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Niebuhr or Nihilist?

To Peter's post below, see James V. Schall, SJ, who was so shocked by the President's "remarkably sane address" in Oslo that he even speculated whether he would change his abortion stance.  David Brooks heard it as a reflection of Obama's roots in the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, who is a kind of intellectual great-uncle to today's neo-conservatives.  "The Oslo speech was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life."  Brooks explains:  "Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama's speeches [at West Point and Oslo] were thoroughly theological. He talked about the 'core struggle of human nature' between love and evil." 

As I argued in numerous posts during the 2008 campaign, Obama's autobiographies reveal no deep-seated love for this country.  This nihilism has encouraged him to use American principles (as expressed in Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence) to castigate America and even to undermine our own self-interest. 

UPDATE: In similar fashion, Damon Linker uses Niebuhr against the neo-cons:  Niebuhr abhorred American exceptionalism, he argues. 

But I agree with Professor Schall that the speech raises a question (though not on abortion; did Reinhold Niebuhr ever write anything about the subject?):  One great American theme concerns the education of the arrogant rookie, the brash youth who learns to respect the veterans' wisdom and uses their virtues to enhance his own talent.  It is not too late for Obama to follow that path.  That would be a more noble ending than the one he appears careening toward.  In the meantime, conservatives need to continue his education.  

Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 6 Comments

I thought that neo-liberals, from Schlessinger in the 1950s to Andrew Beinart more recently, were fans of Neibuhr. Was either Irving Kristol or Norman Podhoretz a Neibuhr guy? Is Brooks' opinion common on people on the right?

Yes, but with the same intent as our pal Damon Linker does in today's TNR mailing:

That is, for Linker, Niebuhr teaches American humility against its (ostensible) claim to be free of the original sin of European Machiavellianism. Neo-cons derive a different teaching--that American dovish innocence needs wily snakes abroad. It has been years since I've read Niebuhr, and I can't say what those neo-cons thought about him.

Let us not forget that Obama has shown the ability to say one thing and mean another without shame or remorse.

The words he spoke in Oslo are utterly meaningless. They are just that ... air expelled across tongue and teeth. Until he demonstrates true commitment to the portent of his words he is not to be trusted.

The man is a master at get people to believe in him. This past November it landed him the Presidency. He is simply at it again.

I do not like nor trust the man. He is dangerously disingenuous.

It seems to me, from the Niebuhr that I have read, most commentators miss the Christian part of Christian realism. They want the moral high ground that comes with biblical validation, but none of the obligation. Both brooks and the Linker piece avoid mentioning that Christian realism also calls for "bearing witness to the truth of Christ."

Yeah, what Don said. Mega-dittoes.

Thomas is outsmarting himself a bit here. And Brooks is outsmarting himself a lot.

Why is this so complicated, people?

David, good to see you back commenting. But we risk being blindsided by Obama when we fail to see his utter malleability, which includes the ability to imitate patriotic speech. Then comes the issue: Is he able to actually become such a patriot? Cf. Machiavelli, Prince, chapter 18.

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