by Mark Ellingsen, Ph.D.
The Obama Presidency is under attack, not just by the Tea party and the Right, but by former friends on the Left, notably by critics in the African-American community. Maxine Waters has criticized him for for not doing enough on Black unemployment.1 PBS commentator Tavis Smiley has repeatedly critiqued him for not doing enough to help African Americans, as has Harry Belafonte.2 And Smiley’s partner Cornel West has called Obama a “Black mascot for Wall Street oligarchs,” being critical of his alleged neglect of the poor.3
No two ways about it. In assessing the Obama Presidency we cannot avoid its entanglements with race. But neither can we fail to examine the role religious commitments play in the way in which his Presidency is assessed. My thesis then is that we will not be able adequately to assess our nation’s first African-American president’s record on race until we are clear on our own, his, and his critics’ religious (and so Constitutional) suppositions.4 And because there is so much confusion on these matters (both the Constitution and the different religious strands which influence our Founding documents as well as the theological suppositions of Obama and his critics), we scholars of Religion need to engage in careful study and more accurate analysis of the religious streams which have influenced the American system. If we don’t, the religion we teach in our classrooms will just add to the present confusion and (perhaps unwittingly) help the Tea Party and the Right maintain their incorrect myths about the American political system.
THE CONSTITUTION AND THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE:
There are some interesting similarities between Obama’s critics on the Right and the Left. They seem to share common Anthropological assumptions. Both groups appear to operate with an optimistic view of human nature (at least with respect to adherents of their viewpoint), which is neither shared by The Constitution nor the Constitutional scholar Barack Obama.
In No. 51 of The Federalist Papers James Madison writes:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. .. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflection of human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.5
Human beings are not good, selfless creatures on Madison’s (and the Constitution’s) grounds. This is why we need checks and balances as well as government regulations.
We find none of this rhetoric (except a concern to limit government) in the rhetoric and literature of the Tea Party.6 Nor do we see much reference to the insidious character of human nature in the Liberal Black critics of Obama. Granted, Cornel West is a bit harder to pin down at this point. He has clearly spoken of sin in his critiques of Narcissism and how it has infected segments of American society, including his own African-American community.7 He has spoken of our being cracked vessels who can only love with crooked hearts.8 But although he praises famed realist about government Reinhold Niebuhr for his vision of democratic socialism and shares some of Niebuhr’s criticism’s of the optimism of John Dewey, West’s call for the adoption of Marxist thinking betrays an optimism in his thought.9 And he expressly criticizes the way in which Niebuhr’s thought has been used to undergird political and religious conformity.10 The significance of this dialogue with Niebuhr’s realism for the subject of the paper will subsequently be made apparent. But it does suggest that West and his other Black colleagues who never address the flawed, egocentric character of political dynamics maintain an optimism about these processes which is neither in line with the realism of our Constitutional and may account for their critique of Obama.
There is an obvious and poll-confirmed resonance in the American social psyche to both the Tea-party and liberal African-American critiques of the President. In a qualified way I want to affirm the legitimacy of these reverberations. Appeals to the goodness of the American people, what they can accomplish either without government interference or in government, is part of our political heritage!
To understand the religious ethos of America and its impact on our various institutions on the social psyche, we must begin with the first Christian traditions established in the original colonies of what is today the Continental US – Anglicanism and Puritanism. The former had a certain Reformed character and the Pilgrims were of course card-carrying Puritans. Both have strong, Augustinian Anthropologies and appreciation of Original Sin.11 But of the two, Puritanism has had the more thoroughgoing impact on our nation.
Several prominent scholars of American religion have contended that it is not possible to understand religious phenomena on U.S. soil apart from the recognition that much of what has happened and still happens is driven by a Puritan Paradigm. That is to say, Puritanism has provided the primary categories for understanding American religiosity, so that Americans themselves tend to understand religion – even their own religious convictions – in terms of Puritan categories.12 We can observe the impact of this Paradigm notably in the way we venerate the Puritan heritage each November at Thanksgiving, by the denominational affiliation of most of presidents and Congressional representatives, and by the way in which Puritan style of worship and church architecture dominate in most American denominations, even those historically committed to different (more liturgically oriented) styles.
