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Prayer for a serene realist
barack obama
As Barack Obama enters the White House, it is already clear that few more thoughtful and intellectual men have been elected President. In this essay to celebrate the inauguration, Iwan Russell Jones traces the connections between Obama and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and asks whether we are about to see a fresh chapter in the troubled relationship between politics and religion in America.
As far as we know, and unlike his hapless predecessor, the new president hasn't had any serious problems with the demon drink. But he does have his own very special and rather curious relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous.

It turns out that Barack Obama is a big fan of the guy who wrote the prayer adopted (with a few alterations) by the movement and now said daily by millions of strugglers in 12-step programmes the world over:
God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Somehow I think it's unlikely that this part of the AA's liturgy will feature at the presidential inauguration. But megachurch leader Rick Warren, the cleric controversially chosen to give the invocation, could do a lot worse than to work it in. It's become known as the Serenity Prayer, and there's no question that in the coming years serenity is something that President Obama is going to need by the bucketload.

Ironically, the prayer itself has become far better known than the man who first prayed it. Which is a pity, because its author, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) wrote many more important and significant things besides this. Niebuhr was a formidable political thinker and a serious Christian. But while the man and his ideas have slipped out of the public mind in recent years, the encouraging news is that the incoming President of the United States of America has read beyond the Serenity Prayer.

Barack Obama's surprising enthusiasm for the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr may offer hope to all of us who live inescapably in the orbit of the world's one remaining superpower. It's the hope not so much of a miraculous outbreak of world serenity as of a genuine and renewed US commitment to social justice wedded to political realism.

And just as his election as America's first black president signifies a new era in US politics, so his championing of Niebuhr may open up a fresh chapter in the troubled relationship between politics and religion in America.

Religion has been high on Obama's agenda over the last few years – recognition on a purely political level that the Democrats needed to recover ground almost completely ceded to the Republicans. He's been visiting churches, cosying up to evangelical leaders, making keynote speeches at denominational conferences. And his choice of Rick Warren to lead the inauguration prayers shows that he's committed to building bridges to traditionally conservative religious constituencies and is not afraid to ruffle feathers in his own party.

But how deep does this go? How authentic are his religious concerns? What kind of assumptions will underpin his presidency?

I was fascinated recently to discover some remarks that Obama made back in 2007 when he was still a US senator hoping to persuade his party to choose him as their presidential candidate. He was being interviewed by David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, when, out of the blue, he was asked if he had ever read Reinhold Niebuhr.

One might have understood if Obama had politely passed on that one. After all, Niebuhr died almost 40 years ago, and for most of his working life was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Not exactly the kind of thinker whose ideas you would expect to be high on the agenda of a contemporary working politician.

But what made it a fair question to a presidential hopeful was Niebuhr's place in American history. Reinhold Niebuhr was, undoubtedly, one of the most important American thinkers of the 20th century, a prolific writer and activist, and the founder of a school of thought known as Christian Realism that had a significant influence on US domestic and foreign policy.

His social ethics, firmly grounded in a biblical understanding of the realities of human life, influenced generations of US politicians. And in the UK, too, prominent Labour figures such as Dick Crossman, Dennis Healey and Tony Benn acknowledged the profound impact his ideas had on their political philosophies.

Obama responded to the question with relish. "I love him," he replied. "He's one of my favourite philosophers."

Well, well! Obama associating himself with Niebuhr? For although in his day Niebuhr was a staunch Democrat and one of the mainstays of American liberalism, since his death he's very much fallen out of favour in those circles. His religious and political ideas have been savaged by an assortment of liberation theologians, feminists and Christian pacifists. He's been accused of imperialism, war-mongering, sexism and pandering to bourgeois WASP culture.

On the face of it, then, not a promising icon for the liberal left, and an unlikely hero for Obama to parade before his party.

It's possible, of course, that we shouldn't take Obama's nod to Niebuhr too seriously. He may simply have been practising the dark arts of politics, craftily trying to ingratiate himself with a conservative journalist he knew to be a paid-up member of the Dead Theologians Society. But there is obviously more to it than that. Barack clearly knows his Reinhold.

He went on to give Brooks an impressive summary of Niebuhr's central ideas. What he took from Niebuhr, Obama said, was "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 that they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."

This is a remarkable off-the-cuff answer. Obama is a surprising man.

We know more about his mental landscape than about most public figures, because he's written about himself and his ideas in two compelling books. The first of these,
Dreams From My Father (1995), written before he was a nationally known politician, is extraordinary in its honesty, complexity and beauty. It's a deep and moving reflection on race, religion, power and above all, his own identity. There can be few more thoughtful and intellectual men ever chosen to occupy the White House.

