What Would President Niebuhr Do? Applying Niebuhrian Thought to Contemporary Politics

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R. Ward Holder
St. Anselm College

Peter Josephson
St. Anselm College

Date: Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Location: Boisi Center 


R. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson, both from St. Anselm's College, will discuss their new book: Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century, during a lunch colloquium at the Boisi Center. The book takes up what the practical application of Niebuhrian policies would look like, as well as seeking to understand the country’s rapid move from a “Niebuhrian moment,” to an America First neo-populism. 

Speaker Bios

R. Ward Holder

R. Ward Holder is a historical and political theologian, and professor of theology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He writes on the Reformation, biblical interpretation, and the manner in which religious convictions shape modern politics and political theory. Among other works, he has authored John Calvin and the Grounding of Interpretation: Calvin’s First Commentaries, (Brill, 2006); and has edited A Companion to Paul in the Reformation, (Brill, 2009); and John Calvin in Context, (Cambridge, 2019). Among his political theological efforts he has co-authored, with Peter B. Josephson, The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft (Ashgate, 2012) and Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century, (Lexington, 2018).

Peter Josephson

Peter Josephson is Professor of Politics and Chair of the Department of Politics at Saint Anselm College. From 2012 to 2015 he held the Richard L. Bready Chair in Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good. Josephson is the author of The Great Art of Government: Locke's Use of Consent (University Press of Kansas, 2002), and with R. Ward Holder, the co-author of The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft (Ashgate, 2012) and Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century (Lexington, 2018). Josephson’s articles and book chapters include work on Hobbes and Locke, theories of political economy, the political philosophy of Henry Kissinger, as well as works on politics and popular culture. His current research returns to the works of John Locke to explore the relation between philosophy and politics in the liberal regime.

Event Recap

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.

Read More


Babones, Salvatore J. The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts. Medford: Polity, 2018.

Erwin, Scott R (Scott Robert). The Theological Vision of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History“In the Battle Above It”. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.    

Holder, Ward and Peter Josephson. Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century. Lexington, MA: Lexington Press, 2018. 

Niebuhr, Reinhold and Elizabeth Sifton, ed. Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2015.

Wolfe, Alan. The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Wright, Andrew. Christianity and Critical Realism: Ambiguity, Truth, and Theological Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2013.  


Carlson, John D. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Richard John Neuhaus: Religion and American Public Life in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.” Political Theology 14, no.3 (January 2013): 362-374.  DOI: 10.1179/1462317X13Z.00000000030

Grigor Suny, Ronald. “The Crisis of Bourgeois Democracy: the Fate of an Experiment in the Age of Nationalism, Populism, and Neo-liberalism.” New Perspectives on Turkey 57, (November 2017): 115-141. DOI: 10.1017/npt.2017.32

Sabella, Jeremy Luis. “Establishment Radical: Assessing the Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Reflections on the End of an Era.” Political Theology 18, no.5 (July 2017): 377-398). DOI: 10.1179/1462317X15Z.000000000176

Schmidt, Vivien A. “Britain-Out and Trump-In: a Discursive Institutionalist Analysis of the British Referendum on the E.U. and the U.S. Presidential Election.” Review of International Political Economy 24, no.2 (April 2017): 248-269. 
DOI: 10.1080/09692290.2017.1304974

Richie, Tony L. “A Politics of Pluralism in American Democracy: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism as a National Resource in a Post-9/11 World.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 45, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 471.  

In the News

This 2018 review of James Comey’s bestselling book A Higher Loyalty breaks down how Comey, who studied Niebuhr, applied some of his ideas in his practice as a public official and in his writing. Comey, who has been a major figure in recent American politics, was greatly influenced by Niebuhr's ideas on religion and politics.