The Puritan Paradigm, though, has been modified and revised over the years. The emergence of Revivalism, especially beginning with the Second Great Awakening, modified the Puritan emphasis on a sovereign God in favor of an Arminianism.13 And with this shift came a more optimistic view of human nature, less stress on our total depravity. Subsequently later in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Modern Revivalism emerged, under the leadership of Dwight Moody and later Billy Sunday. They carried these optimistic Arminian assumptions to their logical conclusion about the desirability of small government for addressing our social maladies, for we can address these ills ourselves through freely chosen changes and conversions.14 Later Billy Graham would adopt and reflect these attitudes regarding the human potential (by God’s regenerating grace) to change social life, without need for much government intervention, for racism and poverty could be overcome by conversion to Christ.15
Revivalism did not completely supplant the earlier Puritan convictions. But its impact helps explain for why side-side-side Americans can believe in the goodness of people and our freedom, while at the same time we commonly hear public rhetoric about America as a chosen nation (predestination) and the interpretation of natural events as acts of God (testimonies to Puritan beliefs in the sovereignty of God).
The apparent contradictions of holding these contrasting views on God, our goodness and ability to choose to overcome social evils with pure motives has earlier roots in the influence of Deism on many of America’s Founders, notably on Thomas Jefferson and through his authorship on The Declaration of Independence. All of these Revivalist convictions (esp. an optimism about humanity’s capacity for moral goodness) are taught by Deism.16 For example, Jefferson insisted on the moral sense never being dimmed, that religion is only any good as long as it does not contradict reason.17 He expressly rejects the teachings of John Calvin (that works are nothing compared to faith) and Athanasius (on the Trinity),18 In two Letters to his one-time Secretary William Short, Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus (and so the belief that the forgiveness of sin is not the main religious message, but the redemptive character of works) as well as the doctrine Original Sin.19 Likewise Benjamin Franklin prioritized morality over doctrine as the aim of religion.20
There is little question that this optimism about human nature and a small-government disposition associated with it, so evident in Jefferson, reflects in The Declaration of Independence.21 Its Deist suppositions seem reflected in the references to “Nature’s God” and in its appeal for individual rights, apart from concern about possible abuse of these rights. If you operate with these suppositions, you will not doubt be unhappy with Obama, both (for the Right) because of his big-government orientation and (from the Left) because his motives too often seem “political” and self-serving in his compromises.
Not so when we turn to the Constitution. Its entire structure of checks-and-balances presupposes the flawed character of human nature. And this is precisely where the stress on individual freedom of The Tea Party has the Constitution wrong.. The separation of powers of our system was proposed to James Madison during his student days at Princeton by his favorite Professor John Witherspoon who wrote:
Every good form of government must be complex… so that one principle may check the other… It is folly to expect that a state should be upheld by integrity of all who have a share in managing it. They must be so balanced that when one draws his own interest or inclination, there may be an overpoise upon the whole.22
Witherspoon makes it clear that this skepticism about this commitment to sharing power relates to his skepticism about human nature. In a speech made to the Continental Congress as the Articles of Confederation were being drafted, he stated: “I am none of those who either deny or conceal the depravity of human nature.”23
We have already noted Madison’s own Augustinian-like pessimism about human nature, along the lines of his mentor.24 Numerous other examples of the Founders affirming something like this classical view of Original Sin can be cited. For example, Madison himself wrote of factions seeking their own self-interest, Alexander Hamilton claimed that “men love power”, Roger Sherman lamented how readily men are misled,26 becoming dupes according to Elbridge Gerry, and Gouverneur Morris warned against the rich seeking to establish dominion over everyone else.25 This pessimistic view of human nature included an awareness that those with wealth and power might try to take advantage of those with less. As a result, much to the neglect of the media and other analysts, Madison, Hamilton, and even Franklin (quotes below in that order) opted for big government which might even redistribute property by creating safety nets for the poor:
[T]he great objection should be to combat the evil [of faction] by withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few… By the silent operation of laws, which without violating the rights of property reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.26
Happy it is when the interest which the government has in the preservation of its own power coincides with a proper distribution of the public burdens and tends to guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression.27
All Property, indeed except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat… seems to me to be the Creature of public Contention… All the Property that is necessary to a Man, of the Conservation of the Individual and Propagation of the Species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick…who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition.28
Of course, this vision of government is in (creative) tension with the vision of The Declaration. Both sides are right in the great debate over government and Obama in particular it seems. Our system affirms both the goodness and seediness of human nature, both small government and big government. But the Right (and Obama’s critics on the Left to some extent) have it wrong in suggesting that the idealism and small-government ethos is what our Constitution espouses. Rather, their views are more properly rooted in the secular (tinged with revivalist) strand of the Declaration of Independence. Those opting for big-government realism are more in line with the Puritan and Augustinian roots of our Constitution. And as social commentators and scholars of Religion it is well that we in the guild get very clear on these distinctions!
