of affairs around us.”

What could be a better goal for journalists and commentators than this: to speak with discernment about the state of affairs around us?

Bush is convinced that Niebuhr’s relevance is related to his understanding of “the religious dimension inherent in all history.”

Far from being a cynic, Niebuhr is a pragmatic idealist. He wrote: “Without the ultrarational hopes and passions of religion no society will ever have the courage to conquer despair.”

Amid any despair related to economic stagnation, racial or ethnic hatred and random violence in the streets, America would do well to attend still to this “tamed cynic” whose birth anniversary passed last week 

(ed. note:  Niebuhr was born on June 21, 1892, and died on June 1, 1971).


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