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The American: Obama Contra Niebuhr


Originally published in The American.

Supporters of President Obama’s “moral realism” are unaware of many elements of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political theology.

Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize speech inspired a canticle of praise for the president’s moral and intellectual capacities. Liberals and other admirers discerned in his acceptance speech the sagacity of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. From the New Republic to the Huffington Post, pundits extolled Obama’s “moral realism” about issues of war and peace. New York Times columnist David Brooks called the speech “the most profound of his presidency,” a triumph of deliberative judgment that revived the Christian realist tradition associated with Niebuhr and other liberal hawks of the 1940s and ’50s. Andrew Sullivan marveled that other mortals “still do not grasp the president we have or the seriousness he has brought to the tragic dimension of a moral foreign policy in an immoral world at a perilous time.”

But this panegyric reflex suggests an ignorance of Niebuhr’s political theology. It represents an ongoing campaign to project a range of intellectual and religious prejudices onto the Obama presidency. By falsely enlisting Niebuhr’s prophetic legacy, Obama boosters commit a classic Niebuhrian sin of smugly sanctifying their own political agendas.

Obama has invited the intellectual sleight of hand. During the presidential race he called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.” Last year at Georgetown University, American Public Media’s Krista Tippett trumpeted the Niebuhr theme in a “public conversation” with Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. “I think he is in so many ways a Niebuhrian realist,” Dionne gushed. “I think that this foreign policy we are about to get … will be a kind of realism tinged with a certain moral commitment.”

And on it went: murky generalities about “irony,” “paradox,” and “tragedy.” The real tragedy is that Obama’s wholesale rejection of American exceptionalism brings liberals to their feet. He observes that “war is sometimes necessary” but that “war at some level is an expression of human folly”—a truism in circulation at least since the days of Thucydides—and his admirers fall into a swoon. It says something about modern liberalism when a president mouths platitudes about the use of American military power and is hailed as the next philosopher-king of the republic.

So, what about Niebuhr so appeals to Obama’s supporters? For some, it is Niebuhr’s assault on America’s pretensions to innocence: no nation, no leader—not even the leader of the free world—can escape the guilt associated with the exercise of power. Their favorite Niebuhr text is The Irony of American History (1952), his assessment of America’s cultural hubris, published during the Cold War. In a preface to a newly released edition of the work, Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich calls it “the master key” to challenging the “self-aggrandizing” and “messianic” myths that undergird U.S. foreign policy. “The truths he spoke,” intones Bacevich, “are uncomfortable ones for us to hear.”

There’s little doubt that Niebuhr, anchored by a sober view of the human condition, offers a corrective to superpower arrogance. The Bush administration’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan might have benefited from a stronger dose of his brand of realism. Nevertheless, there are other truths that Niebuhr spoke—judgments about America’s responsibilities in an age of terror—that many of his supporters find too uncomfortable to contemplate.

‘Ward Off Ultimate Peril’

An insight that appears often in Niebuhr’s work was his belief in the intractability, and existential threat, of totalitarian movements. Obama’s bland admission that “evil does exist in the world” is a far cry from Niebuhr’s contention that democracies must sometimes act at odds with their democratic ideals if they are to salvage any measure of earthly justice. When the Nazi war machine began marching on Europe, Niebuhr chastised colleagues at The Nation for clinging to utopian nostrums about the exercise of power. “If Hitler is defeated in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us … the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history,” he wrote in 1940. “Let those who are revolted by such ambiguities have the decency and consistency to retire to the monastery, where medieval perfectionists found their asylum.”

Supporters of Obama’s apologetic foreign policy devour Niebuhr’s trenchant analysis of America’s social and political failings. They forget that he repeatedly scorned the tactic of using America’s sins to avoid confronting dangerous ideologies. “When the mind is not confused by utopian illusions,” he wrote, “it is not difficult to recognize genuine achievements of justice and to feel under obligation to defend them against the threats of tyranny and the negation of justice.” In Christianity and Power Politics (1940), Niebuhr insisted not only that the United States must act militarily: it sometimes must act before international threats have fully formed. “The defects of democracy in foreign policy can be overcome only by a leadership which is willing to risk its prestige by words and actions which anticipate the perils to which the State is exposed,” he predicted, “and which defy the common lethargy of the moment in order to ward off ultimate peril.” Critics of the pre-emptive use of force will not find much comfort in certain Niebuhr texts.

