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Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, by Richard Fox

Theologian & Activist

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography.
by Richard Fox.
Pantheon. 340 pp. $19.95.

The dust jacket declares, and at least some reviewers agree, that Richard Fox's Reinhold Niebuhr is the definitive biography. It is in many respects an outstanding biography, but if definitive means that it is the last word, there is much reason to hope that it is not the definitive biography.

Fox, a historian at Reed College, Oregon, was first alerted to the importance of Reinhold Niebuhr by his teachers Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak. The combination of Brown and Novak suggests an intellectual interplay that might have intrigued the infinitely dialectical mind of Reinhold Niebuhr. Since their days together at Stanford in the 1960's, Brown has become an influential proponent of the liberation theologies issuing from Latin America and Novak has made his mark as an authority on the moral vitalities of democratic capitalism. In the lines and between the lines of Reinhold Niebuhr, Fox is making up his mind about which of his Stanford mentors got Niebuhr right. Brown has presumably gone “beyond Niebuhr” at critical points, while Novak unabashedly calls himself a Niebuhrian.1 In the final analysis it would seem that Fox believes that Brown comes closer to getting Niebuhr right. Clearly he shares Brown's uneasiness about the later Niebuhr's allegiance to liberal democracy and consequent critique of liberal blindness to the threat of Communism.

But it may be misleading to put this ideological dispute up front in discussing Reinhold Niebuhr. Fox is primarily concerned to tell the life, and something of the times, of the most celebrated, and probably the most influential, American religious thinker of this century. He tells the story better and more fully than it has been told to date. The book, he says, “is also an effort to write intellectual history.” In this he is less successful, perhaps because, as he acknowledges, he is not a theologian. Whatever the reason, he seems to lack the patience or inclination or competence, or all three, to deal with Niebuhr's ideas on their own terms.

Fox is a historian of the school that believes that the truth about ideas is to be discovered in the needs they meet and the designs they serve. Admittedly, Niebuhr himself was something of a politician of ideas and not above weighing truths by the measure of their utility to the causes he would advance. The early and radical Niebuhr of the 1930's wrote of the role of intellectuals in providing the “emotionally potent oversimplifications” that are required to motor the struggle of the proletariat. “These illusions are dangerous because they justify fanaticism; but their abandonment is perilous because it inclines to inertia,” said Niebuhr. A later and wiser Niebuhr wrote of the much greater peril in the corruption that comes from telling useful lies. But the sharp-eyed Fox refuses to let Niebuhr become wise. He is ever on the lookout for what Niebuhr is up to with his thinking, and thus gives short shrift to the possibility that frequently, if not most of the time, Niebuhr might have been up to thinking. Adhering to the historian's hermeneutics of suspicion, the author tells us a great deal about what Niebuhr tried to do with ideas but very little about the ideas by which Niebuhr was tried.

What Niebuhr did with ideas, with his energies, his talents, and his opportunities, Fox relates in a manner worthy of the tale. He begins at the beginning, in 1892 in Logan County, Illinois, where Gustav Niebuhr was a pastor of the Deutsche Evangelische Synode von Nord-Amerika and the father of three sons, Walter, Reinhold, and Helmut Richard. Walter would die in middle age, after a life of no particular achievement but of considerable bother to others. Helmut Richard would go on to a long and distinguished career teaching theology at Yale. He was, in the estimate of most theologians then and now, a more careful and perhaps more original thinker than his older brother Reinhold. A great strength of the present biography is the close and tender attention paid to the relationship between Richard and Reinie, as Reinhold was called both early and late. Reinie was his father's favorite and succeeded him as head of the family. He admired his father unstintingly and Fox's repeated thesis is that Reinhold's subsequent life was spurred by the need to fulfill and excel his father's work. As with most psychological explanations, this one is not always persuasive, but Fox generally resists the temptation to push it beyond the limits of plausibility or employ it to reductionist ends.


As his father fled Germany to seek a new land, so Reinhold continued the sojourn from his father's constricted immigrant world to a professorship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the Medal of Freedom, and the cover of Time magazine. The first obstacle to making it in America was the “German” in German Evangelical Synod. Overcoming that obstacle was particularly urgent at the time of World War I, and Reinhold soon discovered himself becoming an intense American patriot. In his first assignments for the church he was a vigorous partisan of the Americanizers who were eager to drop immigrant language and identity.

