Niebuhr's first assignment was the pastorate of the Detroit Evangelical Church, which mainly served automobile workers. There he came to identify with the harsh effects of industrialization on American workers. He soon became an archenemy of industrialist Henry Ford and a staunch proponent of unionization. The effects of World War I infused Niebuhr with a powerful strain of pacifism, which he extolled both in print and from the pulpit.
In 1928 Niebuhr took a faculty position at New York's famed Union Theological Seminary. In the 1930s he strongly advocated on behalf of the more militant faction of the Socialist Party of America, and he believed that a united front that included the Communist Party of the United States was the only prescription for the ills of the Great Depression. World War II moved Niebuhr away from his earlier pacifist stances. Indeed, he became a supporter of war to arrest the march of the Axis powers.
During and after World War II, Niebuhr continued to modify his beliefs and political sympathies. He became the key adherent of what would be called Christian Realism, which advocated a tough approach to politics and diplomacy, especially those that dealt with communist powers such as the Soviet Union. Soon, he became an influential anticommunist crusader and a supporter of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. Indeed, he had come full circle from his early years in the ministry.
Niebuhr had a profound influence on policymakers and political thinkers such as George F. Kennan and Hans J. Morgenthau, who are credited with the rise of political realism, a direct offshoot of Christian Realism. From the early 1950s through the mid-1970s, Niebuhr's prolific writings and lectures on theology, politics, and social issues made him the most important theologian of the time and one of the top political philosophers of the mid–Cold War period. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. read widely in Niebuhr's many works.
In the end, Niebuhr expressed optimism in the U.S. journey toward social justice, despite the prickly issues that were emerging from the Vietnam War. He was perhaps unique for his era in the sense that he was able to straddle the political and the theological so ably. His influence on social, political, and religious thinking cast a long shadow over the Cold War and continues to influence modern-day thinking. Niebuhr retired from the ministry in 1960 and died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on 1 June 1971.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Harland, Gordon. The Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. New York; Oxford University Press, 1960.; Kegley, Charles W., ed. Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought. 2nd ed. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 1984.