“American Conscience: The Reinhold Niehbur Story”

Theologian, Writer, Political Activist

Amos Lassen

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an influential theologian, political activist and writer. Martin Doblemeir looks at Niehbur’s life and writings through interviews and the man’s own written legacy. We hear from former president Jimmy Carter, civil rights activist Andrew Young, columnist David Brooks,  author Susannah Heschel, and author Cornel West and others. Actor Hal Holbrook is the voice of Niebuhr.

The film recently debuted as part of Union Theological Seminary’s “Faith in America” series. The documentary brings Niebuhr’s story to a new audience and generation and leads us to a new discussion on the role of religion and theology in the 21st century as we see a faithful perspective on power and justice. I promise these events will be spirited and helpful to anyone who hopes to practice their faith in America today.

 Although he may be best remembered today as the author of the famed “Serenity Prayer,” Reinhold Niebuhr was also an outspoken American-born pastor, writer, and political activist and still remains one of the most influential public theologians of our time.  Presidents from Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter have credited his impact on their thinking, as well as John McCain, countless historians, theologians, political thinkers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who cited Niebuhr in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

Niebuhr’s career spanned some of the most tumultuous and troublesome decades in American history, from World War I through Vietnam, from the Great Depression through the Civil Rights Movement. He was an early pacifist and socialist; closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI throughout his life and would later serve as a consultant to the State Department during the Cold War

Niebuhr rose from having been active on a small Midwest church pulpit to become the nation’s moral voice, an American conscience; like the title of this film during some of the most defining moments in recent history. His books (“Moral Man and Immoral Society”, “The Nature and Destiny of Man” and “The Irony of American History”) still influence theological and political thinking. He was an American original who held unique insights into human nature and its relationship to political movements and social justice and there propelled him to speak openly and often critically, to an America consumed by moral certainty.  Niebuhr saw justice as the priority and his guiding principle was hope in a redeemer God. His weapon was an extraordinary gift for clarity of thought and these made him a leading voice of conscience for his time.

The film is filled with wonderful archival material and includes interviews with internationally recognized historians and theologians.

Leave a Reply