Despite the sin of hubris that is, as he surely knows, the worm in the apple of American exceptionalism, President Barack Obama enthusiastically proclaimed his faith what he called "the dream of this nation" in his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010.  --  Andrew Finstuen, who has just published an important book on Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), was invited by PBS to comment on the address, and observed that "President Obama’s civil faith in America clouded his judgment at a crucial point in the speech.  He highlighted national security as the greatest source of unity in U.S. history and lamented that the unity achieved after 9/11 'has dissipated.'  . . . This curious advocacy of the unity found in national security would have dismayed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama has cited routinely as a shaper of his political vision.  Niebuhr was deeply suspicious of such simple unities, and he was certainly suspicious of simplistic faith in American ideals."[1]  --  Finstuen is a member of the faculty of Pacific Lutheran University.  --  He gave a UFPPC-sponsored talk about Niebuhr in April.  --  He revisited some of the same themes in a piece published on Dec. 1 in Christian Century, in which he wrote:  "[F]or Niebuhr . . . [t]he law of love must be accompanied by an understanding of the power of self-love in matters of political, economic and social relations.  Otherwise, the quest for justice falls into idealism -- an ignorance of the full weight of self-love -- or into cynicism -- an ignorance of the creativity and 'residual capacity for justice' in humankind."[2] ...

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Religion and ethics newsweekly

One nation: religion & politics

STATEMENT OF THE UNION, STATEMENT OF FAITH

By Andrew Finstuen

PBS
January 28, 2010

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/by-topic/politics/andrew-finstuen-a-state-of-the-union-a-statement-of-faith/5572/

President Barack Obama has faith in America.  He both opened and closed his State of the Union address with remarks about his belief in the power of the American spirit, which he defined as our fundamental strength, optimism, generosity, and decency as a people and as a nation.  He credited this spirit with pulling us through, among other things, the uncertainties of the Civil War, World War II, and the civil rights movement.

Many Americans share Obama’s faith in the American spirit, and thus they share in his American civil religion.  Such a faith is in the tradition of the oldest political-religious narrative in American history.  It is a variation on Puritan John Winthrop’s call for the settlers of colonial Massachusetts to be a “city on a hill” and a beacon to the world.  Obama provided his most passionate articulation of this civil faith at the end of the speech, the only moment when the chamber fell completely silent, no doubt in homage to the “sacred” values of America.  He noted that American leadership overseas “advances the common security and prosperity of all people,” and the United States takes such initiatives “because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores.  But we also do it because it is right.”

Preaching this civil faith is a part of being president, and Obama is among the few presidents to preach it with a measure of humility.  Like all good preachers, he implicated himself and his party in the sins that have led to the gridlock of Washington politics, prohibited the exercise of the American spirit, and reduced the federal government to a place “where every day is Election Day.”  He also distinguished himself from some of his predecessors by explaining that the greatest realizations of the American spirit came as a consequence of making sacrifices in the face of enormous crisis.

This humility notwithstanding, President Obama’s civil faith in America clouded his judgment at a crucial point in the speech.  He highlighted national security as the greatest source of unity in U.S. history and lamented that the unity achieved after 9/11 “has dissipated.”  It is one thing to suggest that war and armed conflict are permanent fixtures of history, as he did in his Nobel speech.  It is an altogether different thing to champion the national cohesion that comes from it.  That unity ushered in two wars, costing America trillions of dollars, thousands of precious American lives, and tens or even hundreds of thousands of precious non-American lives.

This curious advocacy of the unity found in national security would have dismayed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama has cited routinely as a shaper of his political vision.  Niebuhr was deeply suspicious of such simple unities, and he was certainly suspicious of simplistic faith in American ideals.  Late in the speech, Obama expressed just such a faith:  “Abroad, America’s greatest source of strength has always been our ideals.  The same is true at home.”  Niebuhr understood American ideals to be not only our greatest strength, but also our greatest weakness.  Pride alone in these ideals, thought Niebuhr, was extremely dangerous, since “a too-confident sense of justice,” as he wrote, “always produces injustice.”

Still, after a year as president of a nation in turmoil, President Obama’s first State of the Union address makes clear that his faith in the America spirit has not been shaken.  Yet based on his frequent appeals in the speech to this spirit and to the better part of our political natures -- and in light of the palpable sarcasm and sneering by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as he spoke -- it appears that he can be less sure about whether or not Americans will practice their civil faith with civility.

--Andrew Finstuen teaches at Pacific Lutheran University.  He is the author of Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

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THIS AMERICAN MESS

By Andrew Finstuen

** Where is Reinhold Niebuhr when we need him? **

Christian Century

December 1, 2009

http://christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7994


As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the U.S. finds itself in a mess of historic proportions.  Our economic crisis was preceded by a near-universal collapse in judgment about the use of U.S. military force abroad.  This mess is profoundly embarrassing because it is of our own making and therefore one that could have been avoided.

