Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Obama's Favorite Philosopher: Reinhold Niebuhr

Many are aware of Obama's affinity for the screeds of the pro-communist street thug Saul Alinsky [1]; his casual acquaintance with the terrorist socialites William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn [2]; and, if one is unusually curious, Obama's personal intimacy as a young Turk with the black communist poet Frank Marshall Davis.[3]

But few recognize or appreciate that beyond this cast of usual suspects there is an ideological influence on President Obama who might be even more profound. He is a man Obama called "one of his favorite philosophers": Reinhold Niebuhr.

In an interview with David Brooks entitled Obama, Gospel and Verse, then presidential candidate Obama answers the question of "what he takes away" from Niebuhr:
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “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 naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
Perhaps we would have been more fortunate if Obama had taken away from Niebuhr his famous "Serenity Prayer": "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."

Obama's answer is pretty sober stuff for a man who is renown for spouting the most sugary fluff imaginable when invoking his magic teleprompter.

What is the story behind the contrast of darkness and light in Obama's answer and the enigmatic mix of gospel and socialism that he displays? More practically speaking, does Obama's incarnation of the Niebuhrian preacher explain how he was able to garner the votes of 20% of conservatives?

The answer lay in the theologian's disparate views.

Reinhold Niebuhr's name may be obscure to the public at large, but both Christians and modern liberals include him in their pantheon of great progressives of the 20th century.

The Missouri-born protestant Reinhold Niebuhr is particularly renowned for his enigmatic and capricious views. His intellectual modularity has fueled controversy over his rightful legacy. Early in his career, he was a communist sympathizer and then an outright member of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) - like so many of Obama's other associates.

Niebuhr moved through stages of various degrees and kinds of socialist and Christian, until he supposedly rejected communism; this claim is often made based on his Cold War views (his support of "containment" and "peaceful coexistence" are hardly proof of him holding anti-communist views; as these were strategies pushed by the Soviets themselves).

The various political camps seeking the mantle of Niebuhr might be an indication as to why emulating the theologian might make pragmatic sense for an American politician like Obama.

As the religious publication The Christian Century put it: "Now and then we play a game: Which four figures would you nominate to be included in a Mount Rushmore of American religionists? Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King Jr. make most lists right off. After that there is much debate. Shouldn't we include a Catholic? A woman? But usually one of the remaining spaces is reserved for Reinhold Niebuhr, inarguably the most influential American theologian of the century past..."

A progressive blog article Niebuhrian in the White House, available on the website of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), connects Niebuhr to Obama in a way that provokes attention:
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.
Perplexingly, Reinhold Niebuhr has been claimed by conservatives as well, particularly well-known political commentator Michael Novak of National Review. In Novak's 1986 article on Niebuhr, he apologizes for Niebuhr's early Marxist leanings by saying that he "repented" after the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact became known, and he developed a stronger focus on Christ and the individual in his writings. Six years later, Novak called Niebuhr the "father of neoconservatives" and claimed that the "truest disciples of the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr are conservatives"! This is what Novak also wrote:
So it must be one of the ironies of history, of a sort in which he took pleasure, that so many who read him not only became conservatives or neoconservatives but attributed their conversion in this direction to him. They had been Marxists or liberals or social democrats, until his criticisms of sentimental, idealistic, and rational liberalism liberated them.
Novak speaks in the religionist's tongue of "conversion" when discussing Niebuhr's ability to get Marxists to have a "come to Jesus" moment. To Novak and many on the right, this makes Niebuhr, de facto, somewhat of a conservative.

