Reinhold Niebuhr’s Realist Voice
Each season, F&R looks at historic theologians and philosophers. Niebuhr has largely been forgotten of late, even though just a few decades ago, he was a towering voice for Christian engagement with the cultural and political life of the 20th century West.
Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892 – June 1, 1971) was an American theologian, ethicist, public intellectual, commentator on politics and public affairs, and professor at Union Theological Seminary for more than 30 years. Also known for authoring the Serenity Prayer, Niebuhr received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. Among his most influential books are Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man, the latter of which was written as the result of Niebuhr's delivery of the Gifford Lectures. Niebuhr was also the brother of another prominent theologian and ethicist, H. Richard Niebuhr. Starting as a leftist minister in the 1920s indebted to theological liberalism, he shifted to Neo-Orthodox theology in the 1930s, explaining how the sin of pride created evil in the world, and created the theo-philosophical perspective known as Christian realism. He attacked utopianism as ineffectual for dealing with reality, writing in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944):
"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."