The Niebuhr Brothers’ Debate and the Ethics of Just War vs. Pacifism: Progressivism and the Social Gospel

  • Cecelia Lynch
Part of the The Palgrave Macmillan History of International Thought book series (PMHIT)


The turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries witnessed not only the burgeoning of the Progressive Era in American and British social and political thought but also the heyday of the Social Gospel as Progressivism’s theological companion. Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, brothers, academics, and theologians who wielded enormous influence on twentieth-century Christianity and international relations, each embraced aspects of both Progressivism and the Social Gospel, but also distanced themselves from these movements in important ways. This chapter discusses both their rapprochements with and distancing from the progressivism of their times, focusing on their public debate in 1932 over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. While H. Richard and Reinhold demonstrate significant positions in pacifist and just war/Christian realist thinking, the chapter also briefly examines the thought of other important theologians and activists of the period, in order to demonstrate the Niebuhr brothers’ limitations as well as their insights.


  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1972. Letters & Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  2. Brown, Robert McAfee, ed. 1987. The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Commins, Gary. 1991. Spiritual People, Radical Lives: Spirituality and Justice in Four Twentieth Century American Lives. San Francisco: International Scholars Publishers.Google Scholar
  4. Curtis, Susan. 1991. A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Dorrien, Gary. 2015. The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel. New Haven: Yale University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Fox, Richard Wightman. 1985. Reinhold Niebuhr, A Biography. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  7. Frei, Hans W. 1991. H. Richard Niebuhr on History, Church, and Nation. In The Legacy of H. Richard Niebuhr, Harvard Theological Studies, ed. Ronald F. Theimann, 1–23. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  8. Gustafson, James M. 1963. Introduction. In The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy, ed. H. Richard Niebuhr, 6–41. San Francisco: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  9. Halliwell, Martin. 2005. The Constant Dialogue: Reinhold Niebuhr & American Intellectual Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  10. Harries, R., ed. 1986. Reinhold Niebuhr and the Issues of Our Time. London: Mowbray.Google Scholar
  11. Hentoff, Nat. 1982. Peace Agitator: The Story of A. J. Muste. New York: A. J. Muste Memorial Institute.Google Scholar
  12. Lynch, Cecelia. 2011. Christian Ethics, Actors, and Diplomacy: Mediating Universalist Pretentions. International Journal, special issue on Changing Diplomacies edited by Iver Neumann, Vincent Pouliot, and Ole Jacob Sending (Summer 2011), 613–628; the book chapter of the same name in Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics, ed. Ole Jacob Sending, Vincent Pouliot, and Iver B. Neumann, 2015: 1681–94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. ———. 2013. Realism and Religion in a World Come of Age. In Religion and the Realist Tradition, ed. Jodok Troy, 80–92. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. ——— n.d. (unpublished ms). Wrestling with God. Wrestling with God: Christian Ethics and Violence in the Modern West. Google Scholar
  15. Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1932a. The Grace of Doing Nothing. In The Christian Century. Accessed through
  16. ———. 1956. The Kingdom of God in America. Hamden, CT: The Shoe String Press.Google Scholar
  17. ———. 1963/1978. The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy. San Francisco: Harper.Google Scholar
  18. ———. 1951. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Brothers.Google Scholar
  19. Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1932b/1960. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Scribners.Google Scholar
  20. ———. 1932c. Must We Do Nothing? In The Christian Century. Accessed through
  21. ———. 1940/1969. Christianity and Power Politics. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.Google Scholar
  22. ———. 1953. Christian Realism and Political Problems. New York: Scribners.Google Scholar
  23. Rauschenbusch, Walter. 1945. A Theology for the Social Gospel. Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press.Google Scholar
  24. Steinfels, Peter. 2007. Two Social Ethicists and the National Landscape. New York Times, May 26, B6.Google Scholar
  25. Thieman, Ronald F., ed. 1991. The Legacy of H. Richard Niebuhr, Harvard Theological Studies. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  26. Willoughby-Herard, Tiffany. 2015. Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cecelia Lynch
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaIrvineUSA

Personalised recommendations