“Does Civilization Need Religion?” asked theologian Reinhold Niebuhr 80 years ago in the title of one of his many works on church and society.
Civilization may need Niebuhr, according to several U.S. presidential candidates. A recent Religion News Service feature calls Niebuhr an “unseen force” in the 2008 elections and mentions his influence on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Niebuhr’s writings also touched past public servants ranging from JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to Reagan-era ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Why so influential? “Niebuhr’s Christian realism — his recognition of the persistence of sin, self-interest and self-righteousness in social conflicts — highlights the distinction between the acknowledgement of evil’s existence and America’s own involvement in that evil,” says the RNS story, which ran in September. Heady stuff — and, for a guy born 115 years ago, amazingly in tune with the modern mood of Americans struggling through post-invasion Iraq.
The New York Times also ran a very lively article last year on modern Niebuhr-influenced liberalism.
Niebuhr was a fascinating guy. (He’s also credited with creating the well-known Serenity Prayer — “God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed…”) Read more about him in our new profile. Or, read up on the current presidential hopefuls in our Who2 Loop, Candidates 2008.