Category Archives: Union Theological Seminary

Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Era of Trump

by Richard Poethig

This past season a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience” lifted up the life and work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is remembered for the crucial role that he played in mid-20th century international affairs. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who saw the dimension of Niebuhr’s understanding of power in politics, have kept his influence alive in their own political thinking through these latter years.

This week as James Comey, former director of the FBI, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his conversations with President Trump, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in his thinking will come to bear. A June 4, 2017, article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, relates Comey’s attention to Niebuhr’s theology of power. The Guardian quotes Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University, on how Niebuhr’s influence on Comey will play out in the upcoming Congressional inquiry: “If you think of moral man caught in an immoral society, for someone who truly understands Niebuhr and the inherent conflicts between power and justice, this all has an aura of destiny to it.”

Niebuhr’s strength was in his ability to speak an incisive and prophetic word to the power politics of his day. I was fortunate to have sat under Niebuhr when he was a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My years at Union—1949 to 1952—coincided with a crucial period in Niebuhr’s teaching and political influence.

It was the period of the Cold War. Niebuhr was invited by George Kennan, the U.S. Secretary of State, to participate in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Out of these policy discussions was borne the Cold War policy of containment. In this period Niebuhr wrote one of his most influential works on international politics, “The Irony of American History,” which showcases the maintenance of the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States in a nuclear age.

Niebuhr’s understanding of the way power is used in society was the strength of one of his first books: “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” It was written in the depths of the Depression in 1932 and after a ministry in Detroit, in which he faced off against Henry Ford and his domination of the automotive industry and the workers under his control. “Power,” Niebuhr wrote, “has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932 at the depths of the Depression. It has a ring for us today when we realize that what is happening to us is a replay of the economic power, in the hands of political power, which is calling the shots, rewarding itself, and telling us this is all in the cause of “making America great again.” Niebuhr’s words ring true today and we hope that there will be those who will give leadership in bringing justice to the work of our government agencies, in the deliberations of our courts, in the freedom of our media in support of the truth, in the health of our unions on behalf of worker rights and in the voice of our people to be heard in the preservation our democratic processes and pursuit of human rights.

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Chapter 26 – Leaving New York Behind

“We’re off on the trip of our lives!”

Richard introduces Eunice to the Poethig clan at a raucous feast at his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yorkville. Eunice introduces Richard to her mother and brother at Christmastime in Dayton, Ohio. They begin plans for a June wedding. All the time Richard is writing his senior thesis on “A Christian Doctrine of Work for a Modern Technological Society” and trying to tie down a job. An intriguing prospect is a new church development in a working-class, industrial suburb of Buffalo. Richard travels Upstate to meet with the organizing committee. The folks in the Town of Tonawanda invite him to organize their congregation, and Richard and Eunice agree. They finish up their studies, graduate, and head for Dayton to be married. The wedding on June 7, 1952, is a joyous assembly of people from Eunice’s and Richard’s lives. The couple returns to New York from a honeymoon camping trip in New England in time for Richard’s ordination at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 27th. After saying goodbye to his father and sister, Richard and Eunice drive north out of New York City. As Richard watches the skyline change, he has a strong feeling that a new book is opening in his life.

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Chapter 25 – Starting A New Chapter

As seniors at Union, Richard and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, are responsible for welcoming the incoming students through “round robins” hosted in the homes of faculty. Richard takes notice of an attractive newcomer in Jim’s group. He conspires with Jim (who owns a car) to drive Eunice Blanchard back to her residence at the James Foundation, with a stop on the way at the Gay Vienna, a German restaurant in Richard’s old neighborhood. Over apple strudel, coffee, and dark beer (for the men), a romance begins that in less than a month, on Columbus Day in October, 1951, becomes an engagement.

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Chapter 24 – An Adirondack Summer

Jim McNaughton (left) and Richard in 1951 at Stony Point Center, New York.

Richard decides he needs a change of pace for his second summer field assignment and signs up to work amidst the lakes and falls and trees in Upstate New York. He and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, team up for a project in the Adirondacks larger parish. But first, during their second year at Union, Richard and Jim liven up Union Seminary politics, and Richard gives his first sermon in the wreckage of a violent wind and thunder storm that whips through the New Jersey Palisades community where he is doing his church field work. In the Adirondacks, Richard and Jim divide up the Sunday preaching responsibilities of a four-point parish, centered at the Syracuse University School of Forestry in Wanakena. Richard gets his fill of fresh air and sunshine as he and Jim spend the weekdays saving White Pine trees from weevil damage in the forests planted during the New Deal. They returned to Union with much preaching and even more “weeviling” under their belts.

