Senator Obama’s favorite theologian is not a black liberation theologian, as is the case for Rev. Wright (who cites James Cone, among others). Obama’s favorite theologian is Reinhold Neibuhr, whose long and influential career at Union Theological Seminary in New York cast a web of influence that caught up preachers and presidents alike, including perhaps most famously Martin Luther King Jr. Asked by David Brooks of the New York Times what he took away from Neibuhr’s writings, Obama said “"I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism." Such a perspective embodies what Niebuhr called Christian realism, a counterpoint to what he called America’s tendency to embrace a belief in the doctrine of ‘special providence,’ that is, the idea that we are a redeemer nation called to spread our light to others who struggle in darkness. . .
. . . Why is this sort of perspective hard for many Americans to accept? At present, one of the overwhelming reasons is the hyper-patriotic reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Bush has played strongly into the tradition that views America as pure, and as destined to bring our light to the world that still lives in darkness. That framing—good versus evil, freedom versus tyranny—has been powerful in a time of great national anxiety and I think propelled President Bush to a second term despite his gross mismanagement of the nation on many levels, not least of which is the war in Iraq, a war I have called immoral and unjust from the start. When people buy into the rhetoric of America as innocent, as guardian of the moral high ground, as somehow beyond the pale of critique, then a Niebuhrian perspective sounds unpatriotic at best.
If someone has the view of America as innocent, and of patriotism as upholding glory of our nation’s ideals at any cost, then there is little room for a prophetic critique of the sins of the nation—slavery and the legacy of racism as a major case in point.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Scharen on Obama and Christian Realism
In this post, "On Declaring God Damn America: Obama and Wright, Niebuhr and Cone," Chris Scharen offers a very thoughtful reflection on Senator Obama's powerful speech and the theological framework that influences him. An excerpt: