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Obama "Preacher In Chief" at Prayer Breakfast

Message James Wall
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Reprinted from Wallwritings

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892--1971)
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892--1971)
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President Obama's speech at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast February 5, was not a speech. It was a sermon. "Those fortunate to see the speech witnessed President Obama as Preacher in Chief."

This critique was rendered by Egberto Willies, a Contributing Editor for Daily KOS. In good sermonic form, Obama proclaimed:

"Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

The president's critics, including "Republican pundits, and GOP presidential candidates have attempted to force the President to equate the religion of Islam with atrocities perpetrated in Islam's name."

The President emphasized that "it is the people perpetrating the heinous acts and not the religion that must be condemned."

The full text of Obama's speech is available at A four-minutes video of the speech excerpts may be viewed here.

Daily Kos' Willies described the right wing post-breakfast reaction to Obama's speech:

"Pundits started hyperventilating. Tucker Carlson claimed the President was telling Christians they had no right to judge ISIS as they also have blood on their hands. Likely GOP Primary Presidential candidate Ben Carson said he felt betrayed by the President."

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took a more scholarly path in his appraisal of Obama in his column, "Obama The Theologian." Douthat found the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr (pictured above) permeating President Obama's Prayer Breakfast speech.

"More than most presidents, [Obama] has tried to incorporate one of Niebuhr's insights into his public rhetoric: the idea that no society is innocent, and that Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection."

After acknowledging with faint praise, Obama's Niebuhrian credentials, Douthat proceeds to argue that a single speech does not provide sufficient time to explain to his public how he draws on Niebuhrian thought to confront complex political decision-making.

He finds problems with Obama's use of Niebuhr, the first of which "is that presidents are not historians nor theologians, and in political rhetoric it's hard to escape from over simplification."

"You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy 'Islam violent, Christianity peaceful' binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between the Islamic State's reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multi century story of medieval Christendom's conflict with Islam."

Unfortunately, Douthat leaves little room for serious theological reflection ever registering an impact on political decision-making.

Niebuhr's influence on Obama was noted in a lengthy 2010 CNN article tracing Niebuhr's emergence as a major theological figure. His influence touched many:

"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."

Niebuhr quote
Niebuhr quote
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Gustav Niebuhr, a grand nephew of Reinhold's, says that in his speeches the president avoids moral absolutes: "The U.S. is not always right, and its enemies are not always evil."

Niebuhr saw his great-uncle's attitude embedded in Obama's speech to the Arab world in Cairo, Egypt, when Obama acknowledged U.S. involvement in helping overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran during the 1950s and avoided "clash of civilizations" rhetoric that implied that the U.S. is free of moral taint.

New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks gave Obama's Prayer Breakfast speech high marks during a Meet the Press panel, February 8.

Brook's admiration of Obama's use of Niebuhr was a surprising contrast to two other, less conservative, Meet the Press panelists, Jon Meacham and Andrea Mitchell.

Jon Meacham is currently executive editor and executive vice president at Random House. He is a former editor-in-chief of Newsweek, and the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.

Andrea Mitchell is the NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent. Brooks is both a columnist for The New York Times and a commentator on the PBS NewsHour.

Egberto Willies reported, "When [Moderator] Chuck Todd asked if politicians can have the debate [on American sins and humility]," Brooks answered:

"I am totally pro Obama on this. I think he said the right thing. It was a gospel of humility. What sorts of people need a little gospel of humility? People in Washington, pundits, religious believers -- I happen to be all three of those things -- and so we are told to walk humbly in the path, that the Lord's paths are mysterious."

Mitchell and Meacham shied away entirely from any serious discussion of the theological issues raised by Obama.

Willies called Mitchell's comments on the panel, "simply ludicrous."

"She does not believe the prayer breakfast is a place to speak truth. 'You don't use the word Crusade in any context right now. It's too fraught,' Andrea Mitchell said. 'And the week after a [Jordanian] pilot is burned alive and a video shown, you don't lean over backward to be philosophical about the sins of the fathers.'"

In other words, Willies observes of Mitchell, "You have to deal with issues that are in front of you or don't deal with it at all." In this way, Mitchell ignores "the sins that indirectly impact or have impacted all that is occurring in the world."

Willies is especially hard on Meacham, writing about the former Newsweek editor who...

"...seems to believe that atrocities in the name of Christ ended with the Crusades. He forgot the savagery Christianity inflicted on Native Americans from the tip of South America, the Caribbean, Central America, to North America."

Brooks is not new to the Obama-Niebuhrian beat. In the conservative Christian periodical, First Things, Ronald E. Osborn writes about Barack Obama's understanding and utilization of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought.

Osborn begins with Obama's December 10, 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in which Obama "offered a vigorous defense of the just war tradition in response to problems of evil and injustice in the world."

In his Nobel speech, Osborn writes, Obama "offered a moral vision that closely followed, without any direct reference, the ideas of perhaps the most influential American theologian of the twentieth century."

He then refers to "a much cited 2007 New York Times article, [in which] David Brooks wrote that he had asked then-Senator Obama an off-the-cuff question: Had he ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?"

"I love him," Obama replied. "He's one of my favorite philosophers." He then proceeded, Brooks reported, to discuss the theologian's ideas with great enthusiasm and incision.

In the years since that strong endorsement of Obama's theological acumen, David Brooks has found few opportunities to repeat his enthusiasm for Obama's decision-making in complex foreign and domestic policy issues from a man who has absorbed the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr.

The 2015 Prayer Breakfast gave him that opportunity. Brooks did not falter. He gave Obama the right amount of credit for trying to deal with political issues from a perspective of Christian realism.

President Obama has two years remaining in which to make the morally ambiguous decisions a president must make. His 2015 Prayer Breakfast sermon suggests he knows how he wants to handle those decisions.

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James Wall served as a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois, from 1999 through 2017. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Many sources have influenced (more...)

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