ROSS DOUTHAT Obama the TheologianRet-conning the past is crucial to power in the present. Plus, it just feels good.
The president’s focus on past sins has diminishing returns in the present.
… The latest instance came at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, when the president, while condemning the religious violence perpetrated by the Islamic State, urged Westerners not to “get on our high horse,” because such violence is part of our own past as well: “During the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” …
A third problem is that Obama is not just a Niebuhrian; he’s also a partisan and a progressive, which means that he too invests causes with sanctity, talks about history having “sides,” and (like any politician) regards his opponents as much more imperfect and fallen than his own ideological camp. This can leave the impression that his public wrestling with history’s tragic side is somewhat cynical, mostly highlighting crimes that he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in (how much theological guilt does our liberal Protestant president really feel about the Inquisition?) and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).
Here a counterexample is useful: The most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history was probably Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned against the dangers of “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.
Obama was never going to have Ike’s authority, but he could still profit from his example. The deep problem with his Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers “self”-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.