Being thoughtful, of course, isn't necessarily any kind of indication of how good a president he'll make. But the themes and ideas he applauds in Niebuhr give grounds for hope.

"Serious evil..."

Central to Reinhold Niebuhr's understanding of the human condition is the doctrine of sin. His years spent as a pastor in Detroit during the Depression, ministering among exploited workers in the car industry, had convinced him that notions of progress and human perfectibility, whether emanating from the Enlightenment or from optimistic religion, were illusory.

Abandoning what he saw as the idealistic and utopian teachings of the Social Gospel movement to which many church people of his time subscribed, Niebuhr came to believe that the kingdom of God cannot be constructed by human effort.

In a series of ground-breaking books, beginning with
Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), he argued that the world is a battleground between distorted passions and vested interests, and that any social ethic or political philosophy that pretends otherwise is doomed to failure. Returning to the central Christian tradition of thinking about human reality – from St Paul through Augustine to the Reformers – Niebuhr stressed the deep roots of selfishness and injustice in every society and in every human heart.

Niebuhr's political philosophy, summed up in a powerful sentence from
The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), is based on a biblical understanding of human nature as, at one and the same time, divine in origin and sinful by inclination: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., (1917-2007) was deeply influenced by Niebuhr and brought his ideas to bear on his work as special adviser to President John F Kennedy. Schlesinger said that Niebuhr's analysis was uncomfortable for a generation such as his, for whom notions of innocence and perfectibility were "an expression of an all-American DNA". Yet in the era of Hitler and Stalin, death camps and gulags – daily proof that human beings were capable of "infinite depravity" – Niebuhr's ideas came "as a vast illumination". For as well as accounting for the existence of this terrible evil, he also showed the need to resist it.

Niebuhr's hard-nosed conviction that tyranny and injustice had to be confronted, opposing power with power, became a central plank in US Cold War thinking.

So Obama takes from Niebuhr a belief in "serious evil" – and, perhaps, original sin too. Is that good news? Haven't we been hearing exactly this kind of talk from Reaganites and Neocons and the Christian Right for decades now? – with the evil empire, the crusade against terror, the clash of civilisations, and the axis of evil, to name but a few examples.

The hope is that Obama really has digested Niebuhr. For Niebuhr was implacably opposed to self-righteous notions of American innocence. He thought that it was heresy to view the world in Manichaean terms, seeing only evil in the enemy and only goodness in ourselves. Niebuhr believed that human history is a long commentary on the biblical proclamation that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". A radical understanding of sin prevents people from projecting evil onto others and requires them to be self-critical.

"Humble and modest..."

It was the late Richard John Neuhaus in his book
The Naked Public Square (1984) who drew attention to the propensity of Jerry Falwell and others on the Christian Right to blame all the evils of society on their enemies in the culture wars – secular humanists, the "liberal media", and so on.

Neuhaus, the founder of the journal
First Things, dismissed by some critics as "the house journal of the theocons", was himself a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr. He thought that Falwell and others were hostile to Niebuhr's school of Christian Realism because they lacked "a sense of the radicality of sin". He suggested that, like many idealists and utopians, the Moral Majoritarians imagined themselves and America to be eminently perfectible, as long as the evil other was removed.

Death has robbed the world of Neuhaus' observations on the new presidency, but it will be very interesting to see how the Neuhaus crowd treats Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Obama's efforts to narrow the God gap and build bridges to religious constituencies across the States have been warmly welcomed by a few Evangelicals on the left, including leaders such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo.

But is it possible that he'll begin to win support in the conservative community, focused around
First Things, for whom the theological and political ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr remain important?

Obama sees the demonisation of opponents as hugely characteristic of contemporary American politics on both the Right and the Left. He believes that another of his great heroes, President Abraham Lincoln, provides the example for all to follow. According to Obama, Lincoln, whose political and moral convictions were tested to the limit in the American Civil War, tried to maintain a balance within himself between two contradictory ideas: "that we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side; and yet at times we must act nonetheless, as if we are certain, protected from error only by providence" (
The Audacity of Hope).

Modesty, humility grounded in an understanding of the human condition... And more: the realisation that we are never absolved from taking responsibility. What Obama learned from Lincoln bears a striking resemblance to what Reinhold Niebuhr called "Christian realism".

"No excuse for cynicism and inaction..."

For Niebuhr there are no pure and untroubled sanctuaries in human history, no enclaves that allow us to escape from compromise and moral ambiguity. This is true even – and especially – for those who seek with all their hearts to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). All shoulder guilt. All have dirty hands.

