NEW YORK (CNS) — Less than 50 years after Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1971 death, at age 78, the high-profile theologian and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree has largely been forgotten.
The commendable, interesting — yet, in some respects, unsatisfying — documentary “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story,” written, directed and narrated by Martin Doblmeier, aims to recover Niebuhr’s relevance not only to his times but ours.
The one-hour film will air throughout the month of April on PBS stations nationwide. Viewers can consult local listings for broadcast times in their region.
While “An American Conscience” contains nothing objectionable, its themes of war, racism, nuclear weapons, communism, socialism, as well as good and evil make it suitable viewing for adults and thoughtful adolescents.
Doblmeier employs archival video, evocative still photographs, and interviews with a wide range of scholars, politicians, theologians, historians and commentators to tell Niebuhr’s story and interpret his significance.
The film’s fast-moving triumphal prologue does a good job of reestablishing Niebuhr’s claim to recognition. He is perhaps best known as author of the “Serenity Prayer,” which “Alcoholics Anonymous” later adopted. Yet, as the affable, thoughtful New York Times columnist David Brooks emphasizes, Niebuhr’s influence was wide-ranging.
“Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter. Some of the Reaganites. Bush people. Everyone picked something they liked,” Brooks says.
Niebuhr became especially prominent during the post-World War II era. Although a time of prosperity, it was also the Atomic Age with communism’s rise feeding global tensions.
During this period, Niebuhr was one of several prominent “public theologians” (Norman Vincent Peale, the Rev. Billy Graham and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were among the others). According to Brooks, these figures sought to reach out beyond the confines of their churches, and influence the whole culture.
Against this backdrop, Niebuhr published “The Irony of American History” in 1952. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor emeritus of history, calls Niebuhr’s volume “the most important book about U.S. foreign policy.” In it, Bacevich explains, Niebuhr cautioned people against thinking in simplistic terms of the all-good United States being justified in any action it might take to stop the evil Soviets.
Doblmeier contradicts his expert, however, when he asserts Niebuhr believed communism was evil, and military force could be employed to oppose it. Viewers won’t be clear if Niebuhr’s thinking evolved beyond Bacevich’s description of it, or if Doblmeier and Bacevich differ in their understanding of Niebuhr’s outlook. The film’s muddiness on this point is a strike against it.
Niebuhr’s new hard line against communism, so Doblmeier persuasively argues, estranged the former pacifist from old colleagues. To understand how Niebuhr’s thinking developed, the film works backward.
The son of German immigrants from Missouri — his father was a pastor in the German Evangelical Church, now part of the United Church of Christ — Niebuhr dropped out of Yale Divinity School at age 20 to take over his dad’s parish after the elder Niebuhr died.
His subsequent work in Detroit as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church and chairman of the city’s Race Committee brought Niebuhr to the attention of Henry Sloane Coffin, the president of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. He offered Niebuhr a faculty position there in 1928.
In 1932, Niebuhr published his most consequential work, “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” “The most important text in Christian ethics to this day,” the ever-animated Union Theological professor Cornel West says of it. A “tragic sensibility,” West adds, informed the book’s philosophy, which argued that “the best we can do is create democratic possibilities.”
After a stroke limited his activities in 1952, Niebuhr, according to the filmmakers, increasingly withdrew from public life.
It’s difficult to distill a career as consequential as this one down to an hour, and narrative gaps hinder “An American Conscience.” The reasons for Niebuhr’s appointment to Detroit’s Race Committee, for instance, are never made clear.
Similarly, Columbia University religion professor Gary Dorrien — who also holds a faculty position at Union named for Niebuhr — says Niebuhr was “a galvanizing force” at Union Theological Seminary. “Students flocked to his courses.” But the source and nature of Niebuhr’s impact are never explained. Doblmeier also leaves the audience wondering how his pastor father’s theology might — or might not — have influenced Niebuhr.
“An American Conscience” does succeed in recalling Niebuhr’s gift for timely, prophetic words. “Man’s inclination to justice,” he wrote, “makes democracy possible. Man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Even so, when a wistful Brooks says of public theologians, “Now, we basically don’t have them anymore,” any hopes for a Niebuhr revival such as Doblmeier seeks to spark seem remote.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.