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April 1, 2009

Niebuhr and Obama

What does the president’s taste for the theologian foretell?


One evening inthe spring of 2007, Barack Obama, drooping off the Senate floor, paused for an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks. “His voice,” Brooks later recounted, “was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they’re afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on.” In the midst of the interview, Brooks spontaneously severed his line of questioning about development aid and asked Obama, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?” Obama perked up: “I love him,” he said. “He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

Divers writers have dissected and probed this assertion, seeking to explicate how Obama’s affinity for Niebuhr will or will not manifest itself in the new president’s governance. Too often, though, they have assumed that Obama’s statement provides extensive insight into his mental life. It does not. For detecting exactly what it is that Obama loves about Niebuhr is tricky, not only because Obama’s positions are inclined to blurriness but because Niebuhr’s thought is extensive and itself frequently less than forthright. One needs more than a scalpel and probe to figure out the connection between Obama and Niebuhr; indeed, one may need more tools just to get at the crux of Niebuhr alone.

The enigma

In september, 2005, the Daily Kos blog ran a lengthy letter from Obama in which he defended those Democratic senators who, unlike himself, had voted to confirm John Roberts as the Supreme Court’s chief justice and were taking heat from some liberals because of it. “To the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, ‘true’ progressive vision for the country,” Obama wrote, “we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward.”

It is the language of a centrist. And yet, Obama specifically rejected that label by urging Democrats not to tack centrist but steer their liberal agenda toward more audacious and innovative waters. “Too often,” he wrote, “the ‘centrist’ label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy, education, and tackling poverty, I don’t think Democrats have been bold enough.” And while happy to chide intolerant liberals, Obama refused to analogize left-wing activist groups to their right-wing counterparts because “Fighting on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable is not the same as fighting for homophobia and Halliburton.”

Such is the style of America’s new president. Their tendency toward lapidary construction notwithstanding, his sentences can seem contradictory. In the Daily Kos letter, Obama defended some centrist Democrats and rebuked others; he applauded certain forms of what is called centrism and disavowed others. He compared left-wing litmus tests to right-wing ones but then found his own comparison inapt because the concerns of conservative groups (e.g., “fighting for homophobia”) are fearful while those of liberal groups are hopeful. He applauded the idea of “disagreeing without being disagreeable,” but certain Republican ideas, those he doesn’t like, he called “dumb.”

That Barack Obama is an “enigma” has been aplenty noted: Last year, the Washington Post editorial page published “The Obama Enigma,” David Broder penned “Obama’s Enigma,” and Victor Davis Hanson wrote of Obama, “After more than a year of campaigning, he still remains an enigma.” The then-presidential-candidate could not be pinned down. Larissa MacFarquhar, writing in the New Yorker in 2007, found that “in his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections.” Fine, but was this not the man — purportedly so skeptical of change and abstractions — who built a winning presidential campaign on abstractions about change?

What voters knew of Barack Obama when they cast their ballots for him last November, then, was largely what they chose to know of him. The candidate had deftly moved among various circles and ideologies, all the while attacking as divisive such labels as “liberal” and “conservative” — which are surely divisive inasmuch as they convey a real and valid partition of opinion that existed yesterday, does today, and will tomorrow. It is unclear how much of his own razzle-dazzle rhetoric Obama actually believed and how much was simply politicking. But it seems safe to assume that such an accomplished, erudite, and savvy man did not arrive where he is today by personal subscription to vague and woolly-headed notions (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and suchlike).

And yet, his discomfort with labels and ideologies, his ease with self-contradiction, his particular mix of affability and shrewdness — might these not be real, true parts of Barack Obama? Is it not possible that these and other of the president’s indefinite characteristics and principles might be at least somehow illuminated through Niebuhr, a philosopher he praises?

The Niebuhrian?

