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.”______________________