Further information on Spring 2018 courses


Richard Crouter: Listening to Reinhold Niebuhr (Again) in the Trump Era


Course texts

Richard Crouter, Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith ($10 eBook)

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History ($13 eBook)


Expanded description

For the third time in the 21st century a fresh wave of interest is focusing on the Protestant theologian, political writer, and public intellectual, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). The revival of interest in Niebuhr arose in reaction to American hubris that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It became front and center when Barack Obama declared Niebuhr his favorite philosopher; and his legacy continues to surface as we wrestle with the long-term consequences of dysfunctionality in American politics, beginning at the top. An hour-long PBS documentary, An American Conscience: The Story of Reinhold Niebuhr, was widely aired in 2017. Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s depiction of Niebuhr’s story will be screened and discussed at the outset of our course. It vividly illustrates how his lifework as preacher, professor, and social activist drew from Christian and political teachings about humanity, hammered out amid two world wars, a depression, a cold war, and the coming of age of a once innocent America as a nuclear power during the Cold War.

In this CVEC course an effort is made to do justice to Niebuhr’s complexity as he moved from a socialist-Marxist perspective to an endorsement of democratic liberalism, while anchoring his views in a Christian perspective on the ambiguity of human nature. Trying to grasp why Niebuhr came to see our common humanity as angelic yet also beastly, as altruistic yet also self-preoccupied, is a major focus of this course. His views are never able to be summed up by the simple dichotomy of optimism v. pessimism. He resists our easy recourse to labels and slogans, whether these or others. Niebuhr’s perspective on the human condition provides an antidote to extremism, whether on the left or the right, religious or secular, local or national. His habit of taking a long view of history runs directly counter to the world of Twitter.

The son of a German immigrant pastor in Illinois, Reinhold Niebuhr was many things to many people. He studied at Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, and at Yale University before becoming pastor of a small Protestant Church in the Detroit of Henry Ford (1915-1928). He served as Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in NYC from 1928 until retirement in 1960, while maintaining a lively presence as a prolific writer of books and articles, contributor of countless op-ed pieces, and preacher on the university chapel circuit.

I was never his student, though his presence was deeply imprinted upon Union Seminary and his work widely studied when I arrived there in 1960. My wife and I tried not to miss opportunities to hear him speak or preach around NYC prior to my coming to teach at Carleton in 1967. My graduate training was in earlier periods of Christian thought, ancient and modern, but not contemporary theology. In retrospect, I realize that Niebuhr had a significant impact on how I view the world as well as the Christian faith. As a retirement project, I wrote Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith (2010). It is the only book I ever wrote for the general reader, and I plan to use the book this spring. Its chapters take up Niebuhr’s view of history, the ambiguity of the human condition, the power of his language, his appeal to irony as a way of understanding America, and his ongoing place within the spectrum of Christian practice and traditions. The syllabus will intersperse chapters of this book with chapters from Niebuhr’s 1952 title, The Irony of American History, as we ask what seems perennial and what may be dated in his understanding of religion and political life. The Irony of American History had been out of print for years when it was re-issued in 2008 with a preface by diplomatic historian and Iraq war critic Andrew Bacevich. It has been widely read ever since.

Should I consider taking this course, you may well ask! An ability to read and an open mind are the only prerequisites. Undeniably Niebuhr takes us into deep water intellectually. His thought mirrors our human complexity. You may find some aspects of the course challenging and/or experience reader frustration at some point. Meeting that challenge gives added significance to what we are doing. My job is to make Niebuhr accessible to all who wish to explore his ideas and to develop their own conclusions regarding his relevance in today’s world. Anyone considering taking this course will find ample allusions to Niebuhr by doing a Web search under his name, including discussion of his famous “serenity prayer,” which was adopted by A.A. and is perhaps the best-known aspect of his work. Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” (onbeing.org) offers numerous links and video clips that focus on Niebuhr.
If you took a version of this course previously, you should probably not sign-up again. The overall material remains the same, though with further examples that relate to the present moment in U.S. history amid the crises unfolding around us.