Damned if we do. Damned if we don't. Isn't this the perfect recipe for cynicism and inaction? Not according to Niebuhr. The primary truth about human existence is not that we are sinners, but that we are made in the image of God. Commanded. Under an obligation. Called. The demands of justice, the needs of our neighbour, the requirements of love – these are real and they cry out for action. Do something!

"To the end of history the peace of the world, as Augustine observed, must be gained by strife. It will therefore not be a perfect peace. But it can be more perfect than it is" (Reinhold Niebuhr,
Moral Man and Immoral Society).

And through these actions, in this world, signs of God's kingdom can sometimes be seen, as glimpses and hints that appear and disappear.

It's fascinating that Martin Luther King Jnr – another huge influence on Obama – knew Reinhold Niebuhr personally and quoted him often in his speeches and writings. Indeed it could well be that this is how Obama got switched on to Niebuhr in the first place.

Tellingly, King refers to the Princeton theologian not just in terms of the intellectual impact of his doctrine of sin on his own thinking, but also with respect to practical action – the very strategy and tactics he employed in leading the civil rights movement. King credits Niebuhr with being one of the first people to alert the black population to the potential of non-violent resistance as a realistic way of forcing change in the white community. He described Niebuhr's words about this in
Moral Man and Immoral Society as "prophetic".

So, through the writings of King, if nowhere else, Obama would have seen proof positive that Niebuhr's realism is far from being cynical, pessimistic and passive. To the contrary, it was in fact a key element in one of the most profound movements for social change the world has ever seen.

"Yes we can!" There's a direct link from Reinhold Niebuhr through Martin Luther King to Barack Obama and that simple slogan – a credal statement, a call for change – that electrified America.

"Not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism..."

The danger for Obama is that the expectations raised by his campaign and its rhetoric for change cannot possibly be met and that disillusionment is bound to follow. The deliberate echoes of King and the references to the civil rights movement in his speeches, however, are reminders, however subtle, that change can be a long time coming, and painful in the making. The moving story he told in his victory speech about Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106 year old black woman from Georgia who cast her vote for the first time in the November elections, expressed that brilliantly.

But in any case, Obama has a head start in confronting the inevitable gap between campaign rhetoric and political reality. He's already taken steps to address the polarisation of American society, not only by his generous tributes to John McCain, his Republican opponent, but also by appointing political rivals like Hillary Clinton to his cabinet, and retaining the services of President Bush's Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates.

But above all, Obama is ahead of the game: he embodies change. This really shouldn't be underestimated. The United States has grown in stature through the election of its 44th president. America, can you send a black man to the White House? Yes we can...

As we've seen, for Niebuhr, the realist, change is both necessary and possible. But the fact that we are sinners means that we will never build the perfect society. There are no short-cuts to the kingdom, for it is God alone who can bring it in. This is nowhere clearer to Niebuhr than in the cross of Christ, the symbol both of God's love and of human refusal: "The man on the cross turned defeat into victory and prophesied the day when love would be triumphant in the world. But the triumph would have to come through the intervention of God. The moral resources of men would not be sufficient to guarantee it" (
Moral Man and Immoral Society).

For Niebuhr the fulfilment of human history, the hope of humankind, lies beyond history, in the hands of God.

How much of Niebuhr's vision and understanding of the Christian faith does Obama truly share? It is difficult to say. Will a Niebuhrian outlook make a difference to his term of office? Perhaps. Does any of his undoubted knowledge and enthusiasm for aspects of Niebuhr's thought guarantee a wise presidency? No.

Nevertheless, the influence of Niebuhr on Obama does offer grounds for hope. It has to be good news that the incoming President of the United States is turning his back on the messianic rhetoric of some of his predecessors. It has to be good news that he's aligning himself with a biblical understanding of history far removed from the warped and grotesque eschatology – represented, for example, by the hugely successful Left Behind series of books – characteristic of so many on the Christian Right.

And it has to be good news that the man charged with leading the richest and most powerful nation on the face of the earth is committed to social justice and recognises – before God – his own moral ambiguity.

Looking again at the Serenity Prayer, it's amazing how Niebuhrian it is. Maybe that's why it's become so popular. It expresses succinctly the life-long themes and emphases of a great Christian teacher. Humility. Change. Wisdom. Trust. It's a prayer for a new kind of character, a serene realist. Isn't that what we want in a president?

Iwan Russell Jones is a television producer with BBC Wales.
reinhold niebuhr
Above: Reinhold Niebuhr, pictured on the cover of one of his books. Photo of Barack Obama: Pete Souza
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