Barack Obama is often described as some kind of Niebuhrian, a tag he has encouraged by describing Reinhold Niebuhr as a major influence on his thought. Niebuhr was a complex figure who prized ambiguity and paradox, changed his positions many times, and found his way by reacting pragmatically to events—all of which may turn out to be true of Obama. But the key to Niebuhr, and to Obama’s interest in him, is the idea of combining a realistic understanding of politics and human nature with a religiously inspired idealism. Had Niebuhr lacked the humility and intellectual flexibility to change his mind numerous times, he would not have become the leading American Christian public intellectual of the twentieth century. [...]Read the rest of Niebuhrian in the White House.
Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. An Episcopal priest, he is the author of 13 books and approximately 250 articles that range across the fields of philosophy, theology, politics, social theory, social ethics, economics, and history. His most recent book is Social Ethics in the Making (Blackwell, 2009), and his book Social Justice in Question: Economy, Difference, Empire, and Progressive Christianity is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.