Reinhold Niebuhr in President Obama's Political Theology?
Although I haven't read a great deal of his writings, I first dipped into the works of the great theologian and political theorist Reinhold Niebuhr when I was studying with the historian Samuel Haber at UC Berkeley back in the mid-eighties. My slight familiarity with Niebuhr's views was just enough to make me wonder about the extent of Niebuhr's influence on President Obama's Nobel Prize Lecture and his political thought generally, an influence that the President has at times acknowledged.
Turns out, I'm not the only one thinking about Niebuhr here. In the New York Times article that I cited yesterday, Ted Widmer noted the influence of Niebuhr on the President's Nobel Lecture:
Yet another source, to my ears, was a writer who went unnamed -- Reinhold Niebuhr, whose 1944 classic, "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness," probed deeply into the justice of war at a time when the most total war in our history was being waged. Despite the fact that he remains a saint of the American left, Niebuhr left no doubt that he approved war under the right circumstances, as Obama surely knows. (Widmer, "Obama's Nobel Speech: Sophisticated and Brave," New York Times, December 11, 2009).Widmer's remark was published on the eleventh. The very next day, David Brooks puts President Obama in the tradition of so-called "Christian Realism" and cites Niebuhr as a precursor:
As the midcentury theologian Reinhold Niebuhr declared: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." (Brooks, "Obama's Christian Realism," New York Times, December 12, 2009).Widmer's reference to Niebuhr's book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness might lead those who haven't read it to conclude that Niebuhr held so-called 'Manichaean' political views on good versus evil -- with "us" as the good guys and "them" as the bad guys -- but one point of the book was that we are all capable of great evil, even in the pursuit of great good. The citation from David Brooks fits with this view, and he calls it "Christian Realism" for its chastened understanding of human nature. Brooks suggests that President Obama's ethnicity played a role in his familiarity with Niebuhr and "the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking":
Obama's race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln's second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Brooks would recall that quote well, for it came in an interview that he conducted in 2007 with then-candidate Barack Obama, who explained:
In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: "I take away the compelling idea 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. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction."
I take away [from Niebuhr] . . . the compelling idea 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. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism. (Brooks, "Obama, Gospel and Verse," New York Times, April 26, 2007)Candidate Obama's summary of Niebuhr led to an intellectual discussion of the extent to which the latter had truly influenced his political thought, along with the possibility that he was merely citing Niebuhr to 'pander' to Brooks and that his truer political theology was the social gospel. For those interested in this issue, go to the Pew Forum site on "Obama's Favorite Theologian? A Short Course on Reinhold Niebuhr," for the remarks of Wilfred M. McClay (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) and the response of E. J. Dionne Jr. (The Washington Post), who agrees with Brooks that Barack Obama has genuinely been influenced by Niebuhr.
But I've said enough for now . . .