‘An American Conscience’ Parallels Niebuhr to Contemporary Life

A portrait of the American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 - 1971), United States, mid-20th century. (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

One of the first images presented in Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary film, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, is of the title character’s face. The aged visage, however unrecognizable, is split down the middle by a dividing line. To the left, his face remains firm and confident, but on the right of the divide, are lines and lines from the man’s many books and essays. Niebuhr died in 1971 after devoting his entire life to being a prolific public theologian that not too many outside of the academic and theological community seem to remember. Niebuhr may be gone, but Doblmeier judiciously attempts, with his film, to remind people of his face by directing us toward his profound words.

The film screening, held in Simboli Hall on Brighton Campus, featured a room packed tightly with students and professors eager to discover more about Niebuhr from Doblmeier’s film that utilizes talking heads, video clips, and photographs. Doblmeier constructed a straightforward narrative, arguing that Niebuhr’s prominence after World War II was prompted by a certain comfortable uncertainty that rested at the heart of American life and was a result of dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. In the years following the war, Doblmeier noted that there was a noticeable rise in church attendance, creating the perfect environment for a charismatic theologian to thrive in.

Secular and religious people alike flocked to Niebuhr, and he began gaining prominence for his pithy observations of human nature in the years marked by post-war angst. As a Christian theologian, he held strongly to the idea of original sin, believing that while all humans are in err, we usually aspire to act for good. In his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr contended that the fallibility of humans is often preyed upon and exploited by evil organizations. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Niebuhr strongly supported oppressed groups. He notably wrote about the plight of assembly-line workers and of the oppression of the black community in Detroit—asserting that oppressive wielders of power create injustice. Moreover, in his book, The Irony of American History, Niebuhr condemned the absolutist hatred of Communism during the Cold War, and the unabashedly jingoistic view of “perfect” American life. This documentary clearly observes that while Niebuhr undoubtedly loved his country, he was also not afraid to criticize it. By sharing the story of Niebuhr, Doblmeier winds up posing numerous questions that directly relate to American life in the 21st Century.

As the credits rolled, the lights in the room flashed on and the panelists made way to the front of the room for a discussion and Q&A. The panel was lead by Erik Owens, an associate professor of the practice in the theology department, and also consisted of Doblmeier, the director, and four theological scholars: Lisa Cahill, professor and chair of the theology department; Andrew Finstuen; Rev. Mark Massa, S.J.; and Jeremy Sabella. When asked about the importance of Niebuhr in contemporary life, Sabella responded that “he’s strikingly relevant,” which proved true as nearly every following question addressed Donald Trump’s ascendance to power. Enraptured by the film, the panel and audience seemed to be looking to Niebuhr for answers as to how and why Trump was elected President. Rev. Massa contended that many people were seduced by Trump and the Republicans who wielded more power by constructing a stronger narrative than Democrats did in the 2016 election. Channeling Niebuhr, Sabella added that the “vast majority of us are foolish children of the light,” meaning that we almost always try to do good, but are sometimes tricked by people possessing power.

Nearing the end of the discussion, the moderator asked the panel if the U.S. lost anything over the last 50 years. After some discourse, Cahill asserted that the American people need to recognize what Niebuhr recognized: corrupt and evil organizations may exist, but we mustn’t give up and succumb to nihilistic tendencies. Disengaging with politics and faith is dangerous, as it leaves people uninformed, reinforcing the power of evil organizations. Massa later added that in order for a person to reject an idea—be it Christianity or Trump—they must first understand it. Niebuhr often promoted activism, as engagement tends to lead to understanding. Everybody on the panel agreed that the enormous turnouts at the Women’s March and the Muslim Ban Protest are signs of hope, as people are standing up to their oppressors and regaining their American conscience. The film is pressingly relevant, because Niebuhr’s writing and beliefs seem to provide us with insight into contemporary life in America.

Featured Image By Associated Press