There was also a theological component in this change. The Evangelical Synod represented a mix of Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) traditions, and accommodation to an America of Puritan heritage clearly dictated that preference be given the second. By a series of transmogrifications the Evangelical Synod eventually became part of today's United Church of Christ, which until recently was very much a part of the American cultural and religious mainstream. As Fox perceptively notes, albeit in passing, Niebuhr himself never entirely abandoned the Lutheran side of his legacy, and this helped him to maintain a critical distance from the mainline Protestant propensity to identify “Christian America” with the coming of the Kingdom of God.

But this critical distance would become evident only much later. The young Niebuhr was engrossed in being accepted by a Protestantism set upon “Americanizing Christianity and Christianizing America.” After years in third-rate church schools, which he deeply resented, he arrived at Yale to discover that the study of theology there was dominated by courses in practical philanthropy, systematic sociology, labor problems, American social conditions, and municipal good government. Although determined to figure in what Fox calls the “Protestant-socialist-pacifist nexus,” Niebuhr already betrayed his penchant for ambivalence by electing courses in philosophy, ethical theory, and Bible.

And yet ambivalence was not permitted to temper militance, for “only a militant church was capable of enlisting his own devotion,” Fox writes. In the 1920's Niebuhr became pastor of Bethel Church in a respectable middle-class neighborhood of Detroit and soon turned it into a prospering center of social reformism, for which the alleged depredations of Henry Ford served as a convenient foil. In later years Niebuhr would say that he was most essentially a pastor and would speak nostalgically of the parish, but at the time his passion for militance carried him into the organizational swirl and speaking circuits of radicalisms that had gone beyond liberal reform. As he wrote in a letter to the New Republic:

Liberalism lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history. It is the philosophy of the middle-aged, lacking the fervency of youth and its willingness to take a chance and accept a challenge. It approaches the old order with friendly mien, tries to blindfold it and lead it upon a new track without hurting the old order's feelings or losing its friendship.

Niebuhr's energy, plus his extraordinary talents as speaker and writer, made it almost inevitable that he would be courted by those who were working for “an authentically new order.” In the early 1920's most of those people were to be found in the organizational networks of mainline Protestantism. Fox's observation is not without parallels in our own day: “At a time when secular liberals, disillusioned by Versailles or intimidated by officially sanctioned repression of dissent, tended to give up on politics in general and radicalism in particular, religious liberals edged further Left in large numbers.” (In 1985 the Nation would assert that the only Left we have left is the religious Left.)


Niebuhr was soon appearing regularly in the liberal Christian Century—with which he would later break over its pacifist stance—and was an unquestioned star of the college and Christian-retreat circuit. “Undergraduates squeezed into the largest armories and municipal halls in the Midwest to hear him challenge bourgeois piety.” Little wonder that the president of Union Seminary sought him out, despite his lack of proper academic credentials, to lend some spice to that venerable institution. From 1928 until his death in 1971, Union would serve as his base, and its students, say many who knew him, would remain Niebuhr's first love.

There he allied himself with Norman Thomas and the Socialist party, reinforced the much more radical politics of his Union colleague Harry Ward, and helped students to criticize “the unethical character of our entire civilization.” In 1930 he was the leading spirit in the formation of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians (not, as some accounts have it, the Fellowship of Christian Socialists—even then Niebuhr sensed that politics must always be adjectival, no more than penultimate to ultimate commitments). FSC was founded upon the belief that “We cannot save our civilization at all except we change its whole basis.” Such generalizations served as a common bond until, in 1932, Niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society. The book did not depart from the radical orthodoxy of class struggle, but Niebuhr did rock his pacifist allies with his emphasis on the inescapability of violence, and profoundly disturbed many others (whom he would come to call “sentimentalists”) with his “pessimistic” analysis of the pervasiveness of sin in every human structure and enterprise. “Like a Lonely Soul” is the title Fox gives the chapter describing this period. With Moral Man, Reinhold Niebuhr embarked upon a course of dissent, with the result that he would frequently be viewed as a security risk to all prevailing wisdoms.


