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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

What Would President Niebuhr Do?


Attempting to consider theory and practice together, in politics, presents a challenge when public speech is less open to nuance and often demanding of certainty. Despite the difficulty, Peter Josephson, a professor of politics at Saint Anslem College, and R. Ward Holder, a professor of theology at Saint Anselm’s, took up the challenge in their recent book, Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century. On Wednesday, February 13th, Holder and Josephson joined the Boisi Center for a luncheon colloquium covering their new book and asking the question, “What Would President Niebuhr Do?” The authors suggested that the very project of considering theory and practice together is, in one way, to consider Christianity and realism together as they exist in the public sphere.

Holder and Josephson opened with a brief biography of Niebuhr showing how deeply he is connected with the best of the American dream within our imaginations. They dived right into the challenges of the book, starting with five theological-political foci that serve as foundations for Niebuhrian thought regarding politics today: human anthropology, human societies and justice, faith and history, sin and the “easy conscience,” and Christian responsibility in the world. As they spoke more about Niebuhr’s understandings of human anthropology, they noted his observation that the modern age has spent too much time convincing itself something about humans that isn’t true; correcting that anthropology is necessary for dealing adequately with practical concerns. Similarly, Niebuhr held that any purely political or merely social-scientific solution to political questions would not suffice -- such solutions taken alone are, rather, sins of pride that remove the needed tension between public and private power.

Niebuhr’s thought is challenging not only to larger theoretical tendencies of modernity. Niebuhr stressed that the reason we did not fully understand some of the monstrosities of the twentieth century was because we have yet to fully understand ourselves; each crisis, like the Cold War, offers an occasion to critique our own political conscience, an occasion for self-reflection. Likewise, any “easy conscience” -- either on the right of laissez-faire liberalism or on the left of the administrative state -- must be understood as representing only half-truths.

During the Q&A, Holder and Josephson spoke further on Niebuhr’s understanding of the virtue of a constitutional system of checks and balances, “in which pride meets its match.” No one person or office has the sufficient knowledge and foresight to do without another checking its power. Niebuhr’s understanding of the constructs of our nation offers insight into how we can continue to build wisely within our diverse society, cognizant of the dangers of sin and pride and the complexities that require political-theological thought.