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Obama's Niebuhr Problem

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2013


As a candidate for president Barack Obama identified Reinhold Niebuhr as one of the most important influences on his political and social thinking. Obama's referencing of Niebuhr was not casual. Frequently, in diverse contexts, and before a variety of audiences, Obama either subtly or overtly offered Niebuhr as a guide for statesmanship. He obliquely referenced Niebuhr's two-fold test of toleration at the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast; he structured his Nobel Prize speech around Niebuhr's consideration of the problem of Christian realism in foreign policy; and, in unveiling the stimulus package, Obama placed the entire work in a context of Christian realism. Clearly, Obama takes his Niebuhr seriously not only in theory, but also in practice. Obama's first term offered a lesson in Christian realism and governance.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2013 

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77 David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” The New York Times, April 26, 2007; Andrew Sullivan, “The Tragedy of Hope,” The Atlantic, December 10, 2009,

78 “Remarks by the President at the National Prayer Breakfast” (Washington Hilton, Washington, D.C., February 3, 2011), White House, Office of the Press Secretary,; “Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize” (Oslo City Hall, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 2009), White House, Office of the Press Secretary,; “The New Foundation” (Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., April 14, 2009),

79 Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)Google Scholar; and The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944)Google Scholar.

80 Julian, Liam, “Niebuhr and Obama,” Policy Review, April–May 2009, 1933Google Scholar; Diggins, John Patrick, Why Niebuhr Now? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Crouter, Richard, Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 911CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In February 2011, Princeton University's Center for Human Values sponsored a conference on “The Niebuhrian Moment, Then and Now: Religion, Democracy and Political Realism.”

81 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

82 Mark Bowden, “The Salesman,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 2010, 104.

83 See Burke, Daniel, “Obama Evokes Niebuhr, Black Church,” Christian Century 128 (2011): 1415Google Scholar; Dorrien, Gary, The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective (Lanham, Mich.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Holder, R. Ward and Josephson, Peter B., The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft (Burlington: Ashgate, 2012)Google Scholar; Noah Kristula-Green, “Add Reinhold Niebuhr to Romney's Ticket,” The Daily Beast, August 17, 2012; Kevin Mattson, “Why Obama and Romney Really Do See the World Differently,” Salon, October 23, 2012,; Eric Paul, “What Does Reinhold Niebuhr have to do with Drones?,” Justice Outside the City, September 26, 2012,

84 Holder and Josephson, 49–60; Obama, Barack, Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995)Google Scholar, 98, 115, 133–135, 140–141, 274, 280, 286, 292; Obama, BarackThe Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 203204Google Scholar, 245–247, 251–252; Mansfield, Stephen, The Faith of Barack Obama (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1220Google Scholar, 53–57, 95–99.

85 Cathleen Falsani, “Interview with Barack Obama,” Chicago Sun Times, March 27, 2004; Mendell, David, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins/Amistad, 2007), 7677Google Scholar.

86 These commentaries are treated in greater detail in Holder and Josephson, The Irony of Barack Obama. See George Packer, “Peace and War,” The New Yorker, December 21, 2009, 45–46; Casey Blake, “Obama and Niebuhr,” The New Republic, May 3, 2007,; Kloppenberg, James, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Richard Harries and Stephen Platten, the editors of Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power, dedicated the book to Barack Obama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); In February 2010, CNN offered an appraisal of the president's first year in office entitled “How Obama's Favorite Theologian Shaped His First Year”; John Blake of CNN also published an article of the same name (John Blake, “How Obama's Favorite Theologian Shaped His First Year in Office,” CNN Politics, February 5, 2010,; The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored a conversation between Wilfred McClay and E. J. Dionne, Jr. on the topic, entitled “Obama's Favorite Theologian? A Short Course on Reinhold Niebuhr,” May 4, 2009, See also Paul Allen, “The Obama-Niebuhr Connection,”, June 14, 2008,

87 David Gibson, “Of Niebuhr and Nobels: Divining Obama's Theology,” Politics Daily, December 12, 2009; Michael Gerson, “Obama Shows Maturity in Nobel Speech,” The Washington Post, December 10, 2009; James Fallows, “Obama's Nobel Speech,” The Atlantic, December 10, 2009,; Fred Kaplan, “Obama's War and Peace,” Slate, December 10, 2009, Hendrik Hertzberg quoted the historian William Lee Miller: “It seemed to me as thoroughly Niebuhrian an utterance as we are ever likely to hear a sitting president utter” (“Presidents and Peace Prizes,” The New Yorker, December 11, 2009,

88 Blake, “Obama and Niebuhr”; John B. Judis, “Obama, Niebuhr, and U.S. Politics,” The New Republic, December 13, 2009,; George Packer, The New Yorker, February 28, 2009,

89 Gerald F. Seib, “In Crisis, Opportunity for Obama,” Capital Journal, November 21, 2008.

90 See especially The Irony of American History (repr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), esp. 130149Google Scholar; and Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (repr., Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) ch.1, esp. 812Google Scholar.

91 Even a more analytically precise set of tools does not allow Christian realism to be formulated for sound bites. See Chinni, Dante, Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the “Real” America (New York: Gotham, 2011)Google Scholar.

92 With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as the realist, and UN Ambassador Susan Rice and Samantha Power of the National Security Council as the humanitarians. See James Kitfield, “What's Eating Robert Gates?,” The National Journal, June 11, 2011,; Michael Hastings, “Inside Obama's War Room,” Rolling Stone, October 27, 2011; Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers, “Obama Takes Hard Line With Libya after Shift by Clinton,” New York Times, March 19, 2011.

93 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya” (National Defense University, Washington, D.C., March 28, 2011),

94 John Bolton, “War-powers crisis; Obama's Libyan Debacle Could Undercut U.S. Credibility Elsewhere,” Washington Post, June 7, 2011; Douglas J. Feith and Seth Cropsey, “The Obama Doctrine Defined,” Commentary, July 2011, 11–18.

95 Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, 2–6.

96 “An Orienting Principle for Foreign Policy,” Policy Review, October-November 2010, 3–12.

97 Moral Man and Immoral Society, 266.

98 The Audacity of Hope, 229.

99 Dorrien, Gary, The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective (Lanham, Mich.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 8587Google Scholar; Robert Westbrook, “The Liberal Agony,” The Christian Century, September 20, 2011.

100 Gayer, Ted, “Economic Policymaking During the Great Recession,” in The Obama Presidency: Change and Continuity, eds. Dowdle, Andrew, van Raemdonck, Dirk, and Maranto, Robert (New York: Routledge, 2011), 137148Google Scholar; Tatalovich, Raymond, “The Obama Administration and the Great Recession,” in Transforming America: Barack Obama and the White House, ed. Schier, Steven (Lanham, Mich.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 211234Google Scholar; Suzanne Mettler, “Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” Perspectives on Politics, September 2010, 803–824; Dorrien, 90–97.

101 “The New Foundation.”

102 That so many reject the fact that Obama is a Christian is almost certainly bound up with his African descent.

103 See Lambert, Frank, Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 204ff.

104 See the critique in Hendricks, Obery M. Jr.'sA Camel through the Eye of a Needle: Class, Political Conservatism, and Anti-Christian Economics,” in The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politic (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2011), 89194Google Scholar.

105 James L. Guth, “Obama, Religious Politics, and the Culture Wars,” in Transforming America, 87.

106 Lambert, 221–229, 237, 243; Sullivan, Amy, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (New York: Scribner, 2008), 205208.Google Scholar