Studying history becomes a bit weird when it enters a period that one actually remembers. Having a historian of today sort out the meaning of events you knew as a young person can be disconcerting. But it also is rather welcome - you don't have to try to get into those alien heads of Jonathan Edwards or Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson or so many others from an age irretrievably lost to time, but just your own head ... as foggy as it may have been at the time.
Such has been the case with Reinhold Niebuhr, at the time of his death often called the greatest theologian of his time. Niebuhr died in 1971 - the year I graduated from college - but my reactions to his thinking, both for and against, had a lot to do with that college education.
Newburgh became a pastor in Detroit in 1915, and was appalled by Henry Ford. Niebuhr concluded that despite Ford's hypocrisy, modern industry had no Christian basis, and industrialists' piety masked only a desire for power and money. Indeed, he wrote, Christian ethics cannot be realized on this ever-changing Earthly society, and Christianity's main social mission was to show this. Ethics, he believed, like any absolute, exists outside our reality, not in it; to Niebuhr it is a goal, but perfection remains unobtainable.
Niebuhr had joined the socialist party in 1929, but (after Stalin's non-aggression pack with Hitler) resigned in 1940. He protested dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, but was unstinting in his belief that the West must defeat Stalin's Communism. America may not be perfect - hardly! - but its defensive aspirations were just - despite the fact that God's aspirations are far more important, and despite the fact that God laughs at the pretensions of the self-righteous, such as us.
Niebuhr has had little impact on American thought in the 40 years since his death. His pessimism fit neither the rose-colored glasses of Republicans nor Democrats. But his thought still has things to say.