Tag Archives: progressive politics

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 18 – The Election of 1948

Richard’s Saskatchewan experience opens him to join the Young People’s Socialist League on his return to New York. He spends the 1948 Fall election season organizing student chapters of the League for Industrial Democracy on college campuses. The presidential election campaign brings on the prominence of the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace’s candidacy. Richard is impressed with the Madison Square Garden gala and presentation of Henry Wallace as Progressive Party nominee and is moved by the performance of Paul Robeson. His loyalty to the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate, is not swayed. He poll watches in his Bronx district and waits for the results at the Socialist post-election gathering at the Claremont Hotel. There he meets Vincent Sheehan, who has just published his best seller on Gandhi.

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Chapter 17 – Up on the Co-op Farm

Chow line on the co-op farm

After the CCF convention in Moosejaw, the students move on to the provincial government in Regina, where they visit offices responsible for universal health insurance, universal auto insurance, and new industrial ventures. The study tour officially ends, but the “Model T Four” sign up to work on the newly organized Carrot River Co-Op Farm in the sparsely settled, harsh northern terrain. The six-day workweek was long and hard, broken up three times a day by a bell calling the workers to the dining hall for meals. The co-op members cleared deeply rooted trees and sawed and planed the trees in a lumber mill for materials to be used in building the settlers’ homes and community facilities. Leaving the farm after a week of heavy rains, the Model T gets stuck in the mud. The farmer who pulls it out gives the four travelers a piece of Saskatchewan advice: “Choose your ruts carefully and stay in them till you get to Prince Albert.” Richard hitchhikes from Winnipeg to West Virginia, arriving just in time for the wedding of his college roommate.

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Chapter 16 – The Shaping of a Socialist

In June 1948, Richard prepares for his upcoming study trip to Canada to see “democratic socialism” in action. The governing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in Saskatchewan was holding its convention in Moosejaw. Before he leaves on his journey, Richard accepts an offer from the League for Industrial Democracy to serve as Student Secretary in the fall. Richard hitchhikes 1,000 miles from Greenwich Village in Manhattan to the Madison, Wisconsin, farm of Walter Uphoff, the Socialist candidate for governor. In Madison he meets up with a group of eighteen students. Richard decides to throw in his lot with three other men and travel the remainder of the way in E. Scott Maynes’s  Model T Ford half truck. At the CCF convention, Richard is moved by the down-to-earth nature of the delegates and their pragmatic concern about how the government programs were serving the people. In meeting one of the CCF’s founders, Richard receives validation of his conviction that there is a place for religion in social and economic justice.

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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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Chapter 13 – Reclaiming A Heritage

Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate, wraps up the school year, and returns to New York. Richard’s job as director of  a Y.M.C.A. summer camp for 12- year-old boys keeps him busy; nevertheless, he witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which heats up criticism of his “socialist” leanings. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of  “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard returns to New York where his leadership in the Student League earns him a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

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Chapter 6 – A Summer to Remember

Photo of Mr. McCreery holding the family dog Spot

Mr. McCreery and Spot

Richard’s mother, Henny, pays constant attention to protecting Richard and his younger sister, Erna, from her tuberculosis. One summer, through the help of a tenement neighbor, Henny sends Richard to live with the McCreery family on a farm outside of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the McCreery’s, Richard learns quickly about farm life. Children who grow up on a farm, he discovers, know more about the facts of life than any of his New York street gang. Richard finds the old swimming hole in Cherry Valley a great respite on the hot summer days. It was certainly more inviting than the garbage-filled East River, Richard reflects. During his visit to Cherry Valley, Richard encounters his first rattle snake on the McCreery lawn and takes an unexpected journey to the Stroudsburg hospital for an emergency appendectomy.

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Welcome to “On the Sidewalks of New York”

This is a note of appreciation for all those folks who have found themselves reading or listening to “On the Sidewalks of New York.”  This website was the good work of my daughter Margaret.  The autobiography was originally written for the family, especially the offspring, who wanted me to put down my stories on paper two decades ago. Under gentle pressure, the stories have now been elevated to public listening via podcasts.

After some hesitancy, and lively conversation with Margaret, a theme for this blog was decided upon. Thinking back over time, it became apparent that the Depression years, which left a deep impact upon my consciousness, is in replay in this last decade. I came through my young adult years, after having chosen a religious course, realizing the close relationship between a prophetic religion and the equality and justice called for in our society. Today, most organized religion is seen as retrogressive in the cause of justice to bring balance to the inequalities evident today. So I decided that this website would engage the conversation about how the prophetic religion we have inherited from our Biblical heritage needs to come into play within this political season. So let the discussion begin.

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