U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama and Niebuhr (again)


Christian Realist Reinhold Niebuhr retains a very active presence in U.S. political culture almost 37 years after his death. For example, Obama claims to be influenced by Niebuhr. (A topic already broached at this blog.) Journalist E.J. Dionne writes, “On the few occasions I have spoken with Obama about his faith, he has evinced an understanding of the spiritual lives of Americans and familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology of skepticism and humility.” In a favorable evaluation of Obama’s recent celebrated speech on race, historian Leo P. Ribuffo concludes that Obama is indeed Niebuhrian, the “hope” mantra notwithstanding.

The question I pose to the reader: Why is Niebuhr sill so relevant? Is it because he expounded on Christian ethics in a way that appeals to Christians not of the Christian Right? Is it because he tempered the utopian and millennialist desires so common to American thought with a healthy dose of skepticism? Is it because he offers a rationale for the necessity of political involvement that navigates the terrain between fanaticism and nihilism? Your thoughts?

Andrew Hartman

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Niebuhr was a serious and important thinker and is “relevant” for at least that reason.

    But I take your question to be somewhat different: why are Ribuffo, Obama, and Dionne talking about Niebuhr?

    I think the fact that they are reflects a pretty broad effort to reevaluate and recuperate the legacy of Cold War liberalism, which one sees in the work of historians like Kevin Mattson.

    I think this trend is resulting in a lot of good and interesting history, but I personally remain somewhat concerned about overpraising Cold War liberalism or seeing it as a model for politics in the future.

  2. Ben,

    I agree that some, like Mattson, and more prominently, New Republic journalist Peter Beinart, emphasize Niebuhr in order to revive Cold War liberalism. I also agree that we should be hesitant to praise the revival of a strain of thought that helped lead to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, among other imperial disasters. Plus, besides potentially dangerous, conflating the Soviet Union with Islamic terrorism (which Beinart is more wont to do than Mattsen) is historically problematic and intellectually lazy.

    But, if you read his essay, I think you’ll find that this is certainly not Ribuffo’s intention. He sees Obama as Niebuhrian because Obama is publicly willing to admit to human frailties, indeed, American frailties.

    Ribuffo writes:

    “Not only is Obama’s candor remarkable–how many presidential candidates have admitted to imperfect grandmothers?–but so too is his matter-of-fact acceptance of human flaws and frailties. He does not require Americans to deny their less-than-admirable gut feelings and profess love for one another. Appeals of that sort, Obama seems to sense, are utopian, despite their sentimental charm. Rather, he urges Americans to ‘come together’ in practical solidarity to work on common problems.

    Obama has said frequently that the ‘audacity of hope’ does not imply mindless optimism. In his March 18 speech, he recalled the Civil War and subsequent struggle to move the United States toward racial equality. Elsewhere he has celebrated labor’s battles against Pinkerton strike breakers. Obama may underestimate how hard it will be to define common goals for 300 million Americans, not to mention the amount of conflict still needed to achieve significant social and economic change. But he is not naive. Rather, as a few commentators have noted, Obama is a kind of Niebuhrian. In its tough analysis of human relations, his speech is a thoughtful contribution to Christian realism as well as an able political defense.”

    Now, this does not then entail that Obama might suffer from the same misguided notions as the Cold War liberals. But such was not the point of his speech on race, nor Ribuffo’s point. Thanks for your response Ben. Cheers.

    Andrew Hartman

  3. Andrew’s original question asked why Niebuhr is “still” so relevant. It seems to me that it would be more accurate to say that he is “again” so relevant. I am not a religious historian, so could be completely wrong. But my subjective, anecdotal impression is that I’ve heard more about him in the last five years than I have during the previous twenty.

    If this impression is accurate, then my conclusion based on it is that the recent championing of Niebuhr is motivated almost entirely for political, rather than intellectual, reasons. I don’t know of many conservatives (except David Brooks, who barely counts) speaking so highly of him, and this liberal lionization looks to me like an attempt to make sense of the bungled Democratic opposition to the Iraq war.

    Most elected Democrats supported the war because of WMD, then they claimed to still support the war despite being upset that it’s being mishandled. Next they argued that they never really supported the war that we’re actually fighting, but supported a different war that never really existed because they were lied to about the WMD. Now, despite the fact that one of the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates voted for the war, they both want to get out right away, but not too recklessly. This position has made it very difficult for Democrats and, by extension, many liberals to say what exactly they oppose (militarism? dictatorship? incompetence? cultural imperialism? self-determination?) and what exactly they support (pacifism? foreign policy realism? world opinion? democracy?). A Niebuhrian respect for humility in foreign policy puts these vague and muddled objections into a much neater intellectual package.

    As one might guess from these comments, I take the Niebuhr revival with a grain of salt. To me, his name is a shibboleth or talisman used by liberal hawks to have it both ways. I expect when he’s outlived his usefulness for the Obamas and the Beinarts of the world, his relevance will begin to wane.

  4. Andrew,

    I wasn’t suggesting that Ribuffo (or Obama or Dionne) were engaged in the same project as Mattson (or Beinart…not to lump the two of them entirely together).

    But I think we’re seeing a broad revival of Cold War liberalism in general, and Niebuhr in particular, which this conversation about Obama reflects.

    I also agree with Mike O’Connor that there’s a connection between the Niebuhr revival, Iraq, and the “decent left.”

  5. Colleagues,

    There is a missing link in this discussion, as well as in the articles by Leo Ribuffo and E.J. Dionne, Jr. that provides Mike’s missing link. The common denominator is Martin Luther King, Jr.

