3. He prized action.
Niebuhr didn’t always agree with his brother. In 1932, they exchanged articles in The Christian Century on the topic of American intervention against Japanese imperialism and, more broadly, Christian involvement in politics. H. Richard argued for “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” but Reinhold countered, “Must We Do Nothing?” Reinhold became an early, vocal advocate for American entry into WWII, a stance that accelerated a rupture with the pacifist editor of the Century and led him to launch his own magazine, Christianity and Crisis.
The United States continued to pursue activist internationalism after WWII, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, so Niebuhr’s blessing of such actions remained popular. Although Niebuhr never held political office (his 1932 run for Congress, on the Socialist party ticket, failed), he became a political figure, founding Americans for Democratic Action and serving on the Council on Foreign Relations. In this sense, politicians who claim fealty to Niebuhr aren’t so much admiring a prophetic outsider as heaping laurels on a hero of their own tribe.
4. But … irony.
The main thing that prevented Niebuhr from being a court theologian for the American political class was his rich sense of irony, most notably expounded in The Irony of American History (1952). Just as the United States was draping itself in righteousness for an epic battle against godless Communism, Niebuhr warned how easily America’s virtues could become vices, how often the nation declaimed the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in its own, how many times the best-laid plans resulted in disaster.
In a Pew Forum on Niebuhr in 2009, Wilfred M. McClay highlighted a quote from the book, “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimated.” In other words, Niebuhr said to American leaders, go ahead and throw your weight around, but don’t pretend that your motives are pure, and don’t be shocked if you achieve something less than justice. The first part of that advice has been heeded more often than the latter two.
5. He really did write the Serenity Prayer.
Tracing the authorship of this famous prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”) became something of a cottage industry a few years ago, but the best available evidence supports Niebuhr’s authorship. This is relevant to assessing his enduring appeal for a couple of reasons.
One, many, many people—including countless members of Alcoholics Anonymous—know something of Niebuhr’s theology even if they have never heard his name. Two, the prayer is a reminder that Niebuhr was a pastor (Evangelical and Reformed Church) before he was a celebrated theologian and foreign policy expert, and faith was not merely an intellectual exercise for him. He speaks to leaders of the free world as well as individuals trapped in addiction. For all of these reasons, he remains worth wrestling with.
Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford).