Saturday, January 2, 2010

President Obama and the Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr: Faithful Reflection or Betrayal?

I blogged on new year’s day about the continued need to engage religious ideas if we want to understand and make informed choices about the world in which we live. As I noted, whether we have a personal religious commitment or not, and whether we regard religion as maleficent or salutary, it’s impossible to ignore the role it plays in cultures worldwide if we want to grasp the significance of many cultural and political events.

Obama’s Favorite Theologian: Reinhold Niebuhr

A case in point: as many commentators are now noting, the political outlook of President Obama is appreciably affected by Obama’s reading of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. This is an influence that the president himself acknowledges. In April 2007, Senator Obama told New York Times columnist David Brooks that Niebuhr is one of his favorite philosophers, noting that he takes from Niebuhr the following:

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 ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

Niebuhr’s influence on Obama is so evident that during the campaign leading up to the 2008 elections, Benedict Cipolla of Religion News Service argued that Niebuhr was an “unseen force” in the 2008 elections, in which Obama had “emerged as perhaps the most visibly Niebuhrian candidate.” Cipolla notes Niebuhrian influence in Obama’s remarks at a forum about faith among the Democratic candidates in June 2008, in which Obama “spoke of the peril inherent in seeing America's actions as always virtuous and in drawing battle lines too neatly between good and evil.”

Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on Obama’s thought has continued to be in the news throughout his presidency. In May last year, for instance, the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference devoted a session to a discussion of Niebuhrian themes in Obama’s thought, in which Wilfred McClay of the Humanities Department of the University of Tennessee and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post analyzed the president’s political application of his “favorite theologian.”

In the same month, Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University, published a probing, careful analysis of the president’s connection to Niebuhr entitled “Niebuhrian in the White House” at the Social Science Research Council’s online journal site, The Immanent Frame (to which I’ll return in a moment), which notes the persistence of the Niebuhrian motif in interpretations of Obama—an interpretive framework the president encourages.

The Niebuhrian framework of Obama’s political thought is back in the news now following his recent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, in which commentators including Ted Widmer and David Brooks at the New York Times detect strong (and, in their view, altogether praiseworthy) Niebuhrian influence. The latest editorial in the influential Catholic weekly America also notes the Niebuhrian context of the Oslo speech—though where Widmer and Brooks find everything to praise, America is more sober about the Oslo application of Niebuhr’s thought—a topic I’ll discuss in more detail in a moment.

The Niebuhrian background of the Oslo speech has also captured the attention of Melvin A. Goodman at the Truthout blog site. Goodman published a response to the speech entitled “President Obama’s Muse?” that contests the position taken by commentators like Widmer and Brooks, who see the president as faithfully reflecting Niebuhr’s thinking in his approach to the war in Afghanistan.

And this provides my point of departure for what I’d like to say about the president’s appropriation of the theology of Niebuhr, and varying political assessments of Obama’s use of Niebuhr: the theological outlook of Reinhold Niebuhr is multi-faceted, complex, and susceptible to a number of political applications. But not all of these faithfully mirror Niebuhr’s theology or respect the central themes of his thought.

In some key respects, the political thought (and decisions) of President Obama betray, rather than faithfully mirror, Niebuhrian theology. In my view, the president would be a more effective leader if he read Niebuhr more carefully and sought to grapple with the complexity and nuances of Niebuhr’s thought, rather than seizing on a selective, distorted interpretation of Niebuhr promoted by neoliberal thinkers whose primary interest in Niebuhr’s thought to use it to undercut progressive political analysis.

Political Applications of Niebuhr’s Theology: Critical Reflections

In what follows, I’ll be assuming that most readers have at least a basic familiarity with the outlines of Reinhold Niebuhr’s life and work. For those seeking an overview, two of the sources to which I link above—the Pew Forum’s Faith Angle conference on Niebuhr and Obama, and Gary Dorrien’s “Niebuhrian in the White House”—provide helpful, balanced surveys of Niebuhr’s life, work, and significance.

For the purposes of this essay, I’d like to note several important points Dorrien stresses re: Niebuhr’s legacy. As he notes, “Niebuhr was a complex figure who prized ambiguity and paradox, changed his positions many times, and found his way by reacting pragmatically to events . . . .” Over the course of his career (again, Dorrien), Niebuhr went from supporting American involvement in World War I, to becoming a pacifist (1920s), then a militant socialist who blasted the New Deal and disavowed pacifism, and (1940s) a former socialist who entered the “Vital Center” establishment of the Democratic party. By the late 1950s, he protested that anti-communism had been hijacked by ideologues and militants. In the 1960s he opposed the Vietnam war and called for American political leaders to develop a policy of peaceful co-existence with the USSR.

Niebuhr is anything but the neat, pro-American, pro-democracy, “realistic” and anti-utopian package that conservatives (and neoliberal) interpreters wish to make of him. He is far more complex than most political commentators claiming to reflect his viewpoint recognize.

There are, however, persistent themes—“keys,” to use Dorrien’s term—in Niebuhr’s theology, and anyone who claims to advocate a Niebuhrian worldview needs to recognize and respect those themes. As Dorrien notes, “. . . the key to Niebuhr, and to Obama’s interest in him, is the idea of combining a realistic understanding of politics and human nature with a religiously inspired idealism.”

Religiously inspired idealism: from the beginning of his career as a social gospel thinker, through his critique and repudiation of the social gospel, to the development of his theology of Christian realism, Niebuhr persistently takes for granted key assumptions of social gospel theology, notably, the insistence of that theological movement that the primary obligation of believers is to put their faith into action in the world to build a more humane social order. As Dorrien notes, “Niebuhr took for granted the activist orientation of the Social Gospel, even as he criticized Social Gospel idealism.”

Niebuhr never gave up on the presupposition that it is the obligation of believers to struggle to build a better social order—one that enshrines the ideals of love and justice. Even when he was (rightly) critical of naïve applications of the love ethic, Niebuhr kept the love ethic front and center in his theology. As Dorrien observes,

The early Niebuhr played up the irrelevance of Jesus’ love of perfectionism to politics, stressing that Jesus never talked about the realistic limits or consequences of social ethical choices. The later Niebuhr realized that the love ethic kept him and many others in the struggle, whether or not they succeeded. That was its political relevance. Justice could not be defined abstractly; it was a relational term that depended on the motive force of love. The meaning of justice could be determined only in the interaction of love and situation, through the mediation of Niebuhr’s three principles of justice—freedom, equality, and order.

For some time now, it has been fashionable among many centrist political commentators—of both a neoconservative and a neoliberal bent—who claim to be imbued with Niebuhrian insights, to argue that Niebuhr rejected all progressive political and religious movements as hopelessly naïve, utopian. These commentators imagine that Niebuhr invented a sober post-social gospel Realpolitik that regarded any and all struggles to build a better society as misguided, because those struggles did not recognize the impediment of sin in struggles to achieve social justice or to make love central to political theory.

This is a naïve and bastardized understanding of a theologian whose thought is much more complex than many of his interpreters wish to grant. As Wilfred McClay noted in the May 2007 Pew Forum discussion of Niebuhr and Obama,

But there's an interesting twist here; it is that all of this rejection of the social gospel, affirmation of original sin and so on, did not mean that he gave up on social reform. Niebuhr remained a man of the left always. Maybe not enough left to suit some people, but he certainly was never a conservative. And he believed Christians were obligated to work actively for progressive social causes, for the realization of justice and righteousness, but they had to do this in a way that abandoned their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves.

Obama’s Application of Niebuhr: Faithful Reflection or Betrayl?