Until his first stroke in 1952, Niebuhr never let up. From his pen flowed hundreds of articles, and books, both major and minor, charting a complicated and sometimes convoluted way toward moral responsibility in an intractably self-contradictory world. Among the books: Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935), Beyond Tragedy (1937), Christianity and Power Politics (1940), The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), and Faith and History (1949). The Irony of American History (1952) makes particularly timely reading today, and the Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man (published in one volume in 1949), will, I believe, be timely so long as there are men who think on such things.

Fox expresses very nicely the style that marked the person and his work:

Niebuhr's life, like all lives brought to self-consciousness or subjected to scrutiny, was a pattern of paradoxes and a sequence of ironies. The uniqueness of Reinhold Niebuhr lay in the energy and zeal with which he pursued paradox and irony in both life and thought. The prophet-priest seeking influence and humility. The German-American-Anglophile. The religious-secular preacher chastising the pious and chiding the worldly. The teacher-academic who distrusted the scholars and hoped for their respect. The liberal crusader against liberalism. The Jamesian relativist who embraced the God of Abraham and the revelation of Jesus. The booming polemicist beset with hidden anxieties. Truth could be expressed only in paradox, he believed, and life lived as a succession of pregnant contradictions.

That captures the style but, in my judgment, Fox does less than justice to the substance. As I mentioned earlier, Fox plays heavily on the psychologizing theme of father image with respect to the influence of Reinhold's father and to Reinhold's influence in sibling rivalry with H. Richard. But the psychologizing is less than is customary in contemporary biographies, and only offends when Fox states his speculations as fact. There is, however, a frequent condescension to his subject. For instance, Fox records that Niebuhr, approached by someone who wanted to do a biography of him, expressed his “embarrassment” with the proposal. In a typically egregious analytical lurch, Fox comments that this expression of embarrassment “allowed [Niebuhr] to see himself as a humble innocent trying, with admitted awkwardness, to prevent a biography from advertising his significance.” It seems simpler and more probable to think that Niebuhr was a man of good manners and it is good manners to demur when others direct attention to your importance.


The condescension is more frequent on the subject of Niebuhr's political judgments. Fox does not hide his lack of sympathy for Niebuhr's “turn to the Right” in mid-journey. Regarding the later Niebuhr of principled anti-Communism, he writes that “despite his dialectical play of mind he could detect no hidden virtues in the vice of his earlier radical commitments.” Here and elsewhere Fox would have us believe that the mature Niebuhr arrived at his political views in a twenty-five-year fit of absentmindedness, so to speak. The evidence, however, indicates that Niebuhr remained in lively and explicit conversation with his earlier views, although as time passed he esteemed less highly than his biographer apparently does the virtues in the political vices of his younger years.

John Murray Cuddihy, in No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste,2 a book not included in Fox's bibliography, has offered a scathing portrait of Niebuhr as a man with his eye firmly fixed on the main chance. Fox's style is not so biting but his substantive judgment is not dissimilar. Early on we are told that Niebuhr's driving search was for “the path of practical accomplishment and access to power in mainstream America.” Later he writes about Niebuhr's love for the biblical prophets and fascination with the posture of righteous indignation. “The cynic might suggest that prophetic garb was a convenient disguise for self-aggrandizement,” says Fox. While he implicitly distances himself from “the cynic,” Fox is clearly not unsympathetic to the suggestion.

About the Niebuhr of 1948, who had helped to found Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), an organization given in those days to the vigorous anti-Communism of which Fox does not approve, we are told: “The culture craved a spokesman for the tragic sense of life; Niebuhr had the intellectual skill, religious credentials, and personal charisma to step forward and seize the day.” At the end of the book, Niebuhr is summed up as a man “uniquely gifted and well-placed to seize the portion of opportunity offered a provincial German-American parson's son in early 20th-century America.” Fox immediately adds that, while Niebuhr “could not aspire to the heights of leadership” occupied by such of his heroes as Lincoln, Churchill, and Stafford Cripps, he had nonetheless “helped transform American culture and the Protestant faith.” In short, his eye was ever on the main chance and, according to Fox, the name of the main chance was worldly power.