Neither will the apostles of multiculturalism and multilateralism. In works such as The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), Niebuhr upbraided those who imagined that a new global order, bowing to an international political authority, was in the making; all that was required was the correct blueprint to guide the nations to safety. To Niebuhr, this was escapism: “These pure constitutionalists have a touching faith in the power of a formula over the raw stuff of human history.” Nevertheless, anxious to justify a foreign policy based on deference to the United Nations, contemporary liberals seize upon his critique of American hubris. To do so ignores Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin, which warns that injustice is easily magnified—not mitigated—by international institutions. “The idea that a world government is merely a rational extension of the principle of federation … is one of those rationalistic illusions which takes no account of the limited resources of reason in transcending the perspective, prejudices, and interests of limited communities.”

In modern liberalism, Niebuhr saw a wasting moral evasion. In the name of “religious sensitivity,” political and ecclesiastical elites had become obsessed with America’s misdeeds. They demanded that the United States remain “neutral” in the face of fascist and communist tyrannies. They chose to “drug their conscience” and “close their eyes to suffering” in order to avoid conflict or confrontation. The result, Niebuhr complained, was to give evil the upper hand—“whereby lives and interests other than our own are defrauded or destroyed.” It brings to mind President Obama’s muted response to the Iranian campaign of brutality and murder against pro-democracy demonstrators that began last summer. Crowds could be heard chanting “death to the dictator!” alongside “Obama, are you with us or with them?” Yet not even the agonizing sight of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman protestor caught on film bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran, could stir the president or his supporters to outrage.

The Stubborn Fact of Human Evil

Although he criticized America’s sense of divine mission in the world, Niebuhr viewed the foreign policy of the United States as supremely preferable to that of authoritarian regimes. And, unlike contemporary liberals, he was not afraid to use the strongest language available to condemn the ideologies of terror.

There was no doubt, he wrote in February 1941, that Nazi Germany “intends to annihilate the Jewish race, to subject the nations of Europe to the dominion of a ‘master’ race … to make truth the prostitute of political power, to seek world domination through its satraps and allies, and generally to destroy the very fabric of our western civilization.” He wrote those words before America entered the war—when many liberals were still hoping for a negotiated settlement with Hitler and downplaying his violent anti-Semitism.

Later, when leftist intellectuals at The Nation and The Christian Century were rationalizing Soviet aggression, Niebuhr brought the same insight to communism’s irredeemable perversity. Even in The Irony of American History, with its rebuke of American exceptionalism, he emphasized the moral gulf between the contending forces. “In any event we have to deal with a vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history.”

No religious thinker of his day understood better how to evaluate the nature of these political regimes—and why their spiritual corruption mattered to the conduct of American foreign policy. In this regard, there is little evidence Barack Obama ever sat at the feet of Reinhold Niebuhr.

What might Niebuhr say, for example, about Obama’s fruitless attempts to engage Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon? He probably would caution against oversimplifying the character of the regime or ignoring the unintended consequences of military action. Yet surely Niebuhr would draw attention to Iran’s extensive record of repression, religious extremism, and support for terrorist atrocities. He would be clear about Tehran’s flagrant deception over its nuclear ambitions and its provocative testing of long-range missiles. And there would be frank talk about Iran’s vile anti-Semitism and threats to “wipe Israel off the map.”

Any version of “Christian realism” that refuses to confront these unpleasant facts is deficient in both theology and politics. Yet enthusiasts such as Andrew Sullivan call Obama “a deeply serious Christian” with “a deeply Augustinian grasp of history.” Based on what? Not on any concrete foreign policy successes. Only a beggarly grasp of the Christian tradition could produce such a categorical claim. We know very little about the maturity of the president’s faith. We do know that his speeches are notorious for their false choices, historical revisionism, question-begging, and moral condescension.

Perhaps the real problem with the liberal attachment to Niebuhr is its agnosticism. Many of these devotees want Christian realism without Christianity—religion denuded of the need for a Savior to redeem humanity from its inconsolable guilt and shame. “The divine mercy, apprehended by Christian faith in the life and death of Christ, is not some simple kindness indifferent to good and evil,” Niebuhr wrote. “The whole point of the Christian doctrine of Atonement is that God cannot be merciful without fulfilling within himself, and on man’s behalf, the requirements of divine justice.” Political attempts to secure justice that fail to reckon with man’s profound sinfulness, he warned, are a utopian misadventure. “The biblical answer to the problem of evil in human history is a radical answer, precisely because human evil is recognized as a much more stubborn fact than is realized in some modern versions of the Christian faith.”

It remains blazingly uncertain whether Barack Obama possesses the requisite beliefs and moral clarity to challenge the latest manifestations of the diabolical will to power. It appears that many of his admirers do not. They may burn incense at the altar of Christian realism, but their hearts seem to belong elsewhere. Reinhold Niebuhr might be baffled, or appalled, by their adoration.

Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at The King’s College in New York City and a contributing editor to The American. He is a contributor to Christianity and Human Rights: Christians and the Struggle for Global Justice.

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