Novak's confusion is not particular to him. The Christian periodical First Things cites historian Arthur Schlesinger who said that “it is currently a subject of acrid dispute between liberals and conservatives” who may rightly call Niebuhr their ideological mentor. Niebuhr's twisted past leaves his ideology open to competing interpretations, as the SSRC website demonstrates:
In his early career Niebuhr implored his fellow German-Americans to support America’s intervention in World War I. In the 1920s he became a leading pacifist advocate of Social Gospel liberalism. In the 1930s he dropped pacifism and blasted the New Deal as a militant Socialist. In the 1940s he dropped Socialism and became a leader of the Democratic Party’s “Vital Center” establishment. In the early 1950s he was a leading advocate of Cold War containment [a communism abetting policy -ed.], describing communism as an evil religion. In the late 1950s he protested that anti-communism, a just cause, had been hijacked by ideologues and militants. In the 1960s he turned against the war in Vietnam and called for a policy of peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union.
One could see why Niebuhr's chamelon-like stances, as left-leaning as they are, might lead to ideological misinterpretation. In addition to Novak's misjudment of Niebuhr, theology professor Paul Allen denies that the religious aspect of Niebuhr's thought is reflective of a leftist worldview, even as they connect Niebuhr to Obama:
Despite his socialism, Niebuhr's thought is at variance with the liberal narrative of human progress. He saw that human beings, while capable of selflessness on an individual level, are socially and politically selfish. This is why Obama's reliance on Niebuhr, fleeting though it may appear, is revealing. It means that Obama does not view his own spectacular success as a mark of human progress only. The extent to which he can communicate this belief is the extent to which Obama can identify with American society, which is skeptical of the liberal narrative of progress. Obama can meet the religious right halfway – on Christian terms, in his own Niebuhrian way.
Novak and Allen provide telling insight into how conservatives view Niebuhr, but they are wrong that religion is the exclusive province of conservatism. One might suspect that the modern American conservatives' claim that faith and religion is their mantle alone is a false assumption that results from Marxism. As Marx thought religion was merely a reflection of materialist forces and thus a form of "false consciousness," religion supposedly works to reinforce the (capitalist) status quo (as if conservatism could be a meaningful descriptor if only qualified in such fashion). The conservatives seem to have taken Marx at his word and adopted his narrative, even to the detriment of the free and lawful capitalist society (as we will see later).

But more to the point, Novak and Allen and many others on the right are wrong in believing that religion is the absolute domain of conservatism, and that God, and thus moral right, is simply "on their side." From William Jennings Bryant and his "Cross of Gold" speech to Alinsky's instrumental use of religion to the maniacal ravings of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright; from the Bohemian heretic Jan Hus to the protestants Martin Luther and John Calvin back to the radical Jew Jesus Christ, religion has been an instrumental force of "change" throughout world history.

Novak thus couldn't be more wrong in his estimate of Niebuhr as a "man of the Left" and yet a model for conservatives, and on two counts: The Burkean and the free market capitalist. To be explicit, I am openly associating a free market with the heritage of the U.S. Constitution, and rejecting the easily refutable insinuation by religious conservatives that our government, as founded, is any form of a Christian theocracy. [4]

The palpably religious conservative Edmund Burke, in one passage in Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), provides stark insight into the pernicious intermingling of religion and politics (quoted at length due to its eloquence, brilliance and topicality; emphases my own):

"A non-conforming minister of eminence, preached, at the dissenting meeting house...to his club or society, a very extraordinary miscellaneous sermon, in which there are some good moral and religious sentiments, and not ill expressed, mixed up in a sort of porridge of various political opinions and reflections; but the Revolution... is the grand ingredient in the cauldron...

For my part, I looked on that sermon as the public declaration of a man much connected with literary caballers and intriguing philosophers, with political theologians and theological politicians both at home and abroad. I know they set him up as a sort of oracle, because, with the best intentions in the world, he naturally philippizes and chants his prophetic song in exact unison with their designs." [...]

"Supposing, however, that something like moderation were visible in this political sermon, yet politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties. Those who quit their proper character to assume what does not belong to them are, for the greater part, ignorant both of the character they leave and of the character they assume. Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling, and inexperienced in all its affairs on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite. Surely the church is a place where one day's truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind."[...]

Burke continues:

"This pulpit style, revived after so long a discontinuance, had to me the air of novelty, and of a novelty not wholly without danger." [...]

