Regular readers of this blog will recall the claim I made last summer that Reinhold Niebuhr has been a formative influence on Barack Obama’s worldview (see That op-ed article has been expanded into a much longer review essay in the current issue of Contexts.

I was pleased to discover yesterday that I was not alone in predicting a Niebuhrian credo in an Obama presidency. In the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog, the dean of American religious historians makes a similar case for the president-elect’s new administration.

Martin E. Marty is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he taught religious history in the Divinity School for 35 years. Marty is the nation’s foremost Protestant scholar and an advocate of “public religion” (an interesting sidebar is that he is the father of Minnesota State Senator John Marty).

Realistic Hope and Hopeful Realism

The election of Barack Obama says—about America and to the world—that it is open to “realistic hope” and “hopeful realism.” Those two two-word phrases paraphrase themes from the mid-century theological great, Reinhold Niebuhr. I mention him because President-Elect Obama is influenced by him and quotes him (as did President Jimmy Carter, the other theologically literate president of our time). Niebuhr is a formidable and sometimes formidably difficult thinker, and some cynics suggest that when politicians quote him, they are just posing Columnist David Brooks checked up and found that Senator Obama could discourse intelligently and expansively about Niebuhr. It is clear to those who know Niebuhr and who read and observe Obama, that he has internalized some Niebuhrian motifs.

I am singling out the combinations of “hope” and “realism” because the nation and the world needs a dose of hope, and hope has been a main theme of Obama the author, who used the word in a book title, and who accurately sensed the need and a hunger for hope. This is as true of a demoralized nation as it is of much of “the world” as it looks on forlornly to a forlorn America. Those of us who have been visited with e-mails from around the world since Tuesday report to each other how consistently correspondents testify to and exemplify a quickening of hope once again.

If “hope” is so manifest also now, after the election, why burden it with the word “realistic?” Or, if you start out with the “realism” that candidate Obama always displayed and will do more so as he begins to come to terms with the presidency in a time whose problems do not need enumerating, though they do get listed by virtually all commentators? Answer: realism can be so realistic that it can breed cynicism, or, as one wag put it recently, we observe that “the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned out.”

“Realistic hope” is a caution against utopianism, naive idealism, the claiming of bragging rights, or politically “not knowing to come in out of the rain.” As author, community organizer, law school professor, state and U.S. senator, and presidential primary candidate, Senator Obama tirelessly invoked and promoted hope–and always coupled his invocation and promotion with cautions. We hear it all the time: righting wrongs and charting new courses in a dangerous world and with a destroyed economy allows no chance to relax and sit back.

Niebuhr liked to quote Psalm 2:4, where the Psalmist witnesses to a God who sits in the heavens and laughs, and holds the pretentious and conniving powerful “in derision.” Yet he kept reminding us that the same God held people responsible and did not dishonor human aspiration.

So: the election of the first African-American president, a choice that went beyond the wildest hopes of most of adult America is only a part of the “hope” package the nation will be opening in the months ahead. And the election of THIS African-American to the presidency means a turning to a leader who may be young, but wasn’t “born yesterday.” His reading of Niebuhr and his experience and observation of life as it is lived in complex times will show up in his “realistic” activity. Or am I too hopefully naive even to hope that this will be the case? Realistically: no.