R. Gustav Niebuhr, distinguished Presbyterian journalist and academic, dies at age 68

Among his many honors was the 2000 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

R. Gustav Niebuhr

LOUISVILLE — R. Gustav Niebuhr, a pioneering Presbyterian journalist and scholar whose many awards included the 2000 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild, died Oct. 20 at age 68 from long-term complications from Parkinson’s Disease. His obituary is here, with a remembrance from Syracuse University, where he taught, found here.

According to his obituary, Niebuhr was among the first journalists to recognize what political reporters today take as axiomatic: despite the waning influence of mainline denominations, religious belief plays a central role in American political and civic life. His work helped move coverage of religion out of traditional “church news” columns and onto the front page of national newspapers.

After graduating from Pomona College in 1977 and earning a master’s degree in history from the University of Oxford in 1980, Niebuhr began his journalism career in 1980 at the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts. He worked at the New Orleans Times-Picayune before lobbying the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — ultimately successfully — to hire him to cover religion and politics in 1986. He not only wrote about the United States but also traveled on behalf of the paper to report on the growing influence of evangelicals in Central America and tension between Marxism and Christianity in Cuba.

In successive stints at the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times and as an occasional guest on National Public Radio, Niebuhr explored the broad impact of religion on society in the U.S. and globally. In 1994, he swept the top awards given by then Religion Newswriters Association for stories that included an analysis of the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

In 2001, Niebuhr moved to academia as a scholar in residence at what is now the Center for Culture, Society and Religion at Princeton University. In 2004, he joined the faculty of Syracuse University, later becoming an associate professor of religion and the media. He held an honorary doctorate from Elmhurst University, then Elmhurst College, where his grandfather, H. Richard Niebuhr, served as president. Gustav Niebuhr taught and lectured widely, including at Union Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, the Chautauqua Institution, the University of California Santa Barbara, and in Japan for the U.S. Department of State.

Niebuhr came from a family that exerted an outsized influence on American religious thought. He was the great-nephew of renowned 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the grandson of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, and the son of Richard R. Niebuhr, a professor at Harvard Divinity School.

In 1994, Niebuhr married his former Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleague, Margaret Lillian Usdansky, now a sociologist and founding director of the Center for Learning and Student Success at Syracuse University. As Niebuhr told it, the New York Times proposed to him shortly before he proposed to Usdansky, and he turned the Times down until editors there agreed to let him work in Washington, D.C., while Usdansky completed a master’s degree at Georgetown University. Niebuhr took Usdansky to the Clinton White House, Japan, India, Windsor Castle and Greece. The couple raised two sons: Christopher George Niebuhr, a senior research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors in Washington, D.C., and Jonathan Richard Niebuhr, a senior at the University of Southern California.

Niebuhr is also survived by his sister, Sarah Niebuhr, her husband Lynn Coale and nieces, Katie Jennings and Lisa Coale and their husbands Lance Jennings and Eric Shaeffer.

A memorial service will be held on December 29 at Syracuse University, with plans to be announced at a later date.

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