In February 1942, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr appealed for the United States and Great Britain, as a binding goal in the war against Hitler's Germany, to commit to creating "a genuine homeland" for Jews "under their own sovereignty, within the framework of the British Empire." "The Jews were the first, as they have been the chief, victim of Nazi fury," Niebuhr wrote in The Nation. "Their rehabilitation, like the rehabilitation of every Nazi victim, requires something more than the restoration of the status quo."
The Great Depression emboldened Americans to tolerate radical experimentation in search of solutions to economic problems. Amongst the thorniest of those problems was that of Southern poverty. Indeed, FDR claimed in 1933 that Southern rural poverty was the nation’s “number one economic problem.” The new book “Trouble in Goshen: Plain Folk, Roosevelt, Jesus, and Marx in the Great Depression South” (University Press of Mississippi) focuses on visionary economic experiments that Americans undertook in the rural South to solve that problem.
Author Fred C. Smith examines the economic and social theories — and the histories of those theories — that resulted in the creation and operation of the most aggressive and radical experimentation in the United States. Trouble in Goshen contains careful case studies of three communitarian experiments, the administrative details thereof, as well as the struggles, actions and reactions of the clients of The Tupelo Homesteads, Dyess Colony and Delta Cooperative Farm.
The Tupelo Homesteads were created under the aegis of the tiny Division of Subsistence Homestead — a short-lived, “first New Deal” agency. Tupelo Homesteads, the most successful of the DSH projects, still retains its architectural integrity and its identity as a government facility.
In 2008 I made the front page of The New York Times by asserting that the greatest American theologian of the 20th century, who was also perhaps the greatest American political philosopher of the 20th century, probably did not originate the most famous and beloved prayer of the 20th century. The theologian-philosopher was Reinhold Niebuhr. The prayer was the Serenity Prayer, commonly quoted as follows: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." Its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs has propelled it to worldwide renown.
My assertion engendered considerable controversy, and was strongly contested by Niebuhr’s daughter, the eminent publisher Elisabeth Sifton. Sifton’s 2003 book The Serenity Prayer featured a specific account of her father’s writing the prayer for a Sunday service in Heath, Mass., in 1943. In no less than 13 places in the book, she characterized Heath in 1943 as the place and time of composition. It is because I relied on the Heath story as the authoritative dating of the theologian’s first use of the prayer that, when I discovered eight instances of the prayer’s being printed in newspapers and books between January 1936 and April 1942—none of which mentioned Niebuhr—I concluded that he appeared to have drawn unconsciously on earlier versions of unknown authorship.
he role of private charity versus that of state-sponsored social programs remains a hotly contested issue in Right vs. Left politics, with the Right typically favoring a heavy or total reliance upon private charity, and the Left typically calling for a more robust emphasis on state-provided programs. What is often presumed, however, in this political discourse is that Christianity, like conservatism, requires a total reliance on private charity to deliver services to the needy. This could not be more wrong.
The reason the political debate is back in the news is a recent essay in Democracy Journal concerning the conservative premise that voluntary charity could or should supplant state programs aimed at addressing joblessness, illness, accident, and old age. In the article, Mike Konczal labeled such conservative ideation "the voluntarism fantasy," pointing out that in the American context, "complex interaction between public and private social insurance… has always existed in the United States."
As well, Konczal argues, it should. Konczal reasons that, rather than state support for social programs working against the institution and practice of private charity, it provides a better stage for it. Such a minimum guarantee, he writes:
"As Christian theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, like the noblesse oblige of pre-industrial days, 'philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the privileged are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.'"
Arguably his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society is Reinhold Niebuhr's important early study (1932) in ethics and politics. Widely read and continually relevant, this book marked Niebuhr's decisive break from progressive religion and politics toward a more deeply tragic view of human nature and history. Forthright and realistic, Moral Man and Immoral Society argues that individual morality is intrinsically incompatible with collective life, thus making social and political conflict inevitable. Niebuhr further discusses our inability to imagine the realities of collective power; the brutal behavior of human collectives of every sort; and, ultimately, how individual morality can mitigate the persistence of social immorality.
This new edition includes a foreword by Cornel West that explores the continued interest in Niebuhr's thought and its contemporary relevance.
This addition to Westminster John Knox Press's Library of Theological Ethics series brings one of Reinhold Niebuhr's classic works back into print. This 1935 book answered some of the theological questions raised by Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and articulated for the first time Niebuhr's theological position on many issues. The introduction by ethicist Edmund N. Santurri sets the work into historical and theological context and also assesses the viability of some of Niebuhr's positions for theology and ethics today.
The New Republic has another Reinhold Niebuhr essay from the 1950s available on their site. This one is Niebuhr's reflection on justice and the death penalty. Excerpt:
While this exhaustive analysis of the whole problem of capital punishment achieves its interest primarily because of the light it throws upon one of the most curious ironies of Anglo-Saxon justice, it should have the additional attraction to American readers, that it may sensitize their conscience in regard to a moral problem in which our nation has adapted the standards of the “mother” country without realizing that these standards were the dubious by-products of a great legal tradition.
Liberalism has a much richer and more varied history than much of the present discourse suggests. It is neither simply the product of the Enlightenment nor necessarily bound to anti-religious secularism and self-interested individualism. So, part of what I want to do is rehabilitate liberalism by describing a theologically and socially robust alternative to the secular, individualistic form it so often takes in current social and theological discourse. H. Richard Niebuhr provided me with a perfect exemplar of this position. So, I put his more theologically profound and historically nuanced version of liberalism in conversation with both critics and defenders of contemporary liberalism, showing that the debate in most social and religious circles is stunted and inadequate.