"It is somewhat remarkable that this reverend divine should be so earnest for setting up new churches and so perfectly indifferent concerning the doctrine which may be taught in them. His zeal is of a curious character. It is not for the propagation of his own opinions, but of any opinions. It is not for the diffusion of truth, but for the spreading of contradiction. Let the noble teachers but dissent, it is no matter from whom or from what. This great point once secured, it is taken for granted their religion will be rational and manly. I doubt whether religion would reap all the benefits which the calculating divine computes from this "great company of great preachers." It would certainly be a valuable addition of nondescripts to the ample collection of known classes, genera and species, which at present beautify the hortus siccus of dissent. A sermon from a noble duke, or a noble marquis, or a noble earl, or baron bold would certainly increase and diversify the amusements of this town, which begins to grow satiated with the uniform round of its vapid dissipations. I should only stipulate that these new Mess-Johns in robes and coronets should keep some sort of bounds in the democratic and leveling principles which are expected from their titled pulpits. The new evangelists will, I dare say, disappoint the hopes that are conceived of them. They will not become, literally as well as figuratively, polemic divines, nor be disposed so to drill their congregations that they may, as in former blessed times, preach their doctrines to regiments of dragoons and corps of infantry and artillery. Such arrangements, however favorable to the cause of compulsory freedom, civil and religious, may not be equally conducive to the national tranquility. These few restrictions I hope are no great stretches of intolerance, no very violent exertions of despotism."

"But I may say of our preacher...His doctrines affect our constitution in its vital parts."

This is a roundly damning passage on the role of religion, or pseudo-religion, in politics and vice versa by the self-professed Christian and philosophical architect of modern conservatism Edmund Burke.

Which brings us to the second point by which Novak misjudges Niebuhr; and that is in regards to the dependence of a free market on appeals to faith, religion or mysticism.

In Novak's 1992 article he writes: "Like Niebuhr, we hold that both capitalism and the democratic republic depend on the primacy of certain claims of the Creator and Judge. "

Hopefully having dismissed the assertion that religion is a necessary component of political conservatism, we can make use of Ayn Rand's objections to the arguments that faith or mysticism underlies the functioning of the market. This was a key point of disagreement between Rand and conservatives in her interview entitled Conservatism versus objectivism (along with conservatives' logical lack of ideological consistency and their erroneous philosophical assumptions). [5]
Rand: "For instance National Review published an article some time ago [5] in which they called Reinhold Niebuhr a conservative. Now you know of course that he's very liberal in his political views; but the ground they gave...

Interviewer: "I believe he's a chairman of the Liberal party, in fact..."

Rand: "I think so. But he's quite notoriously liberal. And the reasons they gave for classifying him as a conservative is very interesting, very elegant philosophically. They said he believes, in effect, in the depravity of man. In the fact that man is an imperfect being who must not aspire to solve his problems by means of his own reason. That Niebuhr believes in the doctrine of depravity, in effect, in the innate depravity of man. And since he has that low and dim a view of man, he does not expect men to be able to deal with reality and to solve his problems; that kind of philosophical or metaphysical humility, is the essence of a conservative. That was the gist of the article; which I think is very typical of the National Review attitude towards the relationship of mysticism and politics. And if so, they certainly take it seriously, and it is also an enormously serious threat to capitalism and to all those who might adopt that kind of stand in order to defend capitalism."
Perhaps even more revealing was her earlier criticism in the interview:

Rand: "There is no firm definition of what conservatives stand for no more than there is a definition for what liberals stand for. But going only by the prevalent trend, or only by the general usage of the term, a conservative today is supposed to be someone who is opposed to the welfare state and therefore stands for capitalism or free enterprise. However, most conservatives, in fact, do not stand for free enterprise. They stand for various degrees of mixed economy or various degrees of government interference into the economy. Therefore they don't really stand for full free enterprise. But as far as one can judge, again in a general way, what conservatives stand for today, too many of them tie their political views to religion. Too many conservatives, or so-called conservatives today, claim that the only defense of (unclear)...capitalism has to rest on religious faith on mysticism of one kind or another. Such conservatives claim that faith, religion, or belief in God is the only justification for human rights, for freedom, and for capitalism. Nothing could be more disastrous to the cause of capitalism and nothing can be more opposed to the objectivist viewpoint...since objectivism rests on reason and holds only reason as the sole validation of any human ideas, convictions or actions. But observe why the tie of conservatism or capitalism to faith is disastrous...it means necessarily that capitalism or freedom cannot be justified in reason. A conservative who would claim that his case rests on faith, admits by that, that he has no rational justification for his position, that he cannot validate capitalism in reason, therefore that reason is on the side of his enemies, that reason is on the side of collectivism, and that if one wants to oppose collectivism one can do so only on the ground of mystical faith. No more disastrous argument could be offered for capitalism. And to the extent to which anyone would accept that argument he would be forced to reject capitalism if he is a man who wants to be guided by reason and who wants to be rational. Therefore such defenders of capitalism are pushing those who might listen to them into the exact opposite side and therefore are enormously dangerous to the cause of capitalism."

