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:

The irrelevant and the interesting in Obama’s religious views

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: