But today the public memory of Niebuhr -- where he is remembered at all -- is filled, appropriately enough, with ironies. (Niebuhr was big on ironies.)
One might have guessed that this lifelong left-liberal in politics would be often invoked by political conservatives, from Henry Luce (who once had him on Time magazine's cover) to Michael Novak (who wrote in 1972 about "Needing Niebuhr Again") to David Brooks, who recently proposed in The Atlantic Monthly that if America is to have a "hawkish left," Niebuhr should be its hero. One might also have guessed that many of Niebuhr's fellow left-liberals would forget him or dismiss him as a rigid Cold Warrior and total wet blanket to their hopes and dreams, or that many of those keeping alive the work of this Protestant preacher would be folk who otherwise had no truck with preachers. (According to historical legend, when the New York City Council voted in the late `70s to name the corner of Broadway and 120th Street "Reinhold Niebuhr Plaza," all the Jews on the council, but none of the nominal Christians, knew who he was.)
But perhaps the biggest irony is that the most widely known product of Niebuhr's pen isn't a magisterial passage from a book such as "The Nature and Destiny of Man" but a short prayer he composed in the dark days of World War II, for a summer church service in Heath, Mass., where he and his family spent summers. His daughter Elisabeth Sifton tells the story in her new book, "The Serenity Prayer" (Norton), a memoir of her father and his world and of his most famous utterance's strange afterlife.
The prayer, as he gave it one Sunday, went as follows: "God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
An Episcopalian clergyman asked to include the prayer in a devotional document for the embattled American armed services. It was later adopted, with Niebuhr's permission, by Alcoholics Anonymous and took on a life of its own with recovering alcoholics. After World War II, recovering Germans would claim it had been written a long time ago by a German.
At some point the prayer was simplified. Printed on Hallmark cards. Displayed in plaques with praying hands by Albrecht Durer on countless walls. On bookmarks and keychains and coffee mugs. (Sifton asks, "And ash trays?") One is astounded to hear it even in the background of a number called "Gotta Make it to Heaven" by the rap artist 50 Cent. (There cannot be many professors of Christian ethics who have achieved a reach like that!)
But such simple reachings after feel-good serenity obscure Niebuhr's deeper legacy -- his profound, simultaneous indictment of self-righteousness, complacency, and despair.
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Niebuhr, the son of an immigrant pastor, started out in the 1920s as a radical preacher in a small German-American denomination in Detroit. His sense of social justice was evident from the beginning. When in 1927 Henry Ford shut down the plant to convert the Model T (known as the "Lizzie") into the Model A, Niebuhr wrote: The car "cost Ford workers at least fifty million in lost wages . . .. What a civilization this is! Nave gentlemen with a genius for mechanics suddenly become the arbiters over the lives and fortunes of hundreds of thousands . . .. The cry of the hungry is drowned in the song, `Henry made a lady out of Lizzie."'
In the depths of the Depression, Niebuhr moved to New York to become a professor at the interdenominational Union Seminary. Some who read his 1932 book, "Moral Man and Immoral Society," felt like a watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. In one passage, Niebuhr anticipated the moral and political rationale for America's civil rights movement -- that is, not just nonviolence but nonviolent direct action against racial discrimination in America. "However large the number of individual white men who . . . identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so. Upon that point one may speak with a dogmatism which all history justifies."
Niebuhr had come to his core perception, variously elaborated over the years, of the many-sided egotism of human beings -- which is only compounded in groups. In his view, self-deception is a key aspect of self-seeking: We regularly think of ourselves as more virtuous than we are, especially if we have some privileged position, which we kid ourselves that we deserve. The nonprivileged have their own forms of collective egotism and self-deception, too. But social justice requires, first, rectifying the imbalances among the classes.
Reading Saint Augustine, Niebuhr increasingly saw his view expressed in the doctrine of the sinful nature of humankind, which he explored in thorough detail in his magnum opus -- a series of lectures delivered in Edinburgh as bombs fell on England at the start of World War II, and later published as "The Nature and Destiny of Man."
