The Cairo Speech: President Barack Obama Channels Reinhold Niebuhr?

A reader at Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote beautifully today of President Obama’s Cairo speech, comparing his vision to Reinhold Niebuhr’s. Niebuhr, by the way, is one of Obama’s intellectual influences. Obama has said that he has taken from Niebuhr’s books “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. I take away [from Niebuhr] . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.”

In any event, here’s what one of Sullivan’s readers wrote about Obama:

I have to say Obama’s speech in Cairo was, for me, his most Niebuhrian moment. Religion in this speech became the ally of humility and reconciliation, not a barrier to them. He retained moral resolve without believing God’s purposes were his own. He even refused to turn his back on genuine progress and modernity — what Niebuhr would call the “growth” we see in history — while not being simply or naively progressive.

His invocation of the Torah, the Koran, and the New Testament at the end of the speech pointed towards the enduring necessity, beauty, and relevance of prophetic religion. We all are under the judgment of the One beyond the many, and as such only partially grasp his will — all our earthly projects and ambitions are tinged with sin, marred by our pride and partiality. Recognizing this is the precondition for working together.

A decent conservative movement would embrace the speech. I don’t think we’ll see that happen, but that shouldn’t detract from what was going on in this speech. It was genuinely important, I think. He understands what Niebuhr wrote on the last page of The Irony of American History:

“For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history, but by hatred and vainglory.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to The Cairo Speech: President Barack Obama Channels Reinhold Niebuhr?

  1. milesfan420 says:

    A Rant in the Night That I Must Put Out There-On The Anti Intellectual Intellectual

    There are those intellectuals who have been gifted and burdened with the intellectual mind that have ceased seeking and have settled on a belief with which they admit is imperfect but that they are settling with nonetheless. They have given up on being an individual and have surrendered to the mob. I have nothing but disdain for them. They are weak men. For in them, I detect an inclination to fascism, rigidity, and darkness. They hold us back not in their dogmas or imagined worlds of ivory concepts but in every moment in their lives.

    I’m not talking about that rare quiet enlightened being, the simple minded non intellectual at peace with the world who doesn’t care much for philosophy and doesn’t need it. How lucky she is! No, she is blessed. She ironically IS a curious person, but she knows something truly in her heart that requires no intellect. For the truth lies outside of the realm of intellect. No, she has a quiet strength, a certain peace of mind and stability. And with that comes an openness, a confidence to consider others first.

    No, I’m talking about the weak anti-intellectual “intellectual” who is too scared to consider others first, and so in truth never considers others first and holds to his “belief”. It’s evident that fear has won with him because he is reactionary, defensive and aggressive not just towards intellectuals with whom he disagrees but with any man in society whom he fears.

    I’m talking about the people who have the potential, have the means with which to pursue wisdom, and yet fear it and so they espouse one philosophy, their philosophy, that usually goes something like, “I am sticking to THIS and I won’t believe THAT because I’m satisfied”…But they lie! They are not truly satisfied with themselves, because when you penetrate their minds and study them, you see that beyond lacking rigor, they are lacking life, they are no longer listening, they are resorting to their false world of concepts because “they have found their truth”.

    Let me posit an example–In a room argue a radical Atheist and radical Evangelical Christian. Watch them, listen to them, see how they evade defining religion, see how they evade defining God. See how equally bitter and close minded they are. While their dogmas and ideologies battle it out within the false world of the ivory tower, do their personalities really conflict with each other? No! They are part of that same social order of the intellectual who has surrendered thinking and has reverted to the animal state. They are no longer reasonable.

    These are not even Nihilists. No, they’re worse, for a Nihilist is at least honest with himself. No, these haters of knowledge, who knowingly embrace a philosophy that they secretly and subconsciously know to be a lie-whatever it is, can only be qualified as darkness. What dread it is to be around such people! How many of them there are!

    For they willfully CHOOSE to deceive themselves. Like an alcoholic who knows deep down that what he gets from the drink is not true nor good, they willingly embrace their own reality, their own un-truth and this habit turns in upon itself and only gets worse with time because not only are they repressing the truth and holding to a lie, but they must lie about the lie and tell themselves that everything is good.

    These were the people who too rigidly adhered to their parents’ discipline when they were young. And so, at too young an age, lacked the cultivation of the curious or seeking mind that is necessary in any true intellectual. They’ve inherited their parents rigidity. And rigidity is all they know. They are scared of anything else besides themselves and their petty confidence in their rigid ways. If only they knew how easy it is to be strong and how taxing it is to be weak!

