How Obama's favorite theologian shaped his first year in office

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In a widely cited New York Times column, President Obama called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher." But how precisely has Niebuhr's philosophy influenced Obama and his handling of everything from health care reform to fighting terrorists?

The answer may be seen by looking at Obama's first year in office, several scholars, and a relative of Niebuhr's, suggest.

At first, there seems to be little resemblance between the cool, cerebral Obama and the pugnacious Niebuhr.

Niebuhr was a blunt critic of morally complacent Christians. He thought the church was full of idealists who believed that progress was inevitable and that love alone would ultimately conquer injustice, some Niebuhr scholars say.

The president's political rhetoric reflects some of Niebuhr's world view, says great-nephew Gustav Niebuhr. He says Obama, like his great-uncle, avoids moral absolutes in his speeches: The U.S. is not always right, and its enemies are not always evil.

Niebuhr says he saw this attitude embedded in Obama's speech to the Arab world in Cairo, Egypt, last year. Obama acknowledged U.S. involvement in helping overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran during the 1950s and avoided "clash of civilizations" rhetoric that implied that the U.S. is free of moral taint.

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