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  • Justin Hawkins

Whither the Niebuhrians? Why Reinhold Niebuhr has Fallen upon Hard Times

I discovered my fellow Yale Divinity School graduate, Reinhold Niebuhr, during my senior year of college, during which time I sometimes wrote glowingly about him. Since then, and partially because of the withering treatment he receives at the hands of Stanley Hauerwas's With the Grain of the Universe, I have come to hold a more sober estimation of him. My most recent piece in Providence Magazine, is an attempt to articulate why he might have fallen out of favor among other Christians of my generation:

Niebuhr is the son of the marriage between Christianity and liberalism, but as that marriage has entered into divorce proceedings, neither parent seems keen to claim custody of their son. Perhaps Niebuhr has fallen out of favor because the easy alliance he is commonly tempted to see between Christianity and democracy (endorsed only pessimistically, of course) is increasingly called into question. On the other hand, in the circles in which belief in this fusion still exists, Niebuhr’s lifelong socialism makes him unpalatable to the right, and his insistence upon Christianity as crucial to making sense of that fusion is unpalatable to much of the left. Stated more precisely, Niebuhr’s endorsement of democracy is too theologically-inflected for the palette of Rawls’ post-Christian children, and his theology is too infected with democracy for post-liberal Christians who have begun to recognize that the presuppositions of democracy may not be as at home in the history of Christianity as we may once have suspected.

The whole piece, including a lovely picture of Niebuhr in a derby hat (alas, how few living ethicists can pull it off!) can be found here.


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