Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

Reinhold Niebuhr: the theologian politicians read

The late Protestant theologian and political operative Reinhold Niebuhr. RNS file photo

When he was an undergraduate at William and Mary College, former FBI Director James Comey wrote his senior thesis, “The Christian in Politics,” on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Comey has said since that the Niebuhr’s thought continues to influence him. Similar tributes to Niebuhr have come from Jimmy Carter, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

That Niebuhr still gets mentioned by public leaders is not surprising. He was immensely influential in public life himself, engaging actively in both state (New York) and national politics.  He even had a direct line to the White House during the Kennedy years.  During that period, his writings were popular with folks who were not particularly religious: the journalist Walter Lippman, for example, and the diplomat Dean Acheson. Indeed, the designation of Niebuhr as “the Twentieth Century’s greatest theologian,” actually came from the Harvard political historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who was not known for any sort of religious commitments.

Fuller Seminary recently screened Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary, “American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.” Those of us who have admired Doblmeier’s highly acclaimed 2003 film on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian martyred in Hitler’s Germany, came with high expectations. We were not disappointed. The Niebuhr documentary is splendid. And we got to see it, not only with Doblmeier present to discuss it, but also with Hal Holbrook in the audience—he is Niebuhr’s voice in the film.

A number of present day theologians make their appearance in Doblmeier’s documentary, providing insightful commentary on Niebuhr’s life and thought. For me, it was like taking a refresher course on Niebuhr. His influence in the theological guild persists, but more often these days his name comes up in testimonies from the like of Comey and Obama.

One could argue that having an influence on public leaders more than on his theological colleagues was an intentional strategy on Niebuhr’s part. Martin Marty has pointed out that while Niebuhr never completely abandoned his role as a church-based theologian, he gradually became much more focused on the discussions of religion and public life that took place beyond the borders of the church community. This explains why, Marty observes, when Niebuhr was asked to name the greatest theologian in American history, his choice was Abraham Lincoln.

Not everyone in the scholarly community looked with favor on Niebuhr’s influence in the broad public arena. In my own evangelical world, Niebuhr’s “secular” reception has often been seen as a sign that he had undercut the essential supernatural grounding for theology. But the criticisms came from other quarters as well, as captured succinctly in a Harvard philosopher’s derisive reference to Niebuhr’s non-Christian admirers as “atheists for Niebuhr.”

I pretty much side with Niebuhr in all of this — at least in the kind of thing he was doing. I don’t know if Abraham Lincoln deserves to be ranked higher than, say, Jonathan Edwards in the pantheon of American theologians, but Lincoln did use theological categories to speak effectively to the nation’s soul in times of crisis.  Lincoln’s views about our relationship to God may have been more deistic than traditionally Christian, but he certainly was right to talk about the need for both North and South to repent of the evils of racial injustice and warfare, and to urge prayers for a binding up of the nation’s moral and spiritual wounds. And my own assessment is that Barack Obama’s singing “Amazing Grace” at the Charleston memorial service was a marvelous act of presidential leadership.

The United States is not a theocracy. The role of religion in public life is a matter for ongoing discussion. Niebuhr understood that, and was willing to take some risks in thinking theologically alongside people of no particular religious convictions who nonetheless cared deeply about what many of us think of as the spiritual health of our collective lives as citizens.

The issues that Reinhold Niebuhr dedicated his career to exploring have not become less important in the public arena. For that reason, I would take it as a sign of hope if the present occupant of the White House announced that he had watched Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary and found Niebuhr to be “a really great guy — a terrific guy.” Trumpians for Niebuhr, anyone?

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.


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  • What has Reinhold Niebuhr to say about the public suppression of Christianity and the promotion of Islam in the marketplace?

    Christian prayer is banned in the public schools but Islam prayer is given the time and space to be said? What has Niebuhr to say to that?

    There’s a campaign to take down the cross on Mt. Soledad in California, but what about the loud public address Muslim call-to-prayer in Michigan? What has Niebuhr to say to that?

  • You’re in the big league now, brother Richard Mouw, with brother Reinhold Niebuhr in the lead, and have been so for some time. Is it worth it, though? For what comes with having Niebuhr-styled “discussions of religion and public life that took place beyond the borders of the church community”? What’s the price of “willing (like he did) to take some risks in thinking theologically alongside people of no particular religious convictions who nonetheless cared deeply about what many of us think of as the spiritual health of our collective lives as citizens”?

    The price is temptation. I don’t know how far along you are in the following instances, but you’ll definitely be tempted to:

    (1) Support American efforts to confront Russia, develop nuclear weapons, and globalize interventionism and power politics – like Niebuhr did!

    (2) Master the dark arts of pragmatism – like Niebuhr did!

    (3) Adopt a conservative position on segregation, and doubt that racial equality for Blacks is attainable – like Niebuhr did!

    (4) Support Zionism, advocate the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine, and forbid Christians from evangelizing Jews – like Niebuhr did!

    (5) See God as just an unavoidable aspect of your consciousness and domestication embedded in a naturalistic view of the world – like Niebuhr did!

