Obama’s Christian realism

Realism without hope is deadly. Hope without realism leads to wishful thinking. But put the two together and you have the elements of Christian realism along the lines of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thinking. Hent de Vries sees a strong connections between Niehbuhr’s theory and Obama’s praxis.

As de Vries writes:

It has been rightly noted by Paul Allen that “Obama’s liberalism is not that of the perennial separation of church and state,” but that it is, instead, “born of the public implications of Christian faith, a recognition of the moral limits of the state and the individual.” The resulting conception, far from being an amalgam of irreconcilable strands of thought and everything but a “confused theology,” yields a coherent position which parts ways with secular humanism and its institutional and dispositional equivalents in political and cultural matters (so-called liberalism and progressive modernism being among them), just as it keeps its distance from the dictates and mindset of the Religious Right, from the perverse mixture of American exceptionalism and cynical realism of so-called neoconservatism that influenced the George W. Bush administration, and even from the alternative ideology, still in the making, that has been attributed to the “Millennial Youth” or “Generation We” who were among his staunchest supporters. Again, there is a deeper sense of the tragic or, as Niebuhr preferred to say, “ironic” fate of American history that is steeped, in part, in the Biblical idea of original sin even though it is elaborated in more heterodox terms as well, and that espouses a thorough pragmatism in the adjustment of ideas and theories—including those of theology—to the factual givens of the world of political and international affairs. In this sense, Obama’s political theology steers clear of all moralism and that, precisely, is its “realism.” In Allan’s words:

Thanks to Niebuhr, Obama has thought about the human condition, in terms of our shared nature and sin, categories that most liberals have rebuked since before the 1960s….Obama is positioned to give the conservative idea of self-sacrifice a liberal moral meaning it has not held since John F. Kennedy. When Obama said last year that he would tell Americans, “Not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to know,” he was warming up an electorate for Niebuhr-like realism….Obama knows that liberalism cannot thrive on an ever-expanding laundry list of human rights and victimhood.

Yet it is doubtful that Obama should be seen as restoring liberalism as a value per se, rather than as set of policies to which, he feels, we have good—pragmatic—reason to adhere or, when needed, return. And “self-sacrifice” is hardly the sole (or most important) value around which his deep pragmatism revolves in the end. A host of other motifs and motivations come to mind, but what is important is the way—and the spirit—in which they are invoked and put to work.

If you have a little time this evening, the linked essay is worth the read.

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