Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Summing up Obama: that Niebuhr question

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne asks: In today’s troubling times, where are our faith leaders? The essay mourns the absence of public religious thought deeper than the cartoon facsimile of religion and morals on offer from the likes of Franklin Graham or Rafael Cruz. Dionne quotes Alan Jacobs: writing at Harpers:

The usual mourning over the “lack of prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators,” Jacobs notes, is “familiarly known as the ‘Where Is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?’ problem,” after the great 20th-century theologian — and one of my own heroes. He graced the cover of Time magazine in 1948, a real marker then of more than modest fame.

I found Dionne's lament shocking. We do have a Niebuhr-like figure in our midst -- he just happens to be Black and President of these United States. In the fashion of Niebuhr, Barack Obama seems to believe both in the inescapable presence of evil in the world and in the hope that something better is possible.

Coming out of the moral horror that was World War II, Niebuhr is credited with authorship the Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," he began, "the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

A 2010 article from CNN recalled Niebuhr for contemporary citizens through Obama's affinities with his thought.

Niebuhr is getting attention again because he has a fan in the Oval Office.

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?

... People are capable of doing good, but groups are driven by "predatory self-interest," Niebuhr wrote.

"As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other," Niebuhr wrote. "As racial, economic and national groups, they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."

Obama is both praised and criticized for attempting from the pinnacle of human power to strike a balance between justice and greed, persuasion and naked overwhelming force. He has failed much and succeeded a little. He satisfies few. We've had a president for the last for eight years -- compromised as he is -- whose moral universe is broad and deep. This is not something we expect, or perhaps even value much, in a politician, but we've seen what such a one can and cannot do with power.

Other occasional "Summing up Obama" musings: Revisiting Rev. Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coastes on the Prez.

1 comment:

Damon said...

I would say I probably disagree with the basic premise that we need any such religious leaders, but I also don't think that Obama is the type of person the author has in mind. I think he fits the bill as a moral compass, but I often think that Obama is our first atheist President. The last sentence in the article bothers me a lot - "Humble prophets are hard to find, especially in this election year, but they have a special vocation: to remind the skeptical that religion, which can indeed be divisive, is also a moral prod and an intellectual spark."

Why do we need religion at all for moral or intellectual reasons? I have great contempt for the religious argument that a person can't be good or moral without a religious basis for defining good and evil. Yes, I find some things greatly acceptable that some religious people do not, but I don't need religion to know that murder, theft, discrimination, and hatred are bad things. Many religious people don't really accept those last two categories as "sins".

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