Brooks on Obama the theologian

DavidBrooks2There is so much to like about New York Times columnist David Brooks. Here's a short list: (1) He is thoughtful and analytical.

(2) He doesn't let his conservative views blind him to non-conforming realities.

(3) He's great at coining new terms (remember "Bobos," his famous word for the bourgeois bohemian descendants of the yuppies?).

(4) He's quick on his feet, as you can see in his TV appearances (especially his regular Friday gig with Mark Shields on the recently renamed PBS News Hour).

(5) He has a sense of humor that seems genuinely warm rather than cynical.

(6) He makes intellectual history comprehensible and downright fun.

But the thing I appreciate most about Brooks is his theological astuteness. I would argue that among all the major media columnists, Brooks is the most likely to connect the dots between ideas and their theological foundations. That's what he did this morning in his Times column, "Obama's Christian Realism."

Brooks summarizes Christian realism as follows:

...that each person is part angel, part devil. Life is a struggle to push back against the evils of the world without succumbing to the passions of the beast lurking inside.

He then traces the ideas evolution from Princeton's John Hibben, George F. Kennan, Harry Truman, and Reinhold Niebuhr, who declared:

"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

Brooks then shows how Obama has articulated a Niebuhrian vision for our time:

In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: "I take away the compelling idea that 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."

Somewhere along the line, Brooks says, most liberals dispensed with Niebuhr's notion of evil, but Obama didn't:

But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. Some blamed conflicts on weapons systems and pursued arms control. Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for. If Bush was an idealistic nation-builder, they became Nixonian realists.

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.

Obama's race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln's second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We all know there are many God-fearing Americans who feel certain Obama is a socialist. Or, if they are pressed to define him in religious terms, they have consigned him to an outer rung of hell reserved for fire-breathing black preachers like Jeremiah Wright.

But then along comes David Brooks--probing, reflecting, connecting the dots--to help us hear what Obama has been saying in his speeches and understand the theology that serves as the foundation for his views.

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