After World War I, Niebuhr had followed a great many American preachers in becoming a strong opponent of war. But his growing perception of the fascist threat, and his growing theoretical awareness of power, radically changed his view. He resigned from the leading pacifist organization in 1934 and became an early and vigorous opponent of Hitler and an alert helper to those fleeing from Nazism. While Niebuhr respected lifelong principled pacifists, still he argued fiercely: You mean if you could get the number of conscientious objectors in England to rise from two percent up to 30 percent -- then Hitler would stop?
As a young man Niebuhr had been slightly influenced by Marx, but characteristically he saw early the self-deceptions in the Marxist movement: moral cynicism on the one side, combined with uncritical idealism about the proletariat, the party, and the Soviet Union on the other. After the war he had an influence on the architect of Truman's containment policy, George Kennan, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson's famous phrase "the pattern of responsibility" may have come from Niebuhr. In the late `40s, he joined liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and auto workers' union leader Walter Reuther in forming Americans for Democratic Action, an organization that was committed to civil rights and other progressive causes, but also strongly anticommunist. In Niebuhr's view, the Soviet Union could not be resisted with pious hopes alone.
But for all his emphasis on balancing power with power, including military power, Niebuhr was no hawk. The point was "discriminate judgement": that is, careful observation of the facts, and careful moral distinctions based upon them. (As the Serenity Prayer put it, "the wisdom to know the one from the other.") He opposed the American war in Vietnam and its supporters' false analogies to Nazi aggression and appeasement.
The point was also relative judgement. Niebuhr strongly supported the Allies, with all their faults, against Hitler. He supported "the free world" against the Soviet empire. But he kept in view the self-deception and pretense in that phrase, "the free world." Although he made the relative and discriminate judgement strongly to support our side in the Cold War, Niebuhr interpreted the Cold War as two systems of organized self-righteousness confronting each other. Now one system is gone, and the self-righteousness of the other expands to fill the world.
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So why the ironies that surround his memory today? The prime causes were the impossible possibilities that were combined in Niebuhr. In his thought, Niebuhr combined progressive politics with a realistic understanding of human limitation and a restatement of the Christian myths, a valuable but volatile compound. In his lifetime there were believers who shared his theology but neglected his politics; "atheists for Niebuhr" who accepted his political ideas and moral outlook; conservatives who liked his religiosity and what they considered his hardheaded "realism" but not his practical politics. When Niebuhr himself was hobbled by a series of strokes, and then died in 1971, more was subtracted than is usual when a thinker departs the scene. A large part of Niebuhrianism was what Niebuhr alone could do.
As for his famous prayer, the irony is that the version that has achieved mass distribution is really rather un-Niebuhrian. He was less concerned with individual healing than with political responsibility, and was critical of the pious individualism and sentimentality that marred much of religion in America.
As Sifton points out, the prayer as Niebuhr wrote it was communal. He wrote, "God, Grant us," not "me." Moreover, AA's altered version refers merely to the things one "can" change, rather than the things one "should" change. This reduces the prayer strictly to an individual supplication, dependent on one's own limited abilities. The AA version also eliminates praying for "grace" and strikes straight for that soothing word "serenity," which in truth could almost have been dropped from the original version without much loss.
But Niebuhr did use the word serenity, with his own meaning, in the prayer and in other places too. In his own person he was the opposite of what most people would mean by "serene." He was astonishingly energetic, constantly thinking, tirelessly doing all he could to combat the injustices of the world. The ultimate composure he was talking about is not achieved by withdrawal, avoidance, and self-protection, but only in the midst of difficult engagement.
In "The Irony of American History," he put the point plainly: "The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than `happiness."'
One can imagine how baffled Niebuhr would be by his afterlife in the strange new world of the Internet, where a dumbed-down version of his prayer appears on a plethora of Serenity Prayer websites peddling highly un-Niebuhrian "Live One Day at a Time" pieties. But then no one more than he recognized the "incongruities" of life, the "fragmentary character of human existence."
"The final wisdom of life," he once wrote, "requires, not the annulment of incongruity, but the achievement of" -- yes -- "serenity within and above it."
William Lee Miller is the author of "Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography."
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