Such were the apt words of Ayn Rand, which demolish Novak's claims that the market rests on a "Creator." Not only is a market more productive and efficient at allocating resources in reward of innovation, creativity, hard work, and risk; but it is the only economic system compatible with freedom. And as man is born free in his natural state, no man can claim in regards to any kind of "justice" that it is his prerogative to usurp another's labor, and thus his life, and put it in the service of any abstract so-called "higher ideal" against his will.

The legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, therefore, should belong rightfully to the irrational mystics of the left, as well as the true exploiters of man's labor and free expression, the socialists. At the nexus of these collaborators in relegating man to an obeisant, submissive creature is the iconic figure Barack Obama.

[1] One key communist mentor of Barack Obama is Saul Alinsky. As a March 25, 2007 Washington Post article, For Clinton and Obama A Common Ideological Touchstone, documents: "Seventeen years later, another young honor student was offered a job as an organizer in Chicago. By then, Alinsky had died, but a group of his disciples hired Barack Obama, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate, to organize black residents on the South Side, while learning and applying Alinsky's philosophy of street-level democracy."

For those who deny that Alinsky was a communist and instead purport he was a well-intentioned reform democrat, consider the following. Though Saul Alinsky is well-schooled in the subverter's rules of plausible deniability, protecting the identity of his contacts and never giving exact dates of his illicit affairs, he is about as subtle as a sledge hammer hitting a fly in displaying his pro-communist sentiments. Take for example the following passage (in the context of criticizing organized labor): "The organized labor movement has with rare exception always opposed revolutionary action aimed at the destruction of monopoly capitalism. The hatred and the opposition of big business toward all the foes of the status quo is fully shared and participated in by the leaders of the labor movements. They must be opposed to socialism, communism or any other philosophy which would destroy provate ownership of industry or private employment" (Alinsky, Saul D. 1989. Reveille for Radicals. Vintage: NY. p. 28.). Or (in the context of criticizing religion, which he alternately lauds and condemns throughout his first major work): "It was not given to believers faithful to Catholic dogma to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the blast blow at slavery in America, to Atheistic Communism to abolish in Russia the absolutism of private profit" (ibid., p. 201).

[2] William Ayers and Bernandine Dohrn, both members of the radical terrorist organization the Weather Underground, not only lived in Barack's neighborhood and as the New York Times narrated "crossed paths" but they had intimate overlapping relations as documented best by National Review Online contributor Stanley Kurtz. As his article NYT's Ayers-Obama Whitewash claims:
There is nothing "sporadic" about Barack Obama delivering hundreds of thousands of dollars over a period of many years to fund Bill Ayers’ radical education projects, not to mention many millions more to benefit Ayers’ radical education allies. We are talking about a substantial and lengthy working relationship here, one that does not depend on the quality of personal friendship or number of hours spent in the same room together (although the article greatly underestimates that as well).
Even more damningly, Kurtz documents the Obama staff's own words on the relationship between Obama and Ayers, which he dissects in his article Obama's Challenge. The evidence and precise reasoning Kurtz employs paints a picture of a relationship that is more than 'casual.' Some of Kurtz' findings were confirmed by Ben Smith of Politico.

And, as is well-known: "Early political supporters of Obama were Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn. Both were members of the domestic terrorist group the Weatherman. The Weatherman had direct ties to the CPUSA splitter group the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)."

The Weathermen, in which Ayers and Dohrn were key members, infamously bombed the Capital, State Department, and Pentagon (video). As a lefty blog plausibly reports: "Ayers was prosecuted for his Weather Underground activities and acquitted on a technicality. After the trial, he said: 'Guilty as sin, free as a bird.'" Frighteningly, an undercover agent who had penetrated the Weathermen terror ring exposed their plans to round up millions of "counter-revolutionary" Americans and relocate them to "re-education camps" or else execute them (video). For an interesting descent into the revisionist rationalization of the "persecuted" Weathermen, see the lengthy video documentary online.

