Reinhold Niebuhr, Public Intellectuals, and the History Student

This post is written by Eric Medlin, who holds an M.A. in History from NC State University. 

The relationship between Reinhold Niebuhr and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., two titans of 20th century thought, one a theologian and the other a historian, was one of the closest and most productive between public intellectuals in that century. Examining their relationship raises many questions about the nature of scholarship and the best ways for the academic to influence the public. Chief among these for history students is: what kind of scholar do you want to be?

Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian, historian, and political scientist. He authored the Serenity Prayer along with a multitude of works on the nature of human beings and the problems of political idealism. Biographers credited Niebuhr with reviving the idea of original sin for the industrial age. According to Niebuhr, original sin doomed all ideologies and utopias, since human beings could not be trusted to always act in the best interests of the wider community. Niebuhr advocated for a political community that supported the Christian themes of love and equality while also keeping in mind greed and the human capacity to do evil. As Niebuhr wrote in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” [1]

Niebuhr taught this message at his academic post at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but he also wrote and spoke outside of the college setting. He wrote over 1,000 articles, mostly for newspapers and magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic. He applied insights from theology and history to society’s most pressing problems, from autoworker wages to the death penalty. [2] Along the way, he brought many other academics to a career in the public sphere. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a famous historian and presidential advisor to John F. Kennedy, started writing magazine articles and advising politicians after working with Niebuhr in Americans for Democratic Action. Schlesinger received inspiration not only from Niebuhr’s ideas about human beings, but from the ways in which he sought out platforms and remained compassionate as he commented on world affairs.

Niebuhr and Schlesinger are examples to the 21st century history student who wants to contribute to historical understanding and public discourse. They avoided using academic jargon in their writings while never talking down to their readers. Both writers also attempted to understand their rhetorical and political opponents. Niebuhr’s writings against Marxism and conservatives seemed sincere because he emphasized points of similarity before arguing against an idea or politician. He wrote that, when it came to Marxists and despite all the qualms he had with them, “the charge that this is a creed of moral cynicism cannot be justified… The Marxists, too, are children of light.” [3] In his 1968 work The Crisis of Confidence, Schlesinger supported protestors who fought for “civil rights, civil liberties, education, the humanization of our cities, the relationship between life and environment, the state of the arts,” before later criticizing them for violent tactics and rhetoric. [4] Today’s writers could practice the same level of acceptance by pointing out the ways in which they sympathize with political opponents. Liberal writers could describe the reasons why conservatives support tax cuts or traditional morality before then providing points of disagreement. Members of the millennial generation could show their understanding of baby boomers or Generation X, instead of simply decrying those generations as selfish or hypocritical.

In addition, Niebuhr and Schlesinger gained popular reputations as intellectuals without ever earning a Ph.D. Students today can utilize many of the same venues outside of the academy that earlier public intellectuals did. Newspapers routinely accept well-written op-eds that allow writers to reach thousands of subscribers, and numerous magazines accept articles on historical topics. The advent of Twitter, Medium, and other online platforms only make this dissemination to the wider reading public easier.

But simply being familiar with these venues is not enough. In order to have the greatest possible impact on society, current writers still need to know the legacy of successful intellectuals like Schlesinger and Niebuhr. Their experiences show that consistency, compassion, and appeals to the public can turn a writer into an international celebrity who is read, listened to, and revered throughout their career and beyond. That seems like the kind of legacy that would appeal to many a history graduate student and historian.



[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (New York: C. Scribner, 1960) vi.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Justice and the Death Penalty,” New Republic, August 26, 1957.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (Nisbet and Company, 1943) 29.

[4] Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Crisis of Confidence, (Houghton Mifflin, 1969) 187.

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