Barack Obama, among others, has claimed Reinhold Niebuhr to be a guide. I have not yet engaged in a thorough reading of Niebuhr's corpus, but I've been dabbling in these works.
Niebuhr was an interesting figure. He was a pastor (here in Detroit). He was a social ethicist and professor (at Union Seminary -- although he never earned a doctorate). He was a friend and mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I'm reading a very interesting work on Bonhoeffer at this moment entitled The Reluctant Revolutionary). He was an adviser to Presidents and other leaders. He was, as a blog article by Michael Jinkins of Austin Presbyterian Seminary points out a significant public intellectual. The question Jinkins asks is this: "Where are Have all the Niebuhrs gone?" That is, where are the Christian public thinkers of the stature of Niebuhr, the ones who make it to the cover of Time Magazine? Too often its the Pat Robertson types that make it there or the Rick Warrens. Warren isn't in the Robertson category, but no one would suggest he's a public intellectual figure in the mold of a Niebuhr.
In formulating an answer to the question, Jinkins points to us, to our own responsibility. To whom are we willing to follow and to whom will we listen. We get the leaders we ask for and sometimes deserve -- because they are the ones we will listen to.
Here is what Jinkins writes:
Perhaps much the same holds true for Christian public intellectuals of the caliber of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhrs emerge because we will listen to them. I don’t mean to take anything away from Niebuhr’s unique genius, but I suspect there are Niebuhrs among us today, if only we would listen for them. What gets put on the cover of “Time” or any other magazine has a lot to do with us and what quality of thinking we will tolerate.
It is a good challenge. To whom do we have the courage to listen? And , in the end, do we have the courage to change the discourse?