An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

 

Although he may be best remembered today as the author of the famed “Serenity Prayer,” Reinhold Niebuhr — an outspoken American-born pastor, writer, and political activist — remains one of the most influential public theologians of our time.  Presidents from Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter have credited his impact on their thinking, as well as John McCain, countless historians, theologians, political thinkers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who cited Niebuhr in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

Niebuhr’s career spanned some of the most tumultuous decades in American history, from World War I through Vietnam, from the Great Depression through the Civil Rights Movement. An early pacifist and socialist, he was closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI throughout his life, but would later serve as a consultant to the State Department during the Cold War

Niebuhr rose from a small Midwest church pulpit to become the nation’s moral voice — an American conscience — during some of the most defining moments in recent history. His books, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941–43) and The Irony of American History (1952), continue to influence theological and political thinking. An American original, his unique insights into human nature and its relationship to political movements and social justice propelled him to speak openly, and often critically, to an America consumed by moral certainty.  For Niebuhr the priority was always justice, his guiding principle was hope in a redeemer God, and his weapon was an extraordinary gift for clarity of thought that made him a leading voice of conscience for his time.

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story is directed, written and narrated by Martin Doblmeier, the creator of dozens of provocative, award-winning films on faith including Chaplains and Bonhoeffer. Rich in archival material, the documentary features interviews with former President Jimmy Carter,  Cornel West, Andrew Young, David Brooks, Susannah Heschel and a host of internationally recognized historians and theologians.

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story is produced by Journey Films, Inc., and is a presentation of Maryland Public Television. Major funding provided by the Lilly Endowment. Additional funding provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

INTERVIEWEES

Dr. Cornel West

Dr. Cornel West

Dr. Cornel West is Professor Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris. In addition to his acclaimed scholarship, Dr. West is a tireless activist who has contributed to numerous social movements.  His many books include Race Matters (Beacon Press, 2001) and Democracy Matters (2004).

President Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter is the 39th President of the United States and founder of the Carter Center. Following his presidency, Carter established himself as one of the world’s premiere humanitarians. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Susannah Heschel

Susannah Heschel

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor and chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. The daughter of the famed theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, her scholarship focuses on Jewish and Christian thought in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries.  She is currently a Guggenheim Fellow and writing a book on the history of European Jewish scholarship on Islam.

Andrew Young

Andrew Young

Andrew Young is a former congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. After graduating from Howard University and Hartford Theological Seminary, Young worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement and helped draft both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He is the author of An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (Harper Collins, 1996).

David Brooks

David Brooks

David Brooks is an author, cultural critic and commentator. A New York Times columnist, he appears regularly on PBS NewsHour, NPR’s All Things Considered, and NBC’s Meet the Press. He teaches at Yale University and is the author of the critically acclaimed The Road to Character (Random House, 2015).

Elisabeth Sifton

Elisabeth Sifton

Elisabeth Sifton is a writer and retired book publisher. The daughter of Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr, she is the author of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War (W. W. Norton, 2003); co-author with her late husband, Fritz Stern, of No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (New York Review Books, 2013), and editor of the Library of America’s Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics (2015).

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University Divinity School. Widely recognized as one of the most influential thinkers in theological ethics, Hauerwas delivered the Gifford Lectures in 2000 and was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time Magazine in 2001.  Hauerwas is the author of With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Brazos Press, 2003).

Mark Massa

Mark Massa

Fr. Mark S. Massa, S.J. was educated at the University of Detroit, the University of Chicago and Harvard. Fr. Massa has taught at Fordham University, served as Dean of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, and currently directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.  His award-winning book, Catholics and American Culture (Crossroad, 2005), used Niebuhr’s concept of irony as a lens through which to examine 20th century American Catholicism.

Healan Gaston

Healan Gaston

K. Healan Gaston is a lecturer on American Religious History at Harvard Divinity School and served as a consultant on An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.  The president of the Niebuhr Society, she is the author of A Bad Kind of Magic: The Niebuhr Brothers on ‘Utilitarian Christianity and the Defense of Democracy (Harvard Theological Review, January 2014). Her upcoming book is on the “prophetic pluralism” of the Niebuhr brothers.

Ron Stone

Ron Stone

Ronald H. Stone is the John Witherspoon Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. During his studies at Union Theological Seminary, Dr. Stone had the distinction of serving as Niebuhr’s final graduate assistant.  He is the author of Faith and Politics: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York (Mercer University Press, 2012).

Robin Lovin

Robin Lovin

Robin Lovin is a senior research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, and is the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics Emeritus at Southern Methodist University. An expert on Niebuhr’s life and thought, Dr. Lovin is the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Christian Realism and the New Realities (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. An Episcopal priest, he is the author of 17 books and his most recent work, The New Abolition: WEB DuBois and the Black Social Gospel recently won the Grawemeyer Award.

Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich is a nationally recognized historian with a focus on International Relations.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and Professor Emeritus at Boston University.  His latest book is American’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House, 2016).

Andrew Finstuen

Andrew Finstuen

Andrew Finstuen is the dean of the Honors College at Boise State, Associate Professor in the Department of History, and a producer of An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.  He co-directed the Worlds of Billy Graham project and is the author of the award-winning book Original Sin and Everyday Protestants (University of North Carolina, 2009).

PRESS

COMPANION BOOK

COMPANION BOOK DESCRIPTION

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was an inner-city pastor, ethics professor, and author of the famous Serenity Prayer. Time magazine’s March 8, 1948, cover story called him “the greatest Protestant theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards.” Cited as an influence by public figures ranging from Billy Graham to Barack Obama, Niebuhr was described by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as “the most influential American theologian of the twentieth century.”

In this companion volume to the forthcoming documentary film by Martin Doblmeier on the life and influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, Jeremy Sabella draws on an unprecedented set of exclusive interviews to explore how Niebuhr continues to compel minds and stir consciences in the twenty-first century. Interviews with leading voices such as Jimmy Carter, David Brooks, Cornel West, and Stanley Hauerwas as well as with people who knew Niebuhr personally, including his daughter Elisabeth, provide a rich trove of original material to help readers understand Niebuhr’s enduring impact on American life and thought.

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