Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Partisanship

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Bryan DuBose Peery is graduate student at George Washington University. His PhD dissertation is entitled "Christian Realism and Political Action: John Coleman Bennett, Liston Pope, Robert McAfee Brown and the Social Gospel’s Legacy in the U.S. after World War II."

Although Obama’s first term has done little to raise his own popularity, it has done much to restore public favor to another man—the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In 2005 the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., lamented that we were “forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr.” Thanks to a 2007 interview with columnist David Brooks, in which then Senator Obama identified Niebuhr as “one of my favorite philosophers,” we are remembering Reinhold Niebuhr once again.

Niebuhr began his career as a pastor of a German Evangelical Church in Detroit in the 1920s. Living in the midst of the industrial conflict that wracked the city during those years, he soon became a champion of socialist politics, contributing frequently to a variety of religious and secular publications.

In 1928, Niebuhr left the ministry to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There he developed his theology of Christian realism with its emphasis on sin. He eschewed what he identified as liberal “sentimentalism”—the suggestion that love and the application of reason could resolve all political conflicts. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, he argued that force might be necessary to promote class justice. Later, as World War II enveloped Europe, he applied the same logic to international conflict, warning the Western democracies that they must run the risk of provoking war with Hitler in order to stop him. Finally, during the Cold War, he advocated a form of “containment” policy toward the USSR, though he was never quite the Cold Warrior many hawks suggest, as evinced by his opposition to the war in Vietnam before his death in 1971.

Considering the difficulty of distilling the thought of a complex thinker within the space of a newspaper column, much of the recent discussion of Niebuhr has been quite accurate and fair. One area where confusion remains, however, is in Niebuhr’s political orientation. During his own lifetime, when he was regarded as a sort of prophet of the left, such confusion did not exist. By the 1990s, however, Niebuhr was being cited as the father of neoconservatism. The opposing claims to Niebuhr persisted into the twenty-first century, and in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, both major-party candidates cited the theologian as an influence.

Nowhere has confusion regarding Niebuhr’s politics been more apparent than in a recent comment by John Danforth, former Republican Senator from Missouri and ordained Episcopal priest. After praising Obama’s speech in Oslo as “Niebuhrian” for its assertion that force is sometimes necessary for peace, Danforth expressed doubts about claims that the president himself was worthy of the label: “I see in Obama’s approach to politics, which is surprisingly partisan and ideological, a hubris that is not Niebuhrian.”

Like most nuanced thinkers, Niebuhr’s thought rarely fits easily within a party line. Just as the self-described Marxist who takes Edmund Burke seriously might find much in Burke’s writing with which he agrees, there is no doubt that the neoconservative who reads Niebuhr will soon discover an affinity for the theologian’s critique of liberalism. That Niebuhr criticized liberals and the Democratic Party does not, however, make him a neoconservative.

Niebuhr’s politics need not be a matter of speculation. A regular contributor to the Christian Century, The Nation, and The New Republic, as well a founding editor of the now defunct, left-leaning, religious bi-weekly, Christianity and Crisis, Niebuhr left behind a record replete with political commentary.

To be sure, Niebuhr was often vocal in his criticism of the Democratic Party. Unlike many of Obama’s critics, Niebuhr directed his criticism at the underlying assumptions about human nature that guided some Democratic policies. He never criticized Democrats simply because they were Democrats. Niebuhr never dismissed a politician or his ideas as "socialist" and therefore unworthy of thoughtful consideration, though he often argued that socialists tended to oversimplify political problems by treating the capitalist system as if it were the root of all human evil and the only thing holding man back from reaching his full potential.

The record suggests that Niebuhr was at least as “partisan and ideological” as is Obama, and probably more so. Certainly Niebuhr never supposed that the Democratic Party’s stance on every issue was the only responsible position, but neither does Obama. As far as political records are concerned, we ought to remember that Niebuhr twice ran as a political candidate on the Socialist Party ticket, in 1930 and again in 1932. By the end of the ‘30s, Niebuhr left the Socialist Party, but this exit from the party ought not be confused with a rejection of Marxist analysis, which he was able to accommodate with his new position on the political spectrum no further “right” than Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Minor changes in his political outlook notwithstanding, Niebuhr’s politics always more closely resembled those of a European Social Democrat than those of an American neocon.

Despite the charges of “hubris” leveled at Obama, the fact remains that he is as humble a president as any American can expect. During his recent State of the Union address, I was struck by the number of times he accepted responsibility for problems and conflicts for which he was at best marginally culpable. A critical reading of his speech might explain his admissions of guilt as merely a tactic to thwart further criticisms of greater shortcomings, but I challenge the reader to find a similar mea culpa from an American president. If Obama were any more humble, he would undoubtedly be criticized by the right for his lack of “resolve.”

For all his talk of humility, Niebuhr, however, was rarely humble in his writing. His essays were notoriously polemical and iconoclastic. This fact probably explains his prominence in U.S. intellectual life at the expense of say, his more nuanced brother, H. Richard, who addressed 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 spoke for God, but both arguments are difficult to make without coming off as self-righteous, or writing with the confidence that you yourself are espousing the "true Christian" view.

The only way to live up to Danforth's standard of non-partisanship and humility is to completely extricate oneself from the world of politics and live the life of the saint. The great irony here is that we return to the exact position that Niebuhr rejected early in his career. 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 we make a choice in the world of politics, we open ourselves 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

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