Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice

Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century

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Peter B. Josephson, R. Ward Holder
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , December
     244 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter B. Josephson and R. Ward Holder’s Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice is a challenging book for our time of multiple crises and systems erosions. In recent decades, Niebuhr’s writings and life story has had a creative focus in a surprising and welcome renewal of earnest engagements. This has been surprising to those who had wrongly surmised that Niebuhr’s theology of and for social justice, based on solid biblical and empirical readings of sin, hubris, and apathy, had been eclipsed. Thankfully, Gary Dorrien’s diligent historical theology narrations, as Reinhold Niebuhr Professor at Union Seminary, have competently referenced Niebuhr and his many peers’ teachings and activities.

The authors engage the core theme of justice in Niebuhr’s writings, complemented by aspects of Niebuhr’s life, ministry, forays into social justice action networks, and journals. Indeed, justice is a disciplined practice in the service of principles, strategies, and tactics as much as a virtue or biblically prophetic mandate. Josephson and Holder’s copious footnotes, many helpfully annotated, and thorough bibliography contribute to an overview well worth reading. To be sure, they could have added to the index entries on “anxiety,” “prayer,” “eschatology,” “hope,” and “grace,” a la Niebuhr’s original grace-based serenity prayer which his late daughter Elisabeth Sifton has carefully exegeted. Case studies on the American health system and recent attempts to overhaul and reform are included Page 98 alone offers nine policy prescriptions for a health system out of Niebuhr’s reflections.

The chapter called “Niebuhr on Economics, Government and Social Justice” twice draws on the classic Moral Man & Immoral Society’s (MMIS). The editors write: “the creeds and institutions of democracy have never become fully divorced from the special interests of the commercial classes who conceived and developed them. It was their interest to destroy political restraint upon economic activity, and they therefore weakened the authority of the state and made it more plaint to their needs” (82-83, 92). This quotation illustrates how Niebuhr’s theology or theory can be applied and assessed in present time. Short of a formula for conveniently making use of Niebuhr for a thorough practical theology, the book culls and flags poignant profundities. This includes the indebtedness of Barack Obama to Niebuhr and the former’s community and political organizing and election strategy approaches (with signs of Saul Alinsky). Unsurprisingly, there seems little actual Niebuhr influence once Obama was in power. Indeed, Cornel West, author of the most recent preface to MMIS, prophetically challenged Obama for such missed opportunities.

The volume could be deemed weakest when it applies Niebuhr’s theological ethics to the community level of “practice”—evoking praxis, the knowledge that arises out of the practice of activities, especially our trials and errors. Given more space and a third coauthor with familiarity and experience in broad-based community organizing, this omission could have been rectified (and with attention to organizing for justice via Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 2, Scriber’s Sons, 1964, 249-50).

Nevertheless, from “The Spirit of Liberalism in Theory and Practice” chapter, there is ample resourcefulness to extrapolate a Niebuhrian perspective on the contemporary crises related to drastic inequalities and uneven distribution of resources.. There may even be a  case for the occasional suppression of human civil liberties via imposed restrictions. But to enhance and possibly enshrine such suppressions beckon Niebuhr’s caution of what grand schemes—via sweeping policies, however justified in the short-run—may inflict.. Thus, this book’s authors note an important Niebuhr caveat: “‘Man is too immersed in the welter of interest and passion in history and his survey of the total process is too short-range and limited to justify the endowment of any group of ‘planners’ with complete power. . . . Man simply does not have a ‘pure’ reason in human affairs’” (94. citing Irony of American History).

Uppermost is the book’s subtitle focus on Niebuhr’s theological and political realism—“a practical Niebuhrian politics” (xii). Niebuhr’s last book cautioned a too-consistent realism (Man’s Nature and His Communities). However, dispensing with realism totally would betray a lifetime of grounded insights via pastoral ministry, circuit ride preaching, numerous organizing efforts to support East Harlem parishes and his students’ involvements, and not all, countless consultations with wife Ursula, colleagues, students, inquirers, mentors, and diverse friends. Realism has had the most Niebuhr traction and not only via Robin Lovin and those who attend the annual AAR Niebuhr Society sessions. It is a modus operandi that saves and sustains ministers, teachers, organizers, church reformers, muckrakers, and laity of many allegiances and interfaith orientations: from reckless disillusionment, on the one hand, and cautious cowardice, on the other. Hence, when realism conjoins with the checks and balance of the graced-based serenity prayer and the practices of hope, then steadfastly, as Niebuhr maturely declared in his World War II Gifford lectures:

Justification by faith in the realm of justice means that we will not regard the pressures and counter pressures, the tensions, the overt and covert conflicts by which justice is achieved and maintained as normative in the absolute sense; but neither will we ease our conscience by seeking to escape from involvement in them . . . without also disavowing responsibility for the creative possibilities of justice. (Nature & Destiny of Man, Scribner’s Sons, 1943/1964, 284)

Summarily, this book adventuresomely presses its aim: “What would Niebuhr (think and) do now?” (xiii). Unpacking the question, it exemplifies a political philosophy and science perspective and elaborates the daunting challenge of moving from profound analysis and convictions to actual policies that name, unmask obstacles, and engage collective social justice measures.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an Independent Scholar and minister.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

R. Ward Holder is professor of theology at Saint Anselm College. 

Peter B. Josephson is professor of politics at Saint Anselm College.


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