President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech: Embracing the Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr

By Felice, William F. | Social Justice, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech: Embracing the Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr


Felice, William F., Social Justice


AFTER PRESIDENT OBAMA CITED CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIAN AND ETHICIST REINHOLD Niebuhr (1892-1971) as one of his favorite philosophers, the blogosphere erupted with commentary on what this might portend for the foreign policy of the new administration. Niebuhr had been known as the "pastor to the Presidents," with many, including Jimmy Carter, mentioning his influence on their moral reasoning. In recognition of his lasting impact on the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson awarded Niebuhr the Medal of Freedom in 1964. Pundits have had a field day speculating on the possible implications of Obama's self-defined connection to the ethics of Niebuhr. Will the foreign policy decision-making of the Obama administration thus mirror that of Carter, or that of other past presidents influenced by Niebuhr?

Mark Tooley describes Niebuhr as "probably the 20th century's finest ethicist in the liberal Protestant tradition," representing the school of "Christian realism." The rise of Nazism led Niebuhr to believe in a "transcendent evil" and he supported the war against Hitler. He criticized pacifists and Christian idealists who thought that force could never be justified (Tooley, 2009). Instead, Niebuhr argued: "Since reason is always, to some degree, the servant of interest in a social situation, social injustice cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone, as the educator and social scientist usually believes. Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power" (Niebuhr, 1932: xiv-xv). But even when force is justified, as in World War II (which he believed was a just war), he maintained that there were moral limits to the use of military power. Niebuhr, for example, criticized the Allied bombing of cities and questioned the use of nuclear weapons by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After World War II, he supported the efforts to contain Communism, but he strongly opposed the Vietnam War, and in general thought that U.S. involvement in unwinnable land wars in Asia was unwise (Tooley, 2009).

Niebuhr explained his views of human nature and politics in his influential book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, which was later cited by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." In this work, Niebuhr asserts that people are capable of doing good, but groups are driven by "predatory self-interest." Niebuhr explains: "Individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience.... [This] symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups, they take for themselves whatever their power can command" (Niebuhr, 1932: 9).

During a 2007 interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, Obama explained what he learned from Niebuhr and why he called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher." "I take away," Brooks quoted Obama as saying, "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 that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism" (Brooks, 2007).

Great-nephew Gustav Niebuhr points out that Obama's political rhetoric often reflects Niebuhr's worldview. He notes, for example, that both Obama and his great-uncle avoid moral absolutes (i.e., good versus evil; you're with us or you're against us) and realize that "the U.S. is not always right and its enemies not always evil." Gustav Niebuhr pointed to Obama's Cairo speech to the Arab world, in which the president acknowledged the U.S. role in undermining and helping to overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran in the 1950s and avoided a "clash of civilizations" framework that can imply that the United States is free of moral stain. …

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