U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Niebuhr And Obama: Part Cinq

We’ve discussed Obama’s connections to Reinhold Niebuhr here (Paul Murphy post), here (Andrew Hartman post), here (Hartman again), and here (David Sehat). Since we’ve left the discussion alone for almost two years, I thought I’d pick it up again at the instigation of this long CNN feature, titled: “How Obama’s favorite theologian shaped his first year in office” and authored by John Blake. Questions:

1. Do we agree with the points of the feature?
2. Is Niebuhr Obama’s favorite philosopher, theologian, or both? The article’s title uses the term “theologian,” but the text cites a “widely cited New York Times column” where “President Obama called Niebuhr his ‘favorite philosopher.’ ” We’ve talked about a Dionne citation/column here (via TNR, although I couldn’t find the exact Dionne piece in TNR?). But CNN is apparently referring to an earlier piece by David Brooks who they cite later in the column (though he’s not explicitly attached to the prior NYT reference). Anyway, I wonder which of the specialties of knowledge precisely fits Obama’s view of Niebuhr.

As a former Missourian, I can’t resist noting the last section of the CNN piece in relation to Missouri’s former three-term senator, John Danforth. Here’s the excerpt:

“Niebuhr would have loved that [Oslo] speech,” says John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and a former Republican senator who also admires Niebuhr.

“I was very impressed with that speech,” Danforth says. “He said you need to deal with terrorists in a very hard-nosed, pragmatic way but hold to American standards.”

Yet Danforth says there are critical differences between Obama and Niebuhr.

“I see in Obama’s approach to politics, which is surprisingly partisan and ideological, a hubris that is not Niebuhrian,” says Danforth, who is also a partner at the Bryan Cave law firm in St. Louis, Missouri.

But how true, or non-ideological, is that last statement? When Danforth makes those claims, which hat is he wearing: Episcopal priest? Former Republican? Bryan Cave law firm partner (a firm that specializes in corporate transactions)? Global Leadership Foundation member? Or just that of a regular concerned citizen?

BTW: Avoid the 120-plus CNN comments if you can. They’re depressing in their obtuseness. – TL

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hello all, I’ve only posted here once before. I’m a PhD candidate at George Washington University working on a dissertation on Niebuhr and other Christain Realists. I typed up a response to this CNN piece, but it was too long to paste here, so I’m splitting it up into two comments:

    The last Danforth comment is really irritating to me as someone who reads Niebuhr’s shorter political pieces from _Christianity and Crisis_, _New Repulic_, and _The Nation_ on a regular basis. It’s nothing new. Many conservatives, especially those neocons who falsely identify Niebuhr as the father of neoconservatism, dismiss so-called liberals as ideological and try to claim the “pragmatic” and “realist” banners for themselves.

    If Danforth looked at Niebuhr’s life at all, he would understand that Niebuhr was at least as “partisan and ideological” as is Obama,and probably more so. If being a “realist” means you have to defend Republican politics on occasion, I don’t think Niebuhr, who as far as I can tell never supported a Republican candidate and rarely had anything positive to say about the Republican party, fits the bill. To be sure, he was often quite critical of the Democratic party as well. Niebuhr’s criticism, however, was usually directed at the underlying assumptions about human nature that guided some Democratic policies. He was not critical of Democrats simply because they were Democrats, as many of those who now claim him as a champion seem to be. Perhaps that’s unfair and exhibits my own “ideological” bent, but I am positive that you would never hear Niebuhr criticize a politician for being a “socialist,” though you might hear him criticize a socialist for treating the capitalist system as if it were the cause of all human evil and the only thing holding man back from reaching his full potential. And it’s a good idea to keep in mind that even when Niebuhr saw some Marxists and socialists as naive, he himself never rejected Marxist analysis. Throughout his life, despite some minor changes in his political outlook, his politics always more closely resembled those of a European Social Democrat than those of an American neocon.

    Finally, for all of Obama’s shortcomings, he seems to me to be about as humble a president as we can reasonably expect. During his recent State of the Union address, I was struck by the number of times he seemed to accept responsiblity for problems and conflicts for which I’m not so sure he was culpable. I recognize that a critical reading of his speech might explain this as merely a tactic to thwart further criticisms of greater shortcomings, but I can not recall a similar mea culpa from an American president. For all his talk of humility, Niebuhr, however, was rarely humble in his writing. His essays were notoriously polemical and iconoclastic; indeed I’m fairly certain this fact explains his prominence in U.S. intellectual life at the expense of say, his more nuanced brother, H. Richard, who addressed many similar issues but is rarely read outside of theological seminaries today. One of the greatest ironies of Niebuhr’s career is that he so often chided others for what he identified as self-righteousness and the tendency to act as if they for speaking for God, but both arguments are difficult to make without coming off as . . . well, self-righteous, or writing with the confidence that you yourself are espousing the “true Christian” view.