Although obama, in his conversation with Brooks, properly summarized portions of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, one could see the president’s affinity for Niebuhr as merely characteristic of the times. Ever since the United States declared war on terror, the ideas of Niebuhr — an American Protestant pastor, professor, writer, and public intellectual who died in 1971 — have enjoyed a renaissance. Paul Elie recently wrote in the Atlantic that for today’s politicians “a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo-op with Bono.” In fact, two politicians who have lately been ubiquitous, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, both reference Niebuhr in their latest books: In Hard Call, McCain admires Niebuhr’s expression of the “moral ambiguity that is inescapable for the soldier who must kill to defend his country,” and in Living History, Clinton writes that he “struck a persuasive balance between a clear-eyed realism about human nature and an unrelenting passion for justice and social reform.”

The Niebuhr resurgence has not been entirely peaceful, however, nor is it limited to those who stump for votes. The Good Fight, a 2006 book by Peter Beinart, draws heavily on Niebuhr’s teachings to make the case for a recharged liberalism eager to hunt and destroy Islamic fanatics. But Beinart’s work, according to the professor Andrew Bacevich, is in truth a cooptation of Niebuhr’s thought — a charge Bacevich leveled first in a stinging book review in the Nation and then in an article for World Affairs, in which he wrote, “By running Niebuhr through his own literary blender, Beinart contrives a rationale for American Exceptionalism and a justification for the global war on terrorism.”

A well-publicized disagreement over pacifism between the theologian Stanley Hauerwas and the conservative Christian periodical First Things, where Hauerwas was an editorial board member, also involved Niebuhr. After the attacks of September 11, First Things published an editorial in which it presented support for U.S. retaliation as dutiful. The piece was especially hard on pacifists, of which Hauerwas is one, and drew a distinction between those it called real pacifists, whose personal commitment to non-violence deserved respect, and “fraudulent” pacifists, who advocate societal nonviolent resistance. “Nonviolent resistance to the aggression we face is simply a proposed tactic that most sensible people find implausible. The proposal that aggression should be resisted by hugging a terrorist is not idealistic; it is simply dumb,” the editorialists wrote. Fraudulent pacifists “live in an unreal world of utopian fantasy that has no basis in Christian faith. Yes, they may be intensely sincere, and that can be touching, but they are also monumentally wrong.” Hauerwas took exception: “I find it almost beyond belief that the Editors resort to the Niebuhrian distinction between nonviolent resistance and non-resistance in order to silence the pacifist voice.” And the debate over Niebuhr’s thinking continued.

Obama’s relationship to Niebuhr seems different: The president does not usually cite Niebuhr’s thought outright, nor does he need to cite Niebuhr’s thought for its possible influence on his own to be detectable. Obama’s rejection of ideology, though at times it seems disingenuous and self-serving, is inherently reminiscent of Niebuhr, who possessed a singular ability to bewilder those who fancied themselves his intellectual allies and to delight his supposed enemies. In his Nation review of The Good Fight, Bacevich wrote that Niebuhr, were he with us today, “would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right . . . who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history’s purpose and destination.” Probably so, but perhaps not; the theologian’s shifting stances were legendary. Especially apposite is an observation from Richard Wightman Fox, who notes that Niebuhr “always confounded those who stressed one side of his career or one segment of his standpoint at the expense of another.” Without fail, Fox continues, “He confused his comrades as often as his detractors.” 1

The resemblance here not only to Obama’s words but to his actions is strong. The new president promises to end the war in Iraq, but he has retained Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and has advocated for increasing the size of the Army and Marines and maintaining America’s hundreds of global military bases. He is willing to negotiate with Iran, but he has installed in top administration positions Hillary Clinton and other tough foreign-policy types who may not share that view. Certainly the president’s locutions can seem Niebuhrian, critical not just of one faction or another but of all involved parties. Recall Obama’s 2006 speech to the Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference in which, after attacking the impulses of religious conservatives, he also said that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” He never mentioned Niebuhr in that speech, but the pastor’s teachings — his wariness of those who would act on God’s behalf and his opposition to those who would eliminate God from public discourse — echoed in Obama’s formulation.

