Patterico's Pontifications

2/7/2010

Obama’s Theology

Filed under: Obama — DRJ @ 2:14 pm



[Guest post by DRJ]

In a 2007 New York Times’ interview with David Brooks, Presidential candidate Barack Obama named Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers:

“Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“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.”

My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.”

Niebuhr was born in 1892 and died in 1971 and is known as a Christian realist. As a young pastor in Detroit in the 1920’s, Niebuhr was a critic of the adverse effects of industrialism on workers and opposed the Ku Klux Klan. He was also a pacifist who became a proponent of “just wars.”

CNN recently featured an article on how “Obama’s favorite theologian shaped his first year in office” that begins with Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he began, “the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The article paints both Obama and Niebuhr as tough but fair critics of greed, complacency, and evil. It’s only at the end of the article that the reporter offers a contrasting view from former Senator and Espiscopal priest John Danforth: “I see in Obama’s approach to politics, which is surprisingly partisan and ideological, a hubris that is not Niebuhrian.”

However, Obama’s view of America is decidedly Niebuhrian. Both view America as quixotic — at times exceptional but often exceptionally flawed. Not surprisingly, so did Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who read and studied Niebuhr and — as evidenced by his “God Damn America” speech and others — echoed Niebuhr’s message that warned of the dangers of American hegemony:

“Niebuhr, then, encouraged Christians to prevent international catastrophe by criticizing their own nations’ policies criticisms of American policies. In an era when some are calling for a foreign policy of “benevolent hegemony,” [Jeremiah] Wright’s message of remembering our faults is especially timely. Neocons maintain that:

“The aspiration to benevolent hegemony might strike some as either hubristic or morally suspect. But a hegemon is nothing more or less than a leader with preponderant influence and authority over all others in its domain. That is America’s position in the world today.”

Contrast this with the words of Niebuhr:

“The world cannot be organized by an Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Such a leadership could be ten times more just than the Nazis were and yet not be just enough to avoid arousing the resentment of Europe and Asia, in fact, of the entire world.”

On economic matters, Niebuhr was more of a socialist who accepted qualified capitalism but viewed American business and businessmen as heartless and greedy. Niebuhr himself railed against “the ridiculous dogma of laissez faire” and, as explained by E.J. Dionne, Niebuhr’s views sound a lot like President Obama’s:

“When Niebuhr tried to give concrete content to his notion of justice, he instinctively thought about equalizing standards of living, reducing job insecurity and enacting social insurance schemes.”

Both Niebuhr and Obama were conflicted by the inherent inconsistencies of politics and life and, as Brooks suggested, Obama is trying to thread the needle in Niebuhrian fashion. Ultimately, both frame the conflict as a battle between moral workers and immoral businesses … and both are willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that workers win.

— DRJ

24 Responses to “Obama’s Theology”

  1. He was also a pacifist who became a proponent of “just wars.”
    No contradictions in philosophy there.

    “The world cannot be organized by an Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Such a leadership could be ten times more just than the Nazis were and yet not be just enough to avoid arousing the resentment of Europe and Asia, in fact, of the entire world.”
    So, since an Anglo-Saxon Hegomony would never be 100% acceptable to all others, and couldn’t be “perfectly just”, it should never be attempted; but instead, it should just let the rest of the World fester in its’ own squallor?

    And, since when has any system organized under “equality of outcome” ever prospered, or promoted the Freedom of the Individual?

    AD - RtR/OS! (f9cda3)

  2. DRJ – Great post. Very interesting link to the Pew Forum. I’ll finish it later.

    The Serenity Prayer does provide an important contrast to the way Obama acts. He does not demonstrate humility. He does not know what he does not know. At his STFU Address, after remonstrating his former Congressional colleagues, dressing down the Supreme Court, demonizing insurance companies, banks, Wall Street, and business in general, Obama remained the only one unflawed enough to solve the nation’s problems. Danforth is right. That is not wisdom, that is hubris and imho, not the correct way to practice the prayer in your life.

    daleyrocks (718861)

  3. Good point, daleyrocks. And here’s the Pew link for anyone who is interested.

    DRJ (84a0c3)

  4. I would be more impressed if Obama understood the fairy tale about the goose who laid the golden egg. As it stands now I see no evidence of it.

    Voluble (1e2a18)

  5. They’re both socialists. David Brookth sort of skittered past that part.

    happyfeet (713679)

  6. “The world cannot be organized by an Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Such a leadership could be ten times more just than the Nazis were and yet not be just enough to avoid arousing the resentment of Europe and Asia, in fact, of the entire world.”

    Absolutely correct. The worst thing America did was to save Europe from its natural forms of government: Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. No EUropean is worth a single dollar or drop of American blood. I fully back the EU wallowing in their true natures: tyranny and anti-Semitism.

    tehag

    The next war will be fought to destroy EUrope, not save it. Two strikes and they’re out.

    tehag (1b4709)

  7. tehag – Unlike the Japanese, they haven’t been very grateful. Maybe we should have nuked them too?

    daleyrocks (718861)

  8. If you study some economic history (Joel Mokyr’s new book is just out), you learn that Britain succeeded in creating the industrial revolution because it had the rule of law, especially contracts, and a stable government plus protection of property, including patents. In his earlier books, he describes how close Rome came to an industrial revolution (They had a working steam engine) because of the lack of protection of property and contracts.

