Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

One of the most important elements of Obama’s pragmatism is the sense that “hope” can only be “realistic” if it wishes to be more than wishful thinking and whistling in the dark, just as much as “realism” without “hope” leads principally nowhere, but merely brutally affirms whatever is and only strengthens the powers that be. This may sound trivial, a platitude, but it is not. After all, the least one can say of any truism is that it has, well, truth to it. And, in matters political—but, perhaps, not only there—insight into the paradoxical, some would say aporetic, relationship between the ideal and the real holds the key to all. It all depends on what one gives prevalence, when and where and how. No political calculation can do this trick (and keep idealism from turning into “naïve idealism” or realism into “bitter realism”), nor is instinct its sound alternative. The expression “deep pragmatism” captures nicely what is at work and required here. So much for the truism.

But where does “deep pragmatism” originate and from where does it draw its strength? It has been noted that Obama in his inspirational rhetoric and overall view of the political and policies draws much less on the legacy of the civil rights movement, of Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention Malcolm X (of whom he speaks admiringly, yet with certain reservations, in Dreams From My Father), with their insistence on human dignity and the overcoming of victimization, than he does on the thought of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It is Niebuhr, together with Saint Augustine and, less often, Paul Tillich and some of the so-called liberation theologians, who shape Obama’s subtle take on the intermingling of the religious and the public, the theological and the political, and, especially, on their intrinsic limits and potential pitfalls.

True enough, as an adolescent Obama had quenched his thirst for understanding his place in the complicated ethnic and racial landscape of the United States by reading Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, Du Bois, and Malcolm X—a list to which he would add Toni Morrison as well as the multivolume biography by Taylor Branch of Dr. King and the civil rights struggles—but it is clear that none of these authors would come to determine his overall take on political things at its deepest and most pragmatic level. Niebuhr, perhaps more than anyone else, did.

In an interview with David Brooks in April 2007, Obama gave an interesting impromptu response:

[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] 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 that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

Where does this leave the dimension of “depth” of which I spoke earlier? In what sense can religion—and especially “Christian Realism,” as Niebuhr defines it—give perspective to a public domain that, under the conditions of secular modernity (or modern secularity), seems premised on a principle of neutrality or methodological atheism, guided as it is by what Charles Taylor, in his recent book A Secular Age, calls an “immanent frame” of thought? To what extent can a religious realism, not just respect, back up and orient the cultural sensibilities and practical responsibilities that mark our time at its most critical junctures? Further, in what way can it guide us through the dangers of the present post-Cold War world, whose global economic and political, military and ecological, conflicts and challenges are increasingly unpredictable? As long as the necessary international institutional instruments for conflict resolution are either not yet in place or not functioning as they should and were expected to, what ought to be the guidelines and the operative principles, if not the “blueprint,” for a “progressive” presidency as it must, finally, seek to put political liberalism on a firmer footing, precisely by exposing it to wider and especially deeper horizons than the “immanent frame” is ready to acknowledge?

These questions are largely absent from the otherwise impressive volume Change For America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President. Timothy Garton Ash discusses the “worldwide conceptual cacophony” concerning the term “liberalism,” suggesting that its “vital, never-ending debate is not just over its indispensable ingredients, but also over their form, proportion and relation to one another,” and claims that Obama has begun restoring “the thing,” while continuing to shun its name (which, he adds, has become a pejorative term in the United States since the Reagan years and now seems to connote something like the “unholy marriage of big government and fornication”).

It has been rightly noted by Paul Allen that “Obama’s liberalism is not that of the perennial separation of church and state,” but that it is, instead, “born of the public implications of Christian faith, a recognition of the moral limits of the state and the individual.” The resulting conception, far from being an amalgam of irreconcilable strands of thought and everything but a “confused theology,” yields a coherent position which parts ways with secular humanism and its institutional and dispositional equivalents in political and cultural matters (so-called liberalism and progressive modernism being among them), just as it keeps its distance from the dictates and mindset of the Religious Right, from the perverse mixture of American exceptionalism and cynical realism of so-called neoconservatism that influenced the George W. Bush administration, and even from the alternative ideology, still in the making, that has been attributed to the “Millennial Youth” or “Generation We” who were among his staunchest supporters. Again, there is a deeper sense of the tragic or, as Niebuhr preferred to say, “ironic” fate of American history that is steeped, in part, in the Biblical idea of original sin even though it is elaborated in more heterodox terms as well, and that espouses a thorough pragmatism in the adjustment of ideas and theories—including those of theology—to the factual givens of the world of political and international affairs. In this sense, Obama’s political theology steers clear of all moralism and that, precisely, is its “realism.” In Allan’s words:

Thanks to Niebuhr, Obama has thought about the human condition, in terms of our shared nature and sin, categories that most liberals have rebuked since before the 1960s….Obama is positioned to give the conservative idea of self-sacrifice a liberal moral meaning it has not held since John F. Kennedy. When Obama said last year that he would tell Americans, “Not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to know,” he was warming up an electorate for Niebuhr-like realism….Obama knows that liberalism cannot thrive on an ever-expanding laundry list of human rights and victimhood.