Reinhold niebuhr was born in rural Missouri in 1892, the third child of what would eventually be a litter of four. His father, Gustav, was a preacher of the German Evangelical Synod who arrived in America from Germany at the age of eighteen. Gustav was a stern man, driven, not one to brook nonsense. For years he had worked for the synod as something of a peripatetic pastor, traveling from one parish to the next, but in 1902 he accepted a call to become permanent pastor of Saint John’s church in Lincoln, Illinois. He moved his family to this small agricultural city in the state’s center, a city literally surrounded by corn, and rapidly ascended to prominence there as a trusted and respected public figure. It was in Lincoln that young Reinhold came of age, listening to his father’s sermons.  

Those sermons grazed on both theological and secular turf, foreshadowing the sermons Reinhold himself would give years later. Gustav argued certain issues from a liberal perspective while taking a more conservative stand on others. He was, according to Fox, liberal in “his unconcern for doctrinal precision” and in his determination to downgrade and degrade the barriers between Protestant denominations. But he was more conservative in his insistence on Christ’s divinity and in his opposition to those who cheapened or dismissed the miracles of the New Testament. Gustav was appalled by the local saloons and preached temperance; he saw socialism as perilously naïve; he was not particularly offended by wealth or by those who enjoyed it; and he was no supporter of women’s rights. “His liberalism,” Fox writes, “was that of Teddy Roosevelt: efficiency, social order, and a bigger role for the federal government in bringing that order about.”

Reinhold was in awe of his father — of his larger-than-life personality; his importance in the community; and his ideas, expressed forcefully through sermon. At an early age, he decided to follow him into service to the church. So he attended Elmhurst College, outside Chicago, and then Eden Seminary, the training ground for future German Evangelical ministers, where he wrote for Keryx, the school’s literary magazine, and led the debate team. In 1913, just months before Reinhold was to graduate from Eden, his 50-year-old father took sick and was dead within days. Reinhold was excused from the remainder of classes and appointed interim pastor of Saint John’s: What was once the young man’s choice — to take up his father’s career in the ministry — had suddenly become his obligation. He continued to preach during the summer months, but as fall approached, so too did the start-date for classes at Yale’s School of Religion (before 1911 and after 1920, it was Yale Divinity School), where he was expected. Reinhold left Lincoln for New Haven, and emerged, two years later, with a Master’s degree. Just several months after that, he began work as the head of Bethel Evangelical Church, a fledgling parish in Detroit.

It was as the leader of Bethel Evangelical that Niebuhr sowed the seeds of what would grow into a long and cornucopian career as a Christian thinker who opined on issues both theological and secular, always benefiting from cross-pollination between the two. His first national exposure came in 1916, when the Atlantic published his essay “The Failure of German-Americanism.” The piece was a strident criticism of the German-American who, Niebuhr wrote,

has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years. His failure to do so is all the more striking because he comes from a country where interest in community welfare on the part of the individual has reached its highest development.

The German-American, in other words, had failed to integrate himself into his new country and to live up to the best traditions of his old one. Here was Niebuhr, himself a German-American, an employee of the German Evangelical Synod, criticizing in a major national publication those who were like him and with whom he was supposedly sympathetic. What’s more, the article was released in the midst of World War I, after the Lusitania’s sinking and the interception of the Zimmerman Note, at a time when America’s relations with Germany were horribly strained. In that atmosphere, “The Failure of German-Americanism” was rendered especially potent. Hugo Münsterberg, a well-known German-American psychologist, flatly told Niebuhr it was unwise to have published such a piece, to which Niebuhr responded in a letter that he was “very tired and sometimes impatient with [German-Americans’] constant attempts to belittle every American virtue and magnify every American evil.” 2  Even at a young age, he was not one to shy from intellectual battle.

The subsequent years saw the blossoming of Niebuhr’s renown, first within the Evangelical Synod and then, after he began writing regular editorials for the liberal Christian Century, among the nation’s other Protestant denominations. His work advocating on behalf of Detroit autoworkers brought him even wider national prominence. He was something of a rabble-rouser. In a letter to the New Republic, he wrote,

[Liberalism] is afraid to tear down old houses and build new ones. . . . It lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history. It is the philosophy of the middle-aged, lacking the fervency of youth and its willingness to take a chance and accept a challenge.3

And certainly, Niebuhr’s own fervency attracted youth to him. Fox wrote in a 1984 essay that

Niebuhr’s unusual rapport with the young provides one important clue to his character. . . . With students, especially those with earnest, pointed questions, he found himself thoroughly at home. Like him, they were oblivious to social form, and not given to polite acquiescence. Like him, they were uncynical, willing to believe that commitment mattered, eager to put their abundant energy to work.4

The students to whom Fox refers were for many years those of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the institution Niebuhr joined in 1928 and which would be his home for the next 30-odd years. It was precisely his affinity with young people that garnered him the position, in fact. Union’s president, Henry Sloane Coffin, had shared a platform with Niebuhr at a major Christian student conference and observed firsthand how he dazzled the crowd. Coffin was looking to spice up Union by attracting a more ambitious kind of pupil, and he needed little convincing that Niebuhr, despite his lack of academic credentials, would do precisely that.

So the invitation to join Union’s faculty was proffered and after much deliberation accepted; Niebuhr left Detroit for New York. Although teaching was added to his extensive résumé, it in no way detracted from his furious schedule; he continued to travel extensively, give speeches, and write volumes. He even found time to run for the New York state Senate on the Socialist ticket (he was trounced).

In 1932, niebuhr published Moral Man and Immoral Society, a book that shocked the pacifists and socialists who had for good reason considered him their ally. The reason for their distress is easily identified: The New York Times review of Moral Man was subtitled, “Reinhold Niebuhr Concludes That Violence Is Often Necessary to Combat Tyranny and Oppression.” And indeed, the book did conclusively break from the pacifism in which Niebuhr had previously, albeit always uncomfortably, dabbled. Really, he had for some time seen through pacifism’s platitudes. Five years before publication of Moral Man, his essay “A Critique of Pacifism” ran in the Atlantic. It was Niebuhr’s first salvo against the naïveté of pacifists who minimized the role that power played, and would always play, in the determination of political affairs. Niebuhr did not in that article explicitly accept violence — at the time of its writing he still considered himself something of a pacifist. So while he criticized those who believed reason, love, and trust were the implements with which to create a just world, he offered no plausible substitute for their squishy narrative. In Moral Man, however, Niebuhr was less reticent in dealing out an alternative: “Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power.” To engage in the political process, he wrote, one must become comfortable with the use of force in his dealings, and even with violence in certain circumstances.

Not only did the book evaluate the mechanisms through which change is affected; more notably, it also evinced a distinct view of human nature that was antithetical to the age’s still-sibilant Wilsonian idealism. The first words of Moral Man:

The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.

Social improvement arises not from the reasonableness of groups, which, contrary to individuals, are unlikely and perhaps unable to act other than in self-interest. Rather, it emerges out of conflicts over power. Individuals are flawed, Niebuhr wrote, but they can occasionally overcome their egoism and “consider interests other than their own.” Not so groups of individuals, relations between which are “determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses” and not by grand and idealistic notions. Niebuhr was unforgiving of the moralists: “They do not recognise that when collective power, whether in the form of imperialism or class domination, exploits weakness, it can never be dislodged unless power is raised against it.”

In a much-publicized photo, a youthful Barack Obama lectures at the University of Chicago Law School — no jacket, no tie, the sleeves of his button-down Oxford rolled to mid-forearm, a piece of chalk in his hand. He partly faces a blackboard, on which he has drawn a diagram beneath the words “Power Analysis” and the subhead “Relationships Built on Self-interest.”

