obama, R. Niebuhr

The Reinhold Niebuhr Critical of Obama

Perhaps old Riennie, one of Obama’s favorite philosophers, would be quite critical of Obama’s speech — that war brings peace:

Regardless of whether his country was at war or between wars, Niebuhr was rarely insensitive to the sins of nationalistic hubris, chauvinism, or jingoism. The United States had barely entered the war against Japan when he began to complain that American Christianity’s pro-war pronouncements were nearly as insufferable as its earlier isolationism. ‘Many of the sermons which now justify the war will be as hard to bear as the pervious ones which proved that it was our “Christian” duty to stay out,’ he warned. From thousands of pulpits, American pastors were already proclaiming that the war had to be fought to secure a new international order in which war would be abolished. Niebuhr retorted that Japan’s attach changed nothing in the moral content of the situation. ‘If defeat of Japan can contribute to the building of a better international order, we ought to have declared war upon her and not waited for the attack,’ he argued. But if it was important not to fight with Japan for the sake of building a new international order, America should have refrained from striking back.

Niebuhr allowed that Americans needed the gospel’s idealism to be saved from cynicism and complacency. At the same time, however, whether in peace or at war, Americans also needed Christianity’s realism to be saved from sentimentality. For Americans, the dangers of a ‘perverse sentimentality’ were always more potent, in his view — even in wartime — than the perils of cynicism. American Christianity could go to war only if the war promised to bring about international harmony and peace. But this was not what war was about. Niebuhr struggled throughout the war to teach the church this lesson while maintaining a balance between realism and idealism. He opposed America’s insistence on an unconditional German surrender, argued against the Allied obliteration bombings of German cities, and worked to defeat the Morgenthau plan to make postwar Germany a greatly weakened power. Niebuhr equivocated on whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, but at the end of the war he urged an organizational meeting of the World Council of Churches to adopt a policy of forgiveness toward the defeated Axis powers.

From Gary Dorrien’s Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity, 117-118.


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