Fox quotes the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel with which, at the funeral in 1971, he eulogized Niebuhr's religious devotion: “He appeared among us like a sublime figure out of the Hebrew Bible. . . . Niebuhr's life was a song in the form of deeds, a song that will go on forever.” To be sure, eulogies possess poetic license, but Heschel was also proposing a substantively different explanation of Niebuhr and his life. Between the explanations of Fox and Heschel, Niebuhr would likely have declined to choose, for he understood better than almost anyone the ambiguities of human motives.

In viewing Niebuhr's song as a song of self rather than as a song of that which transcends the self, Fox follows the rules of the historical guild. It is, they modestly say, beyond the competence of the historian to deal with devotion to God. Their immodesty is in the failure to recognize that it is beyond the competence of the historian to declare that devotion to God is really devotion to something other than God. The academic habit is to make religious faith manageable, and thereby to make religious faith unrecognizable. It is a habit, perhaps a professional imperative, which Richard Fox unfortunately indulges.


Fox's Niebuhr is the almost totally political animal for whom, because of biographical accident, theology became an improbable instrument of achievement. The general picture is that of a frenetically driven activist whom one can hardly imagine reading, never mind writing, a book such as The Nature and Destiny of Man. The Niebuhrian thesis, says Fox, is that “there could be no ultimate fulfillment in the political realm and yet no salvation apart from the life of political commitment.” The first part of the thesis is undoubtedly correct, but the idea that there is no salvation apart from politics is, I believe, profoundly un-Niebuhrian. Niebuhr frequently expressed his admiration for Mennonite pacifists and others who in principle remained aloof from the political arena. His published prayers and many passages in his major books sharply relativize the pretensions of the political. His argument was not that there is no salvation or ultimate fulfillment apart from the political arena, but that those who are called to enter that arena must do so on the basis of what he termed realism. Reinhold may never have been tempted, as his brother Richard was tempted, to enter a monastery, but he understood the truth in the temptation.

Fox's near-total politicizing of the man results in a pathetic portrayal of Niebuhr's last fifteen years when he was an invalid and could no longer take an active part in the political game. In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr made sharp distinctions among pathos, irony, and tragedy. Briefly stated, he argued that pathos is the result of unhappy circumstance, the pity of it all. Irony is the evil and unintended consequence of noble intention. Tragedy is the result of conscious choice between conflicting goods. What Fox sees as the pathetic last years might better be viewed in terms of the dignity of the tragic.

In his mature writings, Niebuhr anguished over the limitations of the political, and there is ample evidence to believe that he wondered whether, in the intense political engagements of his life, he had chosen the lesser good. In this light, the sadness of the last years may derive not from his no longer being able to do what he had chosen to do but from his doubt as to whether he had chosen well. In Niebuhr's theology, however, tragedy is not beyond redemption. And yet is it precisely Fox's inability or unwillingness to deal with Niebuhr's theology that makes the last years appear as unmitigated pathos. In Fox's telling of the story, Niebuhr's theology is little more than the conceptual armory for the conquest of the main chance of politics.

Let us strain to be fair. Maybe Fox is right. Maybe those admirers whom the philosopher Morton White dubbed “atheists for Niebuhr” were also right. Maybe the theology—all the talk about creaturehood, covenant, cross, resurrection, and transcendent promise—was incidental to, even a distraction from, the essential Niebuhr of political thought and action. And it may be that Niebuhr's passionately expressed support for Israel, his asserted connections between biblical faith and democratic governance, his insistence upon the inherent evil of Marxist-Leninism, and his host of other positions were all but instances of his opportunism and captivity to the political and intellectual exigencies of his time.

It may all be. Only God and now, we trust, Reinhold Niebuhr can say for sure. But that is not how Niebuhr explained himself while he was here. Of course it is possible that in some respects Fox understands Niebuhr better than Niebuhr understood himself. But the definitive biography, when it is written, will give Reinhold Niebuhr at least equal time.


1 See his article, “Needing Niebuhr Again,” COMMENTARY, September 1972.

2 Seabury, 1978.

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