Obama is illustrating the teachings of Saul Alinsky, a radical community organizer who was born in Chicago in 1909 and grew up during a time when the city’s storied political machine was in full operation. Alinsky came to believe that a machine-elected representative would not actually work for constituents, for the betterment of their situations, so long as they remained unorganized and powerless. Alinsky had read about the maneuverings of John L. Lewis, founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations labor union, and wondered: Could the organizational tactics unions used to push their agenda be adopted by communities of ordinary citizens to push their own?

This was the germ of the Alinsky method of organizing, the method in which Barack Obama was schooled (albeit not by Alinsky himself) when he first arrived in Chicago as a fresh-faced 24-year-old ready to commence his new community-organizing job. “The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned,” Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Republic, “was to reassess his understanding of power.” Most newly minted organizers were drawn to the occupation because of their idealistic notions about change and helping others. Alinsky demanded that those romantic impulses be jettisoned; organizing was, in short, all about shifting the balance of power. Alinsky taught that the foremost way to organize citizens politically was to appeal to their self-interest. As Obama told Lizza, “The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people’s self-interest was met and not basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism. So there were some basic principles that remained powerful then, and in fact I still believe in.”

Alinsky detailed all these ideas in Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, a book that, in its more philosophical passages, sounds pointedly Niebuhrian. Not only does Alinsky eschew 1960s-era leftism (comparable to Niebuhr’s rejection of post-World War I idealism), not only does he understand, as Niebuhr did, the importance of power in achieving political gain, but he also channels Niebuhr in writing that false morality is often used to disguise what are truly self-interested motivations. It is unsurprising, then, that Alinsky always assigned Moral Man and Immoral Society to his organizing students.

Obama first encountered Niebuhr’s writings as an undergraduate at Columbia University. But in his work in Chicago, he was actively tempering his own liberalism with realist thought and, through Alinsky’s methods, implementing Niebuhr’s Moral Man teachings. Certainly he internalized the message. In his rough-and-tumble local politicking for state office, and in his presidential campaign, especially his primary contest against Hillary Clinton, Obama showed his shrewdness even as he gilded it with a smile. Tough to say, of course, what of this technique Obama learned on his own and what he owes to the man he described as among his “favorite philosophers.”

Remembering religion

Jimmy carter, campaigning in 1976, called Niebuhr his favorite theologian. One wonders if Obama, by calling Niebuhr a philosopher, intentionally meant to neglect or at least downplay the philosopher’s religiosity. Niebuhr’s ideas were of course not simply those of a wise and insightful man; his ideas came from a Christian understanding of the world. This is certainly true of Moral Man, for example. The notion that individuals are morally flawed and only infrequently capable of overcoming their egotistical impulses derives from a particular Christian conception of what Niebuhr did not avoid calling “original sin.” In Moral Man, he writes that those who seek to perfect man, who believe man is perfectible, “are not conscious of the limitations in human nature which finally frustrate their efforts.” Thus does Niebuhr imply that sin is an endemic feature of humanity, and that while reason can help individuals understand their own limitations, it can also allow them to rationalize their selfish actions. Such limitations are only heightened when groups of people act together.

Niebuhr’s ideas were of course not simply those of a wise and insightful man; his ideas came from a Christian understanding of the world.

And yet, simply because a book is written by a theologian, must its content be theological? Hauerwas thinks not. In reviewing Paul Merkley’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Political Account, he disagreed with Merkley’s assertion that Niebuhr’s works must be read from a theological perspective.5 “For in truth,” Hauerwas writes, “it must be said that it simply is not clear how Niebuhr’s particular judgments . . . were or were not informed by his central Christian convictions.” Niebuhr may have been a man of God, Hauerwas argues, but God is absent from much of his writing. He continues: “Merkley is clearly correct that Niebuhr thought that everything he said was in some way grounded in his theological concerns. But while this may be true biographically Niebuhr was not able to show conceptually why his particular judgments were necessarily related to Niebuhr’s interpretation of Christianity.” That is, Niebuhr may have thought that he arrived at his conclusions after traveling a theological route, but he often declined to explicitly recount his trip; he also failed to show that the road he traversed was the sole one leading to his destination. Niebuhr himself used to say that original sin is the empirically verifiable Christian doctrine — in which case, does it not follow that one can assent to the lessons of, say, Moral Man without acknowledging its Christian maxims?  