    (6) Theologize God in order to talk about people instead of God, and strip Christology off the ethics of Jesus – like Niebuhr did!

  • Good piece, thank you for it. Taking nothing away from the man, I will always appreciate the work and witness of his brother H. Richard ever the more. I had not known that Lincoln was R. Niebuhr’s pick for greatest American theologian; that’s a thought-provoking choice, and I for one can think of no one better. “Trumpians for Niebuhr, anyone?” — a hope against hope. Small correction: It’s Walter Lippmann, not Lippman.

  • Prayer is not banned in public schools. Official sectarian prayer is, and that’s a good thing.

  • Members of my high school swim team routinely pray before swim meets. Student-led, student-organized prayer is very much alive in American high schools. It’s pure nonsense to say otherwise. School teachers can bow their heads and even say “amen” to a student prayer, but cannot have any role in leading the prayer due to the “establishment clause.”

  • Mouw’s attempt to co-opt Trumpians for a consideration, if not an embrace, of Neibuhr fails and is grossly ignorant, if not deliberately deceptive, about Neibuhrian theology. The primary vested interest that Trumpians are about is *Production*, as against other groups primarily with an interest is in *Redistribution*. The reason is simple: over the last 10 years (2007 to 2016) the economy (GDP) has coincidentally grown at the very same rate as during the Depression Era 1930’s: 1.33%. The only thing that has made a difference is the massive political papering over of economic stagnation with debt: Federal deficits, consumer credit, college loan credit, auto loan credit, mortgage credit (and “meltdowns”) and gargantuan looming deficit obligations of state pension systems. The *haves* are those collecting the interest on that debt and conversely the *have nots* are those paying that interest.

    In 1933, Neibuhr wrote “After Capitalism, What?” unequivocally stating that Capitalism had failed “to support the necessities of an industrial system that requires production for its maintenance” and “it ought to die”. Neibuhr was a proponent of the *Social Gospel* not the *Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” of those who were the progenitors of Fuller Seminary (not the *fuller* [small “f”] Seminary of today that has embraced a therapeutic gospel and replacement of its school of missions with its *School of Intercultural Studies* that promises a *fuller”, more inclusive, more therapeutic Evangelical Christianity, of which Mouw has been its torch bearer). Trump is a throwback to the day when “the business of America is business” (Calvin Coolidge – see the book “The American Business Creed” by Francis Sutton, et. al., – 1956, probably not in the Fuller library today). Seminaries like Fuller try to shift the appeal of Christianity to those in the “non-material” sector of the economy (e.g., the *Knowledge Class* with its educators, media communicators, therapists, change agents, multicutural experts, and social workers). Thus, Fuller Seminary has resigned itself to functioning as the chaplaincy for those in the Knowledge Class who are Evangelicals rather than transcending the two middle classes that now comprise America: the New Knowledge Class and the Old Business Class.

    The problem with Fuller’s paradigm shift is that it is out of touch with the economic reality described above and the decimation of the Working Class, to which it wants to throw the bare bone of Reinhold Neibuhr’s redistributionism, rather than the meat of Trump’s mission to grow the economy. Don’t expect many Trumpians to fall for being co-opted by the Neibuhrian social gospel. Where Neibuhr has some *relevancy* to the Trumpian movement is Trump’s embrace of Neibuhr-like Realism in foreign policy and other policy areas (energy, education, trade, etc.). Trump comes from the theological tradition of the Positive Protestant Gospel” (Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking), which is the exact opposite of the social gospel.

    If I were Fuller Seminary I might consider asking Betsy DeVos or Ben Carson on campus, rather than lectures by sociologist Alan Wolfe who is inimical to Trumpian Evangelical Religion, or trying to convert Trumpians to Neibuhr’s social gospel. But, of course, that is what the Evangelical Left does: it tries to evangelize the Trumpians to a social gospel rather than listen to what the Trumpians are about. Neibuhr said Capitalism “ought to die”, but it is the fatal embrace of debt that is morally and spiritually bankrupting and posing a death threat to the nation and its “Civil Evangelicalism”, not Trump per se (witness the demographic rise of the religious “nones”).

    The Evangelical Left is not “Progressive” – they are living in a bygone era of affluency that has been propped up by debt and yearn for returning to the “Neibuhrian” social gospel days. If the left want “progressivism” they need to become aware of the larger economic reality facing the nation and Christianity in the future. A future of redistributionism with opioids and pot outlets is not “civil” or “evangelical”. Maybe the Evangelical Left will come out of their hypnotized trance with Progressivism and realize that reality. A therapeutic and redistributionist theology will just perpetuate the growth of the cancer.

  • You’re a little behind on the news. The Mount Soledad cross was on public land. Now that the land has been sold to a private owner, the controversy is moot and the case has been dismissed. Muslim calls to prayer are coming from “public address” systems at mosques. They are not performed from or by any public space. They are no more constitutionally problematic than church bells.

  • The author of the piece seems more interested in ranking the “pantheon” of theologians and trying too hard to be a part of the “guild” he so clearly wants to emulate. You’re not a secular champion, however, rather an idolator who hasn’t realised he’s an idolator yet. Desire for power and recognition etc will do that to you. 🙂

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