President Barack Obama called Reinhold Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher" and "favorite theologian." Obama's Nobel speech in Oslo was full of Niebuhr's perspective. Most of us know of the influences of people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi on Obama, but Niebuhr's impact on the President's thought process is more profound. Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Senator John McCain in his book "Hard Call," celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.
I was introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr in undergraduate college by a professor who had been a student and later a scholar of Niebuhr. Since that time I have watched as Niebuhr's influence grew, waned, and has evolved again as an intellectual and moral influence on presidential candidates and others.
Reinhold Niebuhr was born in 1892 in Wright City, Missouri, the son of a German Evangelical pastor, Gustav, and his wife Lydia. Educated at Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, and Yale Divinity School, he served as pastor of a Detroit church and then took a position as professor at Union Theological Seminary (1930-1960). As with many open and objective thinkers, Niebuhr edited and altered his thinking as he became more and more experienced and reflective. Early on he was a pacifist, but later he evolved as leader of a movement called Christian Realism. He supported U.S. actions in World War II, and supported anti-communism movements. He understood and supported the development of nuclear weapons, but opposed the Vietnam War. One cannot pigeon-hole Niebuhr as one cannot do that with Barack Obama. Their intellect and insight defy oversimplifications.
Neibuhr was an early critic of the Nazi treatment of the Jews in the 1930s and warned about Hitler's intentions in this regard. One of his students, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, became a German pastor and is famous for his outspoken criticism of Hitler and the Nazis, and was executed by them. Niebuhr's impact on students worldwide, and upon leaders worldwide, is immense. Obama's speeches indicate how deeply Niebuhr has influenced him. His Oslo speech was classic Niebuhr.
Quotes from Niebuhr:
"Democracies are indeed slow to make war, but once embarked upon a martial venture are equally slow to make peace and reluctant to make a tolerable, rather than a vindictive, peace."
"Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems."
"Forgiveness is the final form of love."
"Goodness, armed with power, is corrupted; and pure love without power is destroyed."
"Our age knows nothing but reaction, and leaps from one extreme to another."