    Nonetheless, they hang on! They are like the older brother in the Prodigal Son for they resent the Other who so easily seeks new ideas, so easily is moved by them, and so happily is motivated to action from them.

    In truth, they fear that it makes them weaker to be around such people! Though they will not begin to consider this. If only they knew that the only weakness is to not accept ones weakness, only to then see how illusory it was all along!

    It’s darkness. It’s hatred. It’s evil. It’s a willing plunge into separation and non-belief, though they cannot bear to accept that. It’s a subconscious resignation that the truth is too painful to apprehend, so they’ve made a decision- to reject truth not because they don’t believe it’s attainable but because they secretly believe that the process of trying to seek it out is too unbearable. This is not only secret to others, but they also hide it from their own selves.

    So they’ve chosen the folly of embracing a lie. They are weak men who think strength is repressing or denying their weakness who if only could see that strength lies not in force or overpowering one’s weakness but in the courage to face it. Oh you petty man, dare to be weak for once and see the strength in that!

    And when they encounter someone who means no harm, someone open and kind but who personifies that with which they stand in opposition to, who reminds them of their lie and their weakness, watch how they react, watch how emotion overtakes them. They cannot bring themselves to consider the person to even see whether he truly is in opposition or not. They cannot afford to look into their ideologies and their selves and reconsider. It would be too much! Let’s just say this other harmless being is someone tall and handsome, or wise and rich, just someone that has any material edge over them–they harbor a secret resentment for them. They say to themselves, “That one, there! I don’t like him. There’s something about him. He thinks he knows it all. He thinks he will be the one to find the answer. Who does he think he is! How dare him! What a joke!” And they think they believe so. If only they had the courage to look into themselves and see whether they just might resent that person because they feel weakened by him. They feel belittled by being around someone so confident. And so they label him in their heads. In truth maybe that person IS wrong. But who cares! At least he is seeking still and not resigned to a sort of death while still living. But this is not about him. It’s about the abhorrent reaction to him from the weak intellectual, that “friend” who seethes in self-loathing,

    They claim “that person is bombastic, presumptuous, naive at best, antisocial at worst”. So,these incurious intellectuals become the very thing that they so try to avoid–Weak! And transparently so! For it is only the weak, the self loathing, the liars of the night who harbor such feelings. What other reason could there be?

    I will say it here. I have been that man at times. I find myself being that man at times. We all are. Is it not only human to be so. Dare you accept it? Man, I hope I can sleep now and not revisit this, less I become the very man I am speaking out against!

    And does not being around the weak then bring out the weak in the other? And then don’t we all become weak? You slap me. I’m to turn the other cheak. I get it now. But how hard that is!

    But let me say, for the sake of progress that we each will have to check this natural innate dark tendency, who is so familiar and omnipresent, not through force but through surrender, becoming intimate with it, only to then see how nebulous it is, being alive and free for the first time in that moment for not having to maintain our houses of cards, hearing the other, being alive for once and planting the seeds of true peace. Surrender your concepts in that moment, sit in that “cloud of unknowing” and know the Truth for the first time.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I liked your night-rant, and I thought the Prodigal Son analogy was interesting.

    What I think you are describing is prejudice—the idea that we arrive at an issue, not to arrive at an opinion, but at a prejudice. We are not looking at the evidence to arrive at an opinion, but we are looking at the evidence as a means of confirming a prejudice, or to fit a prejudice. The opinion v. prejudice distinction is not mine, by the way, but Sartre’s in his little book titled “Antisemitism.” Sartre argues that the Antisemite is someone who wishes to be a rock, a furious torrent, a being of perfect explanatory confidence—everything but a man. And so the Antisemite arrives at a prejudice and then incorporates all future pieces of information to fit the prejudice. Unlike one who arrives at an opinion, as after a jury trial, the Antisemite arrives at a prejudice the colors all future information.

    To some extent, we all engage in similar gestures, but to resist them is the characteristic of the person who uses (rather than abuses) the intellect.


    • milesfan420 says:

      Thank you for hearing me. It’s a comfort to know that I’ve been heard. It’s wonderful that you have this rare forum for such a niche of thought. I will stay in touch.

  3. milesfan420 says:

    I am reading Portrait now per your suggestion…Thanks for the insight on prejudice, reference to Niehbur and affirmation and clarification of the theist versus atheist arguing for consistency-sake things that they don’t truly believe in their daily lives, etc.

    Peace Out!

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