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Chapter 23 – On the Line

“Workers pour molten metal into castings, circa 1950s,” Teaching & Learning Cleveland, accessed October 6, 2012, http://csudigitalhumanities.org/

Beyond their jobs in the steel mills, Richard and the other the Ministers-in-Industry participants take part in evening discussions and study visits to deepen their understanding of the church’s responsibility with industrial workers. At work, they continue to shield their identities as seminarians to keep the situation real. The seminar discussions are alive with the retelling of the day’s events and the culture of factory life, as the seminarians become more engrossed with the lives of their co-workers. Study visits to United Steel Worker offices and the U.S. Steel headquarters, and to the rectory of Father Charles Rice, a prominent “labor priest” in the Roman Catholic Church, round out the program. Over the summer, the seminarians go through a sea change in their perspective on the effects of industry on working people, and the direction of Richard’s ministry is now more clearly in focus.

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Chapter 22 – The Summer of 1950

Edgar Thomson Works of U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh.

In the summer of 1950 Richard goes to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. The job was both necessary to help pay the tuition at Union Seminary, and also part of his theological education. Through Richard’s first “field work” experience with the youth at Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, he puts together a program exploring world religions that includes a field trip to a Black Muslim mosque in Newark. Ultimately, Richard decides that the suburban environment is not for him. He accepts an invitation to join eighteen seminarians in the Ministers-in-Industry project organized by the Presbyterian Institute of Industrial Relations (PIIR), a program for which Richard was later to serve as the last dean. Posing as regular college students, the seminarians get jobs in the steel industry in Pittsburgh and engage in seminar discussions after work about the role of the church in the lives of working people. On the splice bar line at the Braddock Works of U.S. Steel, Richard learns about hard physical labor and worker solidarity.

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Chapter 21 – Reinie

At Union Seminary Richard decides to study Christian social ethics under Reinhold Niebuhr. In his first semester, Richard immediately audits a seminar being co-taught by John Bennett and Reinhold Niebuhr on “Christianity and Communism.”  The seminar is prompted by the victory of the People’s Army of China in driving the Nationalist Army out of mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. Niebuhr shows his humility by bringing in outside speakers: overseas people, missionaries, and those with expertise in international affairs. During these years Niebuhr is invited by George Kennan to take part in State Department policy deliberations in Washington, D.C. Richard comes to appreciate the more measured approach of John Bennett in contrast to Niebuhr’s charismatic and exacting insights into world politics. Nevertheless, Richard is drawn to Niebuhr’s central insight into human sin as the pride in power, and to Niebuhr’s humanity as a New York Giants fan. In 1951, Niebuhr shares with Richard his theological response to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”

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Chapter 20 – Beginning at the Beginning

podcast artworkAs he enters Union Theological Seminary, Richard looks forward to his studies under Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most challenging theological thinkers of his generation. In his last summer at the Dress Joint Board of the ILGWU, he discovers Niebuhr’s name is well known among the garment worker officers. Educational Director Will Herberg, a former Communist, has been converted back to his Jewish faith by Niebuhr’s theology. Richard soon learns that he is part of the “Golden Age” of teaching at Union Theological Seminary. Beginning at the beginning in Genesis, Jim Muilenburg’s dramatic teaching style fires up the seminarians for three years of prophetic learning. Richard’s excitement is heightened by the critical view of preaching by George Buttrick, his pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

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Chapter 19 – Saying Good-bye

Wooster’s Kauke Arch in 1947

Richard gets together with old New York friends Jerry Pospisil and Dick Frothingham at a rathskeller in the midst of the Christmas snowfall of ’48 that leaves New York at a total standstill. Before leaving for his final semester at Wooster, Richard is elected national chairperson of the National Student League. He travels to Ottawa to represent the Student League at the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth University Federation (CCUF) convention. His recent co-op farm experience in Saskatchewan wins him connections among the CCUF delegates. He turns his attention to choosing a seminary. His course on Niebuhr with Robert Bonthius, Wooster’s religion professor, confirms his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary. Richard is accepted at Union and he leaves Wooster with the recognition of the college’s contribution to his expansion as a person and to his religious and political development.

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