WHY NIEBUHR MATTERS IN THIS DEBATE: SIGNFICANCE FOR
THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY
Reinhold Niebuhr well captures the pessimism and realism of Constitution, even recognizing how politics is about self-serving compromise and strategy. He writes:
Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems… The whole art of politics consists in directing rationally the irrationalities of man. All political positions are morally ambiguous because, in the realm of politics and economics, self-interest and power must be harnessed and beguiled rather than eliminated. In other words, forces which are morally dangerous must be used despite their peril.29
In actual life, however, no clear distinction between moral principles and strategycan be made. That is why Christian convictions that deal only with ultimate principle and exclude strategic issues tend to become wholly irrelevant.30
Niebuhr reminds us, as Madison did, that politics is intimately conducted with personal ambition, political strategies.
Why is this significant? It needs to be noted that Barack Obama has claimed that Niebuhr is his “favorite philosopher.” In a follow-up interview after making this claim on CNN in 2007, Obama claims to take from Niebuhr an appreciation of realism, that we must be humble and modest in what we can accomplish politically given the realities of evil, even using force where necessary.31 These comments explain both his foreign policy intitiatives (dedicated to peace, but not without the use of force) and his willingness to settle for small gains domestically (to take what he can get from the Republican Congress).
In fact, Obama is not alone in the history of Black culture in this political, Constitutional realism. We find appreciation of Reinhold Niebuhr and Constitutional realism as a strategy for Civil Rights most notably in the thought and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.32 Even the chief spokesman for Black Liberation Theology James Cone has spoken on many occasions with appreciation of Niebuhr’s realism.33
There is a much earlier history in Black culture of finding The Constitution, its realism about human nature, and hard-ball politics to be significant tools for achieving justice and freedom. In the 19th century, a movement of Antislavery Constitutionalism was most significant in the African-American community, with significant spokespersons like William Yates, George Washington Mitchell, Benjamin Lynde Oliver, and Peter Williams.34 In this movement the Black community’s appreciation and use of the Constitutional suppositions we have been discussing are readily apparent.
THE OBAMA PRESIDENCY: HOW TO EVALUATE IT AND HOW TO TEACH
By these realistic Constitutional standards we must say of the Obama Presidency that it has not done all we wish regarding race and poverty. But we must also say that about King and other champions of Civil Rights. But at least they have done something, which may be better than the optimistic pundits on the Left along with the Right have done (who have done nothing)!
My analysis has demonstrated, then, that appreciating the differences between The Constitution and those of The Declaration of Independence along with attention to their different religious suppositions (esp. concerning Anthropology) illuminates the major political debates of the Obama era. Those with optimistic Anthropologies and a bias toward small government (the suppositions of Deism and revivalism) like The Tea Party and the Right will find Obama’s big-government (Keynsian) approach to our economy wholly inadequate and contrary to our system. His efforts to manage the economy, to ensure that the powerless are aided by government will be seen as class warfare and his policies the beginning of the End. Among his critics on the Left (values and liberation constituents), their optimistic Anthropology needs critical assessment, no less than the Right’s reading of the Constitution needs critical assessment. The Constitution and the Augustinian view of human nature which underlies it entail that the optimism about the virtues of the oppressed in these circles needs to be examined critically. If the expectation is that the oppressed are not themselves enmeshed in concupiscence then of course The President’s failure expressly to mount policies on behalf of African Americans as well as his engagement in political compromises and funding of American military action overseas will be interpreted as sell-outs.
