The irrelevant and the interesting in Obama’s religious views

December 9, 2008

There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few months on this and other blogs about Barack Obama and religion. Looking back at it now that the campaign is over and he is starting to shape his administration, it’s interesting to see how many of those discussions shed little light on what he would actually do. There were comments about him being a hidden Muslim, for example, or not a real Christian. That speculation seemed based on thin evidence and the assumption he was running for preacher and cleric-in-chief rather than president and commander-in-chief. As a journalist covering religion in public life, after learning whether a candidate professes a certain faith, I want to know how that faith will really influence his or her decisions in office. This is not necessarily the same as listing the soundbite positions used on the campaign trail.

(Photo: Barack Obama at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, 15 June 2008/John Gress)

Seen from this point of view, probably the most interesting fact about Barack Obama’s religious views is one that rarely gets mentioned. It’s that he’s an admirer of the late American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). The President-elect has clearly named “America’s leading public theologian” as a major influence on his thinking. It comes out less in specific positions than in the way he looks at problems and discusses policies in terms with a “Niebuhrian” ring about them.

In April 2007, Obama told David Brooks of the New York Times that Niebuhr was one of his favourite thinkers.  So I asked, What do you take away from him? Brooks asked:

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “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 they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Brooks noted that this was “a pretty good off-the-cuff summary” of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History. Although written in 1952 during the Cold War (and recently republished), that short book reads today like a warning against what historian Andrew J. Bacevich calls “the evangelical moment in U.S. foreign policy” marked by “an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers.”

Since domestic issues are so different now, I asked Niebuhr’s biographer Richard Wightman Fox for his view of the theologian’s influence here. He first mentioned Niebuhr’s belief — which he shared with another Obama favourite, Abraham Lincoln — that God acts in history but human beings cannot know his plans. This puts limits on utopian aspirations and quick-fix approaches. “This is very much part of Obama’s sensibility,” Fox said.

(Photo: cover of The Irony of American History)

But both also have a larger vision behind their realism, he added, taking Obama’s economic plans as an example: “It’s about a sort of green New Deal. This is not just about economic stimulus or putting people back in their homes. It’s about a kind of social justice where the green revolution would actually make life better for the poor, the sick and the old who suffer disproportionately from environmental devastation.   He may not talk about that side of it as much as he talks about economic stimulus, but if we were to ask him what the Christian side or Niebuhrian side of his politics was, he would say something like this. There’s a vision behind the pragmatism.”

The Niebuhr perspective gives Fox a different view of another big blogosphere issue, Obama’s relationship with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and his Trinity Church. “He didn’t go there because it was racially inflected ministry. He went there because it was a social justice inflected ministry. It was the United Church of Christ, and therefore I don’t think he ever subscribed to the particularly racial view Wright had,” Fox said. “It’s much more a Niebuhrian vision, where social justice comes first, and that’s for everybody, not just blacks but other groups that are excluded.”

One big unanswered question is what a Niebuhrian outlook means for Obama when it comes to an issue like abortion. “I don’t recall Niebuhr ever weighing in on that. It never came up,” Fox said, noting that Niebuhr focused mostly on foreign policy in years before his death in 1971.  But Obama has spoken about the “moral dimension of abortion” and ways to reduce the level of abortions — remarks that are not usually heard from Democrats.

(Photo: University of Southern California history professor Richard Wightman Fox)

Niebuhr could be so nuanced in his positions that both conservatives and liberals cite him as an influence. During his campaign, Obama pleased liberals by pledging to pass the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) as soon as he became president, which would effectively scrap federal and state limits on abortion. This has become a major issue for anti-abortion activists, including the Roman Catholic Church, who are actively campaigning against it. Since being elected, though, several of Obama’s key appointments have pleased conservatives and disappointed liberals. Some observers think Obama has no real intention of pushing FOCA through when he has so many pressing economic issues before him.  Is he planning to finesse his position here to something more balanced, complex and, well … Niebuhrian?


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

I think your point is a good one. FOCA is such a hot button issue that I would amazed if Obama was dumb enough to push it at this point. What I expect him to do is at some point to express support for the ideas behind FOCA but to acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed (threats to shut down hospitals) and to say that the bill needs work but not to at all push it.

Posted by Jerry | Report as abusive

Battlelines Drawn: Church-State And God-Mammon tion=vids.individual&videoid=48062951

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

[…] came the echoes of the man Obama has called one of his favourite thinkers, the 20th century American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The whole speech had a tone that […]

Posted by Theology and the President’s Oslo Speech | The Church of Jesus Christ | Report as abusive