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Serenity now: Reinhold Niebuhr for brittle times

Review: An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. Journey Films. $19.95

Barack Obama’s eight years as president kindled renewed interest in the late Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), and it’s a source of whimsy to see Niebuhr remaining in the spotlight during the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Obama credited Niebuhr with influencing his political thinking. What has kept the focus on Niebuhr in the Trump years is his influence on James Comey, who wrote an undergraduate thesis at William & Mary College that compared the political thinking of Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell. Comey used Reinhold Niebuhr as his nom de plume on Twitter until Ashley Feinberg of Gizmodo decoded that mystery. Comey’s alter ego congratulated the journalist and encouraged her to apply to work at the FBI.

Now that Comey has secured a book deal, odds are good that Niebuhr will haunt those pages as well.

If these stranger-than-fiction flashes of interest in Niebuhr send some people to An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, which aired on PBS earlier this year and is available on DVD, so much the better. Of the few filmmakers who devote attention to spiritual leaders, nobody does a better job than Martin Doblmeier, whose previous subjects have included Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Seventh-day Adventists, Taizé, and Washington National Cathedral.

Doblmeier has gathered several essential voices for evaluating Niebuhr’s work: Stanley Hauerwas, Cornel West, and Susannah Heschel, who reflects on the deep friendship between Niebuhr and her father, Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Niebuhr asked Heschel to preach at his funeral. “For many of us, the world will be darker without you,” the rabbi said.

Hauerwas and West bring their characteristic flair and passion to the topic. Hauerwas says he disagrees with almost everything Niebuhr said but loves him anyway.

“What Niebuhr gives you is a sense that you know the way the world is and you have a role in it. Isn’t that wonderful?” Hauerwas says, grinning before adding this: “You know what it is that justice is going to require conflict in a way that frees you from the sentimentalities that are so often associated with Christian language of Oh, we need to be reconciled. Oh, we need to love our enemies, and so on. Niebuhr makes you a hard-headed player in the world in which we find ourselves as a Christian. Isn’t that seductive?”

Hauerwas later quotes from Nieburh’s Gifford Lecture during World War II: “If you want justice, you better be ready to kill someone.”

West praises Niebuhr’s Augustinian sensibility: “The good and evil are shot through our souls, and there’s a civil war taking place on the battlefield of our hearts, each and every one of us.”

The late Mike Wallace of CBS News makes a cameo at the beginning of the film, asking Niebuhr a brilliant open-ended question: Is freedom necessary?

Proving that Niebuhr’s thinking crossed many ideological borders even as he worked at Union Theological Seminary, Union’s Gary Dorrien remembers that Niebuhr delighted in the existence of a group known as Atheists for Niebuhr.

An American Conscience touches only briefly on some details that would benefit from fuller discussion, such as his persuading Union to hire Paul Tillich (which saved Tillich from Nazi Germany) and his scathing criticism of evangelist Billy Graham. Doblmeier gives due attention to Niebuhr’s other legacy as the man who made the Serenity Prayer the cultural totem that it became.

Hal Holbrook reads from Niebuhr’s works, which is a disappointment. Holbrook has a rich voice, but it is nasal and reedy compared to Niebuhr’s growl. Should Hollywood ever plan a biopic, I hope a casting director will consider Paul Giamatti.


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