Reinhold Niebuhr has long been something of a Rorshach test: “someone in whose work readers have infused all their sundry preoccupations, a thinker they ultimately interpret in their own image,” as Matthew Sitman put it. While Sitman is rightly concerned about the attempts to appropriate Niebuhr for various agendas (drawing on Paul Elie’s “A Man for All Reasons”), the problem cuts both ways and indicts Niebuhr’s critics every bit as much as his admirers. Alan Jacobs’ 2018 book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis provides a useful example, presenting a caricature of Niebuhr that has more to do with Jacobs’ political anxieties than the actual historical reality (as corroborated by recently released letters from T. S. Eliot). 

Even still, The Year of Our Lord 1943 is practically a perfect work. Chronicling the efforts of five Christian intellectuals to prepare the world for life after war, Jacobs has provided those interested in the relationship between Christianity and culture with a feast of food for thought. While many fantasy fans are aware of The Inklings (a literary group including Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield), far less well known but equally important were other institutions and relationships that tied together the day’s leading intellectuals. 

The Moot was one such gathering, bringing together T. S. Eliot, Karl Mannheim, Christopher Dawson, Michael Polanyi, and Owen Barfield. As Jacobs notes, visitors to England were sometimes asked to sit in: “Reinhold Niebuhr did this on two occasions—and those who did not join the group but were deemed sympathetic to its concerns, like C. S. Lewis, were occasionally asked to write papers that the group could discuss.”  

And yet, to characterize Niebuhr as a mere guest downplays his role. After all, the Moot was established by J. H. Oldham as a follow-up to the 1937 Oxford Conference he convened, which counted Niebuhr, Dawson, and other future Moot members among its key participants. Despite this, Jacobs is unfairly critical of Niebuhr, painting him as something of the book’s nemesis; a man overly concerned with politics rather than the cultural care needed to overcome the crisis of modernity.   

In its very first pages, The Year of Our Lord 1943 details the fruits of Niebuhr’s career, only for Jacobs to pronounce that “the thoughts of certain other Christian thinkers followed a different course.” Eliot, Lewis, Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil, Jacobs argues, “developed a response to the war that could scarcely be more different from the political pragmatism of [Niebuhr].” These five, Jacobs thinks, were distinct in “their absorption in theological and pedagogical concerns.” 

Niebuhr’s theological work, Jacobs is concerned, “merely laid the foundation for more direct modes of political intervention—precisely the modes that the protagonists of our story here shunned in favor of longer views and less direct interventions.” Niebuhr, he is afraid, lacks confidence in Christianity as an end in itself. 

Jacobs receives the germ of this critique from Auden. In a review of Niebuhr’s Christianity and Power Politics, Auden expressed feeling “le[ft] a little uneasy…” by Niebuhr. “The danger of being a professional exposer of the bogus [like Niebuhr] is that, encountering it so often, one may come in time to cease to believe in the reality it counterfeits.” Auden wonders, “Does he believe that the contemplative life is the highest and most exhausting of vocations, that the church is saved by the saints, or doesn’t he?” While Auden answers this question in the affirmative (noting that “Niebuhr suggests here and there that he would agree with me”), Jacobs is not so sure, returning to it once again at the book’s closing as a final judgement on the “different course” supposedly followed by Niebuhr. 

Yet T. S. Eliot, one of Jacobs’ protagonists, would totally disagree with such harsh judgement of Niebuhr.  

Two archives give us first-hand accounts of the underexplored relationship between Niebuhr and Eliot: Niebuhr’s unpublished papers in the Library of Congress and the letters between Eliot and his confidante Emily Hale, made public by Princeton in 2020. To be fair to Jacobs, the latter was not available until after his book was published and the classic Niebuhr biography by Richard Wightman Fox (written in 1985) barely makes mention of Eliot at all. Even Robert Crawford’s meticulous and magisterial 624-page account, Eliot After “The Waste Land, which is informed by the Princeton archive, gets the date of the men’s first meeting wrong. 

In 1933, a full decade before the titular year of Jacobs’ book, Eliot and Niebuhr met, discussing theology for seven hours straight. Four years later, Eliot seemed to share something of Jacobs’ reservations about Niebuhr: “his intellect is quite first-rate, but he has a long way to go.” While Niebuhr was several years younger than Eliot, with time, Niebuhr would mature into the kind of thinker that Eliot adored.  

By 1943, Eliot was entirely won over by Niebuhr. In a letter to Hale complaining about the most recent meeting of the Moot, Eliot described the assembly as:  

“A discussion which I should have considered rather futile, but for the presence during a part of the time of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose conversation is always brilliant, and whose views are always stimulating and on many matters very congenial – he seems to me far and away the best theological thinker in America.”  

In another private letter that same year, Eliot poured out the only possibly higher praise—“Babbitt might have reached something of this sort if he had been a Christian”— comparing Niebuhr to the intellectual heights which Irving Babbitt, Eliot’s former mentor, might have achieved if only he had taken the ultimate leap of faith. 

Even a decade later, when working as Niebuhr’s editor for publication in the United Kingdom, Eliot was still gushing with enthusiasm. “May I say finally that it is a great pleasure to me to find myself in such close sympathy with your political wisdom, especially in view of the fact that we must have set out from very different starting points.” 

“Different starting points,” as Eliot acknowledges, but not “a different course” for the two intellectual giants. But that is exactly what we should expect from a man whom, much like the five figures in Jacobs’ book, undoubtedly dedicated his life—including three decades as a professor—to “theological and pedagogical concerns.” 

Jacobs is right to fear a Christianity reduced to mere politics and, for that, The Year of Our Lord 1943 remains an extremely timely book. However, as with so many other appropriations of Niebuhr, Jacobs’ caricature loses all the nuance. By reducing Niebuhr to a short-sighted political pragmatist, even Jacobs’ Eliot becomes inscrutable. To diminish one is to cast aspersions on the other.