The past couple of months I keep running across Reinhold Niebuhr. While I read him in seminary, I have not directly read anything by him for several years. But Niebuhr has come back to the world again with modern politics.
The two strong points that Niebuhr makes to our current political and theological world is that systems are always broken. No matter how good the goals or purposes of any institution or organization is, that institution or organization is still made up of sinful humans and will eventually disappoint or harm.
The second related point, that primarily comes out in his Irony of American History, is that in addition to institutions be broken, organizations with good goals will often adopt bad means to accomplish those good goals and in some ways be more dangerous than the institutions that are openly negative. With good intentions, comes the thought that people working within good institutions to cut corners or harm people because of the greater good that accomplishing those good goals will bring.
Those two points keep coming up. So I picked up An American Conscience and then watched the documentary after I finished the book. This is a brief book, not even 200 pages. But it does a good job introducing Niebuhr to readers that were likely not even born when he passed away.
Niebuhr is probably best known as the author of the Serenity Prayer or for being on the cover of Time’s 25th Anniversary edition, or for being Obama, Carter and McCain’s favorite theologian. James Comey wrote his dissertation using Niebuhr as a framework and named his private twitter account after Niebuhr.
The American Conscious book is clearly intended to be a companion to the Documentary (which can be streamed for free and is only 1 hour.) The book goes into much more detail than the documentary and is roughly framed around Niebuhr’s major books. I have only read Moral Man and Immoral Society, the Irony of American History and parts of Nature and Destiny of Man. Moral Man and Immoral Society is a perfect descriptive title. There are two cheap kindle editions available and after I finished An American Conscience I started reading it again.
If you just want an overview of Niebuhr, An American Conscience is a good option. Several years ago I read the The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians. The structure was basically the same for both books. They both primarily concentrated on the books instead of biography. But An American Conscience was far more interesting (and less like an extended book report) than the Armchair Theologians books.
Part of what I like about history is that we should be learning from the past. What I like about Niebuhr is that he seems to take the idea that we should learn from the past seriously. In his case, what he wrote about was inspired by what he experienced. He was a progressive, socialist, pacifist in the 1920s and 30s. Then with the rise of Hitler (Niebuhr was the child of German immigrants and english was his second language) he gave up his pacifism. While touring Europe he gave up his socialism because of the weaknesses of the Russian system. And with the rise of the Cold War he gave up much of his progressivism can called for a much more conservative form of social change.
In someways, Niebuhr is not unlike many young progressives. As they age they understand the weaknesses of some forms of progressivism. But Niebuhr did not give up on the ideals that he originally had. He believed in a gospel that means something for the world today. He believed in many progressive causes, like worker’s rights, civil rights, other social reforms. He understood that sin was more than individual, it was systematic. To address sin as only individual, was to ignore its root causes (this was his main public complaint against Billy Graham.)
Niebuhr throughout his life understood that ethics had to be influenced by faith, not the other way around.