In our latest profile episode, we provide an overview of the life of pastor & public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, who was something we rarely see today - a clergyman who became an important figure on the political Left. Niebuhr led a Protestant church in Detroit, Michigan during the 1910s & 1920s. From his pulpit, he spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and in favor of organized labor. During the 1940s & 1950s, Niebuhr moved away from pacifism & socialism and became a more mainstream Cold War liberal. He became one of the founders of the anti-Communist ADA organization and wrote books expressing a "Christian realist" view of foreign policy. With the arrival of the turbulent 1960s, Niebuhr reconsidered his support for US Cold War policies overseas; he spoke out in favor of the civil rights movement & against the Vietnam War until his death in 1971. In recent years, his writings have drawn a diverse group of admirers that include Barack Obama & James Comey.Support the show
“From Boomers to Millennials” is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at the Cold War Era. Welcome to Episode 17D, also known as “Reinhold Niebuhr: 10 Minute Profile.” By now, you’re probably wondering if we are ever going to get to Episode 18, or if we will continue doing these 10-minute profile episodes clear until we reach Episode 17Z. Well, have no fear, we have been finishing up the script for a new full-length episode, and by January 2023, we will finally release that next full-length episode that will round out our overview of the year 1961.
In this episode we will examine the life of 20th Century theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr. Each of our 10-minute profiles start out with the question, what makes this person interesting & significant? In the case of Niebuhr, he represents a religious figure who achieved a level of national prominence & highbrow respectability that members of the clergy rarely have in the 21st Century Western world. This is not to say that religious figures do not sometimes remain influential in the USA, but the rare clergy members who obtain fame are usually populist outsiders rather than mainstream intellectuals in today’s world. Niebuhr, on the other hand, was much more of a philosopher; he was not a mere popular evangelist in the mold of his mid-20th Century contemporary Billy Graham, who we discussed back in Episode 6. Although Niebuhr had his own interpretation of Protestant religious beliefs, we want listeners to know up front that this episode will be focusing upon Niebuhr’s more secular philosophical views & his political activism, not on his role in various religious & theological debates.
Niebuhr was born during 1892, to immigrant parents from (you guessed it) Germany. Reinhold’s father Gustav Niebuhr was a Protestant pastor in Wright City, Missouri, a small town west of St. Louis. Young Reinhold decided to follow Gustav into the family vocation and pursue the ministry. After moving north and earning his bachelor’s degree from a small undergraduate college in Illinois, Reinhold Niebuhr then enrolled in Yale Divinity School, where he earned a graduate degree in theology. He credited his experience at Yale with expanding his horizons beyond his small-town Midwestern upbringing.
Niebuhr then found a job as a pastor in the booming industrial metropolis of Detroit, Michigan during the year 1915. By the Twenties, newcomers who were Black, Catholic, Jewish, or Eastern Orthodox were flooding into Michigan to work in the automobile factories. Many native-born white Protestants feared these changing demographics would cause them to lose their political & cultural power, & they lashed out by joining xenophobic secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan (for a brief history of the Klan, see Episode 11). Niebuhr warned his fellow Protestants against these hateful groups, calling the Klan (quote) “one of the worse social phenomena which the religious pride of a people has ever developed” (close quote). Many of his congregants worked for the automakers, and during the 1920s, Niebuhr’s concern over the long hours & dangerous conditions faced by the factory workers led him to join the Socialist Party. His interest in economic justice & industrial democracy also led him to allow labor union organizers to hold events at his church.
Then, in 1928, Niebuhr left the pulpit in Detroit in order to become a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1931, he married a fellow theology professor named Ursula Keppel-Compton, despite a religious difference – he was a member of the Reformed Church, and she was an Anglican. Keppel-Compton was from Great Britain, and she had been educated in history and theology at the University of Oxford before she moved to the States to teach at Barnard College, which was then the women’s college at NYC’s Columbia University. As he put down roots on the East Coast, Niebuhr continued to be prominent on the Religious Left during the 1930s. He also began to gain popularity as a writer & public speaker. In 1937, he originated the Serenity Prayer, which has become world-famous among inspirational quotes. It’s the one that goes (quote) “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Many people, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof) have viewed these as wise words, although “knowing the difference” certainly remains the tricky part. The Serenity Prayer has become popular among Alcoholic Anonymous and other recovery organizations in the decades since its coinage, although many people who quote it probably know very little else about Reinhold Niebuhr.