    King’s doctoral work and dissertation were influenced by Niebuhrian thinking, as evidenced in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. For a quick and dirty sense of Niebur’s influence check the book‘s index with Amazon’s search inside funtion.

    Not understanding this link is a function of King being underestimated in U.S. intellectual history. Even if one doesn’t either respect the entire body of his intellectual work, or find it original, King nevertheless influenced a number intellectuals, Protestant and otherwise, who cared about civil rights.

    In my limited contact with the thought of Niebuhr, it was his total lack of hubris that impressed people. Intellectual and moral humility are core characteristics of his thinking.

    – TL

  6. Mike,

    When I wrote my comment, I was viewing King as a ~thought bridge~ between a theologian who was really popular in the 1940s and early 1950s, and a community organizer with ties to the civil rights community, Obama, who cut his teeth in organizing in the late 1980s and finished his education in 1991.

    It’s an imperfect connection, yes, but it’s that which I imagined.

    – TL

  7. Here’s another thought. Neibuhr was an advocate of Christian realism, which proclaimed the folly of utopian political schemes, embraced anti-communism, and supported the development of nuclear weapons. In certain respects he resisted idealism in political thought and focused on the limits of governmental action.

    At the same time that he was a realist and an ironist, Neibuhr was a also moralist (see his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society). In this way his thought had strong connections with his younger brother, H. Richard Neibuhr who taught at Yale for many years and wrote the book, still actively read by many evangelicals, Christ and Culture. The point of the book is that of the various possible relationships between Christianity and culture, the proper one, according to Neibuhr, is that Christ should transform culture.

    All these things seem to show a certain affinity to the political thought and goals of contemporary evangelicals, which could account for the continued relevance of Neibuhr. Admittedly, Obama’s politics and probably theology are closer to the Neibuhr brothers, but I know that evangelicals continue to read and discuss both, often with admiration. The renewed prominence of evangelicals during the Bush administration has led to a concerted attempt in the press to explain their political thought. That might explain why the elder Neibuhr brother has been more in the news of late, in addition to Obama’s interest.

  8. Wow, I can’t believe I missed this dialogue. This is my first posting on the blog, but I’ve known Andrew for a few years, as I am also a student of Ribuffo’s. Currently I am working on a dissertation discussing the impact of Christian Realism on the U.S. political landscape.

    Niebuhr is relevant precisely because he eschewed the easy answers people now try to associate with him. Like most useful thinkers, he doesn’t really tell us WHAT to think so much as HOW to think. When politicians/pundits/intellectuals tell us that Niebuhr was a cold war liberal, they ignore the internal struggle that led him to that position. Furthermore, there’s certainly a bit of a range on which Cold War liberals fall. Niebuhr was no Arthur Schlesinger. He may have early on encouraged the US to get involved in WWII, but he was uneasy about intervention in Korea and vocally opposed to intervention in Vietnam at a very early stage.

    To try to sum up Niebuhr with a single label is futile. To do so with a single mantra is probably misguided, but in this case, it’s at least well-intentioned. Niebuhr wrote the serenity prayer, and, as far as I’m concerned, it remains the best brief introduction to Niebuhr’s mode of thinking: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

    Niebuhr’s way of thinking has built into it a strong sense of humility. His talk of God–which may or may not make readers of this blog uncomfortable–is the thing that keeps him humble; God is the only perfect thing out there, and with this prayer, Niebuhr is able to constantly remind himself that he is far from perfect. Such an attitude naturally leads to constant introspection. I find it almost humorous when the same hawks who speak of “conviction” and “fortitude” as if they were the most supreme of all values quote Niebuhr; I think the only real unwavering “conviction” he had was the pervasiveness of sin.

    This belief that sin is everywhere–that human nature will always inhibit us from achieving our loftiest goals–is really the heart of Christian Realism. When people use the term without discussing sin, I’m not even sure what exactly it is they mean.

    So is Obama a Christian Realist, or does all that “hope” and “change” talk separate him from Niebuhr? I certainly don’t think so. I find his message more authentically Niebuhrian than any of the other politicians, pundits, or even historians I hear tossing around Niebuhr’s name these days.

    For decades, the pessimistic side of Niebuhr has dominated his image. Indeed, cynicism and realism all too often seem synonymous these days. But, as intellectual historians, we can’t forget the context in which Niebuhr began his career, When he wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), sentimentality and the ability of love and goodwill to conquer all were pretty widespread amongst liberals, particularly the liberal Protestants who would’ve read his book. With Moral Man and Immoral Society (a book that, according to his brother, he should have called Immoral Man and Even Less Moral Society for its portrayal of human nature) he offended these liberals with his pessimism in an attempt to wake them up from what he believed to be their utopian fantasies. I see Obama trying to do a similar thing when he points out the truth about the bitterness of many Americans. Of course he backed down quite a bit in his critique—something Niebuhr never did. But then again, one suspects that Niebuhr, always a pragmatist, would have been forgiving to a presidential candidate who committed the cardinal sin of telling the American people something they didn’t want to hear.

    Only a fairly haphazard reading of Niebuhr’s work leads to equating pessimism and realism. Unfortunately far too many self-proclaimed Niebuhrians (particularly of the conservative viewpoint) assert this position and miss Niebuhr completely. Even in Moral Man and Immoral Society–certainly one of the most pessimistic books written by an American in the 20th century–Niebuhr concludes with a challenge and a message of hope. It’s a great passage in that it rejects both fundamentalism (the first sentence) and communism (“the new illusion”), and really demonstrates the indebtedness of Christian Realism to pragmatism.

    “We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.

    In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of theses illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justices. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.” [This is the last paragraph (and the last sentence of the paragraph that precedes it) of Moral Man…]

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