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Barack Obama has called him one of my favorite philosophers. John McCain wrote that he is a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war. Andrew Sullivan has said, We need Niebuhr now more than ever. For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.
In Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian John Patrick Diggins tackles the complicated question of why, at a time of great uncertainty about Americas proper role in the world, leading politicians and thinkers are turning to Niebuhr for answers. Diggins begins by clearly and carefully working through Niebuhrs theology, which focuses less on Gods presence than his absenceand the ways that absence abets the all-too-human sin of pride. He then shows how that theology informed Niebuhrs worldview, leading him to be at the same time a strong opponent of fascism and communism and a leading advocate for humility and caution in foreign policy.
Turning to the present, Diggins highlights what he argues is a misuse of Niebuhrs legacy on both the right and the left: while neoconservatives distort Niebuhrs arguments to support their call for an endless war on terror in the name of stopping evil, many liberal interventionists conveniently ignore Niebuhrs fundamental doubts about power. Ultimately, Niebuhrs greatest lesson is that, while it is our duty to struggle for good, we must at the same time be wary of hubris, remembering the limits of our understanding.
The final work from a distinguished writer who spent his entire career reflecting on Americas history and promise, Why Niebuhr Now? is a compact and perceptive book that will be the starting point for all future discussions of Niebuhr.