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Theological Notebook: David Brooks' NYT Op-Ed on "Obama's Christian Realism"

I am always interested to see something of this sort appear in The New York Times. I think it very important for the political health of the United States to encourage the re-emergence of what in the last generation was called the "Religious Left." One of the real problems in American politics has been the loss from the late 1960s from what had been the American interpretation of the Enlightenment, which allowed for the free expression of religion as a key component in American politics. (See Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy In America for the classical insight into that dynamic.) With the emergence of the New Left in the late 1960s, a shift was made to a more French Revolution interpretation of the Enlightenment, with its secularizing, dogmatic opposition to the public expression of religion and spirituality. While the Left in America today makes an icon of Martin Luther King, Jr., I doubt there is any way that the current Left would allow King to remain primarily faith-based in his political expression and motivation: he would either be pressured to change his expression and approach, or he would be rejected as having "become" a conservative, even though it was really the American Left that shifted on this matter.

I think that this is a matter of concern in American politics for the simple reason that it is this hostile and repressive Left that more than anything else causes the rise of fundamentalist politics in the United States. Were "religion" allowed to express itself across the whole of the American political spectrum as it used to, in wide varieties, there wouldn't be this forced concentration of "religion in politics" on the American Right. But as the Left has grown more militant about such things, they caused the migration of most people of belief toward the only political party that allowed them to express their political views as coming from whatever their worldview happened to be, religious or no. (The deepest irony of all of this is that this ideological hostility to other worldviews in politics understands and proclaims itself to be in the interest of "diversity.")

So I was interested the other year to hear Howard Dean, when he was Chair of the Democratic National Committee, say on Meet The Press that during his time in office he really wanted to try to open up the Democratic Party to people of faith once again, acknowledging that the marginalizing of such voices had done little good in building broad consensuses for Democratic initiatives in American politics. (People don't seem to remember today that until that secularlizing shift in the 1970s, American Evangelicals were a Democratic voting block, for example.) To see President Obama being analyzed in these classic 20th century American categories in The New York Times is therefore interesting as a step toward re-creating some of that wider, more diverse, and (dare I say?) more liberal conversation in the contemporary American Left. The liberalism of Kennedy's day expressed itself as the consensus-making alliances among people of diverse worldviews, in the formula "Protestant, Catholic, Jew." That early 1960s liberalism is now more likely to be labeled "Neo-Conservatism," despite Democratic iconography still appealing to Kennedy and King. Myself, I think that America can do nothing but profit from that most dangerous of diversities: diversities of thought and worldview.

Op-Ed Columnist
Obama’s Christian Realism

Published: December 14, 2009

If you were graduating from Princeton in the first part of the 20th century, you probably heard the university president, John Hibben, deliver one of his commencement addresses. Hibben’s running theme, which was common at that time, was that each person is part angel, part devil. Life is a struggle to push back against the evils of the world without succumbing to the passions of the beast lurking inside.

You might not have been paying attention during the speech, but as you got older a similar moral framework was floating around the culture, and it probably got lodged in your mind.

You, and others of your era, would have been aware that there is evil in the world, and if you weren’t aware, the presence of Hitler and Stalin would have confirmed it. You would have known it is necessary to fight that evil.

At the same time, you would have had a lingering awareness of the sinfulness within yourself. As the cold war strategist George F. Kennan would put it: “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.”

So as you act to combat evil, you wouldn’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting.

As a matter of policy, you would have thought it wise to constrain your own power within institutions. America should fight the Soviet Union, but it should girdle its might within NATO. As Harry Truman said: “We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.”

And you would have championed the spread of democracy, knowing that democracy is the only system that fits humanity’s noble yet sinful nature. As the midcentury theologian Reinhold Niebuhr declared: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

You would, in short, have been a cold war liberal.

Cold war liberalism had a fine run in the middle third of the 20th century, and it has lingered here and there since. Scoop Jackson kept the flame alive in the 1970s. Peter Beinart wrote a book called “The Good Fight,” giving the tendency modern content.

But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. Some blamed conflicts on weapons systems and pursued arms control. Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for. If Bush was an idealistic nation-builder, they became Nixonian realists.

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.

Obama’s race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln’s second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: “I take away 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.”

His speeches at West Point and Oslo this year are pitch-perfect explications of the liberal internationalist approach. Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

More than usual, he talked about the high ideals of the human rights activists and America’s history as a vehicle for democracy, prosperity and human rights. He talked about America’s “strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” Most of all, he talked about the paradox at the core of cold war liberalism, of the need to balance “two seemingly irreconcilable truths” — that war is both folly and necessary.

He talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.

Obama has not always gotten this balance right. He misjudged the emotional moment when Iranians were marching in Tehran. But his doctrine is becoming clear. The Oslo speech was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 15, 2009, on page A41 of the New York edition.
Tags: america, constitutional, new york times, philosophical, political, theological notebook

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