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2/24/09

Reinhold Niebuhr:The Theologian Who Influenced Obama's World View

I have tried to read theologians, and have succeeded more with some than with others. I recall reading what physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne said about his own theological writings, that he was a "bottom-up" kind of guy. You couldn't prove it by me. What he said still seemed like castles in the air. As I tried to read Polkinghorne I was reminded of what H.L. Mencken said: "For centuries, theologians have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the-not-worth-knowing."

But Obama's theologian? I can understand why the President likes Niebuhr. Here is a theologian whose head was not in the clouds. In his writings he tackled real problems head-on.

Barack Obama regards Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) as one of his favorite thinkers . Niebuhr influenced Obama's understanding of the world, religion, and politics. In Niebuhr, Obama found a fusion of intellect, faith, and realism. In Niebuhr he also found a pragmatist. The theologian once said that democracy "is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems." Listen at Speaking of Faith.

(Killed by Nazis, the Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was also influenced by Neibuhr. Imprisoned after his voluntary return to Nazi Germany from the states, he led a courageous, exemplary life for his fellow inmates. There is a movie on Bonhoeffer's life. I have watched it, and found it helpful to understanding the man.)

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