Tag Archives: labor unions

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 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 15 – A Turning Point

podcast artworkRichard’s leadership of the Student League for Industrial Democracy on the Wooster campus has not gone unnoticed. Dr. Ver Steeg of the Geology Department, one of the faculty’s conservative members, confronts Richard about information he has received from the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Congress about the Student League in the 1930s. Richard deflects Dr. Ver Steeg’s finding, pointing to the collapse of the Student League at that time and its rebirth in the post-War period. Leading up to the 1948 Presidential election, the Student League leverages the mock Republican Convention on campus to promote its agenda by nominating a liberal Republican, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, as a candidate. Although derided as a non-candidate by the conservative Republican student participants, Morse becomes a contender in the mock convention and runs second to Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. On a trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the peace time draft, Richard meets with Senator Morse, who commends the Wooster students’ efforts.

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Chapter 14 – A Union Summer

podcast artworkDuring the summer of 1947, Richard works for the Dress Joint Board in New York City’s Garment District. The experience heightens his liberal sensitivities toward the issues of working people. His fellow student summer workers clue him in on the ideological struggles within the union, including the affiliation between some garment manufacturers and the mob in an effort to control the union. Richard listens to the stories of hardship of the garment workers applying for unemployment benefits.  The stream of people he interviews resembles the cast of characters  in Leo Rosten’s  The Education of  H*Y*M*A*N  K*A*P*L*A*N, with their unique accents and their creative and amusing way of speaking the English language. Richard also learns more about the the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) from his co-workers. The summer experience affirms his growing support for organizing a liberal  student movement.

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