Program Particulars: Obama's Theologian

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

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(02:30–04:35) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale


» Enlarge the image 25th Anniversary Issue of <em>Time</em> Magazine.

25th Anniversary Issue of Time Magazine.

(03:15) Niebuhr on Cover of Time Magazine

On March 8, 1948, Time magazine featured Reinhold Niebuhr's image on the cover of its 25th anniversary issue with the caption: "Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: Man's story is not a success story." As a result, weekly sales of The Nature and Destiny of Man doubled. Since WWII had ended, Time and Life magazines featured him repeatedly.

(05:13) Passage from Niebuhr's The Irony of American History

Krista quotes a passage from Reinhold Niebuhr's 1952 book, The Irony of American History. The original manuscript entitled This Nation Under God was renamed when he discovered that Harpers has a book under contract with the same title. As the theme of "the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon" develops, Niebuhr suggests Ironic Elements in American History. His editor William Savage proposes the given title and Niebuhr assents but fears that it is too pretentious.

Here's an extended excerpt of the passage recited:

The Jeffersonian conception of virtue, had it not overstated the innocency of American social life, would have been a tolerable prophecy of some aspects of our social history which have distinguished us from Europe. For it can hardly be denied that the fluidity of our class structure, derived from the opulence of economic opportunities, saved us from the acrimony of the class struggle in Europe, and avoided the class rebellion, which Marx could prompt in Europe but not in America. When the frontier ceased to provide for the expansion of opportunities, our superior technology created ever new frontiers for the ambitious and adventurous. In one sense the opulence of American life has served to perpetuate Jeffersonian illusions about human nature. For we have thus far sought to solve all our problems by the expansion of our economy. This expansion cannot go on forever and ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice in terms which will not differ too greatly from those which the wisest nations of Europe have been forced to use.

(05:51) "I Had the Niebuhr Scoop"

David Brooks writes about his conversation with then-Senator Obama about Reinhold Niebuhr in his April 26, 2007 New York Times column titled "Obama, Gospel and Verse":

Yesterday evening I was interviewing Barack Obama and we were talking about effective foreign aid programs in Africa. His voice was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they're afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on. Out of the blue I asked, "Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?" Obama's tone changed. "I love him. He's one of my favorite philosophers." So I asked, What do you take away from him? "I take away," Obama answered in a rush of words, "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 naive idealism to bitter realism." My first impression was that for a guy who's spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that's a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr's The Irony of American History. My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it's really interesting to watch.

(07:09) "I Felt a Tingle Up My Leg"

During MSNBC's live coverage of the presidential primaries, political commentator Chris Matthews said he felt a "thrill" going up his leg when he heard Obama deliver a televised primary speech in February 2008. "He speaks about America in a way that has nothing to do with politics, it has to do with the feeling we have about our country," said Matthews. Matthews' comments reverberated throughout the media and blogosphere. AOL News quipped that Matthews had a "man crush" on Obama; Matthews' colleagues at MSNBC teased him on the air about his comments.

(09:33) Michael Novak's Article

In 1972, Michael Novak published an article in Commentary Magazine titled "Needing Niebuhr Again," one year after Niebuhr's death.

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(11:09–11:56) Music Element

"Struggle" from History, Mystery, performed by Bill Frisell


(11:26) Passage from The Irony of American History

Krista quotes a sentence from Reinhold Niebuhr's 1952 book, The Irony of American History: "In the liberal world the evils of human nature and history were ascribed to social institutions or to ignorance or to some other manageable defect in human nature or environment."

(11:46) Comparing Niebuhr to Obama

Krista read a passage from Barack Obama's keynote address at the Call to Renewal Building a Covenant for a New America conference in Washington, DC in June 2006:

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness — in the imperfections of man. Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers' lobby — but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart — a hole that the government alone cannot fix.


"Changing the Odds for Urban America"

Senator Barack Obama spoke about the Harlem Children's Zone in a speech laying out a $6 billion plan to eradicate urban poverty. He delivered the speech at the Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus located in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC on July 18, 2007.

(14:15) The Harlem Children's Zone and Geoffrey Canada

The Harlem Children's Zone is non-profit organization that provides educational and social services to children and families in central Harlem. The organization is the brainchild of social activist and author Geoffrey Canada. The area that comprises the Harlem Children's Zone began as a single block in Harlem and has since expanded to encompass 96 city blocks. The organization's operating principle is that no single program or intervention can solve the problem of generational poverty. Instead, layers of integrated services need to be woven into the fabric of community life, with a focus on youth development and education.