The religious scholar Martin E. Marty took up a similar question in relation to Niebuhr’s 1952 work The Irony of American History. The book attacks communism, but it more fiercely attacks facets of America: its moral complacency, its materialism, but primarily its exceptionalism. The idea, commonly held by Americans, that their country is special, blessed by God, entrusted with a providential mission, mostly pure in its motivations and right in its actions is, Niebuhr wrote, perilously wrongheaded. The irony of American history is that the consequences of American actions can be the opposite of those the nation intended — in seeing itself as exceptional, in forgoing critical self-evaluation, America could easily assume the worst aspects of the nations it opposed. Marty’s question was whether one could accept this Nieburian irony without also accepting its basis as theological. Was it feasible for the so-called “Atheists for Niebuhr” to affirm the pastor’s conclusions and not necessarily his premises?

What’s peculiar about The Irony of American History is that the theological premises are largely buried or disguised. It’s possible that this was deliberate; Niebuhr may have thought that softening religion would make his thesis more acceptable to more people. But buried and disguised though they are, the references to religion in Irony do exist — for example, Niebuhr’s mention of an overarching “governing principle.” Marty writes that Niebuhr “insisted that without the ‘governing principle’ of which he spoke, an ironic interpretation would be only ‘subjective,’ ‘imaginative,’ ‘capricious,’ ‘superimposed,’ reflective of ‘special interest’ and ‘arbitrary;’ it would ‘do violence to the facts’ and represent but ‘fortuitous’ correlations of a ‘biased mind.’”6  And that seems to be right. It is possible to read Niebuhr from a secular perspective, but it is impossible to assume that he wrote from one (as Leon Wieseltier put it, “He was a professor at the Union Theological Seminary, not a fellow at the Center for American Progress”). Therefore, those who reject the religious grounding of certain of Niebuhr’s thoughts do not so much subscribe to his work as find its endpoints plausible and sensible. They accept, for instance, Niebuhr’s idea about America’s irony without accepting his theological bases, thereby devaluing the syllogism by countenancing the conclusions but skipping the premises or substituting their own.

Returning to Moral Man: It is certainly possible for the secular historian, glancing back through time, to agree with Niebuhr’s rejection of idealism. But our historian has no definitive rejoinder to the idealist who argues that mankind is just now, at this moment, poised to cross the boundary between basal self-interest and enlightened cooperation. The historian can recite the history of the League of Nations, the Soviet Union, Cambodia, etc. until blue in the face, but unless he is willing to acknowledge man’s inherent limitations he possesses no dispositive disproof to the idealist’s vision.7

Obama would probably disagree with that analysis. He tends to swim in relativism. In an illuminating 2004 interview with the then-religion reporter of the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama portrayed his Christianity as a syncretic sort, one that denies the biblical wisdom that non-believers will be punished and that looks to other religions to inform its tenets. “I’m rooted in the Christian tradition,” he said. “I believe that there are many paths to the same place.” When asked “What is Sin?,” Obama answered, “Being out of alignment with my values.” Such subjective interpretations and definitions Niebuhr could never have accepted.

The president’s tendency to see religion not as rule but as guide and his reference to Niebuhr as a philosopher allows one to decoct what in Niebuhr’s thought Obama finds so compelling: the pastor’s conclusions and not the theological reasoning that created them. Were Obama asked whether Niebuhr’s writings could be just as valuable read from a secular perspective, he would almost certainly answer in the affirmative. In his discussion with the Sun-Times interviewer, Obama said his “politics are informed by a belief that we’re all connected.” He continued:  

I can give religious expression to that. I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, we are all children of God. Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same.8

The basic premise, though, does not remain the same. It is illuminating that Obama thinks it does.

