Whether the president truly believes his Niebuhrian rhetoric no one will ever know. But if he is deploying words merely to win political victories, he is proving himself just as much a disciple of Niebuhr, who assumed that every political leader would do the same.
What the great theologian did not foresee when he first baptized the ascendant political “realism” was that every president from FDR to Obama would go out to political battle armed with semi-Niebuhrian words, praising America as exceptional both because it is a sinless nation threatened by sinners (thus entitled to slay those sinners) and because it is mired in its own sin, yet uniquely able to transcend that and come together “civilly” in a domestic harmony of natural interests.
In sum, Obama’s SOTU was a deft combination of centuries-old American exceptionalism and a decades-old consensus that can best be called “semi-Niebuhrianism.”
Why another book about Niebuhr, and why now? What’s behind the apparent Niebuhr revival, if that’s not too strong a word?
A revival of interest in Niebuhr is real, even if mainly among intellectual elites. An urgency to hear Niebuhr again arose among political commentators amid shock waves unleashed since 9/11: American hubris in launching the Iraq war, the apparent quagmire in Afghanistan, and a flattening of the U.S. economy that affects all but the super rich. Because he’s on Barack Obama’s reading list (“one of my favorite philosophers”), the return to Niebuhr deepens our musings regarding presidential policy and leadership. When I began the book, Obama and financial collapse were not on the horizon. In the process of writing, even I was surprised by how often Niebuhr’s views shed light on the ongoing headlines and fears of our day, including the association of religion with violence. As in his lifetime, Niebuhr’s reception among American churches is more nuanced and mixed, for reasons that are examined in the book.
Friday, October 1st, Elmhurst College held its first "Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life" featuring David Brooks talking about Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama, and contemporary politics. You can find out more by following this link.
The Niebuhr Society's annual meeting will take place at the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta, Georgia. The meeting will take place Saturday, October 30, 2010, 9:00 AM-11:30 AM at Marriott International 6, in Atlanta. The theme this year is Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King in the Age of Obama. More information can be found below:
Theme: Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King in the Era of Obama
John D. Carlson, Arizona State University, Presiding
Panelists: Christopher Evans, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School William D. Hart, University of North Carolina Greensboro David Little, Harvard Divinity School (Emeritus)
Business Meeting: Kevin Carnahan, Central Methodist University
Here’s where I think that Buddha might offer Mr. Obama – and posthumously, Mr. Niebuhr –a helping hand. Gautama the Buddha also recognized the tension between the “realism” of suffering (dukkha) that is caused by greed (tanha) on the one hand, and the “bold policy” of transformation through enlightenment, on the other.
But he placed his money (so to speak) and devoted his full energies to the transformation of individuals and of society that can come through awakening to our true nature, our Buddha-nature.
For Buddha, the reality of evil and the promise of awakening did not have a 50-50 chance. Albert Nolan has said somewhere in his Jesus before Christianity, that anyone who believes that good and evil have a 50-50 chance is an atheist. In this sense, Buddha was no atheist.
So I think Buddha would walk a middle path between Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr. (Okay, with a tilt toward Rauschenbusch.) He would hold up the promise, calling for our full commitment, that the individual and society do not have to stay the way they are; they do not have to be caught in the “poisons” of ignorance, greed, and hatred. But at the same time, he would tip his hat to Niebuhr in recognizing that we have to be mindful of the realities of ignorance and greed and hated. “Being mindful” means we have to be fully aware of them, analyze them carefully, engage them through “skillful means” (upaya) – in the assurance that they can be – yes, they can be – changed.
This past Saturday's New York Times pubished an article on the relationship of religion and politcs, focusing on, among other things, President Obama's religion. Of course, there's a Niebuhr connection. Key passage below:
What, exactly, is his brand of Christianity? If it is not hard to recognize, neither is it easily defined, to judge at least by his various discussions of the subject. There is, for instance, the “Call to Renewal” speechhe gave in Washington in 2006, in which he urged believers, whatever their faith, to question the morality of “a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t even asking for it.”
This is not liberation theology, with its assertion that God favors the oppressed, but it does echo the Social Gospel, the movement that a century ago called for Christianity to “add its moral force to the social and economic forces making for a nobler organization of society” with churches actively ameliorating “the burden of poverty,” in the words of the movement’s leader, Walter Rauschenbusch.
And yet Mr. Obama is also an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian who rejected what he considered the naïve moralism of the Social Gospel. From Niebuhr, Mr. Obama has said, he got the message “that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”
The controversy over the construction of an Islamic community center in proximately to Ground Zero in New York has provoked a great deal of discussion. Alan Bean at Friends of Justice brings Niebuhr into the conversation:
Reinhold Niebuhr, incidentally, had a profound influence on the practical theology of Martin Luther King. In the first book of his trilogy on the King years, Taylor Branch devotes an entire chapter to King’s discovery of Niebuhr during his years at Crozer seminary. “After Niebuhr,” Branch writes, “King experienced for the first time a loss of confidence in his own chosen ideas rather than inherited ones. The Social Gospel lost a good deal of its glow for him almost overnight, and he never again fell so completely under the spell of any school of thought, including Niebuhr’s.”
Niebuhr taught King that dispensing pleasant bromides from the liberal pulpit would change nothing. If “the race problem” was as deeply rooted as the Union Seminary professor suggested, it would take radical measures to overcome it.
The current agitation over the Ground Zero mosque isn’t an isolated moment of corporate madness. The mosque issue is just a contemporary version of “never in a thousand years” resistance to the civil rights movement or, a generation later, the Republican “southern strategy” that parlayed fear and bigotry into amazing success at the ballot box.
Niebuhr is dead right. We despise and reject the “other” because we have transformed our privileged place in America into an idol. We seethe with racial resentment because, deep down, we know we stand indicted before a God who is satisfied with nothing short of perfect justice.
What do you mean when you say that we need to adopt an Augustinian sensibility?
I mean that we need to adopt a form of Christian realism that recognizes that, because of the Fall, we live in a world that will remain sinful and broken until the end of time. While living in a broken world, our task, if it's political, is to help the state curb that brokenness and that sinfulness in a way that aims toward justice. I use the phrase "Augustinian sensibility" to lean against a Utopian temptation for people on the Right or the Left who give the political realm more significance than it should be given.
So it's a chastened view of politics, but it's not anti-political. People should have firm, clear political convictions on what justice means, without becoming so ideologically wired that they have over-expectations for what can happen in the public policy realm. It's a Christian cast of mind. Having that cast of mind can help nurture a form of Christian civility that is really important in these times, when we have a culture that is more shrill than ever.
One of the great representatives of political realism, in the 20th century, was Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is often cited as one of the current President's favorite thinkers and inspirations. Is President Obama practicing what Niebuhr preached?
The President seems to have a great admiration and respect for Niebuhr. People all over the political spectrum claim Niebuhr as their mentor. The question is: What part of Niebuhr has the President bought into?
That's a debatable proposition. When there's a problem, the President's instinct is clearly that the state needs to solve it. So there seems to be a lack of appreciation for mediating institutions and the roles they play, as the first instinct is to have government solve all of the many problems that we have. So it's not clear to me what part of Niebuhr he appreciates. It is clear that Niebuhr's thinking on foreign policy has not influenced President Obama. Niebuhr knew the nature of totalitarianism and critiqued it constantly; he was anything but an advocate of moral equivalence. There's a tendency with President Obama, because he thought Bush bellicose, to believe that he ought to do the opposite. So rather than talking about the virtues of living in a free and democratic society, he has spent a lot of time apologizing for America's problems.