“Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics” (Sifton, ed.)

This month, the Library of America released “Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics” edited by Elisabeth Sifton. The publisher’s description follows:

From the 1920s through the 1960s, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was among America’s most prominent public intellectuals. As a pastor, teacher, and writer, he bridged the divide between religion and politics with perspicacity, grace, and singular intelligence, whether writing about pacifism and “just war” theory, the problem of evil in history, or the crises of war, the Depression, and social conflict. His provocative essays, lectures, and sermons from before and during World War II, in the postwar years, and at the time of the Civil Rights Movement offered searching analyses of the forces shaping American life and politics. Their profound insights into the causes of economic inequality, the challenges of achieving social justice, and the risks of adventurism in the international sphere are as relevant today as they were when he composed them.

This volume, prepared with extensive notes and a chronology by the author’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, is the largest, most comprehensive edition of Niebuhr’s writings ever published. It brings together the books Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929), his personal reflections on his experiences as a young pastor in Detroit as it was being transformed by the explosive growth of the auto industry; Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), a brilliant and tough-minded work that draws out the implications of Niebuhr’s view that while individuals can sometimes overcome the temptations of self-interest, larger groups never can; The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), a passionate defense of democracy written during World War II; and the essential study that Andrew Bacevich has called “the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy”: The Irony of American History (1952), a consideration of American conduct in the early Cold War years that takes equal aim at Soviet communism and at the moral complacency of the United States in its newfound global ascendancy.

These four works are supplemented with essays, lectures, and sermons drawn from Niebuhr’s many other books, as well as prayers—among them the well-known Serenity Prayer. The volume also includes a chronologically arranged selection of his journalism about current events, many of the pieces appearing here in book form for the first time. “We are bound to go back to Niebuhr,” the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once wrote, “because we cannot escape the dark heart of man and because we cannot permit an awareness of this darkness to inhibit action and abolish hope.”

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