(18:30) Article in The New Republic

Dionne references the article "American Adam" by Mark Judis in The New Republic.

(19:47) Passage from The Irony of American History

Krista quotes a passage from Reinhold Niebuhr's 1952 book, The Irony of American History. Following is an extended excerpt of the passage read during the public event:

"We were not only innocent a half century ago with the innocency of irresponsibility; but we had a religious version of our national destiny which interpreted the meaning of our national destiny which interpreted the meaning of our nationhood as God's effort to make a new beginning in the history of mankind. Now we are immersed in world-wide responsibilities; and our weakness has grown into strength. Our culture knows little of the use and the abuse of power; but we have to use power in global terms. Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous. We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimitized. Communism is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends."

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(20:38–22:50) Music Element

"Old" from Amid the Noise, performed by So Percussion


(20:42) Brooks on Niebuhr, Iraq, and Morally Hazardous Action

David Brooks invoked some of Niebuhr's ideas about "morally hazard actions" in his May 11, 2004 New York Times Op-Ed, "For the Iraqis to Win, the U.S. Must Lose." In his column Brooks writes:

"Just after World War II, there were Americans who were astute students of the nature and consequences of American power. America's midcentury leaders — politicians like F.D.R. and Harry Truman, as well as public intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and James Burnham — had seen American might liberate death camps. They had also seen Americans commit wartime atrocities that surpass those at Abu Ghraib. These midcentury leaders were idealists, but they were rugged idealists, because they combined a cold-eyed view of reality with a warm self-confidence in their ability to do history-changing good. They took a tragically ironic view of their situation. They understood that we can't defeat ruthless enemies without wielding power. But we can't wield power without sometimes being corrupted by it. Therefore, we can't do good without losing our innocence.

(22:11) Dionne's Favorite Passage from The Irony of American History

The passage Dionne references about the perils of American power comes from the last page of Niebuhr's 1952 book, The Irony of American History. Here's a fuller excerpt of his writing:

"There is, in short, even in a conflict with a foe with whom we have little in common the possibility and necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy's demonry and our vanities; and to a sense of gratitude for the divine mercies which are promised to those who humble themselves. Strangely enough, none of the insights derived from this faith are finally contradictory to our purpose and duty of preserving our civilization. They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it. For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.

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(23:21–26:24) Music Element

"Words With The shaman: pt.2 Incantation" from Alchemy - An Index of Possibilities, performed by David Sylvian


(27:30) Howard Dean and a Fight about a Bike Path

Jodi Wilgoren reported in a 2004 New York Times article that Howard Dean switched from being an Episcopalian to a Congregationalist because he was upset that his local Episcopal church wouldn't divest some of their land for use as a local bike path:

"Dr. Dean grew up spending Sundays in an Episcopal church, and attended religious boarding school, but became a Congregationalist after the Episcopal church he belonged to in Burlington, Vt., refused to yield land for a bike path around Lake Champlain that he championed. His wife is Jewish and their children observe both traditions, though the family stopped attending services years ago after scolding sermons about once-a-year attendees."

(29:25) Niebuhr's Teaching Assistant, Ronald H. Stone

Ronald Stone was Niebuhr's last teaching assistant at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He went on to become a Professor of Christian Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Stone is the author the biography, Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: A Mentor to the Twentieth Century. In the book's preface, Stone writes:

"Previous studies, including my own, have failed to locate Niebuhr in the context of his vocation. He was not primarily a pastor or a preacher. He was not primarily an advisor to public figures. He was not primarily an author of immense productivity. He was first and foremost a professor of Protestant social ethics in the context of Protestant theological education. ... Reinhold Niebuhr was the most brilliant professor I ever met. I hope this book, whatever its limitations, shows him as that professor.

