In Speaking of Faith Krista Tippett hosted a discussion where American political and cultural commentator David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne considered American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on American democracy, religion, and President Barack Obama’s interest in the theologian’s perspective on the politics of religion as applied to foreign and domestic policy. Obama has stated that Niebuhr was one of his favorite philosophers and is an “influence on his understanding of the world of religion and of politics.” Niebuhr has often been viewed as a neo-conservative and a liberal; many claim him as their own. He argued that humans are always prone to violence and excess. Brooks and Dionne considered the matter of human nature, outlined by Niebuhr, and applied it to the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package. Brooks considered the “tragic view” of life held by Niebuhr and suggested that institutions must “tame” individuals. Both journalists argued that Obama’s views on humanity and institutional responsibility are fundamentally Niebuhrian. Both see Obama is a kind of Niebuhrian Realist (Christian Realism). The comments created a climate where we must consider Obama’s core theology regarding human nature, the role of government, and the world’s destiny, whether divine or otherwise. Distinguishing between hope and optimism, Dionne clarified that for Obama hope never dismisses the tragic view of life held by Realists. Rather, the President is simply optimistic of what could be. According to Niebuhr, “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 legitimatized.” Both commentators considered this passage within the context of the war in Iraq, the torture of prisoners, and what is required of citizens faced with ambiguous situations drenched in irony, subjectivity, and cultural complexity. Both agreed that the beliefs of Niebuhr and Obama are grounded in a particular view of human nature: the potential for uncontrolled vanity, power, and self-centeredness. When considering Christian Realism and religious pluralism, Brooks expressed concern that theology is dying – that “soft-core” evangelism (a therapeutic faith) might not have found favor with Niebuhr. However, Dionne argued for a toleration of difference while remaining serious about one’s own faith, despite protestations which cite the dangers of humanity and unbridled pluralism. Tippett reminded the panel that Niebuhr would have contrasted the Religious Right of the 1980s. He “disdained discussion of personal beliefs in the public square” – it is better to consider politics and justice while motivated by faith and love. Obama has argued that in a democratic society, universal values should not be religion-specific, thus accessible to people of all faiths. Despite the fact that the panel agreed that President Obama has been influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, it is difficult to reconcile Obama’s pluralism with the Realist position that life is “tragic;” any attempt at utopia is futile. Listen to the discussion here.
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