Who Was Reinhold Niebuhr? And Why Was He Targeted by the FBI?

The revelation that James Comey has a secret Twitter account led to further examination this week of the name associated with the purported account: Reinhold Niebuhr. Theories abound about why the Director of the FBI would choose this name, drawing attention to the fact that Niebuhr was the topic of Comey’s senior thesis when he was a student at the College of William and Mary. A prominent theologian, Niebuhr influenced public figures ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. to former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

He also had a lengthy file with the FBI.

In The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11, contributor Dianne Kirby’s essay “J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and the Religious Cold War” looks at why Reinhold Niebuhr was under FBI surveillance, excerpted below:

At the end of the Eisenhower administration Reinhold Niebuhr, America’s leading theologian, declared that the West had been successfully inoculated against communism “by the historical dynamism of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” The religious triumphalism concealed a more complex reality that would become apparent over the course of the 1960s. American policies and practices were coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism, and the depiction of the East-West confrontation as one between good and evil, a crucial element for Hoover’s exercise of power and influence, was becoming less and less tenable. . . . Vietnam caused Niebuhr himself to question whether the two superpowers were radically different and to wonder whether they had each revealed “similar imperialist impulses.”

Niebuhr would go on to become a founding member of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV) . . . Despite efforts by various intelligence agencies to weaken the peace movement, CALCAV continued to grow. FBI interest in the organization intensified as well . . . surveillance of what were deemed “radical” Christians was intended to intimidate and deter. Those still prepared to adopt the tactics of civil disobedience, break the law, and accept the consequences in order to dramatize and publicize the issues faced the full brunt of the law, including imprisonment. They included the Berrigan brothers, priests Phil and Dan (a cofounder of CALCAV). Along with other Christians involved in their protest, they became fugitives to maximize the political symbolism of their cause. A massive FBI operation was implemented that involved surveilling and searching religious buildings and personnel, but the FBI’s manhunt for the Berrigans ended as a public relations debacle for the bureau . . . The history of CALCAV shows that FBI practices and views did not change in this period, but it also reveals Hoover’s declining ability to control public opinion, along with growing division and discontent within churches regarding their relationship with the state.

About The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has had a long and tortuous relationship with religion over almost the entirety of its existence. As early as 1917, the Bureau began to target religious communities and groups it believed were hotbeds of anti-American politics. The FBI and Religion recounts this fraught and fascinating history, focusing on key moments in the Bureau’s history. Starting from the beginnings of the FBI before World War I, moving through the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, up to 9/11 and today, the book tackles questions essential to understanding not only the history of law enforcement and religion, but also the future of religious liberty in America.