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Obama’s Favorite Philosopher – Niebuhr

We nearly missed this strange bit of puffery from CNN:

How Obama’s favorite theologian shaped his first year in office

By John Blake, CNN

February 5, 2010

(CNN) — In the summer of 1943, when Adolf Hitler’s armies marched unchecked across Europe, a pastor in a remote New England village decided to write a prayer.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," he began, "the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

It is now known as the Serenity Prayer. It’s been adopted by 12-step recovery programs and cited in numerous self-help books. Yet few people know who wrote it. His name is Reinhold Niebuhr, and he was a Protestant pastor in the mid-20th century whose words tended to unsettle people, not offer comfort.

Just like an agitator. Just like a community organizer.

Niebuhr is getting attention again because he has a fan in the Oval Office.

In a widely cited New York Times column, President Obama called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher." But how precisely has Niebuhr’s philosophy influenced Obama and his handling of everything from health care reform to fighting terrorists?

CNN is bringing up an little noted interview with Obama from back in 2007.

The answer may be seen by looking at Obama’s first year in office, several scholars, and a relative of Niebuhr’s, suggest

At first, there seems to be little resemblance between the cool, cerebral Obama and the pugnacious Niebuhr.

Niebuhr was a blunt critic of morally complacent Christians. He thought the church was full of idealists who believed that progress was inevitable and that love alone would ultimately conquer injustice, some Niebuhr scholars say.

"He said there was a difference between being a ‘fool for Christ’ and a plain damn fool," says Richard Crouter, author of the upcoming book "Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion and Christian Faith."

Niebuhr lived during an age of global calamities. He was born in Missouri in 1892, the son of a German-born minister. He preached and taught theology during the Great Depression and World War II. He saw the suffering of workers at Henry Ford’s auto plant — lack of pensions, dismissals for sickness — when he became a pastor in Detroit, Michigan, Crouter says.

Perhaps this inspired his acolyte Mr. Obama to save the autoworkers’ pensions at whatever the cost, though of course not at the fascist-loving Ford Motors.

"The greed of capitalism and the business class was huge in his mind," Crouter says. "It had to be combated."

"He criticized Christian idealists who thought force was never justified and who believed that the law of love was a simple solution to social and political problems," Copeland said. "At times, power must be challenged by power."

Niebuhr distilled his view of human nature in his monumental book, "Moral Man and Immoral Society." The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cited the book in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." Former President Carter is also an admirer of Niebuhr’s.

People are capable of doing good, but groups are driven by "predatory self-interest," Niebuhr wrote.

"As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other," Niebuhr wrote. "As racial, economic and national groups, they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."

In a 2007 interview, Obama explained to David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, what he learns from Niebuhr.

He called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher," Brooks wrote.

"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." …

Obama, a student of the civil rights movement, declared that he was a "living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence." Yet force is necessary at times, he said.

"A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies," Obama said. "Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms." …

It is odd that Mr. Obama only mentions his favorite philosopher once in his two autobiographies. And then only in passing when talking who (his real “spiritual mentor”) the Reverend Jeremiah Wright had studied.

From p. 153 of ‘Dreams From My Father’:

[E]ventually [Wright had] entered Howard, then the University of Chicago, where he spent six years studying for a Ph.D. in the history of religion. He learned Hebrew and Greek, read the literature of Tillich and Niebuhr and the black liberation theologians. The anger and humor of the streets, the book learning and occasional twenty-five-cent word, all this he had brought with him to Trinity almost two decades ago.

And, indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr does loom large in the works of Reverend Wright’s “spiritual mentor,” the man who invented Black Liberation Theology, James Cone.

In Mr. Cone’s seminal work, ‘A Black Theology Of Liberation,’ Mr. Niebuhr is mentioned no less than twelve times.

Here is one example from page 98:

If economic and social oppression fail to bring the rebels into line, the structures of power begin to devise political means of silencing them. Rebels expect this because they know that libera­tion always involves fighting against the powers that be. To go against the "keepers of peace" is to take a political risk, the risk of being shot, imprisoned, or exiled. That is why Silone’s Spina says, "Freedom is not something you get as a present. . . . You cant beg your freedom from someone. You have to seize it—everyone as much as he can."

