Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ira Chernus on Obama's Semi-Niebuhrianism: Shadows and Suffering, Heading Nowhere

Ira Chernus's critique of the "semi-Niebuhrianism of Mr. Obama (and of almost all media pundits who sling Niebuhr's name around today) is brilliant.  As I've noted for some time now, the highly selective use of Niebuhr's theology to justify a principles-lite "realism" that sanctifies the status quo is a bastardization of Niebuhr's theology, which is rooted in the social gospel.  And that's to say, it's rooted in a powerful tradition of American theology that sees the status quo as always susceptible to change and always in need of reform, from the vantage point of the prophetic insights of world religious traditions.

Those using Niebuhr's theology of Christian realism selectively to argue for a pragmatism that reaffirms the status quo while tinkering with taken-for-granted and unquestioned socioeconomic systems to make them more efficient haven't really read Niebuhr.  They're playing a game--a game that happens to be congenial to those living in the inner circles of power in American political and economic life.  Who just happen to be the same people lauding Niebuhr's realism (that, is their distorted version of it) and using Niebuhrian realism (their ditto) to marginalize progressives.

What we encounter in the sanitized reading of Niebuhrian realism that prevails in the mainstream media and among many American political leaders is the self-congratulatory echo-chamber using carefully selected "theological" ideas to bless its defense of the status quo.  In the controlling economic and political centers of American life, the incessantly praised "center" is a construct of those who have economic and political power and privilege in their hands, and do not intend to share it.  Even when the future of our democracy is in peril, precisely because of this growing tendency of those at the very top of the political and economic ladder to gather all power and all resources into their own hands.

And so Ira Chernus's advice to the president, as Mr. Obama continues to struggle with the real Niebuhr in all his theological complexity: 

Until American political discourse can rid itself of the pervasive shadow of Niebuhrian “realism” and explore new, non-exploitive ways to express its uniqueness and passion for moral virtue, we will continue to muddle along through the valley of the shadow of semi-Niebuhrianism and suffer all its perils. A semi-Niebuhrian president like Obama may accomplish some genuinely good things like health care reform or clean energy technology investment, and he will deserve our thanks for it. But he will not give us the new mythology we need to replace the public infatuation with semi-Niebuhrianism. That is up to us.

Any realism, theological or otherwise, which cannot see that, as a nation, we are in very serious trouble right now, and need more than tinkering to get us out of that trouble, is a highly dubious realism, at best.  It's a realism unable to see what is right before its own face.  If you really do want a real picture of where the country is at present, you'll stop talking to the same-old same-old power mongers and ask a few people outside the power circles of D.C., New York, and the west coast what's going on out in the nation at large.  But be prepared: the realistic picture you'll get when you do that will be much more alarming than the one crafted by "centrists" intent on pursuing "civil" conversations about how to get us out of our current trouble--a picture more alarming, more realistic, and more Niebuhrian by far.

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