Monday, February 1, 2010

Paul Raushenbush to the President: Mr. Obama, Find Your Inner Niebuhr


A month ago, I blogged about Niebuhrian influences on President Obama’s political philosophy.  I noted that it has long been fashionable for some politicians and intellectuals to invoke Reinhold Niebuhr when they want to give the impression that their political philosophy has theological depth and warrant.  Among beltway politicians and in the ivy-league universities that supply the beltway and corporate world with many of its leaders, Niebuhr is treated as a theological bulwark against progressive political ideas and movements. 

As my posting about Niebuhr and Mr. Obama notes, many of those citing Niebuhr as a hard-nosed realist who scorned progressivism obscure the complexity, nuance, and above all, social gospel roots of Niebuhr’s—in the same way that these same circles and the mainstream media that take their cue from them constantly cite Pope John Paul II’s (neoconservative) theology of the body while completely ignoring his powerful (progressivist) encyclical on the priority of labor.

My posting about Niebhuhr and Mr. Obama concludes:

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.

And so I’m interested to read today Paul Raushenbush’s piece at Huffington Post encouraging President Obama to find his inner Niebuhr.  As I do, Raushenbush notes the strong social gospel roots of Niebuhr’s thought, and the selective distortion of that thought by right-leaning political thinkers who see in Niebuhr a repudiation of progressive politics:

Many people think of Niebuhr largely in the second half of his career, as the realist who took a hard line in foreign policy against communists. Some neo-cons consider Reinhold the patron saint of the hawkish perspective of confronting evil in the world outside American borders. Yet while "Reinny," as his students called him, did gravitate towards foreign policy in the 50's, his realism was born out of a desire for change right here in America into a radically more just society. (Remember Change?) Grounded in his Christian conviction, Niebuhr was a fierce advocate for the poor, and many forget that he ran for congress in 1932 on the socialist ticket. What we have come to know as a Niebuhrian approach to foreign policy was originally a strategy for domestic progress.

Niebuhr came out of the liberal 'social gospel' Christian tradition that he rejected -- not because he disagreed with the movement's goal for social and economic justice -- but because he felt that the theology of the social gospel was unrealistic and the means the social gospel suggested to reach a just society were naive and ineffective. Instead he believed that only power would create change. Niebuhr wrote in the New Republic that liberal idealism "lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It's too intellectual, and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history."

As Raushenbush notes, Niebuhrian realism is grounded in the recognition that those struggling to build a more humane society will inevitably encounter fierce opposition from powerful elites resistant to change that exacts a cost from those elites—Niebuhrian realism about the cost of all progressive change presupposes, in other words, the progressive foundations of the struggle for a more humane world.  And so Raushenbush advises the president:

Mr. President, it is time for you to adopt a realist understanding of the depth of the power that is working to ensure that you fail. In one of his best known works, Moral Man, Immoral Society, Niebuhr argued that while individuals might act with self-sacrificing love, groups never willingly give up power. You are dealing with industries and political organizations who do not have your or the majority of the American people's best interests at heart. They have no intention in compromise, or reconciliation and it includes a group of fringe fanatics and members of congress who continue to spread the rumor that you are not American as well as play on fear of your race. Your opposition is serious and you have to be as well.

Confronted with powerful opposition to her or his platform of progressive social change, what would an authentic Niebuhrian do?  Fight.  Fight with the awareness that progressive change is always bought at a price, that it never comes automatically, that liberal optimism must always be tempered with social realism if it expects success in implementing progressive ideas.

But fight, nonetheless: those who read the real Niebuhr, who read his work in its entirety and its historical context, do not chuck the notion of progressive social change in the face of powerful opposition.  They fight for such change.  Because it’s at the heart of Niebuhr’s theology.

The graphic for this posting is from Melvin A. Goodman's "President Obama's Muse" at Truthout.  It adapts an image of Niebuhr by Jared Rodriguez.