In Memoriam: Richard Gustav Niebuhr 

Richard Gustav Niebuhr, who passed away in October after a long and distinguished career covering religion for some of the nation’s leading newspapers, was among a handful of reporters who had a masterful understanding of religion’s key role in the history of the United States.

Religious Freedom: Kentucky's monument to Thomas Jefferson  by artist Moses Jacob Ezekiel. (Photo by Don Sniegowski, Creative Commons)
Religious Freedom: Kentucky's monument to Thomas Jefferson by artist Moses Jacob Ezekiel. (Photo by Don Sniegowski, Creative Commons)

“You cannot understand the history of America without understanding religious history,” Niebuhr said in 2010, the same year he received the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award from the Religion News Association.

Back then, Niebuhr expressed concern that newspapers were diminishing their coverage of religion to their own disadvantage, not least because he believed that a comprehensive understanding of religion was essential for writing about the contemporary world.

Niebuhr, who died in October at the age of 68 due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease, was the grandnephew of Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous Christian Protestant theologian and prolific author whose ideas had a profound impact on political thought and action in the U.S.

A graduate of Pomona College in California and Oxford University, Richard Niebuhr started out in journalism as a political reporter for the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts, and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He began reporting on religion in the late 1980s after accepting a job with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution in Georgia, which, a friend offhandedly told Niebuhr, was looking for a reporter to cover “the religion beat.”

After reporting on a string of important religion stories for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, including a vigorous theological debate in the Southern Baptist Convention and the increasing impact of evangelical Christianity in Central America, Niebuhr was recruited as the national religion correspondent, first for The Wall Street Journal, and later The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Niebuhr’s former colleagues characterized him as kind and generous.

“The thing I noticed and appreciated about him was that he always had time for his competitors—he was always willing to help others out and he never thought he was too important to lend a hand to other reporters,” Religion News Service (RNS) quoted former RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom as saying.

Eckstrom credits Niebuhr as exemplifying the epitome of exceptional religious reporting that was intelligent, insightful and respectful without being unduly deferential. “He had a unique ability to connect the dots to tell a larger, more important narrative,” he said. “And he was a hell of a nice guy while he did it.”

In 2001, after leaving the Times, Niebuhr took on a fellowship at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion. He subsequently moved to Syracuse University, where his wife, Margaret, held a professorship, and where he taught courses in journalism and the history of religion.


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