[3] Frank Marshall Davis is a black communist intellectual who allegedly shared illegal drugs with Obama and read poetry to Obama, for some period of time just prior to Obama embarking for Occidental College in 1979. As the useful compendium on leftist associations and organizations DiscovertheNeworks (run by David Horowitz) describes Davis:
Davis was identified unequivocally as a CPUSA member in a 1951 report of the Commission on Subversive Activities to the Legislature of the Territory of Hawaii (CSALTH), which, along with HUAC, also charged that Davis was affiliated with a number of communist-front organizations. According to Max Friedman, a former undercover member of several Communist-controlled "anti-war" groups, Davis testified in 1956 before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and took the Fifth Amendment when asked about his Communist Party membership.

In the 1970s Davis met a teenage Barack Obama and his family, who also lived in Hawaii. Davis soon became the young man's mentor and advisor.

In his 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, Obama writes about Davis but does not reveal the latter's full name, identifying him only as "a poet named Frank" -- a man with much "hard-earned knowledge" who had known "some modest notoriety once" and was "a contemporary of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during his years in Chicago," but was now "pushing eighty." (Several sources -- including Professor Gerald Horne, Dr. Kathryn Takara, and libertarian writer Trevor Loudon -- have confirmed that Obama's "Frank" was indeed Frank Marshall Davis.)
In regards to the CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA), we will recurrently find this organization associated with the people whom Obama spent time with before he arrived on the national stage suddenly and mysteriously as the new "messiah." The CPUSA even gave somewhat of an endorsement to Obama in the run-up to his election (while obviously ruling out support of McCain). In the CPUSA article Editorial: Eye on the Prize they wrote:
"A broad multiclass, multiracial movement is converging around Obama’s 'Hope, change and unity' campaign because they see in it the thrilling opportunity to end 30 years of ultra-right rule and move our nation forward with a broadly progressive agenda...If Obama’s candidacy represented nothing more than the spark for this profound initiative to unite the working class and defeat the pernicious influence of racism, it would be a transformative candidacy that would advance progressive politics for the long term."
So is the CPUSA a harmless, marginalized group of exiled intellectuals relegated to such activities as exchanges of socialist and existentialist literature at bohemian cafés in the Greenwich Village? Far from it. Though it is hard to judge to what extent the CPUSA participated in the numerous and widespread active measures of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and Comintern, at least some of the CPUSA's leadership were verifiably connected to Soviet espionage activities. [For a general background on the CPUSA see: Haynes and Klehr. 1999. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. Ch. 3: The American Communist Party Underground. Yale: New Haven, CT. p. 57-92.]

For an in depth article on Obama's ties with Davis, see: Obama's Communist Mentor at Accuracy in Media online.

[4] For an elaboration of my views on this subject, see On Religion and Government in the United States.

[5] It might be appropriate here to mention that the ideological crisis that currently confronts conservatives, having seen the sermonic thunder stolen from them by the proselytizing progressive Obama, might be rectified to a large degree by an open espousal of objectivist principles. Philosophical consistency and non-contradiction is a most potent weapon when wielded forcefully and passionately against ideological foes.

The predictable horror of Christians being asked to give up their attempt to bring forth a heaven on earth through the U.S. government might be assuaged by the objectivist values of liberty and freedom of worship. The argument by Locke that religion flourishes in freedom has proved to be sound, all other things being equal (see Locke's Second Treatise on Government).

To reconcile with consevatives, the objectivists would have to rectify their arbitrary distinction between religious speech and other forms of speech (Ayn Rand, for one, was against prayer being allowed in public schools). The objectivists' pro-choice stance could be reconciled with conservatives on individual rights grounds if they did not implicitly hold that an umbilical cord is the standard of being physically dependent on a parent; obviously, this is false. Whether inside or outside of the womb, those cells capable of becoming a human being should not legally be permitted to be destroyed by another human being. Furthermore, the initiation of a pregnancy can be considered a contract between a mother and father with an uncertain outcome. The case of rape as a justification for abortion can be dispelled by the logical truth that two wrongs do not make a right (or "justice").

[6] Rand is probably speaking circa 1963-1964.