The Relevance of Reinhold

Paul Elie has written an interesting article on the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in the November issue of Atlantic Monthly. I thought that it was a good introduction to Niebuhr’s thought for those who had no idea who he was. I must admit, though, that I was surprised to learn that interest in Niebuhr was experiencing a renaissance (when John Stackhouse, from whom I took a class two years ago called “Theology of Culture,” informed me in this lecture that interest in Neibuhr had waned in recent years).

Also, the article has been criticized at GetReligion for its simplistic criticisms of Christians involved in politics, and for misrepresenting a source with whom Elie appears to disagree. These criticisms are, I think, fair.

I do happen to agree with the conclusion expressed in the last few paragraphs of the article and the application of Niebuhr’s thought to the war in Iraq — although I believe that this very conclusion is proof that Neibuhr was a person with a long public career over which he modified his thought many times, and it is easy for people with widely divergent opinions and agendas to enlist Niebuhr’s support for those opinions. I wish that the article had been guided a bit less by the author’s biases and contained a bit more on the breadth of opinions that tend to appropriate Niebuhr – and what that tells us about what Niebuhr actually thought.