Although niebuhr didn’t like labels, a cursory reading of his work will likely append one to him: cynic. Man is irrevocably flawed, groups act only in their self-interest, America is prone to mimic the most noxious actions of the very nations the modi operandi of which it decries — this is not an inspiring list. How odd, then, that Niebuhr’s seeming cynicism would resound with the new president, who maintains a patina of hope even in his soberest speechifying moments.

Niebuhr, though, was no cynic. Flaws may bedevil us and our institutions, he wrote, but humans remain obliged to work to comprehend and enact justice and social progress. Wilfred McClay, describing this dualism, said Niebuhr believed that “man was not merely a sinner, but also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God’s image, still capable of acts of wisdom, generosity, and truth, and still able to advance the cause of social improvement.”9  The key is for people to resist thinking they can never be mistaken about which social causes to advance or about the best tactics to advance them. Man can use his reason for good, but when he grows hubristic about his own capacities, his reason easily becomes a tool for bad ends.

Obama claims to understand at least a version of this teaching. When pressed by Brooks to describe what he extracted from Niebuhr’s texts, Obama said it was “the compelling idea” that serious evil exists in the world “and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

That last bit can be hard to swallow coming from Obama because naïve is an adjective that has been so frequently deployed to describe him. Yet, his naïveté is often clearly calculated — in most such cases, calculated to appeal to voters and win him an election. But to hear Obama speak of humility also gives one pause: This is the man who, in just the first months of his presidency, appears determined not only to save the economy but to redesign health care, education, and energy policy while also deflating the deficit. Clearly Obama hasn’t discarded his idealistic streak; he is a liberal, as was Niebuhr, and idealism smolders within even the most sensible liberals. The point is not to suffocate the idealism but to control its flames, which Obama has so far done more successfully in a few areas (evaluating Guantanamo Bay’s closure, for example) and less successfully in many others. If Obama has understood Niebuhr’s conclusion that man must act forcefully but humbly and free from naïve expectations, he has provided in his nascent presidency few indications of it.

What we cannot know

To animadvert upon Carter’s professed Niebuhrianism, the historian Arthur Schlesinger compared Niebuhr’s beliefs to Carter’s acts and pointed out, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that the two didn’t match. A facile task, really, considering the misty sentimentalism of the 39th president.

It would not be particularly difficult to do the same with Obama — to dig out instances in which his actions and his words have been at odds with Niebuhr’s. But this is not helpful, for two reasons.

First, Niebuhr’s ideas were not static. They changed throughout his life. He was at various times a patriotic war supporter, a pacifist, an interventionist, a liberal, a socialist, a Christian realist, a pessimist, an optimist, what Robert McAfee Brown has called a “pessimistic optimist,” etc. It is not feasible to hold Obama or anyone else to a Niebuhrian standard because we cannot know what that standard might be. That said, there does exist something of a consensus about several of Niebuhr’s conclusions, such as those which came out of Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Nature and Destiny of Man, and The Irony of American History. If a supposed Niebuhrian repeatedly acts in contravention of all or most of these teachings — by steadfastly adhering to idealism, say, or claiming that all American policy is blessed by God — it indicates that his knowledge of Niebuhr is lacking. But within even these three books, plenty of wiggle room exists, and so disagreements over the application of Niebuhr’s words (whether they do or do not support America’s invasion of Iraq, for example) are common.

Second, it is quite possible for a person to read and understand Niebuhr’s writings, to be influenced by them, and still to act in ways that sometimes clearly contravene them. The reason is plain: Rarely do evaluative judgments make use of only one source. To say that Obama takes Niebuhr seriously does not mean he will view every question through a Niebuhr-colored lens. What the pastor offered was not an instruction manual but theology-philosophy; his books talk of religion but are not themselves religious texts. Niebuhr can inform without dictating.

What seems in substance Niebuhrian may be only an echo of the real thing. Boiled down, Niebuhr’s thought becomes rather unoriginal.

