Director’s note: This week, the conversation on ecclesio.com is on The Irony of Barack Obama: Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft (Ashgate, 2012) by R. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson. Holder and Josephson both serve on the faculty of St. Anselm College, Manchester, NH. Josephson is a political scientist; Holder is a church historian. Together, they have produced a study of President Barack Obama’s engagement with the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the best-known theologian in the US in the 20th century, and someone Obama has named as “my favorite philosopher”. In this first installment of our conversation, we discuss the reasons why a church historian and political theorist would engage in such a study together, and what it means to try to craft an American foreign and domestic policy informed by Niebuhr’s Christian realism.
Cynthia Holder Rich (CHR): I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about your work. I enjoyed your book; it made me think a lot. To start, what drew the two of you to this subject matter, and what was the idea of bringing a political scientist and a church historian could work together on this subject?
Peter Josephson (PJ): I think we would have slightly different answers to that question. Ward suggested the idea to me, some years ago – maybe three or four years ago, it seems. My initial answer was no – because that’s not what I do. I am a political theorist and I work in the early modern period – 17th c England – and I try to stay away from contemporary politics because I find them pretty ugly. But Ward was persistent, and he persuaded me that actually this is related to the research I’m doing on Locke and Hobbes, that is my concern especially is about the relationship between philosophy and politics – between theory and practice. And this was an opportunity to examine that dynamic in a cont setting.
I actually have a friend in the Philosophy Department here at St. Anselm, who took me aside as we were beginning the project, and he said, “You know, you can’t do this. I don’t understand how this is even possible.” And I said, “If all of our study of philosophy and political theory actually accomplishes what we say it accomplishes, then we ought to be able to apply it, and we ought to be able to make certain predictions about it and we ought to be able to make evaluations about a contemporary situation. So it was really that very broad, meta-theme that drew me to the project. I had very little awareness of Niebuhr, and as I said I try very hard not to spend much time in the cont world at all. But if in that respect, it’s been very positive and fruitful experience, because here we have this great theologian, whose political thought is very much about the distance between a theory of justice and the practice of justice. And here we have a politician who is really struggling to put that theory into practice. That’s what drew me to the project originally.
CHR: Did the conversation begin during the Obama presidency?
R. Ward Holder (RWH): My take on that is that Peter and I both teach at a small enough university that it doesn’t matter if you serve in different departments – you will get to know people across the board. And so, Peter and I had sat together at social gatherings and said, “You know, we should teach a course together sometime – something on religion and politics – and in the abstract, this sounded like a good idea to us both. We talked about this for some time…and then Obama won, and after the election but before the inauguration, the idea struck me that Obama had talked about Niebuhr, and thus, instead of doing a general sort of course on religion and politics, we could take this on as a book and do this in a more narrow form, using the perfect example of a politician who is using theological thought. Can we tease this out, and if that’s significant, can we see if the thoughts we have together come to anything more than a classroom experience? There are, as you know, there are a lot of theologians who look at Niebuhr – especially ethicists. There are actually some politic science scholars who work with Niebuhr as well. But there are very few who try to put serious study from a theological standpoint and serious study from a political standpoint together. And nobody has been doing it while trying to understand Obama, and his claim of Niebuhr as some kind of influence on him; so, as we continued our work, it became clear that we were doing something unique, and, we thought, an important part of what should be the public conversation, not only about Barack Obama, but about how religion and theology should impact the public conversation about policy and politics.
PJ: If I could add something to that – Ward mentioned that there are a few political theorists who pay attention to Niebuhr, and there are a few. But very few who apply a serious theological approach to understanding Niebuhr in relation to contemporary policy. Ward is right about that. What we discovered, and the big story, really, of our research, is that the reason so few political theorists look at this has to do with a kind of decline of Christianity among scholars on the left; and one of the big stories, really, is the work of some Democrats, including Obama, to attempt to resuscitate a Christian politics that is suitable to the Democratic party. This is a story that goes largely unobserved – not entirely, there are some who look at it – but it goes unobserved, I think, because of the preconceptions of the political theorists who are studying the political landscape.
CHR: To get into your book – I was quite interested in your chapter on Realism and Moral Purpose in American Foreign Policy. Where is the faith of Obama in the formation of foreign policy, or is Obama’s faith an issue in the formation of foreign policy, as you see it?
PJ: Yes, I think it is. I think Obama’s thinking about foreign policy – I’m quite sure that not all of his thinking is sort of structured into a template of Niebuhrian Christianity – I think Niebuhr’s Christian realism is an important influence in Obama’s thought and policy formation, but I’m also pretty sure that the problems he’s addressing often and even usually have to simply be addressed as they arise. Although I know that Obama is aware of issues of development and structuralism and so on, and I’m sure that that understanding also informs his thinking on foreign policy, our approach in the chapter is to look at the administration’s foreign policy from a study of American foreign policy, rather than from the perspective of policy in the countries that we are dealing with. So we don’t really take the development or structuralist approach.