(29:57) Citation from Obama's Call to Renewal Speech

In drawing parallels between the words of Niebuhr and Obama, Krista compares a quote about Niebuhr from Ronald Stone with an excerpt from Obama's 2006 Call to Renewal speech:

Stone on Niebuhr: "Far better to have good political ideas and a way to carry them out pragmatically than to win votes through pious protestations. Religious language should be inspired by love but translated through the vocabulary of justice into the political realm." Obama: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

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(33:24–34:33) Music Element

"Ahuvati" from …Until We Felt Red, performed by Kaki King


(36:27) Niebuhr on Communism

Brooks says that Niebuhr used terms like "satanic" to describe communism. Niebuhr was a staunch opponent of communism and wrote about this at length in The Irony of American History:

In every instance communism changes only partly dangerous sentimentalities and inconsistencies in the bourgeois ethos into consistent and totally harmful ones. Communism is thus a fierce and unscrupulous Don Quixote on a fiery horse, determined to destroy every knight and lady of civilization; and confident that this slaughter will purge the world of evil. Like Quixote, it images itself free of illusions; but it is actually driven by twofold ones. Here the similarity ends. In the Quixote of Cervantes the second illusion purges the first of its error and evil. In the case of the demonic Quixote the second illusion gives the first a satanic dimension.

And later Niebuhr writes:

Modern communist tyranny is certainly as wrong as the slavery which Lincoln opposed. We do not solve any problem by interpreting it as a slightly more equalitarian version of a common democracy which we express in slightly more libertarian terms. The hope that the conflict is no more than this and could be composed if only we could hold a seminar on the relative merits of equalitarian and libertarian democracy, is, in fact, an expression of sentimental softness in a liberal culture and reveals its inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history.

(36:27) Passage from The Irony of American History

The line Krista reads from Niebuhr's 1952 book, The Irony of American History is often cited:

...we are drawn into an historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity; and the conviction of the perfect compatibility of virtue and prosperity which we have inherited from both our Calvinist and our Jeffersonian ancestors is challenged by the cruel facts of history. For our sense of responsibility to a world community beyond our own borders is a virtue, even though it is partly derived from the prudent understanding of our own interests. But this virtue does not guarantee our ease, comfort, or prosperity. We are the poorer for the global responsibilities which we bear. And the fulfillments of our desires are mixed with frustrations and vexations.

In the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Paul Elie quotes this same line in "A Man for All Reasons":

"Our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history," Niebuhr wrote in 1951. By then he had the American people as his congregation. He had given the prestigious Gifford Lectures (later published as The Nature and Destiny of Man). He had been featured in a Time cover story as America's "No. 1 Theologian," the man who had "restored to Protestantism a Christian virility." He had joined Arthur Schlesinger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, and others in founding Americans for Democratic Action, which sought to claim "the vital center" by cutting ties with the "doughface" sympathizers with communism. He had advised the State Department on the cultural reconstruction of Europe and had even been touted for president. Yet This Nation Under God, as he called it, would be his last major book; retitled The Irony of American History, it went to press in early 1952, shortly before the stroke from which he never fully recovered. The irony of American history, as Niebuhr explained it, is that our virtues and our vices are inextricably joined. From the beginning, our national purpose has been "to make a new beginning in a corrupt world." Our prosperity leads us to believe "that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions." Yet our counterparts abroad see us as at once naive and crudely imperialistic, and our power, ironically, has undermined our virtue, for "the same technical efficiency which provided our comforts has also placed us at the center of the tragic developments in world events," bringing about a "historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity."

» Enlarge the image Page from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

Page from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

(41:11) E.J. Dionne on Abraham Lincoln, Niebuhr, Slavery, Morality, and Scripture

Dionne quotes from Lincoln's second inaugural address delivered in 1865:

"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully."

In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr comments about Abraham Lincoln's moral stance against slavery:

Slavery was to be condemned even if it claimed divine sanction, for: [according to Lincoln] "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the seat of other men’s faces." Yet even this moral condemnation of slavery is followed by the scriptural reservation: "But let us judge not, that we not be judged." This combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost perfect a model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization on the one hand while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle. Surely it was this double attitude which made the spirit of Lincoln's, "with malice toward none; with charity for all" possible. There can be no other basis for true charity; for charity cannot be induced by lessons from copybook texts. It can proceed only from a "broken spirit and a contrite heart."

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(42:25–42:55) Music Element

"Go" from Amid the Noise, performed by So Percussion


(47:00) Closing Passage from Niebuhr's The Irony of American History

Krista closes the public event with a final quote from Niebuhr's 1952 book, The Irony of American History:

"The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme or rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meanings which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills."

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(49:25–51:25) Music Element

"Tzima N'Arki" from After the Heat, performed by Eno, Moebius & Roedelius


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(51:16–52:11) Music Element

"Solipsist" from Legs to Make Us Longer, performed by Kaki King


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is a conservative columnist for The New York Times and author of several books.

is a liberal columnist at The Washington Post and author of many books.

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