And so to the president’s Oslo speech, which many commentators have hailed as a faithful reflection of Niebuhr’s thought. As America’s editorial (cited above) notes, even if this speech did reflect Niebuhr’s Christian realism in its apology for war as a tool for peace, it did so with insufficient attention to Niebuhr’s insistence that many of our most noble-sounding proclamations ironically subvert the ideals we believe we’re serving by those proclamations. (Nor, as America notes, did the president advert to what was really the driving context of his “Niebuhrian” reading of global struggles at present—the desire to appease his American critics of the right who regard him as weak, when it comes to confronting terrorist groups abroad.

And above all, the Oslo speech (again, irony) inserts into a 21st-century context viewpoints appropriate to the cold-war context of the 20th century—as if nothing of significance has happened on the stage of world history since then vis-à-vis issues of war and peace. And as if Niebuhr himself did not repeatedly change his mind in changing historical contexts:

But as a political philosophy for the 21st century, it was a march backward into cold war history, when the just war was the coin of the realm and “the imperatives of a just peace” were hardly considered.

Developments in international affairs since Niebuhr’s death in 1971 were clustered like an afterthought at the end of the address: accountability to the laws of armed conflict, the design of smart sanctions, nuclear nonproliferation, the promotion of human rights and socioeconomic development. Other recent developments that might have benefitted from a boost on the Nobel platform went unmentioned: nonviolent people’s revolutions, public apologies for national offenses—like President Clinton’s to Rwanda—national reconciliation processes, professional peacebuilding, trials for tyrants and the International Criminal Court. The president was right as far as he went. There is sometimes a place for force in righting injustice. But in Oslo he lost an opportunity to lend the lustre of the peace prize to constructive alternatives to war.

Equally, in Melvin A. Goodman’s view (cited above), though “various editorial writers of the mainstream media” rushed to identify President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech as a “faithful reflection” of Niebuhr’s philosophy, it’s anything but that. For Goodman, the Oslo speech and the president’s decision to ramp up the war in Afghanistan completely ignore Niebuhr’s repeated warnings about the “dangerous dreams of managing history” and about how “the trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age.” As Goodman observes, “This civil war [in Afghanistan] has been raging for 36 years and, now, President Obama believes that the presence of additional American forces will change that fact. Not really!”

In addition, the president’s military decisions completely overlook Niebuhr’s warning a half-century ago that the United States has become “strangely enamored with military might,” just as they ignore Niebuhr’s persistent critique of the bizarre myth of American exceptionalism that leads many of us blindly to conclude that anything our nation does is right and divinely blessed, and anything other nations do is riddled with ambiguity and undermined by base motives.

And so Goodman concludes,

President Obama has succumbed to what Niebuhr termed the “false security to which all men are tempted” - the security of power. . . . Fifty years ago, Niebuhr described a United States that was “frantically avoiding recognition of the imperialism which we in fact exercise.” In arguing that the United States was helping "underwrite global security for more than sixty years," President Obama ignored lessons learned in the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Iraq and, now, Afghanistan.

And I agree. President Obama’s appeal to Reinhold Niebuhr is highly selective, and ignores significant—and central—aspects of Niebuhr’s thought, including his constant insistence on the need of believers to work assiduously towards progressive social goals, as well as the need for intellectual humility and flexibility, imbued always with a strong sense of self-doubting irony, as we pursue those progressive goals. The president’s reading of Niebuhr echoes, sadly, the debased political readings of those who wish to hear in Niebuhr only a monotonal condemnation of progressive thought and progressive movements, as if Niebuhr’s nuanced critique of the social gospel constitutes an absolute repudiation of the Christian reformism advocated by that movement.

If the president wants to read Niebuhr more accurately, he would be well-served by turning to the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., who incorporates influences from Niebuhr and social gospel thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch in equal measure, and who never loses sight of a central insistence of both theologians: this is that, even when we recognize the fallibility of all of our efforts to build a more humane society, and even when we grant that our basest instincts will ironically subvert our best intentions, we must never stop struggling for that society. For many of us, that struggle hasn’t been conspicuously apparent in Mr. Obama’s leadership. And its absence is radically undermining that leadership.