Reinhold Niebuhr is regarded by many as the most influential American theologian and ethicist of the 20th century. His gift for seeing the complexity of the issues brought balance between the idealism and the realism of modern human experience.
With an unwavering concern for justice, he offered a penetrating critique of the naiveté of idealism and of the cynicism of despair. He articulated a relationship between religion and politics that was both pragmatic and hopeful.
In 1976, the citizens of the United States elected a president who claimed Niebuhr as a significant influence in his theological and political pilgrimage.
Jimmy Carter was a “born-again” Christian (a term that caused a good deal of public fuss at the time), who openly acknowledged the place of his faith in his personal life and public service. He understood the complexity of the issues facing his country, from environmental concerns to international relations, and credited Niebuhr with a perspective that did not give in to simplistic responses to complex problems.
A religious perspective that engages in political service with such an awareness of complexity does not always play well when problems intensify and people look for answers with increasing desperation.
In 1980, those same citizens rejected this practitioner of “Niebuhrian” faith in favor of a president whose faith appeared simpler, more understandable and less complex. Ronald Reagan had an engagingly pleasant persona and an ability to connect with the comfort level and needs of a public anxious to have its fears relieved, its status affirmed.
The Reagan presidency also provided a platform for the rise to prominence of a simpler expression of national religion in a form best represented by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
Falwell’s approach focused religious concern on certain moral issues, conservative theological beliefs and personal salvation as well as political activism aimed at enshrining these emphases into the national life.
Falwell boasted of his “instant access” to the Oval Office. He and his many comrades in this crusade advanced the cause throughout the land, challenging hard-fought legal victories for religious liberty and castigating any who disagreed as part of the “liberal infection” that threatened to destroy the Christian foundations of the country.
The Niebuhrian struggle with the complexities of human problems in an effort to bring faith to bear in their solution was replaced with religious flag-waving.
For three decades, this brand of Christian faith has dominated the national stage of public religion. Many of its leaders reflect the charismatic style of such colorful characters as Billy Sunday, the early 20th-century evangelist and historical inspiration for Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry.” With impressive and effective use of technology often replacing the personal oratory of the earlier revivalists, the message is still the same: personal salvation (as opposed to the “socialist” social gospel), certain hot button moral issues and the passion to restore God to a proper place in national life.
Now we have a president who also acknowledges a debt to Niebuhr for his influence in the development of his religious and political philosophy. He has also acknowledged the influence of his faith in his approach to the challenges of his office.
The president has a broad and deep understanding of the issues facing the nation and the world. He seeks to bring his faith to bear in redemptive ways to the burdens of the nation’s people. Yet he has been rewarded with suspicion and castigation by those eager for his failure in office.
Because he does not engage in religious flag-waving, his faith is questioned. Because he defends the religious liberty of all faiths, he is accused of not being Christian. Because he believes his faith calls him to work for the poor and powerless, he is said to embrace “liberation theology” (with a seriously misleading suggestion of the meaning of the term).
For those with a tendency to see cycles in the history of human experience, last Saturday’s display of public religion at the Lincoln Memorial is not surprising. What is intriguing is the difference in our ways of thinking about faith.
What will we choose? An incarnational effort to apply redemptive love to life’s complex and ambiguous challenges? Or a more outwardly passionate, more easily labeled effort to simplify faith into a few beliefs, concerns and institutional expressions that make it clear who the “real” Christians are?
Who will our national theologians be: the heirs of Reinhold Niebuhr or the successors of Billy Sunday?
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies in Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.