  2. Continuation of above:

    It seems to me that the only way for a human to live up to Danforth’s standard of non-partisanship and humility is to completely extricate herself from the world of poltiics and live the life of the saint. The great irony here is that we return to the exact position that Niebuhr began his career criticizing. Addressing American Protestants who, in November 1939, warned against choosing sides or taking action that might provoke war with Hitler, Niebuhr wrote, “It is well to know that God judges all men and that in his sight no man living is justified. But we are men and not God. We must make historic choices.”*

    Whenever an individual makes a choice in the world of politics, she is opening herself up to charges of partisanship and hubris. The only way to avoid such charges is to remain completely aloof from the world of politics, a position which no serious student of Niebuhr could identify as Niebuhrian.

    *Reinhold Niebuhr, “Leaves from the Notebook of a War-Bound American,” _Christian Century_, 15 November 1939, 1405-1406)

  3. While Danforth claims to know something of Niebuhr, his widely-reported homily at Ronald Reagan’s funeral suggests the severe limitations of that knowledge:

    “What Ronald Reagan asked of America, he gave of himself. The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote “Children of Light and The Children of Darkness.” If ever we have known a child of light, it was Ronald Reagan. He was aglow with it. He had no dark side, no scary, hidden agenda. What you saw, was what you got. And what you saw was that sure sign of inner light, the twinkle in the eye.”

    Even the most cursory reading of Niebuhr would be aware that he was hardly unequivocally positive about what he called the “foolish” and “naive” children of light. To use Niebuhr’s categories to describe Reagan here would be a critique, and certainly not what Danforth intended. Of course, the same sermon invoked Reagan as the legitimate heir to John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” so take it for what it’s worth.

    It’s humorous to see Danforth describe Obama as overly partisan when so many on the left have found one of Obama’s failings to be his reluctance to use the mechanics of party discipline to achieve political goals and his repeated insistence on overcoming narrowly partisan politics.

  4. Bo: Thanks for the long comment(s). Thanks for the education on Niebuhr’s shorter, political pieces—and his paradoxical self-righteousness on politics/culture. I’ve only really read around Niebuhr—from many angles (via an essay comparing him Maritain, on world gov’t in relation to Chicago intellectuals, and as the background for one of the Taylor Branch MLK biographies).

    Dan: Like I said, I wonder which hat Danforth had on for the article? I’m thinking his old-school Republican one.

    Also, what does it say about the CNN author John Blake that he didn’t consult with either a philosopher or a respected theologian to tease out an answer to his dual points about Niebuhr the theologian or philosopher. Crouter, Copeland, and the grandson Gustav are all religious studies types.

    My bet, by the way, is on Obama seeing Niebuhr more as a theologian than a philosopher—unless Niebuhr did a lot of writing on the philosophy of law of which we’re all unaware. – TL

  5. I have been grappling with the role Niebuhr plays with great regularity in discussions of American exceptionalism. And I think Obama might find Niebuhr useful because Niebuhr addressed head on the desire to see the United States as a place with the ability to do good (though not be a “good” nation) while of course recognizing it as a place with a history of profound failures. But rather than remimagine the US as something post-American (as I think Andrew Bacevich does), Niebuhr and by extension Obama attempt to work with the language of American exceptionalism without accepting it as a historical given.

    When Niebuhr’s book Irony of American History appeared in 1952, Peter Veireck wrote in the NY Times that Niebuhr’s critique made him the “doctor of the American soul.” While an evocative description I think Niebuhr was more a pathologist of the American condition. Niebuhr diagnosed what ailed America but never offered a cure. He did offer, as I think Bo alludes to, a need for some kind of myth or ideology that people could believe in. The Fighting Faith that Kevin Mattson wrote about in his book When America Was Great.

    I am just now writing about Niebuhr and the Vietnam War, during which he said: “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation.” It is that combination of love for and critique of the nation that I think is so useful to a thinker such as Obama.

  6. I wonder how necessary it is to always talk about which Niebuhr you’re referencing (and I wonder which Niebuhr it is that Obama likes so much). More than any other intellectual I’ve studied, it seemed like Niebuhr poured all his ideas into a book, then left those ideas on the table and moved on to new ones. Thus, the Niebuhr in Detroit is quite different from the Niebuhr in Children of Light and that one is different from the author after World War II.

    It seems to me that his many different sides is not a straight trajectory from the “Up from Communism” tale that one might place him in.

    Does this jive with what you know, those of you who have have read and studied Neibuhr more than I have? (Thanks, Bo and Ray for your comments. Very enlightening).

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