    I suspect Niebuhr, like Obama, had no idea how to create a job or run a business. They think that such things occur by chance or the government does it.

    Obama would do well to read Adam Smith instead.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  9. Mike K – Blanche Lincoln scored a direct hit on Obama last week when she told him he didn’t have anybody in his administration who knew how to meet a payroll.

    daleyrocks (718861)

  10. She got off a strike as she’s avoiding the door slamming her in the @ss on the way out.

    AD - RtR/OS! (f9cda3)

  11. Are you going to do a review, Mike K? I like to link your reviews for my son.

    DRJ (84a0c3)

  12. After reading that Pew link, I gotta say Neibuhr was wrong on a lot of stuff but he was also right in various aspects, such as that tight-rope deal and other stuff. (Is that Neibuhrian?)

    And I have to think Wright and Obama scooted right on past a lot of what Neibuhr said. Based on my understanding, he would accept neither of their totalitarian stances and would warn against them.

    John Hitchcock (1ed822)

  13. “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’s what I think, but I’ve never read Niebuhr. I guess that makes me a genius. /sarcasm

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he began, “the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    Looks like Obama made a mistake there about health care “reform”.

    Jim C. (b33a68)

  14. It wasn’t Dionne but the other dude and I can’t remember his name who pointed out a glaring omission in the Serenity Prayer: There’s nothing in that prayer that allows for maintaining something that’s right; it’s all about changing everything or the inability to change it.

    (See the Pew link above.)

    John Hitchcock (1ed822)

  15. “God, grant me the wisdom to know when things should not be changed.”

    Jeez! That’s like kryptonite to Mr. Hopey Changey!!!

    Icy Texan (c095d4)

  16. “Both Niebuhr and Obama were conflicted by the inherent inconsistencies of politics and life and, as Brooks suggested, Obama is trying to thread the needle in Niebuhrian fashion. Ultimately, both frame the conflict as a battle between moral workers and immoral businesses … and both are willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that workers win.”

    Human nature embodies inconsistencies and conflicts. Lefties and socialists hate and deny human nature, then make it their life’s mission to transform life and politics. Doomed to fail.

    Furthermore, businesses are entities comprised of individuals and cannot be moral or immoral. Whatever unjust deeds businesses did and do to workers, without the businesses, there are no workers. Workers never win when businesses lose. The immature Marxists in the administration and Congress are incapable of understanding this.

    I also have to agree with tehag. Europe demonstrably did not deserve our blood and treasure and have not learned the lesson. They are doomed to repeat it.

    Peg C. (c3fd4c)

  17. or “God grant me the wisdom to get a ticket to the clue bus.” Because I think he’s never taken that trip.

    Vivian Louise (643333)

  18. Are you going to do a review, Mike K? I like to link your reviews for my son.

    Comment by DRJ

    I’m just finishing the first volume of the biography of George Marshall, “Education of a General.” I’ll start on the Mokyr book next. His earlier books, which I read before I was doing Amazon reviews, are terrific. “The Lever of Riches” is a history of technology in the middle ages and the ancient world. I used it a lot in my own history. For example, he points out that the Romans also did not have the proper technology for agriculture in central Europe, like the horse collar. The horse collar and the plow revolutionized agriculture.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  19. Bambi threw himself under the ‘clue bus’ years ago.

    Icy Texan (c095d4)

  20. #14 John Hitchcock:

    it’s all about changing everything or the inability to change it.

    Its an introspection: it’s about recognizing what we can change in our own behavior, and recognizing that we are human~that some things are beyond our reach and belong in the hands of G-d.

    The underlying assumption is that you are motivated to improve your own life, that you, and you alone are responsible for how you live your life.

    In that sense, the duty or imperative to maintain “something that’s right” is implied…it is the stasis point where the prayer begins.

    EW1(SG) (edc268)

  21. It is remarkable that Liberal/Leftists are always on a campaign to change how others live their lives – Do as I say, not as I do!

    And, of course, our annoited class of money-changers always exempt themselves from the rules that they impose on us.

    AD - RtR/OS! (cc3695)

  22. … both frame the conflict as a battle between moral workers and immoral businesses … and both are willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that workers win.

    It’s hard for me to envision a circumstance where the workers can

    win

    if the

    immoral businesses lose.

    What would constitute winning or losing to Obama and Niebuhr? One continues to wonder how Obama thinks he can improve the circumstances of the employee class while attacking/destroying the employer class?

    John Harlan (b04c62)

  23. “It’s hard for me to envision a circumstance where the workers can win if the immoral businesses lose.”

    John Harlan – Think state control, socialism, nationalization, top down central planning, no more profit motive, etc., etc.

    daleyrocks (718861)

  24. Since when does Obama have Theology ?

    Isn’t it all Meology for our President Obama ?

    Alasdair (bd19f8)


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