Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original/Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power

By Biddy, Eric | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original/Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power


Biddy, Eric, Anglican Theological Review


Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original. Edited by Daniel F. Rice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. 402 pp. $26.00 (paper).

Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power. Edited by Richard Harries and Stephen Platten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 256 pp. $110.00 (cloth).

These two collections of essays are part of a Reinhold Niebuhr revival that has been ongoing for a number of years now. This revival gained remarkable momentum when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama referred to Niebuhr as his "favorite philosopher" in an interview in 2007. Each book makes much of this and Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power, edited by Richard Harries and Stephen Platten, is actually dedicated to now-President Obama. Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original, edited by Daniel F. Rice, is a bit more restrained, restricting its Obama references mainly to advertising material.

This restraint may be partially because Niebuhr Revisited was published a year earlier, in 2009, and many of the authors are focused on interrogating the closing decade and exploring how Niebuhr might have responded to die presidency of George W. Bush. This is certainly a legitimate, if belated, activity, though the cumulative effect of the many asides and die few long discussions of Niebuhr and recent American politics is to leave the impression that botii Niebuhr and Bush are die main characters of the book. Perhaps this is to be expected, for it grows out of two of the foundational themes of the volume: Niebuhr's continuing relevance and the connection between his theology and his politics.

The collection's treatment of the former theme vacillates between assumption and argument. We can understand die desire here to argue diat Niebuhr is still relevant, but the very presence of many writers on Niebuhr in this book is sufficient evidence of his continuing importance. Contributors include Roger Shinn, Gary Dorrien, Douglas John Hall, Robin Lovin, Larry Rasmussen, and several historians and scholars of American cultural studies. Previously published articles by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Martin Marty are appended to die body of the text. These contributions are arrayed in a formal structure consisting of sections on Niebuhr and Theology, Niebuhr and Polities, and Niebuhr and American Culture, all preceded by Shinn 's personal remembrances of Niebuhr and Dorrien's overview of his biography and the central themes of his thought.

As evidenced by the section titles, it is a broad collection with room both for Douglas John Hall's excellent essay interpreting Niebuhr's work as a "theology of the cross" and for Ronald H. Stone's consideration of how Niebuhr's political insights might be helpful for contemporary Middle East foreign policy. The impressive variety of the collection stems mainly from the "fields" from which Niebuhr is being considered (systematic theology, social ethics, history, politicai science, American cultural studies) and tiie degree of direct applicability die authors claim for Niebuhr's thought. For instance, Henry B. Clark II attempts to appropriate Niebuhr's Christian pragmatism while pruning away his concept of "true myth," while Robin Lovin writes as a conscious and explicit contemporary Christian realist, in a direct line of Niebuhr's influence. But none of the contributors seem to doubt how Niebuhr would have voted in the past three American presidential elections. Nor do any of the contributors bemoan Niebuhr's influence, though Clark's appropriation is so radical that the reader wonders whether Niebuhr actually is a useful interlocutor for him.

As mentioned above, the volume closes with an appendix containing Schlesingers New York Times Book Review article "Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr" and Martin Marty's direct rebuttal in The Christian Century, "Citing Reinhold." Schlesinger regretfully noted in 2005 that no one seemed to be reading Niebuhr at a time when the nation could well have used his wisdom. …

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