Despite being of German heritage, Niebuhr was deeply troubled by the rise of the anti-democratic & militaristic Third Reich in Central Europe during the Thirties. Due to the rise of Hitler, he renounced his former pacifist beliefs and supported the Second World War. In the postwar period, Niebuhr became one of many thinkers who moved away from the Socialist Left and veered toward the political Center during the 1940s. Communism seemed like a real threat after Josef Stalin had draped Eastern Europe in a red Iron Curtain, & a concerned Niebuhr joined with other intellectuals & labor leaders in 1947 to create the anti-Communist liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action (also known as the ADA). We mentioned the creation of the ADA back in Episode 5; many other historical figures involved in its founding have also been discussed on our podcast, including UAW head Walter Reuther, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. During the Cold War era, Niebuhr became close to many of these liberal anti-Communist leaders, and he became especially friendly with the historian Arthur Schlesinger Junior. Schlesinger was not a Protestant Christian; he was a secular academic whose paternal ancestors were Jewish and Catholic. Schlesinger was a Harvard historian who became famous during the Sixties as an unofficial advisor to the John F. Kennedy Administration. Niebuhr and Schlesinger worked together to guide the ideological trajectory of the ADA, and Reinhold’s non-religious friends and supporters within academic and intellectual circles (such as Schlesinger) gave themselves the somewhat ironic designation, “Atheists for Reverend Niebuhr.”
Although Niebuhr had supported equal rights for black workers as a young pastor, he had not been on the leading edge of racial progressivism. For a time, he even viewed efforts at residential desegregation as unrealistic or even utopian. However, his sense of the possible changed with the times, and by the 1960s, he strongly supported the civil rights movement and had a friendly correspondence with his fellow reverend, Martin Luther King Junior. In 1965, King wrote to the aging Niebuhr and invited him to participate in the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. According to Stanford University’s online Martin Luther King Jr. Encyclopedia, Niebuhr replied, “Only [my recovery from] a severe stroke prevents me from accepting. I hope there will be a massive demonstration of all the citizens of conscience in favor of the elemental human rights of voting and freedom of assembly” (close quote). That stroke indeed limited Niebuhr physically for the rest of his life, but it did not affect his mental acuity.
Two years later, Niebuhr defended King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War. The brutal quagmire in Southeast Asia seemed to force Niebuhr to again rethink his foreign policy views late in life. After giving up on pacifism during the 1940s, he had embraced what he characterized as a “Christian realist” view of global affairs. He believed the sinful nature of mankind in a fallen world meant that people sometimes had to do morally unfortunate things, such as taking part in war, in order to prevent the greater evil of allowing Fascist and Communist regimes to prevail. On this basis, he had generally supported American Cold War policy during the 1950s and 60s. However, toward the end of his life, the brutal scenes coming out of Vietnam made him question the military direction the US government was taking. Niebuhr said (quote) “For the first time, I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation” (close quote) regarding US conduct in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Niebuhr would not survive to see the eventual American departure from Vietnam, because he died in Massachusetts during 1971, at the age of 78.
Although he became something of a forgotten Cold War relic for a time, remembered mostly as the author of the Serenity Prayer, Niebuhr has resurfaced in surprising ways in recent years. About 10 years ago, Pres. Barack Obama publicly praised Niebuhr’s writings on foreign policy, especially his famous 1952 book entitled “The Irony of American History.” In 2017, it was revealed, not long after he was fired by Pres. Trump, that former FBI Director James Comey had a secret personal Twitter account under the name “Reinhold Niebuhr.”
In terms of understanding his legacy, it’s important to note that Niebuhr’s public identity as a politically prominent clergyman who was ideologically positioned on the center-left was not unique during the mid-20th Century. If you look at footage of many civil rights protests from the early 60s, priests, rabbis, and ministers were often prominent leaders in the crowd (and no, this is not the set up to a joke). The 1960s would arguably prove to be the last era when religious leaders who gained national prominence were just as likely to be on the political left as to be on the political right. During the late 20th and the early 21st Century, major social & economic changes, combined with growing secularization, would alter religion’s role in American society (no pun intended). But that is a story for another episode.
We hope you have enjoyed this profile of another prominent American figure from the Cold War era. You can provide feedback on this episode at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you could be a real pal and give us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts. Please also follow our Instagram: our account name there is simply “boomerstomillennials.” And we are also still on the ever-declining hell site known as Twitter, at least for now, where you can follow us at the non-memorable handle “at boomer underscore to.” Thanks in advance for the online attention, and as always, thank you for listening.