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Obama, Niebuhr, and U.S. Politics

In the wake of Barack Obama’s speech in Oslo, there has been much talk--some of it based on intellectual hearsay--about the influence that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had on Obama.  Niebuhr is enjoying a revival; and rightly so--not just for his views of foreign policy, but for his understanding of a politics that balances vision against practicality. Mac McCorkle, a North Carolina political consultant, has been moonlighting as a student of Niebuhr. Last Spring, he was a fellow at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, and this summer he wrote this short piece on Niebuhr and politics. It’s highly relevant to the current debate within the Democratic party about Obama’s centrism:

President Obama’s honeymoon with the liberal-left appears to be ending as his efforts on behalf of health care, financial, and other reform grow more ideologically questionable. But before a divorce happens, both parties need counsel from one of the President’s favorite political philosophers--Reinhold Niebuhr.

When declaring his intellectual attraction to Niebuhr in 2007, candidate Obama clearly grasped the deceased theologian’s caution against undue optimism and utopianism. As Obama put it, “serious evil” will always exist in this world and thus injustice must be confronted but cannot be eliminated.

Niebuhr’s political realism was sometimes hard to distinguish from run-of-the mill moderation and its reliance on incremental tokens of progress.  But Niebuhr’s realism at its best--which he mainly displayed before the Cold War 1950s and then again in the 1960s--contained a far larger vision. In essence it endorsed a constructive division of labor between prophet outsiders and statesmen insiders.

"Without the successful prophet, whose moral indictments effect actual changes in the world, we might forget that each moment of human history faces ... realizable higher possibilities," declared Niebuhr in his 1937 work Beyond Tragedy. "Without the statesman who uses power to correct the injustices of power, we might allow the vision of the Kingdom of Christ to become a luxury of those who can afford to acquiesce in present injustice because they do not suffer from it."

In a similar vein, inveighing against the unholy civil religion being practiced by Nixon and Billy Graham in the late 1960s, Niebuhr praised the statesmanship of the founding fathers for prohibiting the establishment of religion and carving out space to protect prophetic protest led by the likes of Martin Luther King.

Accepting the necessity of this division of labor is a vital lesson that President Obama as well the progressive left should draw from Niebuhr's Christian Realism.

Desiring an un-divided democratic hero is an understandable temptation. Niebuhr himself came close to putting Abraham Lincoln on such a pedestal. But as historians have pointed out, Lincoln was hardly a racial egalitarian and the agitation of the abolitionist movement was instrumental in creating a northern climate of opinion against slavery that, in Lincoln's own words, "no statesman could afford to ignore."

So on the one hand progressives should not expect President Obama to serve as a prophetic tribune. At the same time they should not uncritically submit to his statesmanship. That was Niebuhr's own mistake in defending the Stevenson Democrats' determination to go slow on civil rights during the 1950s--which culminated in his refusal of Reverend King’s request to support federal enforcement of school desegregation in Little Rock.

Instead progressives should exhibit an independent strength that understands, as Niebuhr put it in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, "what kind of world we are living in" but also helps create more running room for President Obama and influences him to take advantage of it.

The African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass provided a model for this double-edged attitude in his speech at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial Monument in April 1876. From the purely abolitionist perspective, declared Douglass, Lincoln’s politics were “tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.” Yet “as a statesman,” in Douglass’s view, Lincoln’s politics were “swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Equally important, however, President Obama must have very thick skin as a statesman. As criticism for engaging in legislative horse-trading on the domestic policy front and diplomatic realpolitik on the foreign policy front inevitably escalates, he must avoid the self-pitying, insular, and revengeful mode that doomed Lyndon Johnson's presidency in the 1960s. The President needs to follow the example of his mentor Lincoln who stayed open to and even creatively used criticism from  the abolitionists to further the cause of freedom.

The hopeful news is that candidate Obama understood well this Niebuhrian and Lincolnian wisdom. In The Audacity of Hope he declared: "I'm reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators ... that have fought for a new order...I'm left then with Lincoln who understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation."