Monday, January 19, 2009

Barack Obama on Reinhold Niebuhr

Written May 7, 2007
Republished Jan 8, 2008.
Again today, MLK Day, 2009.

This is one of my favorite glimpses into the character of Barack Obama. I knew when I came across the 3Q Daily link almost two years ago that if this guy got even close to winning the nomination of his party I would have to support him any way I could.

The post What is Barack Obama's religion? Updated ran from December, 2006, just five months before, was showing a lot of traffic but even then I didn't give Obama good odds for being much more than an also-ran. With his inauguration coming to pass tomorrow, I have never been so happy to have been wrong in my life.

Interest in the relgion post (linked above) has spiked again in the last couple of days. This indicates to me that even though the election is over, there are still people doing homework about their new president. I like to think some of the curiosity is from those who voted against him because they believed the disinformation that swirled around email and internet circles during the campaign.

I'm reposting it without cleaning up the loose, conversational tone. After all, I never really expected it would be read again after I first wrote it because I didn't really expect him to get as far as he has.


I almost missed it. This story was buried deep in the stream of creamy-rich content that pours from 3Quarks Daily.

(I follow so many sites I don't have time to read them all. Even titles get skipped once or twice a week as I select "Mark all read" on the aggregator but I have learned never to do that before scanning half a dozen places, including 3Quarks, that are obligatory reading.)

This information will not be on the evening news. For mercenary reasons the New York Times kept it partially hidden behind the Times Select curtain. Besides, so few people are familiar with Niebuhr that it won't make much difference in the long run, but for me this is a happy surprise.

Well-read politicians are not remarkable. Reading and talking is what they do. It is the main part of their job description. But most politicians read and study to salt away information to advance a political agenda. They not only have to know what they like, they also have to know all the details of ideas they oppose in order to defeat or compromise them in the political arena.

Few read for introspection. Introspection is an alien impulse for most leaders. In their formative years, of course, all have to figure out what they believe about this or than in order to get their sea legs on the ship of leadership. Most biographies of great leaders catalogue their intellectual underpinnings as they began a rise to the top.

I recall first hearing the name of Steven Carter because Bill Clinton was reading him at the time. Carter's examination of faith and ethics in The Culture of Disbelief and Integrity, and his articles in Christianity Today reveal an uncommon depth of introspection, not only in him, but in anyone reading his work. I was already impressed with Bill Clinton at the time because he was on record as having opposed the Vietnam conflict when that was not a popular view (and still isn't for many... mea culpas by all the Robert McNamaras in the world will not change the minds of true believers, no matter how wrong they may have been). Discovering that he was still plowing deep into ethical decision-making was a mark in his favor in my book.

Little did we know that by reading Carter, Clinton was examining the fine points of ethics and morality not to learn how to be a better person but to discern how close he might walk to the edge of evil without tripping. Ordinary people look to their moral compass to know right from wrong, with the intent of clinging to the right and avoiding that which is wrong. But leaders sometimes use that same compass to slog around in what is wrong, hoping not to get seduced by the delights of evil as they travel toward a noble goal. Literature and history are filled with such tales. The Greeks called it hubris.

Back to Obama.

Being the eternal optimist (see my tag line) I am pleased to know that Obama is not only familiar with Reinhold Niebuhr but calls him his "one of my favorite philosophers." Take a look at this short piece in New Republic. [Link no longer active. Article is behind a pay curtain. Here is another link with similar content.]

"I take away," Obama answered in a rush of words, "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 we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."

I could peck away at this keyboard all morning but this is enough to get the interested reader going. For those not familiar with Niebuhr, here is another link that might be helpful.

There is much to do, much to read and plenty to think about as the 2008 presidential selection process continues. I still think Obama's chances are that of a snowball in hell, but I sure like reading about him. In today's political climate he is a breath of fresh air.

While we're on the subject, today's Morning Edition reported Obama's appearance at the National Conference of Black Mayors, along with the rest of the candidates for whom this was a don't-miss event. They noted that Obama's handlers "carefully stage-managed his appearance." Event organizers moved his appearance to a different venue altogether, much larger because of the anticipated greater interest, and they were correct.

His message to that audience was more along the lines of Bill Cosby's than other putative black leaders playing the victim card.

He talked about healing wounds in the Black community and strengthening families. He said that government can do some of the work but individuals must step up. "Too many fathers think that responsibility ends at conception, when they have not yet realized that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one. We know there are families that are in crisis. That's a self-inflicted wound."

That kind of talk takes as much courage as raising a child.
Maybe more. Especially when you are a black candidate seeking votes speaking to a black audience. That's what I call real leadership. He's raising the bar.


Anonymous said...

that is all it takes for you yo consider a person a leader. at this juncture real leadership and change would be for him to cooperate with senator Clinton and accept the v.p. position,then run for the presidency in 2016

Hoots said...

Interesting comment that may look better in the future than right now. It may also have read better six months ago...but at this moment, with the race for the nomination at full throttle and the Obama campaign looking like the winner, he would look like a wimp, not a leader.