Thoughts on Obama’s Nobel Theology Prize speech

December 10, 2009
obama speaks

President Barack Obama in Oslo, 10 Dec 2009/John McConnico

If there were a Nobel Prize for Theology, large parts of President Barack Obama’s Oslo speech could be cut and pasted into an acceptance speech for it. The Peace Prize speech dealt with war and he made a clear case from the start for the use of force when necessary. While he began with political arguments for this position, his rationale took on an increasingly religious tone as the speech echoed faith leaders and theologians going back to the origins of Christianity.

It started with a hat-tip to Rev. Martin Luther King when he said “our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice” — echoes of King’s 25 March 1965 Montgomery speech saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Obama then went into the “just war” theory that says war is justified only if it is a last resort or self-defense, if force is proportional to the threat and civilians are spared if possible. This is a classic Christian doctrine elaborated by Saint Augustine in the fifth century and then by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th. In 2003, Pope John Paul II used this doctrine to justify his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Obama noted that this doctrine was “rarely observed” but called for new ways of thinking “about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace … Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.”

The president used the “just war” theory to put a theological interpretation on Islamist militancy, saying that “no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr

Then 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 American political commentators like to call Niebuhrian, either in its phrasing or its tough mix of political realism and moral thinking. For example:

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes”— Obama (” Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime” — Niebuhr).

“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people— Obama (We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power — Niebuhr).

“We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected” — Obama (“The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world” — Niebuhr).

Building up to his crescendo, Obama recalled the Christian virtues expounded by Saint Paul:

Faith: he spoke out for the faith in human progress that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed: If we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naive, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.”

Saint Paul

Saint Paul, by Rembrandt

Hope: The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”

Love: “The one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature.”

The tone remained religious right to the end: “So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

What do you think about such religious discourse from a political leader? Does it help clarify the issues involved?

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Here’s a short video of Obama’s speech:


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This Peace Nobel Price is a bad joke and when it comes to peace in the Middle East Obama is just a laugh.
If he thinks “ that war is justified only if it is a last resort or self-defense, if force is proportional to the threat and civilians are spared if possible. “ how could he not criticise Israel’s latest military offensive which left more than 1200 Palestinians dead 400 of which children under 16?
This Israeli offensive was clearly disproportionate since Palestinian rocket attacks throughout the years (2004-2008) only killed 16 Israelis (see Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site – tacle+to+Peace/Palestinian+terror+since+ 2000/Victims+of+Palestinian+Violence+and +Terrorism+sinc.htm) . Nonetheless, when asked what he thought about the Israeli attack Obama answered Israel had a right to defend itself against rocket attacks and forgot the major issue of proportional force or respect for civilians.
I suppose Obama is just “facing the world as it is” and therefore he realises he is unable to oppose the American Jewish lobby and criticise Israel. Laughable?

Posted by Pedro07 | Report as abusive

In that case, Pedro, what would you say proportional force would be?

-Israel to surrender?
-Israel to do nothing and let hundreds of missiles hit Israeli cities without response?
-Israel to send a small squad of soldiers or police into Gaza to be killed or held to ransom?
-Israel to complain to the UN and wait for the UN to do something?

Look up the concept of collateral damage and proportionality. You do not seem to understand what those terms mean.

It isn’t a case of “Oh, they killed fifty of our people, so we should kill fifty of them and stop”.

It is a matter of “We continue the war until the threat from the enemy ends, or they agree to cease hostile action”.

For that matter, do you know that:
-White phosphorus is not illegal.
-Cluster bombs are not illegal.
-Military presence in civilian areas makes those areas legitimate targets.
-It is legal to strike at military targets, even if civilians end up dying in the strike as well.

If you are not aware of those matters, perhaps you should research into things before speaking to them?

Posted by defcon86 | Report as abusive

This nobel peace prize is the biggest joke of history. Anyways with or without prize, America is the biggest deadly joke of world. This joke kills innocents in name of love of democracy, a line world must toe in order to live peacefully, peace the american way… Aegis of winchester rifle for american decided to apologize in 2009. Shame

Posted by UrghAllah | Report as abusive

I have never responded to comments. After reading defcon86, I must respond. I am at a loss why so many feel the need to support unconditionally the Isreali government action. I watched with horror the Gaza attacks last year. Those people were trapped with no where to go while the Isreali army bombed and killed innocent people living in gaza. I understand proportionality and collateral damage very well. Quit being an apologist for a corrupt government that over half of the Israelis don’t support. I wish we had the same discourse on this issue that they have in Israel.

