On Media

Why we miss Niebuhr now

Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary shows how theology drives our use of power.

I once heard Stanley Hauerwas issuing one of his screeds against Reinhold Niebuhr when he was interrupted by a young theologian from England who asked, “So why do you care about Reinhold Niebuhr at all?”

The question was a sign of a theological sea change. For years Niebuhr was a dominant figure in Christian ethics and an unavoidable figure in theological education. It’s long been a theological parlor game to ask: Where have public theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr gone?

Martin Doblmeier’s terrific new documentary on Niebuhr, An American Con­science, reminds us just how essential Reinhold Niebuhr was. Among the luminaries who pay homage to Nie­buhr are former president Jimmy Carter, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and historian Andrew Bacevich, a critic of the re­cent American military adventures. Dobl­meier brings in footage showing President Lyndon Johnson awarding Niebuhr the Presidential Medal of Freedom.