There’s been a fair amount of div. school-type talk linking Barack Obama to Reinhold Niebuhr, the great political theologian of post-World War II America whose star has of late been in the ascendant. And indeed, Obama (unlike many a politician who once upon a time invoked him–e.g. Jimmy Carter) seems to have actually read and absorbed Niebuhr’s Christian realist perspective on man and society. For the latest on Obama as Niebuhrian, check out Hent de Vries’ “The Niebuhr Connection: Obama’s Deep Pragmatism” over at Immanant Frame.
The closest actual theologian to Niebuhr today is Gary Dorrien, who appropriately enough is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological
Seminary in New York. Dorrien knows Niebuhr’s work like the back of his hand, and he’s not uncritical of a thinker whose mind changed more than most on the important issues of his day. But in contrast to Niebuhr’s current neocon admirers, Dorrien recognizes that he never abandoned the liberal reformism of the social gospellers whose optimism about human nature he made his bones criticizing. Dorrien himself is that kind of dyed-in-the-wool liberal.
Over at Religion Dispatches, they’ve posted
“Dilemmas of American Empire: Can Obama Pull Off a Game-Changer in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan?,” an adaptation of a lecture given by Dorrien in the Spring. It’s very much an exercise in foreign policy analysis a la Niebuhr–detailed in its review of the policy questions, unencumbered by God talk, animated by a clear moral vision. The last sentence puts it all in a nutshell:
Now as much as ever, we need a self-consciously anti-imperial movement
that seeks to scale back the military empire and opposes invading any
more nations in the Middle East or Latin America or anywhere else.
With respect to Iran, Dorrien urges the kind of full-scale diplomatic engagement that gives neocons fits. After a couple of years of negotiating, he says:
The U.S. could declare that it recognizes the legitimacy of the Islamic
Republic of Iran. It could acknowledge Iran’s right to security within
its present borders and its right to be a geopolitical player in the
region. It could accept Iran’s right to operate a limited enrichment
facility with a few hundred centrifuges for peaceful purposes. It could
agree to the French nuclear power reactor and support Iran’s entry into
the World Trade Organization. And it could return seized Iranian
assets. In return Iran could be required to cut off its assistance to
Hezbollah and Hamas, help to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, maintain a
limited nuclear program for peaceful ends verified by the International
Atomic Energy Agency, adopt a non-recognition and non-interference
approach to Israel, and improve its human rights record.
But this is an assessment based on the Spring status quo. Since last week, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at least as presently constituted, is increasingly open to question, not least by its own people. As Obama himself put it at his press conference today, “And so, ultimately, the most important thing for the Iranian
government to consider is its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not
in the eyes of the United States.”
Perhaps with a little assist from Obama’s Cairo speech, the game in Iran has now changed. And now that it’s changed, now that the iron fist of the regime and the democratic aspirations of the populace have been revealed for all to see, the Dorrien scenario looks more problematic. What would Reiny say?
Update: I’m reminded that Dorrien offered his own take on Obama The Niebuhrian, over at IF.