By contrast, those operating with Constitutional/Augustinian Anthropology will likely interpret Obama more favorably. When you are aware that class interests can never be eradicated in politics, that the strong will always take advantage of the weak, the need for government action and safety-nets for the poor becomes apparent. However, when we remain aware on the basis of these Anthropological suppositions that politics is about power and self-interest, about keeping that power by getting elected, Obama’s compromises with Republicans and the military establishment, his efforts to aid the Black community under broader banners, make perfect sense and good political wisdom. No way he gets re-elected or gets anything done if he is just seen as “The Black President.” And besides, he can’t totally alienate the business establishment. The banking and financial sectors are among his biggest contributors, as in 2011 he raised more from these donors than did any Republican, including Mitt Romney.35
We need to help students clearly see the different approaches to viewing our governmental structures, the optimistic and small-government vision of the Declaration and the cynical, realist vision of the Constitution. And this relates to how we teach in our Religion courses. If we do not carefully attend to Anthropology, the view of human nature we propound to our students, even without realizing it we will be
offering them political viewpoints that favor a critique of a political realism and hard-ball political like that of Obama. This is an important warning for those of us in the academy, in which since the Enlightenment the more optimistic model has prevailed. Maybe that is why so many intellectual voices are silent about the Right’s distortions of the Constitution or relegate Religion to offering merely ethereal “values” with little chance of really impacting society by becoming incarnate in actual legislation. Be self-conscious about the Anthropology used when teaching Religion, don’t forget to examine the Anthropological assumptions of the subjects covered, be sure to trace the political implications of these alternatives, or expect another generation of Religious studies students and course offerings to remain politically irrelevant and contribute to our present unjust status quo. What we need in our teaching and preaching (in the academy and in the Black church, in the Church catholic) is a revival of the realism about human nature of Augustine, Niebuhr, and King in order to put us in touch with the political realities we need to take into account in order for Religion and Religious Studies to make a difference in our national life.
- Maxine Waters, as quoted in The Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2011.
2. Tavis Smiley, Smiley & West Show, PBS, Jan10,2012. Smiley & West Show. Belafonte’s critical comments were edited out of the show.
- Cornel West, as quoted in CNN Newsroom, Jan. 11, 2012.
4. For a full-scale analysis of Obama on race, see Randall Kennedy, The persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011). He is also critical of Obama for his tendency to compromise.
5. James Madison, “No. 51,” The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: Penguin, 1961), p.322
6. The Tea Party National Resource Center, “What is the Tea Party?”, at theteaparty.net (accessed Oct. 22, 2011); The Arlington Tea party, “About Us,” at thearlingtonteapart.org/about_us 9accesssed Oct.22, 2011).
7. Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).
8. Cornel West, Bill Moyers Journal, July 3, 2009.
9. Cornel West, Prophecy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianiyt (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), p.106; cf. Cornel West, The American evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp.101,154, for his assessment of Niebuhr. For his optimism, see Karl Marx, “Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right” (18440, in T. B. Bottomore, ed., Karl Marx: Early Writings (New York et: McGraw-Hill, 1963), p.59.
10. Cornel West, as reported in Chris Herlinger, “Applying Niebuhr’s ideas tough chore for academics,”
The Christian Century (Mar. 2, 2011).
11. The Episcopal Church, The Thirty-Nine Articles, IX; The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), VI; cf. Augustine, De civitate Dei (413-426), XIV.15-16
12. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious history of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), pp.3,12,1079,1094-196; H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1937), esp. pp.8,45ff.; Mark Noll, “The Luther Difference,” First Things, Feb., 1992, p.38; cf. Mark Ellingsen, When Did Jesus Become Republican? (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), pp.11ff.
13. Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (E. J. Goodrich, 1868), pp.9-14,20.
14. Dwight Moody, as quoted in William G. McLoughlin Jr., Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press, 1959), p.277; Billy Sunday, as quoted in Boston Herald, December 14, 1916, p.5.
15. Billy Graham, as quoted in New York Herald Tribune, May 12, 1957, p.24. For his views on solving poverty, see Robert B. Fowler, A New Engagement: Evangelical Political Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), p.48. Also see the quotations by Graham in McLoughlin, p.509.
16. Voltaire, “Atheisme et Deisme,” Dictionarie philosophiqe, ed. R. Naves (Paris, 1961). On the Deism of the Founding Fathers, see David l. Holmes, The Faith of the Founding Fathers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), esp. pp.49ff.).
17. Thomas Jefferson, Letter To Peter Carr (1787), in Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984), pp.901-903.
18. Thomas Jefferson, Letter To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (1822), in Writings, pp.1458-1459.
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter To William Short (1820), in Writings, pp.pp.1437-1438; Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, with a Syllabus (1819), in Writings, p.1431. Also see Holmes, pp.83-84.
20. Benjamin Franklin, Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians (1735), in Writings (New York: The Library of American, 1987), p.257.
