In Memoriam: R. Gustav Niebuhr

As a journalist and author, R. Gustav Niebuhr changed the coverage of religion in the United States by reporting on stories that showed how people’s faiths contributed to shaping their political and civic activities and beliefs.  

As a Syracuse University faculty member, Niebuhr shared his unparalleled expertise and enthusiasm for writing and reporting with students while providing a patient and encouraging presence in the classroom. 

Niebuhr died Oct. 20, as a result of long-term complications from Parkinson’s Disease, says his wife, Margaret L. Usdansky. He passed away peacefully at his home in Skaneateles, New York, after spending his final days surrounded by his wife and their two sons, Christopher and Jonathan, as well as Niebuhr’s sister and other family.  

R. Gustav Niebuhr portrait
R. Gustav Niebuhr

Niebuhr, whose full name was Richard Gustav Niebuhr, joined the University in 2004 following three years at Princeton University and a distinguished career of 20-plus years in journalism. A leading writer about American religion, Niebuhr worked at some of the country’s most respected newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

At Syracuse, Niebuhr had a dual appointment in the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the College of Arts and Sciences as an associate professor of religion and media.  

“While I did not have the privilege of working with Gustav, it is clear he has left a remarkable legacy both here at the University and in the journalism profession as a whole,” Newhouse Dean Mark J. Lodato says. “We are so thankful that someone of Gustav’s stature shared his experiences and wisdom with aspiring journalists at Syracuse.”   

David Rubin, dean emeritus of Newhouse and the school’s leader at the time of Niebuhr’s arrival in 2004, said convincing him to join the faculty was an easy decision. Niebuhr would lead efforts to educate students about coverage of religion and religious issues by the media, a topic that until then was rarely discussed. 

“He proved to be a caring and demanding teacher, and a delightful colleague with a playful sense of humor,” Rubin said. “He was a public intellectual who brought distinction to the University. Gustav’s high standards, moderating voice and classroom presence will be sorely missed.” 

At the Newhouse School, Niebuhr most often taught reporting classes. His biggest contribution might have been helping to establish the schoolwide reporting project in 2018, when he took his class to Washington, D.C., to cover the March for Our Lives.  

A meaningful experience that produced compelling stories has since been replicated annually, involving hundreds of students and winning dozens of awards, says Aileen Gallagher, a professor and chair of the magazine, news and digital journalism department.  

“It’s one of the best things we do in the program, and we have Gustav to thank for getting us started,” Gallagher says. 

Niebuhr also proved to be a perfect fit for the Arts and Sciences faculty. 

 “Thanks to Gustav’s leadership and cross-disciplinary expertise, the religion and society program grew and thrived, attracting students from across the University,” says William Robert, professor and chair of the religion department in the College of Arts and Sciences.  

“Gustav worked programmatically to create fantastic learning opportunities for students to investigate what historical, social and political differences religion makes in our local and national communities and media,” Robert says. “He was a beloved teacher, wonderful colleague and amazing person.” 

Niebuhr, who grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts, came from a family of thought leaders in American religion. He was the great-nephew of 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. 

Niebuhr graduated from Pomona College in 1977 and earned a master’s in history from Oxford in 1980 before beginning his journalism career later that year at the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts. He worked at the New Orleans Times-Picayune before moving to the Journal-Constitution in 1986 to cover religion and politics.  

Stops at the Post, Journal and Times followed. Niebuhr also appeared as an occasional guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” where he explored the impact of religion on society in the United States and around the world. During his career, he interviewed luminaries, including Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh and author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  

In 1994, Niebuhr swept the top awards given by the Religion Newswriters Association for stories that included an analysis of the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.  

That same year, Niebuhr also married Usdansky, his former Journal-Constitution colleague. Now a sociologist, Usdansky is the founding director of the Center for Learning and Student Success at Syracuse University and interim director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence.  

Niebuhr is the author of “Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America” and “Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors.” 

A memorial service will be held Dec. 29 at the University, with plans to be announced at a later date. Niebuhr’s family has asked that any donations be sent to the Finger Lakes Land Trust.