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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: David Brooks' NYT Op-Ed on "Obama's Christian Realism" 
16th-Dec-2009 11:54 pm
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.
17th-Dec-2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
I never liked Obama better than in his West Point and Oslo speeches. He really impressed me with them.

I too would be interested to see more of the "Religious Left." As someone who was raised in a world where it wasn't a major player, and in a family that strongly identifies itself with the Religious Right, it's been an interesting (and frustrating) journey to try to even put together what an idea of a "Religious Left" would be and whether or not it would attract me. (As it is, I've spent most of my time trailing around a few select Republicans who are a bit more socially moderate and think (occasionally) outside of the Religious Right box, like my [recently-converted-to-Catholicism] Sen. Sam Brownback.)

I have a few friends who are trying to sort of live out the concept, I think, but what I've found interesting is that are by and large the sorts of people who wouldn't like the label "Religious Left" because they prefer to think of themselves as operating independent of any "ideology", probably because they are painfully aware that they are outcasts of both "sides". (They're also generally Orthodox, or emergent church Protestants...?) They denounce the polarization of politics the way that you do, but persist in such persecuted ideoogical individualism ("I don't fit any categories; political ideologies are useless and stupid human constructs; I like religion but I also love the poor") that it's hard to see how they could ever be motivated to form a united front.

The Religious Left definitely needs some kind of strong leader to rally to, to give them a creed, but that is actually, I suppose, a more roundabout way of getting to a point that is more obvious for other reasons. And while I don't really feel like Obama is about to turn into that leader any time soon, it's at least really great to see this kind of thoughtful rhetoric taking the stage again.

Edited at 2009-12-17 04:42 pm (UTC)
17th-Dec-2009 06:31 pm (UTC)
No, I certainly agree that Obama isn't going to be such a leader, nor ought the President be such. One leader cannot make such a political/philosophical reality: you certainly don't see anything like that in the "Religious Right."

When I wish for a "Religious Left," that's not because I myself particularly want to be identified with such. In the same way that I couldn't stay part of Evangelicalism because I took seriously their encouragement to look at Scripture seriously, and didn't find the Evangelical theology of Scripture within Scripture, so also I cannot fit easily into the American Left because I take as a positive trait the presence of diversity in the American republic. And for all their rallying around "diversity" as an ideal, the intellectual and cultural Left in America (and Europe, I suppose) has turned "diversity" into an ideological monolith – a single, all-consuming ideological framework that tolerates no other worldviews than its own. Everyone has to be diverse in exactly the same way.

I am particularly sensitive to this in education, having especially been an observer of Catholic education in the United States, and Christian education in a wider sense, and have seen the pressure put on educational institutions of a religious nature to conform to Secularist ideological imperatives, usually expressed under the pretext of protecting diversity. The morphing of that ethical language from the Civil Rights movement, where the churches took the lead in promoting American diversity in ethnic matters, has now become a language with respect to philosophy, as far as I can tell, where "accepting diversity" is synonymous accepting Secularist ideology over and against any sort of religious self-definition.

But true diversity is the acceptance and tolerance of incompatible worldviews in the belief that a democratic republic of the American sort, which is really still a difficult experiment in this world (for all that Americans often mistakenly believe that it's easy). The Left, as far as I can tell, has fallen back into the thinking that characterized antiquity in the Roman Empire, and much of the Middle Ages, too: that a nation can only achieve unity with one religious perspective. For the Romans it was paganism; in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, Catholic hegemony was taken for granted; in the Left descended from the French Revolution and not the American Revolution, it is militant Secularism. The Left in America has gone European and has forgotten or abandoned the insight and success of the American Revolution, and forgotten the strength that can come from encouraging the co-habitation of religion with democracy. With dogmatically labeling religion as "conservative" and forgetting that there is just as naturally a Religious Left, our American Left is immunizing itself against any other (diverse) perspectives.

Part of the genius of Catholicism has been the ability to nurture diverse theologies within one organizational Church. Today it is the "Left and Right," as too many people align theology with the prevailing political polarization. In earlier Modernity, it was Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit theologies engaged in internal conflict within the Church. I noted this stuff above simply because I see the long-term or "big picture" health in the American republic in nurturing the interplay and potentials within a more truly diverse interchange of perspectives. Myself, though, I find the theological orientations of Left and Right to be unhelpful and outdated.
19th-Dec-2009 06:01 pm (UTC)
I meant to comment on this before but couldn't quite think of what to say; it was good food for thought for me.

I don't really identify as "left" or "right," though if I had to choose, these days, perhaps I'd lean more towards the former. It's increasingly difficult to see how there is much of anything religious, or at least Christian, about the hard right, other than the rhetoric they use to drum up voters (before they betray them). And yet there are so many flashes of intolerance on the left when it comes to religious voters -- which is incredible to me, in a country like America, with only two parties and a population that is so religious or religiously rooted -- that it's hard to feel at home there.

I'm really just the "religious" part, and I don't think President Obama is looking to be that kind of leader, but I also don't doubt that his faith means something to him in the way he views the world and serves as our head of state.

I was also impressed by his Oslo speech, but then, I'm also in the camp that has generally been impressed with most of his speeches, even when I do not agree 100%.
22nd-Dec-2009 02:08 am (UTC)
I forgot to say: I'm glad this one gave you some chewy thought – I've been woefully unable all year to come up with anything as good as the Colin Firth story.
22nd-Dec-2009 02:28 am (UTC)
Dude, how do you think I feel? I've met Colin Firth and I fear it's all downhill from here. ;)
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