Having said that, Obama does a very interesting thing in his policy, and it’s something that I’m not sure Niebuhr, in the end, would really approve of. Obama did this once, and I thought, well, you’re allowed once, and then he did it about four more times. His advisors started saying it, and I thought, wow, that’s really serious. It is that he tends to conflate American interests with morality in a way that Niebuhr is actually pretty critical of. So Obama will almost typically say that if we conduct our foreign policy n the right way, there won’t be any conflict between the pursuit of our interests and the pursuit of our ideals. in that sense, I think that Niebuhr would be critical, but in that sense there is also an orientation of Obama’s policy around his moral concern. In other words, it’s not simply a realist foreign policy.
RWH: If I can jump in on that, we always end in some kind of argument that comes to a half conclusion. There is a Niebuhrian cast to Obama’s conflation of interest and value, or interest and ideal. I think Obama has taken seriously Niebuhr’s aphorism that “justice which is only justice becomes less than justice”. And so, his way of doing this is probably not Niebuhrian, by his conflating of interest and values. An excellent example is the decision to go into Libya, and his explanation to America why this was good and necessary. But it becomes, not strangely paradoxically, an attempt to find a Niebuhrian end with means that Niebuhr would, at the very least, frowned upon, and perhaps just bluntly denied all possibility for.
CHR: In this chapter you are dealing with ethics and national identity. An issue that both Obama and Niebuhr struggle with, and that most politicians struggle with in the US, is that part of our national identity is that we are the “good people”. America is seen by most Americans as those who do good in the world. I was struck in this chapter by the comparison you draw the Christian (for example, Martin Luther King, who Obama respects and also states he has to take stances and be concerned with matters which King did not) and the statesman. I wonder, from your reading, is a Christian to be significantly understood as a private person? To be a statesman is clearly a public space, but it seems you are setting up a dichotomy here. Is Christianity, thus a private activity?
PJ: I would tend to say yes. If we pick up the cube there’s another way to look at this, but as a political theorist, there’s the usual comparison between public and private. Even going back to pre-Christian thought, the distinction between public obligation, that is, obligations to the public community, and what are usually treated as private obligations, either obligations to oneself or one’s family, also, even among pre-Christian thinkers, also are those things that extend beyond the private sphere, like obligations to humanity, for example. So to that extent I think the public/private dichotomy does make sense.
There is, later in the book a slightly different distinction – between the statesman and the prophet. The prophet isn’t really private – and yet what the prophet asserts is not the public morality, or the nation’s morality. There’s a sense in which MLK is asserting – as Obama treats him in his Nobel Peace Prize speech – King is asserting something different than the public morality or the national morality, and we can describe that a private moral concern. There’s another sense in which we can call that prophetic, and therefore, public in a different way.
RWH: In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, Obama is quintessentially a child of Niebuhr. This isn’t original with us, by the way – many commentators noted that the speech was very Niebuhrian. Niebuhr makes the argument – he’s not a systematic theologian in the sense of covering all topics. Niebuhr doesn’t really take on how someone becomes a Chistian. Had he done so, I think he would have, under a kind of Jamesian personalism, been – one comes to faith through a model of the individual. It is in community, it is incarnated in community – someone has said God has no grandchildren. I believe Niebuhr stands there. So on the one hand there’s this private coming to faith, and on the other hand Niebuhr never allows that private faith as not having public impact and implications. So the believer who has arrived at at Christian faith has a moral and Christian command to engage in the world.
PJ: There’s a kind of classic story in that too – it comes up in popular culture a lot as well, and it’s something that I think and hope Obama is aware of, and that is the tragic character of the choice to be a statesman. By that I don’t only mean that every act of a statesman is embroiled in paradox, and for every good we produce there is some concomitant evil that is also produced. I mean that in placing the public concern first, there is a private cost to one’s own soul. It’s a really interesting choice.
Peter Josephson is Associate Professor of Politics at Saint Anselm College. He teaches in the Politics, Humanities, and Philosophy departments. He received his B.A. in Russian and Soviet Studies from Oberlin College, his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire, and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston College, where he was a recipient of the Boston College Excellence in Teaching Award. His scholarly work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Earhart Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Josephson is the author of The Great Art of Government: Locke’s Use of Consent, co-author with R. Ward Holder of The Irony of Barack Obama: Reinhold Niebuhr, Barack Obama, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft, as well as works on politics and popular culture, and the writings of Henry Kissinger. His current research explores the relation between philosophy and classical liberal politics.
R. Ward Holder is a historical theologian and professor of theology at Saint Anselm College. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has taught at Boston College and Stonehill College before going to Saint Anselm College. He has authored John Calvin and the Grounding of Biblical Interpretation: Calvin’s First Commentaries, Brill, 2006; and Crisis and Renewal:The Era of the Reformations, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. He has edited Reformation Readings of Romans, with Kathy Ehrensperger, T. & T. Clark, 2008; and A Companion to Paul in the Reformation, Brill, 2009. His current work focuses on the intersection of faith and politics.