Monday, February 8, 2010

Reinhold Niebuhr's influence on the president

Whatever your political persuasion may happen to be, I'm sure you'll agree that knowing about a strong theological influence on the president of the United States is a valuable thing. I want to call your attention to a CNN article entitled "How Obama's favorite theologian shaped his first year in office". Here's part of what it says:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

It is now known as the Serenity Prayer. It's been adopted by 12-step recovery programs and cited in numerous self-help books. Yet few people know who wrote it. His name is Reinhold Niebuhr, and he was a Protestant pastor in the mid-20th century whose words tended to unsettle people, not offer comfort.

Niebuhr is getting attention again because he has a fan in the Oval Office.
Niebuhr was a blunt critic of morally complacent Christians. He thought the church was full of idealists who believed that progress was inevitable and that love alone would ultimately conquer injustice, some Niebuhr scholars say.

"He said there was a difference between being a 'fool for Christ' and a plain damn fool," says Richard Crouter, author of the upcoming book Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion and Christian Faith.
Niebuhr distilled his view of human nature in his monumental book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cited the book in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." Former President Carter is also an admirer of Niebuhr's.

People are capable of doing good, but groups are driven by "predatory self-interest," Niebuhr wrote.

"As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other," Niebuhr wrote. "As racial, economic and national groups, they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."
I do recommend that you click through and read the article. To my mind, it explains a lot.

As an aside, I studied Reinhold Niebuhr when I was in graduate school but I was more influenced by his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr - also a theologian - who wrote the groundbreaking Christ and Culture.


  1. Hi Ellie, I knew Obama was a Niebuhr fan but did not realize the tidbit re his writing of the serenity prayer. I've sent the entire article re Obama/Niebuhr off to myself as I'm eager to read it in depth. Yes, it is reassuring to me that we have a president of substance who is guided by theological study of intellects of our time rather than by Pat Robertson's ravings! Thanks for sharing this today.

  2. Yes, and it's actually a much longer prayer than the part people usually quote.


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