The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft

The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft

The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft

The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft

Synopsis

Drawing on the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, described by Barack Obama as 'one of my favourite philosophers', this book assesses the challenges facing the President during his first term. It evaluates his success in adhering to Niebuhr's path of 'Christian realism' when faced with the pragmatic demands of domestic and foreign affairs. In 2008 Candidate Obama used the ideas of 'Hope' and 'Change' to inspire voters and secure the presidency. Obama promised change not only regarding America's policies, but even more fundamentally in the nation's political culture. Holder and Josephson describe the foundations of President Obama's Christian faith and the extent to which it has shaped his approach to politics. Their book explores Obama's journey of faith in the context of a broadly Augustinian understanding of faith and politics, examines the tensions between Christian realism and pragmatic progressivism, explains why a Christian realist interpretation is essential to understanding Obama's presidency, and applies this model of understanding to considerations of foreign and domestic policy. By combining this theological and political analysis the book offers a special opportunity to reflect on the relationship between Christian faith and statesmanship, reflections that are missing from current popular discussions of the Obama presidency. Through consideration of Niebuhr's models of the prophet and the statesman, and the more popular alternative of the political evangelist, Holder and Josephson are better able to explain the president's successes and his failures, and to unveil the Augustinian limits of the political life.

Excerpt

The Christian, and perhaps the religious person generally, faces two moral obligations. The Christian must render to Caesar—or to the regime—what properly belongs to the regime, and render to God what properly belongs to God. These two obligations do not fit neatly together; in their essential qualities, they conflict. In describing the earthly and heavenly cities—“two different and contrary cities” marked by two very different loves—Augustine of Hippo remarks that our political lives are bound on one side by a yoke of necessity and on the other by our ignorance; we must act, and we lack the wisdom to act. The obligation of a universal faith that commands love confronts and critiques the obligations of politics which commands citizens to prefer the interests of their own nation. In America at the beginning of the twenty-first century we can witness this tension in debates about social issues like abortion and immigration, but also in debates about foreign policy (does the United States have a moral obligation to assist others?) and economic policy (may the state require us to care for one another?).

As an especially religious nation America has struggled with Augustine’s distinction. The relation of religious faith and political action has long been a contentious issue for the United States, and while such contention may be most evident in recent times on the political and religious right, earlier movements for temperance and abolition in the mid-nineteenth century, for the rights of labor at the turn of the twentieth century, and for civil rights in the second half of the twentieth century all grounded their articulation on foundations of faith.

1 Matthew 22: 21; Romans 13: 1; Acts 5: 29. This and all further biblical references are to the New Revised Standard Version, published as The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Edn, edited by Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

2 City of God, 14.4, 14.28, 19.6–7, from Political Writings, translated by Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries, edited by Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994).

3 Augustine does not mince words: “A man would rather be with his own dog than a foreigner” (City of God 19.7). In contrast, Ernest Fortin writes, the universal faith of Christianity appears a “nonpolitical religion” or an “essentially transpolitical one.” See Fortin, “Introduction,” in Political Writings by Augustine, translated by Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries, edited by Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), vii; and his “St. Augustine,” in History of Political Philosophy, Third Edition, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 203.

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