21. For Jefferson’s small-government propensities, see his ‘First Annual message” (1801), in Writings, p.504. Jefferson’s and The Declaration’s optimism has been termed by some analysts as the Secular-Democratic Consciousness in contrast to The Constitution’s Classical-Christian Consciousness; see Page Smith, The Constitution: A Documentary and Narrative History (New York: Morrow Quill, 1980), pp.336-337.
22. John Witherspoon, An Annotated Edition of lectures on Moral Philosophy, ed. Jack Scott (Newark, DE: University of Deleware Press, 1982), p.144.
23. John Witherspoon, Works (9 vol.s; Edinburgh: Ogle & Aikman, 1805), Vol.9, p.139.
24. See Note 5.
25. Madison, “nos. 10 and 51,” The Federalist Papers, pp.77084,322-323; James Madision, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convenstion of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: Library of America), 1987), pp.34,39,52,131,233-234,311-312,322-323.
26. James Madison, “Parties” (1792), in The Papers of James Madison,1791-1793, Vol.14 (Charolottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1983), p.197.
27. Alexander Hamilton, ‘No.36,” in The Federalist Papers, pp.222-223.
28. Benjamin Franklin, “Letter To Robert Morris: (1783), in Writings, pp.1081-1082.
29. Larry Rasmussen, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p.127.
30. Ibid., p.128; for Madison’s similar views, see Note 5.
31. Barack Obama, as reported in “Obama’s Favorite philosopher – Niebuhr,” at http://sweetness-light, com/archive/obamas-fave-philosopher-reinhold-niebuhr (accessed Oct.22, 2011).
- Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Boooks,
1998), p.25; Martin Luther King, Jr., “Bold Design for a New South” (1963), in James Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther king, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), pp.115-116; Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream” (1961), in Ibid., p.213.
33. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1970), esp. p.98. Cone also teaches courses on Niebuhr at Union Seminary. According to Barack Obama, Niebuhr has also been an influence on his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. See Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father (New York: Random House, 1995), p.153.
- William Yates, Rights of Colored Men to Suffrage, Citizenship, and trail by Jury (Philadelphia:
Merrihaw and Gunn, 1838), p.34; George Washington Mitchell, The Rights of Citizens under Democratic Government (n.dp; n.d.), p.2; Benjamin Lynde Oliver, The Rights of an American Citizen (Boston: March, Cooper& Lyon, 1832), esp. pp.2,11,14; Peter Williams, Jr., “Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (1808), in Carter G. Woodson, ed., Negro Orators and Their Orations (Washington, DC, 19250, pp.33-4. For a helpful discussion of African-American participation in Antislavery Constitutionalism, see
Donald G. Nieman, Promises to Keep: African-Americans and Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present (New York and Oxford: Oxford University press, 1991).
35. For this analysis and conclusion, see Dan Eggen and T. W. Farnam, “Obama still flush with cash from financial sector despite frosty relations,” The Washington Post, October 19,2011.
In No. 51 of The Federalist Papers James Madison writes:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. .. It may be a reflection on
human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of
government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflection
of human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls would
be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men
over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government
to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.5
The separation of powers of our system was proposed to James Madison during his student days at Princeton by his favorite Professor John Witherspoon who wrote:
Every good form of government must be complex… so that one principle
may check the other… It is folly to expect that a state should be upheld
by integrity of all who have a share in managing it. They must be so
balanced that when one draws his own interest or inclination, there may be
an overpoise upon the whole.22
Witherspoon makes it clear that this skepticism about this commitment to sharing power relates to his
skepticism about human nature. In a speech made to the Continental Congress as the Articles of Confederation were being drafted, he stated: “I am none of those who either deny or conceal the depravity of human nature.”23
As a result, much to the neglect of the media and other analysts, Madison, Hamilton, and even Franklin (quotes below in that order) opted for big government which might even redistribute property by creating safety nets for the poor:
[T]he great objection should be to combat the evil [of faction] by withholding
unnecessary opportunities from a few… By the silent operation of laws, which
without violating the rights of property reduce extreme wealth towards a state
of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.26
Happy it is when the interest which the government has in the preservation of its
own power coincides with a proper distribution of the public burdens and tends
to guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression.27
All Property, indeed except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his Bow, his
Matchcoat… seems to me to be the Creature of public Contention… All the
Property that is necessary to a Man, of the Conservation of the Individual and
Propagation of the Species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him
of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick…
who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the
Publick shall demand such Disposition.28