R. Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University, is the recipient of the Unitarian Universalist Association's prestigious Frederic G. Melcher Book Award. Niebuhr, a former religion reporter for The New York Times, is receiving the award for his critically acclaimed book Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America (Viking Penguin, 2008). He will be recognized June 29 at the UUA General Assembly in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Phyllis O'Connell, chair of the award committee, says Niebuhr's book is significant because it captures interfaith work going on "beneath the public radar," to borrow a phrase from "Beyond Tolerance."
"This book tells a post Sept. 11, 2001 story that has been ignored by the media, a story about the profound interfaith work happening in neighborhoods throughout America," she says. "This spiritual work is going on all around us."
Niebuhr spent four years researching and writing Beyond Tolerance. Drawing on his experiences as a journalist, he explored communities where inter-religious cooperation exceeded mere tolerance: Hindus and Quakers in Queens; Catholics and Jews in Baltimore; Baptists and Catholics in Louisville, Ky.; and Catholics and Buddhists in Los Angeles, to name a few examples.
Prior to The Times, Niebuhr covered religion for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has published extensively in anthologies and magazines, and is a frequent religious commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. Niebuhr comes by the subject well; his great-uncle was renowned religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, and his grandfather was the preeminent theologian H. Richard Niebuhr.
"I am thrilled to be a recipient of the Melcher Award," says Neibuhr, who at SU directs the Religion and Society Program; the Carnegie Religion and Media Minor; and the Luce Project in Religion, Media, and International Relations.
"This award honors the vital tradition of liberal religion, a profoundly formative current in American thought and culture. Also, it comes from the Unitarian Universalist Association, with which I feel an enduring family connection," he says, referencing his father, Richard R. Niebuhr, who trained many future UUA ministers during his 43-year tenure as a theology professor at Harvard Divinity School.