The Relevant Reverend, by Rev. Dr. Herbert F. Vetter
Reinhold Niebuhr, the preacher and teacher who helped a whole generation in this nation to spurn illusions and to learn through practical affairs that religion is realism. His contribution was made at the critical moment of America’s arrival as the most stable, most destructive, and most creative of the powers on this planet. Whatever reservations we may have about his thought, many of us sense that in his realistic application of Christian ethics to the problems of life in the thermonuclear age, Niebuhr is the antithesis of the irrelevant reverend.
In 1958 he was presented, at a huge Waldorf Astoria dinner, with an award for ten years of service to the liberal cause at home and abroad. Among the speakers that evening were Averill Harriman and Adlai Stevenson, but let us turn to the words of Niebuhr himself. He said on this occasion: “In academic circles they don’t think I’m a liberal at all. They think a liberal must have mild illusions about human nature. I don’t have mild, or any kind of illusions about human nature—except of course my own.”
As he went on, this member of the American clergy, who embodies the essential realism all free people must have if they are to preserve the order of freedom for the generations of mankind yet to come, stated: “Liberalism is openness, openness both to the promise and the perils of the future.”
Niebuhr exemplified this reality-oriented openness. I take seriously the statement by a foremost leader of the realist school of international politics and former teacher of mine, Hans Morgenthau, that Reinhold Niebuhr is the greatest American political thinker since John Calhoun.