Michael Jinkins: Where have all the Niebuhrs gone?

It's hard to imagine a Christian public intellectual on the cover of "Time" today. Why is that?

“I’m amazed,” wrote David Brooks a few years ago, “that Reinhold Niebuhr hasn’t made a comeback since September 11. After all, he was one of America’s most profound writers on war and international conflict.” Recently, of course, Niebuhr’s name did re-enter public conversation because then-candidate Obama described Niebuhr as his “favorite theologian.” When future presidents drop your name, it gets noticed. But Niebuhr had been a favorite theologian of public intellectuals and political leaders for generations before that.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. credited Niebuhr as a core influence particularly on the book that was, arguably, Schlesinger’s greatest contribution to American political thought, “The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom” (1949). There he quotes Niebuhr: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Just a year prior to the publication of Schlesinger’s book, Niebuhr appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine.

The fact that Niebuhr is enjoying a comeback these days is no surprise to some theologians and ethicists. Robin Lovin, in his 1995 book “Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism,” called the twentieth century “Niebuhr’s Century.” As Brooks anticipated, when the going gets tough, Niebuhr’s makes even more sense. But, in light of this recovery of Niebuhr another question has picked up steam: “Where are our Reinhold Niebuhrs today?”

I’d like to ask another question: When’s the last time Protestant Christianity produced a figure whose stature as a public intellectual merited that person’s appearance on the cover of a major news magazine?

Mind you, there are Christian public intellectuals out there who combine deep understanding of public policy issues and theological wisdom. But rarely are they able to communicate their ideas as memorably as did Niebuhr.

More commonly the spokespersons of Christianity in our time tend to represent factions and narrow interests, sometimes even fringe ideologies, in ways that make thoughtful Christians cringe. The week in which I write, for example, in my home state of Texas, the news media has reported the story of Christians who demand that the social studies and history textbooks adopted in our public schools reflect their own take on American history, promoting “American Exceptionalism” and the idea that American expansionism represents God’s providence. When did our understanding of “balanced reporting” come to mean that fairness in the media means that we should treat fantasies and falsehoods as though they are true?

Maybe the question, “Where are our Reinhold Niebuhrs today” is just off-kilter enough to miss a more crucial point. Maybe asking where are the intellectual giants of Christianity who could speak for us and to us is just another way to avoid our culpability in the lack of such voices.

Garry Wills once observed that we get the leaders we demand. We may even get the leaders we deserve. But we definitely do not get better leaders unless we demonstrate more responsible follower-ship. “Show me your leader,” Wills said, “and you have bared your soul” (“Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership”).

Perhaps much the same holds true for Christian public intellectuals of the caliber of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhrs emerge because we will listen to them. I don’t mean to take anything away from Niebuhr’s unique genius, but I suspect there are Niebuhrs among us today, if only we would listen for them. What gets put on the cover of “Time” or any other magazine has a lot to do with us and what quality of thinking we will tolerate.

I’ve been wondering recently why we call the most famous of texts Niebuhr wrote “The Serenity Prayer.” True, the opening line goes, “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.” But the prayer also prays for “courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” If Christians care about the quality of public discourse, we ought to pray even more today for the courage to change and the wisdom to discern.

These virtues just might encourage us to listen harder for the Niebuhrs among us.

Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.