Barack Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr

This CNN article discusses President Obama’s comments about Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher. I think it’s an interesting article and it’s nice to bring a little more attention to 20th century theologians (and I also like Niebuhr). I think many of Obama’s speeches manifest the meditation and self-awareness of an experienced leader, and I like that about him. However, I don’t think Obama is a Niebuhr scholar (I could be wrong), and I think trying to tie the following comments about Niebuhr’s philosophy to Obama’s policy-making is a tad idealistic:

“He thought that sometimes getting your hands dirty with self-interested folks is the only way to make progress,” Crouter says. “If you don’t believe the Kingdom of God is just around the corner, the best you can sometimes do is take baby steps toward justice.”

To put it another more hyperbolic way, Obama is like Niebuhr in that he’s an idealist who is driven by pure altruism but is kept from saving the planet only by all the other self-interested people in the US government (those self-interested people primarily being Republicans, it seems, based on his “buzz saw” comments).


One response to “Barack Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Noel

    Even since I did a paper on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I have become interested in the writing of Niebuhr as well as the struggle of the Black Church in America in the 1930s. Bonhoeffer came to America to study at Union Seminary. He worshiped in a black church in Harlem, taught sunday school and spent time in member’s homes. Bonhoeffer walked the walk and talked the talk. G Kelly says at first Bonhoeffer did not like Niebuhr because he felt his theology was not like Barth’s, which was christocentric (thats the best paraphase I can give) and more of a social ethics gospel. Remember this was long before the Civil Rights movement when blacks were still getting lyncheded. David Brookes was the first Journo to find out about Obama’s favourite theologian and was surprised and pleased about how much Obama knew about Niebuhr. Niebuhr was at first a member of the Socialist Party and hen supported the New Deal of the Democrats. He was the author of the Serenity Prayer.

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