FaithWorld

Thoughts on Obama’s Nobel Theology Prize speech

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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:

Obama’s Nobel citation speaks of shared values – is hope on top?

obama-at-unThe statement announcing the Nobel Peace Prize for U.S. President Barack Obama says that “his diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population”. (Photo: Obama at the United Nations, 23Sept 2009/Kevin Lamarque)

Is there actually a set of values and attitudes shared by most people around the world? It would be interesting to know exactly what the Norwegian Nobel Committee meant by this. Are they talking about some vague form of world political consensus or even global ethics? The citation text mentions Obama’s “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” and his preference multilateral diplomacy, dialogue and negotiations. But none of these efforts has yet borne much fruit.

The citation also mentioned the “hope for the future” it said Obama has given the world. Hope is a powerful force, both in personal and political life. In the Christian tradition, it’s a theological virtue as important as faith and love. And it is a key element of the Obama “yes we can” message.