When in 1948 Time magazine looked for someone to put on the cover of their 25th Anniversary issue, they could have chosen a Hollywood celebrity, notable politician, or perhaps a decorated WWII veteran. Instead, they chose an ethics professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York: Reinhold Niebuhr.
Today, many Americans have not heard of Niebuhr although most are familiar with a prayer he wrote in the 1930s (but for which he seldom receives credit):
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Niebuhr did much more, however. He was an activist-scholar who influenced not only his parishioners and students, but others as well, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew extensively on Niebuhr’s insights on power when crafting strategies during the Civil Rights movement. The State Department also sought out Niebuhr’s advice on different aspects of U.S. foreign policy, which is ironic since at the same time the FBI had placed Niebuhr on its watch list, suspecting him of engaging in un-American activities.
Niebuhr continues to influence people today. Some of his books are still used as texts in political science classes, and President Barack Obama counts him as one of his favorite philosophers. Obama once remarked that Niebuhr taught him “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.” President Jimmy Carter has expressed similar sentiments, and the philosopher/theologian Cornel West considers Niebuhr to be a “soul mate.”
On October 11th and 25th, we’ll watch and then discuss the 2017 PBS documentary on Niebuhr: An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. The documentary lasts 56 minutes, but we will break it into two (approximately) equal parts, watching the first half on the 11th and the second on the 25th. It includes interviews with Andrew Bacevich, David Brooks, Jimmy Carter, Cornel West, Andrew Young, and others. It should lead to interesting and provocative discussions.