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Of Niebuhr and Nobels: Divining Obama's Theology

5 years ago
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The political subtexts of Barack Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech were manifest, and were everywhere parsed for their various implications for the war in Afghanistan, to cite the most obvious example, as well as their domestic repercussions for a freshman president trying to avoid the label of undeserving overachiever.

But the theological language of Obama's speech may be the most important and consistent thread running through his remarks -- a theme that traverses the political considerations of the day and provides the best framework for understanding what came before Oslo and what may come next.

And the theologian who most clearly supplied that language is the American Protestant exponent of "Christian realism," Reinhold Niebuhr. If you don't know who Niebuhr is, you should, not only because he is such an important figure in American religious, social and political life, but because he is also so central to the thinking of the nation's 44th president. Niebuhr is a defining influence on the "Obama doctrine" that many say does not exist, but that's probably because they are looking in the wrong place.

That influence was clear as far back as April 2007, when New York Times columnist David Brooks was interviewing candidate Obama, then just a weary long shot in a crowded field. The senator and the columnist were walking off the Senate floor as they spoke when, "out of the blue," Brooks asked Obama if he'd ever read Reinhold Niebuhr.

Obama suddenly grew animated, Brooks wrote: "I love him," Obama said. "He's one of my favorite philosophers." (A contrast, of course, to George W. Bush's response in 2000 when asked about his favorite political philosopher; Bush said, "Christ, because he changed my heart.") So Brooks asked Obama what he takes away from Niebuhr:
"I take away," Obama answered in a rush of words, "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."
That, in a nutshell, was Obama's address in Oslo on Thursday -- as well as a pretty good summary, as Brooks noted way back then, of one of Niebuhr's hallmark works, "The Irony of American History."

That book was written in 1952 at the height of the Cold War, but it is as relevant today as it ever was. Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," has written an introduction to a new edition of Niebuhr's classic work. In a Boston Globe essay penned after Obama's election, Bacevich explained Niebuhr as he explored the new president's affinity for the theologian:
"At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, 'cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest.' Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness -- never an American strong suit -- poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself."
Ironically, in his Nobel speech, Obama seemed to mention everyone but Niebuhr. He managed to cite (or "co-opt," as Ross Douthat, a sharp critic of awarding the prize to Obama, put it) everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II, with Nixon and Reagan thrown in there, too.

Because Niebuhr (1892-1971) was not cited explicitly, those who did not pick up on the Niebuhrian themes (not to mention the speech's thoroughly religious and moral orientation) understandably seemed flummoxed. Without the theological framework, Obama's address read not as irony but as a series of contradictions that collapsed in on themselves -- because they were viewing Obama through the "dualing" political categories of liberal-conservative, dove-hawk, president-candidate. Yet as a theological meditation of the sort favored by Niebuhr (and, yes, MLK and JFK and JPII) Obama's speech makes perfect sense because it recognizes that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world that requires hard thinking and tough moralizing, about oneself and about the world.

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, a former speech writer for Bush, had noted Obama's Niebuhrian affinities a year ago, and he saw them again Thursday in "a Niebuhrian tension between a fallen world that demands force to restrain evil and a realm of ideals that draws us beyond those compromises. And he embodied this argument in a kind of dialogue with Martin Luther King, Jr., recognizing the power of nonviolence, but pointing out its limits. It was a bold and powerful historical statement."

Fred Kaplan also saw the speech as "a faithful reflection" of Niebuhr, and Tom Heneghan at Reuters did some serious proof-texting by finding direct echoes of Niebuhr's writings in Obama's remarks, e.g.:
Obama: "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes."
Niebuhr: "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime."

Obama: "I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people."
Niebuhr: "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power."

Obama: "We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."
Niebuhr: "The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world."
At The Atlantic, James Fallows went so far as to argue that there was in the speech "a consciousness that was once called Niebuhrian and at this rate will someday be 'Obamian,' which emphasizes the importance of steady steps forward in an inevitably flawed world."

Any argument about influence can of course be overstated, and a special caution about reading too much into Obama's debt to Niebuhr is that Niebuhr's long trail of writings on complex topics can make him appear to be all things to all people. Indeed, his famous Serenity Prayer ("God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . .") was so universal in its appeal that doubts about whether he was the author -- as was long assumed -- were not resolved until last month. And to complicate matters, his younger brother H. Richard Niebuhr was also a prominent theologian, whose hallmark work, "Christ and Culture," was published in 1951, a year before "The Irony of American History."

Niebuhr started out as a Social Gospel liberal who became a pacifist and a socialist during the Great Depression, and his thought had always been developing. The outbreak of World War II further challenged his previous theories, and his subsequent writings made him the face of a theory of "Christian realism" that allowed for a "just war" (building on Augustine and Aquinas) under certain circumstances.

Given that pedigree of complexity, Niebuhr was often cited by both sides of an argument, and never more than during the post-9/11 period, as author Paul Elie noted in a November 2007 essay in The Atlantic titled, "A Man for All Reasons."

In an e-mail message, Elie -- an editor and author of "The Life You Save May be Your Own" -- said that while the Nobel speech had "Obama's own cadence" it was delivered "against a recognizably Niebuhrian background." But he said Niebuhr remains in the background because Obama did not frame his remarks in an explicitly Christian or even biblical dimension, as Niebuhr always did.

On that Oslo stage, of course, Obama could not be so particular in his religious references. But he must also have been aware of the impossibility of cloaking any political leader's agenda in Christian ideals. To do so would be un-Niebuhrian in its arrogance, and it would invite charges of hypocrisy -- as George W. Bush's unsubtle Christian rhetoric often did -- as the ideals and reality inevitably diverged, driven apart by the tragedy of the human condition.

"Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Bacevich wrote after Obama's election. "To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results."

On the other hand, Bacevich has also been a strong opponent of escalating the American war in Afghanistan, which is what Obama chose to do on the eve of his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps, then, the final irony of Obama's Niebuhrian address in Oslo is that Obama may not turn out to be the Niebuhrian he thinks he is.

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