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.