Yet it is doubtful that Obama should be seen as restoring liberalism as a value per se, rather than as set of policies to which, he feels, we have good—pragmatic—reason to adhere or, when needed, return.  And “self-sacrifice” is hardly the sole (or most important) value around which his deep pragmatism revolves in the end. A host of other motifs and motivations come to mind, but what is important is the way—and the spirit—in which they are invoked and put to work.

When confronted with skeptical reactions to the whole business of holding office at the state or national level, Obama writes, he would appeal to:

Another tradition of politics, a tradition that stretched from the days of the country’s founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.

It is a tradition based on common sense as much as one that reminds us of the insights of progressive liberalism and the social gospel. If there is a lack of agonistics in Obama’s conception of the political, it might, indeed, be found in his observation, based on travelling his state, of “just how modest people’s hopes were, and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, region, religion, and class.” It is his conviction of there being a “collective conscience” and a “common set of values that bind us together despite our differences,” indeed, “a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work.” All of them reference a “shared language” that, he is aware, has suffered under the onslaughts of the most unrelenting trends of our age: “globalization and dizzying technological change, cutthroat politics and unremitting culture wars.” In the face of such pressures, what is needed is “a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.” In other words, a new search for—and defense of—“the common good.”

What matters, however, is not that Obama was the sole candidate to invoke this other tradition in explicit terms, but that he related to it differently, just as he allowed its avowed simplicity to accrue other elements and meanings from other traditions (including religious ones). And these modes of relating to the past—its tragedies, ironies, accomplishments, and hopes—are what make his political thinking and operative style deep, but also broad and versatile, even adaptable, that is to say, pragmatic. It was no accident that, during the last campaign for the Democratic nomination and then the general election, Obama seemed to be the only candidate who was able and willing to learn and grow. The others were merely “grasping for anything that would stick.”

As Martin E. Marty, the well-known Chicago theologian and eminence grise of the history of American religion, as well as the main editor of the famous “Fundamentalism” project, noted in his contribution to the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog, Niebuhr’s conception was based on the insight that realism in and by itself leads to cynicism. Only a “realistic hope” and “hopeful realism,” Marty recalls, could, in this view, serve as “a caution against utopianism, naïve idealism, the claiming or bragging of rights.” Niebuhr’s trademark was to caution against overstating America’s role in the world, reminding his readers that one always uses evil to prevent the greater evil (and, hence, confirms the inescapable fact of human sinfulness). This insight, however, led Niebuhr to an insistence on humility, not on Christian “pessimism,” which would have all too easily become an excuse for irresponsibility.

An often cited passage from Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History underscores this view:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Niebuhr saw the tension between individualism and the need for communality, the place of American power in the world and the need to restrain it. His witnessing of the two World Wars, the Great Depression, Nazi death camps, and Soviet repression led him to the conclusion that, as a much-cited epigraph has it, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

And while there have been—blissfully—only been a few reports about what and how Obama prays, we might get close to his mindset in such private moments by reminding ourselves of the upshot of the prayer, the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” which Niebuhr claimed he authored (even though this was recently contested):

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
And the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


This may not be what most of us would be able to say or pray most of the time, nor may there be any simple translation of such lines into terms that would neutralize or dispense with the religious idioms and the undeniable orthodoxy its particular phrasing here implies. But there may well be parallel motivational utterances, like this one neither true nor false, which have the same vital origin and similar dispositional affect and effect. And if prayer, as Emerson says in “Self-Reliance,” is “the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view” (rather than the craving of “a particular commodity” or “a means to effect a private end”—all of which would be “vicious,” “meanness,” and “theft”), then it is hard to see how any politics, much less a theological politics or political theology, could ever do without it.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

[Editor’s note: This post draws from a draft chapter, entitled “Small Miracles”: The Deep Pragmatism of Obama’s Political Theology, from the SSRC’s forthcoming publication, Exploring the Post-Secular, co-edited by Philip Gorski, David Kyuman Kim, and John Torpey.]