Confronting and analyzing such embarrassments was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's specialty.  More specifically, he excelled in exploring the doctrine of original sin and its social and political ramifications.  Niebuhr observed that the concept of original sin is universally rejected by "all schools of modern culture" and is "offensive to the modern mind."  That rejection, Niebuhr thought, was itself a symptom of original sin.

Niebuhr argued that Americans overestimated the virtues of democracy and free market capitalism.  On the rare occasions when Americans repented of their misdeeds, they did so by focusing on sins rather than the condition of sin inherent in them.  Niebuhr spent a career warning of the dangers of this attitude and its destructive consequences.  The disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis are, from a Niebuhrian perspective, the terrible yet predictable outcomes of a nation unwilling to regard itself as sinner.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. was led to war by two guiding assumptions:  that it was involved in a conflict between good and evil and that the democratization of the Middle East was a natural goal of U.S. foreign policy.  Both of these assumptions violate Niebuhr's insistence on original sin and illustrate, as he wrote in 1959, the national delusion that comes from "the image of our innocence."  As a result of this self-image and the belief in the "purity of our motives," it was difficult for Americans to believe "that anyone should dislike us."  Thus the attacks of 9/11 were for most Americans mystifying.

Niebuhr worried about the effects of just such an event.  Without a knowledge that the rest of the world has good reason to dislike us and without a sense that no human beings, not even Americans, are "masters of our fate," he feared that Americans might undertake a "preventive war" in a "final desperate attempt to bring history under our control."

After America engaged in this type of war in Iraq, new mystifications arose for this nation of innocents.  The war went badly, along with attempts at democratization.  But the war surged on, as did the rhetoric about the high ideal of establishing a just, democratic society there.  For Niebuhr, such ambitious designs and such lofty rhetoric show a misunderstanding of "what a proud, vexatious and cruel king Demos may become on occasion."

Democracy, according to Niebuhr, is founded on a recognition of human sin.  As he famously stated:  "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

The episodes in which America's own sons and daughters committed heinous acts of violence -- most notably in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and in the practice of "enhanced" interrogations -- befuddled Americans' sense of virtue.  To immediately reestablish that sense, the White House and many Americans treated events like Abu Ghraib as the result of rogue operators -- individual sinners who in no way reflected the moral character of the U.S. armed forces or the war effort.

Niebuhr identified and criticized the same assumptions about the virtues of American liberal capitalism.  He objected to what he called the "social façade" of capitalism, which promised that "the laws of the marketplace" regulate economic affairs in such as way as "to insure that self-seeking was inherently harmless."  Such a notion was a "half-truth," he continued, "because self-interest was interpreted as economic interest only," whereas in reality self-interest is far more expansive.  The full truth is that "men want power and glory as much, if not more, than they want material possessions."  Cast in this Niebuhrian light, the phrase "purchasing power" takes on a more than literal meaning and gives a more comprehensive explanation for the financially overextended banks, Wall Street executives and everyday Americans.

Only in the wake of depression and inflation, moreover, have Americans overcome what Niebuhr called the "dangerous miscalculations" and "illusions" regarding the half-truth about the "reciprocity of the market."  Niebuhr was grateful that at those moments of crisis pragmatism prevailed -- albeit "only after the need has become dangerously acute, with great human hardship and global repercussions."  Concluded Niebuhr:  "We have been saved in a number of crises not by our doctrine, but by our inconsistency."

At few times in American history has such inconsistency been more apparent than during the recent bailouts initially orchestrated by the Republican and purportedly Reaganomic administration of George W. Bush.  Yet the economic crisis, like the scandals of the Iraq war, is still being diagnosed largely in terms of the sins of a few fat cats and their Wall Street cronies rather than as a consequence of systemic sin.  To be sure, some individuals were worse offenders than others; but as Niebuhr puts it, they were supported by "a creed which understood the relation of power to interest and justice so little."

Niebuhr's answer to the international and domestic crises is not tough-minded political realism, as most commentators have suggested, but rather the Christian law of love.  Of course, for Niebuhr, pursuing the law of love depends upon a profound awareness of the excessive self-love that is a consequence of original sin and that reigns in all individuals, groups, nations, and their ideologies.  The law of love must be accompanied by an understanding of the power of self-love in matters of political, economic and social relations.  Otherwise, the quest for justice falls into idealism -- an ignorance of the full weight of self-love -- or into cynicism -- an ignorance of the creativity and "residual capacity for justice" in humankind.

Niebuhr's Christian approach to human relations abroad and at home does not point to this or that solution to inequality and injustice but rather to a willingness to "bring a full testimony of a gospel of judgment and grace to bear upon all of human life" so that "individuals recognize that judgment and mercy of God are relevant to their collective as well as to their individual actions."

In the end, perhaps Niebuhr himself turns out to be more idealist than realist on the matter of original sin.  For is it realistic to expect Americans, Christian or not, to confront the depth of their sin?

--Andrew Finstuen is the author of Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety.  He teaches at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.