The role of religion in the public square will be celebrated and scrutinized when Wesley’s Center for Public Theology partners with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute to present the D.C. premiere of “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story” on March 31.
The documentary screening at the Newseum will include a panel discussion with filmmaker Martin Doblmeier, Wesley faculty Dr. Josiah Young and Professor Mike McCurry. The screening will be from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., followed by a panel and reception ending at 10 p.m.
As former press secretary to President Bill Clinton and current director of the Center for Public Theology, McCurry’s work is focused on the intersection of politics and religion.
“In the swirl of politics here in Washington, we want the church to have a voice,” he said. “Niebuhr gave us a map for that decades ago that this movie illuminates and that seems more relevant now than ever. It could not be more timely.”
Filmmaker Doblmeier agreed. “Niebuhr was the preeminent public theologian of the 20th century,” he said. “He offered a unique perspective on the major events happening mid-century. And that was a remarkable period for this country.”
Doblmeier received an Emmy Award for his documentary on the Washington National Cathedral but is, perhaps, best loved by the Wesley community for his 2006 film “Bonhoeffer” and his 2016 film “Chaplains.”
He looks back to the 20th century as a period especially suited to the public theologian. “It was a unique moment,” Doblmeier said. “There was a national turning towards these prophetic and spiritually-based voices, people like Paul Tillich, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham.”
Such highly public positions are less common among men and women today. “You hear lots of different names,” Doblmeier said. “I’ve heard Rev. William Barber come up several times.” Among other contenders, in Doblmeier’s estimation, are Bono and Pope Francis.
“But not in the same way that Reinhold Niebuhr was,” he said. A leading figure who does have the qualifications of both theological rigor and personal charisma is Cornel West, who is featured in the film.
“He would be, for a lot of people, way to the left, unacceptably far to the left,” Doblmeier said. “At the same time he’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant, very articulate, very passionate. So I’m thrilled. He brings a lot to the film.”
The documentary promotes a healthy spirit of public discourse by presenting the views of figures like West, Susannah Heschel and Stanley Hauerwas, who share their admiration for Niebuhr even as they question his theology and its implications.
Former President Jimmy Carter, also featured, has a different take. “As President Carter made decisions that ultimately could end in nuclear disaster, Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the people that had impact and persuasion for him,” Doblmeier said.
Niebuhr’s influence has been felt more recently in the White House. “Barack Obama was the same way,” he said. “He often said that Reinhold Niebuhr was the most important thinker or philosopher for him.”
The filmmaker looks forward to the panel discussion that follows the film screening. “We can’t help but circle around to questions of where the public theologians are today, what are people looking for, what are the dangers about that,” he said. “We’re in the Newseum, so there should be a good intersection of religion and journalism. One of the things I’ll talk about is how religion is often ignored by the media because the media doesn’t understand it or know how to navigate it.”
Doblmeier expects the conversation will also turn to Niebuhr’s role in the Civil Rights movement and how that role evolved over time. “Reinhold Niebuhr was involved in the racial tensions in Detroit in the 1920s,” he said. “Very much involved. So it’s safe to say that he was out there on the cutting edge on race issues.”
Four decades later, Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s drew heavily on Niebuhr’s written work particularly, “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” Niebuhr did not, however, make personal appearances at marches or rallies.
“He’d had a stroke by that time,” Doblmeier said. “He was less mobile. Others would say that toward the end of his life he was less courageous. Some say he got more cautious the more famous he got.”
As a filmmaker and journalist, Doblmeier comes to his work agenda-free. “I want to tell the story of Reinhold Niebuhr and put it in the context of his time,” he said. “But I also want to use language and storyline and interviews to help the viewer make the obvious connections between his time and our own.”
“An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story” premieres in Washington, D.C., at the Newseum on March 31 at 7 p.m., doors open at 6:30 pm. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Center for Public Theology at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-849-6430. Register to reserve your tickets here .