Mares: Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr

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(HOST) The apparent influence of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the policies of President Obama gives commentator Bill Mares a chance to reflect on the impact Niebuhr had on his own family and thinking.

(MARES) After President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a number of observers remarked that it sounded like a sermon by Reinhold Niebuhr.  I agreed.  Nor  was I surprised.  In fact, it was Obama’s compelling summation of Niebuhr’s philosophy in the spring of 2007 that made me an early supporter of his candidacy.

Reinhold Niebuhr  was  a preacher, theologian, political philosopher and gadfly to true believers of all faiths and doctrines. He was claimed by both conservatives and liberals.  He had an extraordinary influence on American public discourse from the1930’s to the 1960’s.  What gave him such authority was his ability to write and preach about the tragedy of life, the irony of history, and the fallibility of human beings.
He considered Lincoln the ideal statesman because he combined "…moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning."
Obama’s synopsis of Niebuhr went this way: "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 have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."

You might say I got Niebuhr with my mother’s milk – because the year after I was born, she worked with Niebuhr and a group of other interventionists to awake an isolationist America to the Nazi threat when Great Britain stood alone.

During the Cold War Niebuhr fought the Soviets with equal vigor.  But beware, he cautioned his countrymen: "We must fight their falsehood with our truth, but we must also fight the falsehood in our own truth."  And in the Sixties he broke with his dear friend Hubert Humphrey in his oppostition to the Vietnam war.

In college I read a number of his books and heard him preach.  I  even met him several times when he was in residence for a semester and he and his wife used to give teas to the curious and the devout.

Niebuhr coined  masterly aphorisms; I posted my favorite one on my the wall of my classroom: "Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary."

I read Obama’s Oslo speech with a signed photograph of Niebuhr looking down from the top of a bookcase.

"I face the world as it is," Obama said, "and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  Evil does exist in the world.  A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason."
It’s a tribute to Niebuhr’s complexity that I’m unsure of just how he would respond to Obama’s characterization of Afghanistan as a "just war."

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