Reinhold Niebuhr makes this point convincingly in Moral Man and Immoral Society, observing that those in power will never admit that society rewards them far out of proportion to the services they render; and this attitude inevitably makes them enslave all who question their interests. Appeals to reason and reli­gion do not change the balance of power, because both are used to defend the interests of oppressors. Change will take place, accord­ing to Niebuhr, when the enslaved recognize that power must be met with power. The black community is aware of this; and the black revolution is nothing but a will to spread the decision among blacks to seize their freedom—any way they can. No black person will ever be good enough in the eyes of whites to merit equality. Therefore, if blacks are to have freedom, they must take it, by any means necessary…

Pastor Niebuhr preached the ‘social justice’ of the redistribution of wealth. And he also preached that social justice will only come about through power.

For the record, Mr. Obama’s other spiritual mentor, Saul Alinsky, cites Pastor Niebuhr on page 40 of ‘Rules For Radical,’ in critiquing the pacificism of Mahatma Gandhi.

Naturally, Mr. Alinsky also came down on the side of meeting oppression with force rather than non-violence, in contra-distinction to Mahatma Gandhi.

So it’s no surprise Mr. Obama should admire Reinhold Niebuhr.  Just as it is no surprise that his admiration for the man was kept quiet, at least up until now.

But you do have to wonder why CNN is now bringing up something Obama mentioned in passing way back in 2007.

Perhaps they are trying to placate Mr. Obama’s base, who are getting more and more appalled that he hasn’t managed to surrender completely in the war on terror. At least, not yet.

But by reminding us of Mr. Obama’s favorite philosopher, CNN might have ended up revealing more about our President than they had intended.

This article was posted by Steve on Monday, February 8th, 2010. Comments are currently closed.

12 Responses to “Obama’s Favorite Philosopher – Niebuhr”

  1. GetBackJack says:

    Obama is a blank cipher, written upon by whomever got to him last.

  2. jobeth says:

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he began, “the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the…”

    Perhaps with all the talk from O’Balmy that we shouldn’t be listening to the press and instead take the “sit down and shut up” demeanor that Sarah talked about, that the real emphasis should be on the first part of the prayer.

    He really does want us to just move along like good sheep. Just do as we are told. (Ain’t gonna happen…)

    Besides…he should have vetted his ‘favorite’ philosopher a bit better. No one knows where this prayer originally came from.

    “A Brief History of the Serenity Prayer

    There are many theories, but no one really knows who wrote the Serenity Prayer or when it was written. One theory suggests that it was written in 500A.D. by a philosopher named Boethius who became a martyr for the Christians of his time.

    A theologian in the 1930’s and 1940’s named Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr is often cited as the author, but he read it in an obituary notice and gave credit to an earlier 18th century theologian. It is claimed that Dr. Niebuhr was so impressed by the prayer that he brought it to the attention of Bill W., one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.”


    • Rusty Shackleford says:

      Actually, jobeth, the connection to Niebuhr is perfect, given what you have just told us. If the derivation of the serenity prayer is ambiguous then,at the very least, Barry has to acknowledge it as his own. Who better than to assume feigned passion for something as (almost) useless as such a prayer. It’s pithy, but I’ve always found it to be an overstatement of the obvious. Plus, there are plenty of other colloquialisms that suit the moment much better. “Quitters never win, etc.” “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. “The longest of journeys begins with but a single step” and equally frivolous but fun things to adorn the cubicles of the workforce. Almost as sigh-inducing as “footprints”.

      For me, they are just too campy and have all become cliches in our overly cliche’d world. Though I still would welcome them from well-meaning grandparents, for, who else would we hear such things were it not for gramma and her wisdom of years who wants only the best for her youngest of kin? I don’t besmirch the intent, mind you but when someone like Obama gets ahold of such things, they sour. I work with a guy who’s a walking cliche’. He is also something of an idiot not to mention he thinks of himself as a cowboy. But snap-shirts and double-knit polyester pants with western boots is as close as he’s ever come to a horse, or a ranch, or a cow for that matter. Though I hear he’s a big fan of Gunsmoke.

      But just like Obama, he’s all fake. His New England accent belies his lack of depth in the knowledge of what a cowboy is. (It’s how you ARE….not what you WEAR). He’s politically oriented to the left, likes to dictate to others why they are wrong and…has thousands of cliches to emphasize his “points”.

