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An American Conscious: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

"An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story" examines the career and global impact of renowned American-born theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (pictured), who became a voice of conscience to a country reaching the pinnacle of its economic and political power.
Courtesy of MPT
"An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story" examines the career and global impact of renowned American-born theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (pictured), who became a voice of conscience to a country reaching the pinnacle of its economic and political power.

Encore Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 at 10 p.m. and Monday, Dec. 20 at 4 p.m. on KPBS 2 / no longer available on demand

Although he may be best remembered today as the author of the famed “Serenity Prayer,” Reinhold Niebuhr — an outspoken American-born pastor, writer, and political activist — remains one of the most influential public theologians of our time.

Presidents from Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter have credited his impact on their thinking, as well as John McCain, countless historians, theologians, political thinkers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who cited Niebuhr in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

An American Conscious: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story: Preview

Niebuhr’s career spanned some of the most tumultuous decades in American history, from World War I through Vietnam, from the Great Depression through the Civil Rights Movement.

An early pacifist and socialist, he was closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI throughout his life, but would later serve as a consultant to the State Department during the Cold War.

Niebuhr rose from a small Midwest church pulpit to become the nation’s moral voice — an American conscience — during some of the most defining moments in recent history. His books, “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932), “The Nature and Destiny of Man” (1941–43) and “The Irony of American History” (1952), continue to influence theological and political thinking.

An American original, his unique insights into human nature and its relationship to political movements and social justice propelled him to speak openly, and often critically, to an America consumed by moral certainty. For Niebuhr the priority was always justice, his guiding principle was hope in a redeemer God, and his weapon was an extraordinary gift for clarity of thought that made him a leading voice of conscience for his time.

“An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story” is directed, written and narrated by Martin Doblmeier, the creator of dozens of provocative, award-winning films on faith including “Chaplains” and “Bonhoeffer.” Rich in archival material, the documentary features interviews with former President Jimmy Carter, Cornel West, Andrew Young, David Brooks, Susannah Heschel and a host of internationally recognized historians and theologians.

The Making of "An American Conscience"

Selected Quotes From Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Man’s inclination to justice makes democracy possible. Man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

“Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in our immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.”

"The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world."

“Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own ... capable on occasion of preferring the advantage of others to their own. But all these achievements are more difficult — if not impossible — for human societies and social groups.”

“The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.”

“We find it almost as difficult as the Communists to believe anyone could think ill of us, since we are as persuaded as they that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of our actions.”

“Forgiveness is the final form of love."

Inside the Companion Book for "An American Conscience" — Feat. Author: Jeremy Sabella

Film Quotes:

“Reinhold Niebuhr makes me shake and tremble when I think of the depth of his courage.”Cornel West

“Niebuhr had audacity. He wrote with audacity. He wrote big books on big subjects. He took big public stands.”David Brooks, The New York Times

“Niebuhr was always present in my mind when I was President and facing the constant threat of nuclear war.”Jimmy Carter

“Whenever there was a conversation about power, Niebuhr came up. Niebuhr kept us from being naive about the evil structures of society.”Andrew Young


Produced by Journey Films, Inc., and is a presentation of Maryland Public Television. Distributed by American Public Television. Director/Writer/Narrator: Martin Doblmeier. Producers: Nathan Dewild, Jen Quintana, Andrew Finstuen. Voice of Reinhold Niebuhr: Hal Holbrook. Director of Photography: Nathan Dewild. Historical Research/Rights Clearance: Ceceile Kay Richter. Editor: Nathan Dewild. On-Line Editor/Graphics: Anthony Bellissimo. Original Music: Daniel Cooper. Sound Design: Brian Mcpherson. Camera: Nathan Dewild, Anthony Bellissimo. Sound: Joey Diaz, Francisco Santiago.