It is wise, then, to exercise restraint before pointing out fraudulent Niebuhrians. But similar restraint must be exercised when pointing out true ones, because what seems in substance Niebuhrian may be only an echo of the real thing. Niebuhr’s thought, when boiled down as it so often is, becomes rather unoriginal. Conclusions that roiled Americans in the 1930s and 1940s can seem tame and ubiquitously held today (which is, incidentally, a reason why Niebuhr’s premises, not just his conclusions, matter so much). When Obama said he took away from Niebuhr the idea that evil exists, and that we should be modest in evaluating our capacity to identify and confront it but that we must fight it nonetheless, he might as well have been referencing a newspaper column or think-tank report. Obama’s distillation of Niebuhr is a commonly held belief; nothing about the statement is specifically Niebuhrian (again, this is why the premises matter).

The same is true of, say, Obama’s discomfort with ideology. Was Niebuhr also uneasy with ideology? Yes. Are millions of others? Yes. When an undecided voter appears on the nightly news, viewers don’t assume indecision struck him after he spent hours engrossed in The Irony of American History. There is nothing specifically Niebuhrian about being an undecided voter, and when Obama derides political labels, there is nothing specifically Niebuhrian about that, either.  

Strong is the desire to upbraid the politician whose actions violate the teachings of his hero. Just as strong is the longing to find in that politician’s actions reverberations of his hero. In Obama’s case, we learn that Niebuhr is among his “favorite philosophers” and are tempted to discover causal connections between the two men — their appeal to youth, their work as community organizers, their eschewal of ideology — in the land of coincidence.

In fact, much evidence suggests that Obama read Niebuhr’s books and simply plucked from them the pieces that reinforced his extant viewpoints. The president has a proven penchant for such unmoored and scattered plucking, for choosing the portions of ideologies or philosophies or even religions that suit him, and seems unbothered that as he deracinates ideas he also emasculates them. Obama has said he’s interested in “what works,” but events suggest that phrase would be better amended “what works for me.”

Niebuhr’s teachings cannot begin to solve the enigma in the Oval Office, for there is no way to know that Obama has digested Niebuhr’s work in whole rather than in bits. Not only are we confronted by the ambiguity inherent in Niebuhr, that which makes disagreement over his words so prevalent, but we are also confronted by the ambiguity of Obama and of Obama’s approach to Niebuhr. Does he subscribe to Niebuhr’s philosophy or does he merely adopt it when and where it supports his prior and indiscernible convictions? The latter seems most plausible, but we cannot know for sure.


Liam Julian is managing editor of Policy Review.


1 Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (Pantheon, 1985), >294.

2Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, 46.

3 Reinhold Niebuhr, letter to the New Republic (June 14, 1919).

4 See Matthew Burke, “Niebuhr the Teacher,” First Things (February 1993).

5 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Search for the Historical Niebuhr,” Review of Politics, 38:3 (July 1976).

6 Martin E. Marty, “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of American History: A Retrospective,” History Teacher, 26:2 (February 1993).

7 It is correct to note that the secular historian could believe in man’s inherent limitations without necessarily believing in the Christian interpretation of original sin. As Hauerwas pointed out, Niebuhr did not make a logical case for why his Christian interpretation was the only way to arrive at his conclusions; Niebuhr never proved why others could simply not substitute for his their own premises. Niebuhr did, however, find the Christian interpretation to be superior to all others. Robert McAfee Brown has written, for example, that “Niebuhr had no illusions that he could prove that his perspective was truer than those of his contemporaries, but he frequently observed that at least the profundities of Biblical faith made more sense out of more facts . . . than the secular perspectives . . . .” For more on this, see: Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 150–151. The secular historian may reach Niebuhr’s conclusions by heading along a different route, but then his is not really a Niebuhrian interpretation, is it?

8 See http://falsani.blogspot.com/2008/04/barack-obama-2004-god-factor-interview.html

9 Wilfred M. McClay, “The Continuing Irony of American History” (adapted from his Witherspoon Lecture), First Things (February 2002).