      He is as tiresome as they come. When he talks, the listeners’ eyes roll and they soon go deaf. Obama is very similar in this regard. All image, but who’s really a caricature. A paper cutout that would look good next to a new refrigerator in the store window, but don’t expect any substance out of him. And as far as his “admiring” Niebuhr, my guess is that he knows nothing about him save what one college professor may have told him some many years ago, or five minutes ago; Makes no difference.

      Indeed, I wouldn’t doubt that barry the boy wonder would govern from the latest page on a Far Side calendar for his wisdom is not ingrained from practical experience and recovering from any defeats; It’s from catch-phrases and buzz-words and vicariously living his life. In other words, he’s a commercial and a bad one at that.

    • jobeth says:

      He HAS to adopt those pithy shallow platitudes…

      Have we EVER heard a really deep, well considered thought out of that so called brain of his?

      Really…His “plans” are always someone else’s. He outsources everything to far leftists in congress (not for long now though). His contribution is to say “Make it happen”

      He can’t even seem to complete “his” plans. Seems they always have those pesky details he never seemed to see before hand…as in Gitmo. Not so easy in the end.

      I remember when I was a teen and trying to demonstrate my own identity. My own headstrong mind.

      Mom would tell me what I needed to do…as it would have the best result. Well…I couldn’t keep doing everything ‘mommy’ told me to do and be ‘my own’ person now could I?

      I would do the just the opposite…every time. And of course, every single time things would blowup in my face. Took me a couple of years to realize that there is no substitute for the right decision.

      After that I began looking toward the proven wisdom of mom’s advice.

      O’Balmy isn’t there yet. He is still trying to do things HIS way, regardless of the outcome. Even when it shoots the left in the foot.

      Then he covers it all with his pearls of wisdom (platitudes)from his “favorite philosophers”.

  3. artboyusa says:

    Well, you knew it wasn’t going to be Karl “those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell” Popper, didn’t you?

  4. proreason says:


    His “philosophy” is a combination of PT Barnum and Vladimir Lenin.

    And GetBack is exactly right. PT gave the suckers what they thought they wanted.

    These periodic articles about the thug’s intellectual credentials are particularly galling. The Moron is as intellectual as a closed fist, which we will see a lot more of real soon if he isn’t stopped.

    • GetBackJack says:

      Awwwwk … Obama want a cracker …. awwwwk.

      Monkey see, monkey regurgitate.

    • DoctorRock says:

      PT Barnum was a capitalist.
      BHO is all about Marx and Hegel. He favors a Christian theologian like I favor a French impressionist. He can’t even pronounce “corpsman” for chrissake! Having grown up in the reactionary backwaters of suburban New York, we learned the root of that word in second grade music class – “and to our Corps, and to keep our honor clean”. How parochial. At least “They took the blue from the sky and a pretty girl’s eye” has some imagery.
      And Rusty said “mind you”. My grandma said that too – but we called her Nana. I’m watching Gates on Greta as I write this. I actually had some respect for Rummy.

    • JohnMG says:

      …..”And as far as his “admiring” Niebuhr, my guess is that he knows nothing about him…….”

      I think Niebuhr was a “corpse-man”, wasn’t he?

      Actually, I’m with you, Pro. Bullshit!!

  5. GTBurns says:

    Now with Murtha dead, there another opportunity for voters to further derail Obama’s agenda.

  6. joeblough says:

    Red Hussein has absolutely ALL the right credentials and absolutely ALL the wrong background and inclinations.

    It’s actually rather striking how perfectly suited his is to raised pinky, social-climbing upper middle class commie society — and how perfectly unsuited he is to the American presidency.

    Given the larger currents running through American culture I suppose it was only a matter of time before we produced a creature like Red Hussein.

    God, what a monster!

  7. 2old2givea says:

    “God grant me the serenity to accept
    [that most Americans don’t want a socialist government, a government take over of any private industry including healthcare, prefer having a job, and want you to stop spending our damn money]

    the courage to change the things I can
    [cut taxes across the board and drop the whole healthcare & cap and tax thingies… and no, you can’t be our dictator]

    and the wisdom to know the difference
    [Hint: Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachussets]


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