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The Irony of Barack Obama, by R. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson

As Barack Obama left Ohio after a campaign appearance in July, 2012, a reporter asked a woman who had attended whether she intended to vote for the president.  “Of course not,” she replied.  When the reporter asked why, the woman responded, “I know that he’s lying and that he’s secretly a Muslim.  And I know that his plan is to destroy America.”  In the heat of an American election, many charges are made.  But to serious Christian and religious and political thinkers, this charge and its persistence is curious.  Is Barack Obama a Christian?  Is he sincere about the effect of his personal faith on his governing?  Finally, why is Obama’s Christianity so discounted by people on both the Right and the Left?

We took on these questions and several others as we researched our book, The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft.  We began with the Obama-Niebuhr connection.  Repeatedly since 2007 Obama has pointed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as a significant influence on his Christian belief and his politics.  To explore that relationship, we were forced to ask the questions about Obama’s personal faith.

Over the last quarter century Barack Obama has pursued a faith journey that demonstrates his growing comfort with expressions of his Christian faith in the public square.  As a child, Obama was not raised in a faith tradition; his mother could best be described as a secular humanist who sought to expose her son to a variety of religious experiences as points of anthropological interest.  As an adult, Obama’s experience of religion has been very different.  Beginning with his work as a community organizer with religious groups in Chicago, to his conversion to Christianity at Trinity United Church of Christ, and culminating with his insistence that “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper,” Barack Obama’s Christian faith has played an increasingly important role in both his private and public lives.  As a candidate for United States Senate in 2004, Obama always carried a Bible with him, and spent the time between campaign stops reading it.  At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he refused the Kerry campaign’s request to drop references to scripture from his keynote speech.  In his Inaugural Address, Obama turned to the apostle Paul for his inspiration.  Obama’s address to the 2011 Prayer Breakfast was a homily on Matthew 25 and the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of humanity.  As he has governed, Obama has time and again turned explicitly to Christian and biblical support for his ideals and policies.

Obama’s signature domestic policies are the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus package) and the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare).  The president promoted the stimulus package in April 2009 with a speech entitled “The New Foundation.”  Obama explained, “There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when ‘…the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house… it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.’ We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity…”  Obama laid out five pillars of this new foundation – regulation of the financial system with protections for the middle class and homeowners, investment in education, creation of a system of renewable energy, addressing health care with the aim of extending coverage, and (to make the first four possible), achieving a post-partisan culture in Washington.  Each of these he related to the parable.  For Obama, good domestic policy was about fulfilling the demands of the gospel.  The manner in which that would be accomplished was a matter of debate (he has not been averse to using the levers of power to accomplish his aims), but his goals were clear.  Thus, Obama signed financial regulation in the form of the Dodd-Frank Act.  He adopted the “Race to the Top” education program.  His administration put serious funding into the stimulus bill ($80 billion) to spur green energy and conservation initiatives.  He passed the Affordable Health Care Act.  For the first two years of his first term, Obama regularly reached across the aisle, but with practically no success.  Obama’s domestic policy stands as a testament to his Christian commitment to the “least of these.”

In every instance, Obama’s foreign policy has been marked by hard-headed Christian realism.  Disappointing to both liberal and conservative idealists, Obama maintained the course that he charted in the 2008 campaign.  Nowhere was this clearer than in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, where he set out a Niebuhrian model of the desire and love for peace, wedded to the realistic acknowledgement of the occasional necessity of force. “For make no mistake,” he said, “evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”  Obama walked the line between American triumphalism and the temptation of isolationist withdrawal.  He exercised power when such an exercise might be effective (as in Libya), and also recognized the real-world limits of American power (as in Syria).  In Afghanistan, Obama rejected demands for full-scale nation-building, and also for withdrawal to the mere security of America’s borders.

Barack Obama has clearly been steering the Democratic Party once again to have a place for progressive Christians within its ranks.  In 2008, and contrary to the policy of the previous Kerry campaign, Obama employed professional staffers to reach out to Christian voters.  He has continued the work of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, making that office central to the White House’s outreach.  At some level, this is an act of political calculation.  But in another way, this represents his own sense of the necessity of allowing religious people to come to the public square with their own deepest commitments, as he himself has done.  In a recent interview with Cathedral Age magazine, Obama said that “It is more apparent to me now than ever how integral faith is as a motivating factor for so much of what keeps our country moving forward.”  While this has not always endeared him to the secular wing of the party, it must be recognized as a sincere effort that reflects his own deep commitments.

Obama’s practice, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings, offers a specific model for the political participation of religious and Christian people in America.  This infuriates the Right and confuses the Left.  On the Right (especially the Religious Right), Obama’s actions deny the fusion of American exceptionalism and Christian righteousness that has defined the political commitment of Christians (as in the Moral Majority) in the popular media for the last two decades.  On the Left, Obama’s explicit faith foundations run counter to the principles of the separation of Church and State articulated by John F. Kennedy and embraced by the secular Left.

Our research and Obama’s decisions and explicit reasons for those decisions demonstrate that the Obama-Niebuhr connection is real and vibrant.  Obama finds support for his promotion of progressive Christian politics in Niebuhr’s work.  But Niebuhr’s Christian realism is too subtle for the sound-bite character of American politics.  Here, we see the irony of the Niebuhr-Obama dynamic.  While Niebuhr’s thought gives great sophistication and moral purpose to Obama’s governance, Niebuhr’s prophetic criticism of human (and American) pretensions to virtue might gain Obama some minds, but wins him no hearts.  As thinkers from Aristotle to Kissinger have observed, statesmanship is always a hard sell.  For Obama to succeed electorally, he must put aside the statesmanlike seriousness that strengthened his grasp on statecraft and replace it with the evangelical fervor that applauds the American virtues that may be only pretense.


Peter Josephson is Associate Professor of Politics at Saint Anselm College, where he holds the Richard L. Bready Chair in Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good. 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. He is the author of The Great Art of Government: Locke’s Use of Consent, and co-author with R. Ward Holder ofThe Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, 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 political liberalism.

R. Ward Holder is a historical theologian, and Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College.  A graduate of Cornell College and Princeton Theological Seminary, he did his doctoral work at Boston College.  Among other works, 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, 2009.  Most recently he has co-authored  with Peter B. Josephson The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft.  His current work focuses on the intersection of faith and politics.

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