DECEMBER 1, 2003
Martin E. Marty
"Liberals lay claim to Niebuhr's legacy" read a headline in The Christian Century (November 29) about Reinhold Niebuhr, the most notable U.S.-born public theologian of the century past (and brother of H. Richard, the most notable theologians' theologian of that place and time). The magazine, quoting the Religion News Service, reminds readers that "for years liberals and conservatives have argued over who has the right to claim [R.N.'s] theological legacy…" At a recent symposium (October 29) at New York's Union Theological Seminary (where Niebuhr taught for thirty years), liberals came out swinging. Everything in Niebuhr's record, as I read it, would pitch him on the liberal side, but naught for their, or anyone's, comfort. Conservatives claimed him because he brought back realism after generations of optimistic liberalism and restated the value of their favorite doctrine, original sin, or, as William Steig's 1942 cartoon put it, that "people are no damn good."
African-American theologian James H. Cone spoke at the Union symposium, but for the moment I want to call attention to the work of another speaker that day, Elisabeth Sifton, author of a book I really, really enjoyed, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. Niebuhr's name does not appear in the title, but he's the subject of this tender (about him and his world) and often bristling (about people he bristled at) memoir.
Since four generations have passed since Niebuhr's prime, I find that he needs a bit of complex introducing for new audiences, but Sifton, a front-rank book editor, does some simple introducing. Part of the book is a defense of her father's authorship of the famed "Serenity Prayer," the "God, give us grace…" petition that is now identified with Alcoholics Anonymous. She bristles at efforts of some to claim that the author was an obscure German pietist. No, her famed American Christian realist father wrote the prayer at Heath, Massachusetts.
The most tender parts of the book tell of summers at Heath, where a "Who's Who" cluster of intellectuals, including theologians and the likes of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, hung out in non-plush surroundings in seasons off. Niebuhr, who occasionally preached there, prayed this prayer.
Not a line of Sifton's book, full of insights that only someone who spent years under roof with Reinhold and Elisabeth's brother and her remarkable mother, Ursula, could know, would substantiate the conservative's claims on Niebuhr. But, as I implied, there's no comfort here for at least old-line liberals. Sifton swings at The Christian Century editors of the 1930s for their pacifism or near-pacifism at the time when her father broke with that magazine and helped found a competitor. She sides with those who see Niebuhrian Christian theology poised to judge the pride of America in its currently-frustrated imperial ways.
I commend the book to readers of the senior generation, which means mine -- two generations after Reinhold's -- to nurture their own fond recalls. For the record, I knew him, but not well. And I commend it to those of younger generations, who will have a hard time picturing how those who surrounded theologians like Niebuhr had a voice and hearing in politics and social ethics.
The context and audience they provided belong to history. And now?