Why Niebuhr Matters


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Charles Lemert

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A leading social theorist analyzes how and why Niebuhr's revival has taken place, ultimately arguing for his political and moral relevance today

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a Protestant preacher, an influential religious thinker, and an important moral guide in mid-twentieth-century America. But what does he have to say to us now? In what way does he inform the thinking of political leaders and commentators from Barack Obama and Madeleine Albright to David Brooks and Walter Russell Mead, all of whom acknowledge his influence? In this lively overview of Niebuhr's career, Charles Lemert analyzes why interest in Niebuhr is rising and how Niebuhr provides the answers we ache for in the face of seismic shifts in the global order.

In the middle of the twentieth century, having outgrown a theological liberalism, Niebuhr challenged and rethought the nonsocialist Left in American politics. He developed a political realism that refused to sacrifice ideals to mere pragmatism, or politics to bitterness and greed. He examined the problem of morality in an immoral society and reimagined the balance between rights and freedom for the individual and social justice for the many. With brevity and deep insight, Lemert shows how Niebuhr's ideas illuminate our most difficult questions today.

Charles Lemert is University Professor and Andrus Professor of Social Theory Emeritus at Wesleyan University and Senior Fellow of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University.

"From beginning to end this book is a wonderful read—brisk, intelligent, and relevant, filled with delicious asides, personal reflections, and unexpected turns."—Alan Wolfe, Boston College

“Reinhold Niebuhr's account of moral engagement in the face of both impersonal social systems and more personal forms of evil does indeed matter today. So does his example. Charles Lemert tells Neibuhr's story with feeling and analyzes his writings with intelligence. I'm both moved and grateful.”—Craig Calhoun, President, Social Science Research Council

"A lifetime of academic study and theological reflection has prepared Charles Lemert to write this lucid and moving interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr. Lemert, one of America's most distinguished sociologists, can portray the influence of thinkers as diverse as Max Weber and St. Augustine on Niebuhr's work. Gifted with a crystal clear writing style, Lemert has produced that rarest of treasures: a serious scholarly work that wears its learning lightly and that is immediately accessible to the interested lay reader."—Walter Russell Mead, Editor-at-Large of The American Interest

“Reinhold Niebuhr, as a theologian and political thinker, has never been more urgently relevant than he is today. Charles Lemert has eloquently located Niebuhr's work in its original setting while highlighting its critical importance to the international moral dilemmas we currently face. This well-crafted book is for anyone interested in the interaction of religion, politics and morality.”—Harvey Cox, Harvard University

"A gifted and creative expositor, Lemert provides careful analyses of Niebuhr's most important works, the develoment of his thinking in response to his own life history and concurrent world events, and his study of thinkers like Augustine and Max Weber. . . . Scholars and laypersons alike will find this volume valuable. Highly recommended."—Choice
ISBN: 9780300175424
Publication Date: November 29, 2011
272 pages, 5 1/4 x 7 3/4