Posted by margaretdc | Report as abusive

[…] a comment » Many people have already commented on the theological content of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance […]

Posted by Obama, John Paul II and the duty of humanitarian intervention « Editor's Briefing | Report as abusive

I can’t believe I registered to this site to answer in a blog comment section. I’m at a loss as to why the vast majority of people (broad generalization of course) who respond on the internet to anything involving an American leader feel they have the right to also draw the “war” in the middle east to the front. There are hundreds of other conflicts in the world that are not being criticized.

More importantly, have you taken arms in any of these conflicts? Are you jewish or muslim? do you contribute funding to either of these sides? If not, please keep your comments to yourself, this war unlikely effects you directly, and you are wasting our time talking about one war that will likely never end. Neither side is willing to compromise, neither side shows mercy, neither side is fair at the table, and there will not be any kind of concessions in our lifetime. Lets redirect attention back to the president. Good speech in my opinion, and decent commentary by the blogger. thanks.

Posted by Wraithbane01 | Report as abusive

I do agree with some points of everybody. To me to tackle the problem with a problem is not the solution. Anyhow, these comments are for Obama’s peace prize, which at the moment unjustified with reference to his achievements and even peace negotiations. On the reality table his biggest achievemnt until now is that he is the president of the USA. His ambitions may be good but it is his actions which will determine his credibility in the near future or otherwise we may have to see him receiving Nobel prize in chemistry for telling us that CO2 is toxic. I think we should give him some more time to see, but at the same time if we have to see another war on iran or north korea or pakistan or so on then we must have to create another Nobel Peace Prize or may be prizes for him as he can justify war with two words, “when necessary”. Anyway, hope for the best, let the peace prevail, stop the wars!

Posted by peacelover | Report as abusive

[…] Obama, Theologian: This article highlights Obama’s growing discourse on religion as evidenced in his Nobel Prize Speech. In […]

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In that case, margaretdc, perhaps you would like to answer?

If you think that Israel’s response was disproportionate, then what would the correct response be?

-Let missiles hit Israel without any response.
-Send in some police to get murdered/kidnapped.
-Complain to the UN.

Or was the response correct, and the level of innocent death the issue? If so, how many innocent deaths would you believe to be an appropriate amount before Israel’s actions become ‘unacceptable’ to you?

Being a well educated individual, you no doubt have a rational response to the above questions.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

World needs to stand with Israel who are surrounded by barbarians. I sincerely hope that Russia, China, India, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan stand unconditionally with Israel. United States of America is blackmailing Israel by not giving it unilateral and unconditional support. How can any one be so callous for human beings by calling them as Jews who have been exploited and tormented for thousands of years by Islamic and Christian barbarians? I hope Barrack Obama doesn’t turn out to be another Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam, Ghenghis, Timur the Lame, who in name of God/ Allah love carried out religious genocide of humans by terming them as Pagans/ Infidels/ Kaffir. Barbarians of the world always had improper history, nationality, dubious record in terms of faith and lineage.

Posted by UrghAllah | Report as abusive

[…] Kaplan also saw the speech as “a faithful reflection” of Niebuhr, and Tom Heneghan at Reuters did some serious proof-texting by finding direct echoes of Niebuhr’s writings in […]

Posted by Of Niebuhr and Nobels: Divining Obama’s Theology | Report as abusive

[…] Kaplan also saw the speech as “a faithful reflection” of Niebuhr, and Tom Heneghan at Reuters did some serious proof-texting by finding direct echoes of Niebuhr’s writings in […]

Posted by Of Niebuhr and Nobels: Divining Obama’s Theology | Christopher Howell | Report as abusive

A dear friend of mine is both a Christian and a soldier. His name is Jeff Courter, and he gets the connection that Obama laid out in his speech. Jeff actually lives what Obama speaks.

He was prompted by the tragic events of 9/11 to leave behind the comforts of civilian life in Chicago to volunteer with the Army – training Afghans to defend themselves against terrorists on their own turf.

He wrote about the emotional, spiritual, mental and cultural challenges he faced in a book I recommend, “AFGHAN JOURNAL: A Soldier’s Year in Afghanistan.” (

Now that he’s home, he continues to write on a blog called Here’s a link to his latest post – which was written prior to Obama’s Oslo speech, but it speaks directly to the core of our President’s perspective: “If Peace is the Answer, Is War Ever a Question?”


Posted by kathk | Report as abusive

[…] escreveu que o Presidente esteve ao nível de Cícero; para outros. Tom Heneghan no FaithWorld, escreveu que o discurso de Oslo foi um eco de Reinhold Niebuhr, um teólogo com uma visão sombria da […]

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