Niebuhr is an important theologian to study simply because of his sphere of influence. He was referred to as an 'American Conscience' in a new documentary film about him. He influenced people from those in the Kennedy Administration to those in the Obama administration and including former FBI director, James Comey. Thus, Niebuhr's influence included the secular as well as the religious. Niebuhr spoke out strongly against racism--not mentioned by the article being reviewed--while not overlooking the faults of some of those fighting racism. He always challenged the idea that Americans were more virtuous than others and opposed self-righteousness (click here).
Other positions not mentioned in the article included supporting World War II--should note that World War I had turned him into a pacifist-- and opposing the Soviet Union's increasing control over parts of Europe. He also opposed the Vietnam War (click here).
However, Mouw mentions that Niehbuhr had multiple detractors. Those who differed with him came from the Evangelical world as from those who were atheists. Mouw doesn't go into any details in this article either about Niebuhr's positive traits or valid criticisms about him. Instead, he briefly mentions his strengths and that some disagreed with Niebuhr. And then Mouw ranks Niebuhr as one of America's 3 'greatest' theologians along with Abraham Lincoln (Niebuhr's choice for greatest theologian) and Jonathan Edwards. I am trying to figure out here why Martin Luther King Jr. did not make Mouw's list.
From here, we should note a significant criticism of Niebuhr from Noam Chomsky (click here, there, and there again). One of Chomsky's concern had to with Niebuhr's views as supporting elite-centered rule either in general or in some specific policies). A quote like the one below doesn't shed a positive light on Niebuhr:
Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications which are provided by the myth-maker to keep ordinary person on course (click here).
However, what if Niebuhr was talking out of observation of a snapshot in time only. This certainly doesn't totally negate Chomsky's criticisms of Niebuhr aiding elite-centered rule, but then what we would see in Niebuhr's quote is a more practical side than ideological one. And yet, there is still a real cause for concern where elites in power could easily justify taking advantage of the situation based on what Niebuhr wrote.
What we should note here is that, like the records for most of us, Niebuhr's record is a mixed bag. And because of that, categorical statements either in praise or condemnation of Niebuhr or of most anyone else misses the mark because of which side the praise or condemnation selectively focuses on, the other side goes minimized or neglected.