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The Kingdom of God in America Paperback – October 1, 1988
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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“One of our most valuable interpretations of American religious history” (Robert Hastings Nichols)
“A truly seminal book.” (Perry Miller)
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Niebuhr begins The Kingdom of God in America, writing:
“The following chapters attempt to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which find its center in the faith in the kingdom of God.” (ix)
This is a bold claim which echoes Jesus’ early teaching following that of John the Baptist in the synoptic Gospels:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:14-15 ESV)
Niebuhr goes on to observe:
“In the early period of American life, which foundations were laid on which we have all had to build, ‘kingdom of God’ meant ‘sovereignty of God’; in the creative period of awakening and revival it meant ‘reign of Christ’; and only in the most recent period had it come to mean ‘kingdom on earth’”. (xii)
Niebuhr expands on this introduction citing three convictions. The first conviction is that: “The true church is not an organization but the organic movement of those who have been ‘called out’ and ‘sent’” (xiv). The second conviction is that this movement is dialectical:
“expressed in worship and in work, in the direction toward God and the direction toward the world which is loved in God, in the pilgrimage toward the eternal kingdom and in the desire to make his will real on earth.” (xv)
The third conviction is that: “American Christianity and American culture cannot be understood at all save on the basis of faith in a sovereign, living, loving God.” (xvi)
In launching into this historical study of American Protestantism, Niebuhr takes as a presupposition that faith in Christ is not an epiphenomenon, by which Marxian interpreters mean a secondary consequence (4), but rather fundamental to understanding who we are. Much like the exodus from Egypt is the touchstone of Jewish identity; our identity likewise lies in our faith experience. An historical exploration of our faith origins is likely therefore to yield insights into our present and our future and patterns that we might discern (1). The present challenge being the preservation of “American civilization.” (5)
This heady charge for a book written in 1937 deserves a bit of attention. In 1937, the split between fundamentalists and liberals in the American Presbyterian church (1925) was still fresh and incompletely consolidated (Longfield 2013, 158), in part, because even liberals still grew up steeped in the church and cultural accommodation in response to postmodernism was still in its infancy. In 1937, the Great Depression was ongoing, the Second World War had yet to include the United States, and the evangelical revival of the Billy Graham years (1940s through 1960s), a response, in part, to the split, the depression, and the war, was just getting started. The idea that a book written in 1937 would in some measure anticipate the problem of secularism—the challenge of preservation of American civilization—in the postmodern period is simply astounding. Yet, clearly the seeds had already been planted.
These seeds are real and Niebuhr characterization of liberal Protestantism, which is widely cited, comes in a single sentence:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” (193)
While this characterization might be hotly debated, it is worth pointing out that Niebuhr himself generously spoke about the dialectical nature (conviction two above) of Christian faith that could encompass both liberal and evangelical articulations of faith, at least at in characterizations.
Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894 – 1962) received his doctorate from Yale University (1924) and taught ethics there for several years. His older brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, was also a well-known theologian and author. His book, Christ and Culture, is also still widely cited and was the focus of a recent book by D.A. Carson.
In part 1 of this review, I have given a highlight of Niebuhr’s work. In part 2, I will delve deeper into his arguments.
Longfield, Bradley J. 2013. Presbyterians and American Culture: A History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Niebuhr, Richard. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Robert Frankenfeld, MD