Book review: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Major Works on Religion and Politics shows the moral compass of Barack Obama’s favourite philosopher

US President Barack Obama claimed him as his favourite philosopher, but Reinhold Niebuhr was a harsh critic of industrial society and happy to disrupt the status quo, writes Caleb Lauer.

Reinhold Niebuhr became a fashionable name to check in the past decade. Alfred Eisenstaedt / Pix Inc / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
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Reinhold Niebuhr’s literary career began with words the young pastor wrote in 1915, the year he turned 23. “There is something ludicrous about a callow young fool like myself standing up to preach a sermon to these good folks.”

A nice start for the man who would become 20th-century America’s most prominent political-religious intellectual, be featured on Time magazine’s cover, cited by Martin Luther King Jr as a primary influence, and be claimed in the 21st-century by Barack Obama as the American president’s “favourite philosopher”.

Niebuhr was not, however, a man of the establishment. He was a powerful critic of industrial society and his own Christian church. Niebuhr developed a "Christian" interpretation of "political realism", a tradition traced from Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, and which later, in the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, became the basis for modern political science: some things do not change – such as human nature and moral absolutes; some things can be changed – power can dislodge power; effective political action needs to acknowledge the difference.

A new 800-plus-page volume Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics (Library of America), edited by Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, collects Niebuhr's books, including The Children Of Light And The Children Of Darkness, The Irony Of American History, and dozens of prayers, sermons, lectures, and journalism. Niebuhr's "Christian" view of political problems surely fit mid-20th century American intellectual life, where churchgoing cold warriors were managing a balance of terror with an atheistic Soviet Union. What about today? And what value can a Christian view of political problems be to non-Christians?

Possibly not much. But ironically, Niebuhr’s earliest writings – about his days as a working minister – reveal how his thought may be transferred beyond religion. After all, much of world affairs, especially the realm of the diplomatic press conference, punditry, and formulaic journalism operates on a religion-like basis, with their buzzwords, articles of faith, and reassuring middle-class codes, though they have very little to do with the world’s great faiths.

Born in 1892 in Missouri to German émigrés, Reinhold Niebuhr grew up speaking German and English, studying at local German-language schools and a seminary, and like his father, became a minister. He arrived to Yale Divinity School in 1913, apparently feeling the bumpkin, and then in 1915 to a small, German-speaking parish in Detroit, Michigan. Niebuhr came to champion carworkers and organised labour. From his pulpit he denounced local Ku Klux Klan politicians.

He became professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1928 and began to rise to national fame. On March 19 1965 Niebuhr telegraphed Martin Luther King Jr regretting “only a severe stroke” kept him from accepting King’s invitation to join the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march. After years of illness, Niebuhr died of a pulmonary embolism in 1971.

Niebuhr's first book (and included in the new publication) was Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929). Brisk and candid, it is a diary of Niebuhr's years as a working minister. The young pastor felt a fraud in his preacher's gown, Notebook tells us, though he admits he could get used to the authority his robes bestowed. After three months of sermons he was out of ideas; each Bible reading was just a "different pretext for saying the same thing over again". Could he really deliver "light and inspiration in regular weekly instalments"? And where, Niebuhr wondered, "did anyone ever learn in the seminary how to conduct or help with a Ladies' Aid meeting?"

Ministering to a dying woman, Niebuhr felt “an ancient medicine man” beside the hospital’s doctors and nurses.

“I have to work in the twilight zone where superstition is inextricably mixed up with something that is – well, not superstition. I do believe that Jesus healed people. I can’t help but note, however, that a large proportion of his cures were among the demented.”

In Notebook we see Niebuhr vexed by the gap between the real, absolute values he was paid to preach and the real, concrete problems of people's lives. He soon recognised his preacher's job comprised a perennial conundrum: from his pulpit, real, absolute values must be pronounced. At his desk, however, the inescapable failures, hypocrisies, and compromises those values suffered in real life must be worked over with eyes wide open.

Of what good was a comfortable, morally-edifying sermon on compassion, tailored to the sensitivities of a middle-class congregation, to workers in Detroit’s car plants and foundries, where “manual labour is a drudgery and toil is slavery ... Their sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run”?

The gap was a failure of the church. Niebuhr left the intellectual problem aside and began to devote his energies to developing the ethical problem, that is, we want what the factory produces, but “none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs”.

His method was “to stop creating devotion to abstract ideals which everyone accepts in theory and denies in practice, and to agonise about their validity and practicability in the social issues which [the minister] and others face in our present civilization”.

Agonising did not mean simplifying. (Niebuhr likened oversimplifying preachers to “cartoonists”.) Agonising meant embracing contention. Clearly laying out the ethical problems which emerge from the gap between absolute moral standards such as justice and equality on the one hand, and power, coercion, and other facts of social life on the other, is a disturbing thing – for clergy and congregation alike – and would be resisted.

But such ethical problems were inescapable. For realists, the gap exists because the individual cannot be disentangled from the group. Because of their natural sympathy, rationality, moral sense, and exposure to education "individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own … But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups", Niebuhr wrote in one of his best known books Moral Man and Immoral Society. "Social injustice cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone, as the educator and social scientist usually believes. Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power."

This is the tragic paradox that political realism reveals. Because of the social nature of human life the struggle for social justice requires the use of force and coercion; the use of force and coercion necessarily renders unattainable the absolute standard of justice.

“Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet,” Niebuhr wrote, “where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”

Understanding just how unsatisfying a problem this is constitutes the core task of the great political realist project. It is way of thinking about politics that protects us against the illusions of the too optimistic priests of democracy, justice, liberty, and equality that dominate the talk of respectable, middle-class internationalists.

There are few better places to find its exposition than in the works of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Caleb Lauer is freelance print and radio journalist based in Istanbul.