Niebuhr, Carter and Obama Understand History as “a larger realm of Mystery”

by James M. Wall      

Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on former President Jimmy Carter has been evident throughout Carter’s political career. That influence is even more pronounced in Carter’s post-presidency.

Carter is a political realist who understands, and acts on, Niebuhr’s concept of the irony of history . William Dean, a retired faculty member at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, was moved recently to write about Barack Obama’s potential as the second president with a working knowledge of Niebuhrian realism. Dean describes Niebuhr this way:

Niebuhr looked long and hard at history and claimed to see what the Bible did.  He saw a record of personal and group pride so appalling and unremitting that it should cause us to distrust every nation and every leader, and every politician and preacher who glorifies them.  That same skepticism should also be directed at the rest of us, who regularly exaggerate our virtue and diminish our vice.  

And yet for Niebuhr, pessimism without hope is just as wrong as pride.  Why hope?  Because there is a redemptive spirit operating in history that encourages nations and people to do better than their history and pride alone would permit.  History, said Niebuhr, is informed by “a larger realm of Mystery.”

In recent months the Niebuhrian-Obama connection has been the subject of several columns and blog postings. Dean found one of those connections in the New York Times.

In the spring of 2007, conservative political columnist David Brooks met Senator Obama on the run.  “Yesterday evening,” Brooks writes, “I was interviewing Barack Obama and we were talking about effective foreign aid programs in Africa. His voice was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they’re afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on.

“Out of the blue I asked, ‘Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?’

“Obama’s tone changed. ‘I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.’   So I asked, ‘What do you take away from him?’ Obama answered in a rush of words:

“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. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Brooks then wrote, “My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History.” 

Monte Bute has been writing on the Niebuhr-Obama connection in his blog. He recently cited a Martin E. Marty posting in a Washington Post blog:

The election of Barack Obama says—about America and to the world—that it is open to “realistic hope” and “hopeful realism.” Those two two-word phrases paraphrase themes from the mid-century theological great, Reinhold Niebuhr. I mention him because President-Elect Obama is influenced by him and quotes him (as did President Jimmy Carter, the other theologically literate president of our time). . . .

I am singling out the combinations of “hope” and “realism” because the nation and the world needs a dose of hope, and hope has been a main theme of Obama the author, who used the word in a book title, and who accurately sensed the need and a hunger for hope. . . . 

. . . “Realistic hope” is a caution against utopianism, naive idealism, the claiming of bragging rights, or politically “not knowing to come in out of the rain.” As author, community organizer, law school professor, state and U.S. senator, and presidential primary candidate, Senator Obama tirelessly invoked and promoted hope–and always coupled his invocation and promotion with cautions. We hear it all the time: righting wrongs and charting new courses in a dangerous world and with a destroyed economy allows no chance to relax and sit back. . . .

Monte Bute notes that from the 1930s through the 1960s, Niebuhr was arguably the nation’s most influential theologian and political theorist. He disappeared from public sight, and until 911, was a largely forgotten theologian and intellectual leader. Bute says that since 911, Niebuhr has attracted attention from many scholars and pundits.  Offering a guide to the complexity of Niebuhr’s thinking, Bute suggests in his blog:

No single work of Niebuhr’s does justice to the range and depth of his unique fusion of religious faith and power politics. Nevertheless, if you are among those many readers of the past two generations who have never made the acquaintance of Pastor Niebuhr, The Irony of American History is the place to start. . . . 

What is perennial about Niebuhr is a style of thought—and his ironic mind is most evident in the first and last chapters. In the alpha and the omega, he sketches an existential drama that is born of the human condition. Niebuhr appropriates the ideas of tragedy, pathos and irony to portray three enduring theories of human nature and destiny. With Abraham Lincoln as his exemplar, the preacher casts his lot with irony: The evil in human history is regarded as the consequence of man’s wrong use of his unique capacities. The wrong use is always due to some failure to recognize the limits of his capacities of power, wisdom and virtue. Man is an ironic creature because he forgets that he is not simply a creator but also a creature.

An American president has the unique capacity and enormous power to do good. At the same time, the president has the unique capacity and power to do evil. What has made Jimmy Carter a practicing Niebuhrian is his deep awareness of that internal reality, good and evil in constant conflict.

In his post presidency, Carter acts on this awareness with a zeal of a man eager to solve problems. It is not a retirement of leisure he has chosen. He and his partner and wife, Rosalynn, do the heavy lifting.  It is not glamourous to wade into the jungles of Africa to do battle with a scourge like the guinea worm.

In February of 2007, Jimmy Carter told Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times: “I’m determined to live long enough to see no cases of Guinea worm anywhere in the world.” The Carters are close to their goal. The Carter Center reported earlier this month that the guinea worm is almost eliminated.

Carter feels that it is his responsibility to utilize his post-presidency prestige to encourage leaders of other nations to combat the evils they confront. 

He risked his prestige to confront Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians by writing a game-changing book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. He was viciously attacked by supporters of Israel, including the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg. This does not deter him. He know it is his responsibility to address the damage the occupation does to both Israelis and Palestinians. 

Carter has written a sequel, scheduled for publication around the time of Obama’s inauguration.

As a former president, Carter insists on speaking truth to those currently in power. With President Bush seated nearby (and on camera), Carter spoke at Coretta Scott King’s funeral and excoriated the practice of wire tapping of American citizens, an illegal practice used against both of the Kings. 

Carter will soon monitor another Middle East election, this time in Lebanon, ignoring a refusal from Hezbollah, one of the parties involved in the election, to meet with him on a recent trip there. (Hezbollah will, however, welcome Carter’s team of monitors to Lebanon in February.)

Carter has criticized the Bush Administration, Israel and the European Union for failing to honor the results of the last election he monitored in 2006, which Hamas won over the US-Israel backed Fatah party in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Barack Obama has promised Carter that he will pursue a realistic path in the Middle East. When these two Niebuhrians start talking the language of realism, the world has good reason to hope. Behind that hope is the realization that the two presidents understand, with Niebuhr, that history is informed by “a larger realm of Mystery”.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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1 Response to Niebuhr, Carter and Obama Understand History as “a larger realm of Mystery”

  1. Elam Nunnally says:

    VERY interesting and informative. Thank you. Elam

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