Friday, June 19, 2009

Obama & Reinhold Niebuhr: Where Hope Meets Washington Realism

I just read an interesting article by Hent de Vries on the influence of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on Obama's personal political ideology and style of governance. Obama is well-known as the candidate of "hope," but the influence of Niebuhr shows how that hope is tempered by a sometimes dour Protestant brand of theological realism. As Hent de Vries summarizes it,
One of the most important elements of Obama’s pragmatism is the sense that “hope” can only be “realistic” if it wishes to be more than wishful thinking and whistling in the dark, just as much as “realism” without “hope” leads principally nowhere, but merely brutally affirms whatever is and only strengthens the powers that be.

This intrigues me from a standpoint of intellectual history, especially because of how Niebuhr's philosophy about how liberals must acknowledge the presence of evil in the world is intimately tied with Christian notions of original sin. I agree that liberalism cannot govern effectively without wrestling with "the problem of evil," but the emphasis on original sin is problematic for me, because the Christian concept of original sin is too often tied to an interpretation of Adam & Eve in the Garden of the Eden that has historically been associated with punishing sexual pleasure, discouraging the search for knowledge, and marking all earthly disobedience as rebellion against God. As far as Obama's "Christian realism" is concerned, I agree that hope without realism is mere "whistling in the dark," but I fear that Obama's belief in the ineradicable nature of political evil and sin has led him to confuse what is structurally and politically impossible with what is merely disfavored by Washington elites at a particular point in time.

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