Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian ethicist who died in 1971, was one of the most important American thinkers of the past 100 years, though his tremendous influence is largely unknown. His list of accomplishments and protégés stretches across American life past and present. He authored the famous Serenity Prayer: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” It became a staple in American life through its inclusion in the GI prayer book during World War II and through Alcoholics Anonymous’ adoption of it as a motto.
I recently began a tour of screenings and discussions for the documentary I made with acclaimed filmmaker Martin Doblmeier, “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.” It will air on public television across the country this spring, and we will screen it at Boise State University March 8. The timing of our tour has made it clear that the divided political climate of recent decades underscores the need for voices of conscience.
Niebuhr’s ideas prompted change. Martin Luther King Jr. credited Niebuhr for shaping his approach to the problem of racism and the civil rights movement. Niebuhr mentored pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He advised at the highest level of the State Department on cold war policy, including the creation of the state of Israel. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson. As late as 2005, the evangelist Billy Graham acknowledged Niebuhr’s role in his own vision of social justice. Finally, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama and Republicans like Sen. John McCain cite him as a source underlying their political careers.
What accounts for his appeal and influence across American life and among such a range of prominent figures? It was his conscience, deployed with integrity and without self-righteousness. Niebuhr reminded Americans that they saw through “a glass darkly,” that no single perspective, including his own, was without error. He warned of the fallibility of humans and groups and their tendency to equate their views with truth or, worse still, with God’s truth.
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Instead, Niebuhr counseled humility before one another. He located himself in the Christian tradition but also stressed the importance of secular wisdom and other faith traditions. He warned that without this ability to admit fallibility, the inevitable outcome would be stalemate and one-dimensional governance in a multidimensional nation and world.
Niebuhr had no illusions that such cooperation would be easy. He knew there would be gnashing of teeth. That was his realism about human nature. But he also believed in a better part of human nature. That was his hope. That’s why he observed: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible. Man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.” A twinned understanding of human greatness and weakness promises a better route toward a community not of melodrama, but responsibility; not of vitriol, but charity; not of tolerance, but forgiveness.
Andrew Finstuen is the dean of Boise State University’s Honors College.
Reinhold Niebuhr film screening
6 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, in the Skaggs Hall of Learning in the Micron Business and Economics Building. Parking is free. Event features Boise State University's Andrew Finstuen, a producer of the film, and Martin Doblmeier the director/filmmaker.