One of Obama’s Favorite Philosophers
Reinhold Niebuhr’s best known contribution to contemporary culture is rarely associated with his name. “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,” Niebuhr wrote in 1943, and although most modern Americans know the words of the Serenity Prayer in the slightly altered format that was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, the sentiment is a familiar one.
In Why Niebuhr Matters, the latest in Yale University Press’s Why X Matters Series, Charles Lemert explores the way in which this familiar sentiment—along with Niebuhr’s other theological and political thought—has ramifications far beyond the struggle for individual fortitude with which we most frequently associate the Serenity Prayer. In a 2007 interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, Barack Obama called Niebuhr “one of my favorite philosophers,” and Lemert makes clear the significance of the theologian’s import for the current president, along with others such as Jimmy Carter and Madeleine Albright, both of whom also acknowledged Niebuhr’s influence.
Niebuhr lived through both World Wars and bore witness to American efforts to fight communism, meaning that the thinking he did during those years is particularly relevant to our world today. Indeed, Lemert describes the United States as being at a “what-now?” moment in history, rife with anxieties about the relationship between religious and political cultures and the declining dominance of the West, and suggests that Niebuhr’s thinking offers “a moral guide to a politics that took seriously the world as it is.”
In describing his interpretation of this moral guide to David Brooks, Obama cited Niebuhr’s emphasis on the need to find a way of working somewhere in between “naïve idealism” and “bitter realism.” As Obama told Brooks, “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.” According to Lemert, Niebuhr matters because he offers us “intellectual seriousness,” just what we need “in the face of realities none alive today could have been taught in childhood to imagine.”