David Brooks of the New York Times has written very engaging columns about Barak Obama's theological background and why we have reason to believe that will serve him and our nation well were he to be elected. In his most recent column he hits on these themes again, and I'd like to comment on them. I'll give the quote first, however.
"Moreover, [Obama] has a worldview that precedes political positions. Some Americans (Republican or Democrat) believe that the country’s future can only be shaped through a remorseless civil war between the children of light and the children of darkness. Though Tom DeLay couldn’t deliver much for Republicans and Nancy Pelosi, so far, hasn’t been able to deliver much for Democrats, these warriors believe that what’s needed is more partisanship, more toughness and eventual conquest for their side.
But Obama does not ratchet up hostilities; he restrains them. He does not lash out at perceived enemies, but is aloof from them. In the course of this struggle to discover who he is, Obama clearly learned from the strain of pessimistic optimism that stretches back from Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Lincoln. This is a worldview that detests anger as a motivating force, that distrusts easy dichotomies between the parties of good and evil, believing instead that the crucial dichotomy runs between the good and bad within each individual."
Here we can see Obama's Niebuhrian influence. He holds a deep regard for Niebuhr's theological understanding of the profundity of sin and its equal distribution. The strain of "pessimistic optimism" that sees the crucial line dividing "good and bad running within each of us" highlights a fundamental divide in the ways the Reformed tradition of Christianity has impacted our nation's public life.
The major key has been, in my preferred language, a theology of glory that imagines its righteous actions please God and are in fact consonant with God's will so that the outcome is a kind of certitude which has been such a hallmark of the Bush presidency. Niebuhr connected this to the Puritan doctrine of "special providence". However, such a perspective is dangerous in at least two important ways. First, it means that if I'm righteous, others are not. So the perspective divides fundamentally, and gives us material evidence for making judgments (something that Jesus could be said to disavow among his followers). Second, it means that if things go poorly for me, I have little capacity for making sense of that experience and so a kind of rigid or forced optimism comes into play which cannot admit failure or even doubt. We see that, too, with the Bush presidency.
That Obama has a vigorous and consciously held theological position grounded in what I call the "minor key" or a theology of the cross, a "pessimistically optimistic" view, is so hopeful. It is a realistic and ultimately humble position that seeks common bonds and expects unintended consequences, some of which will be bad. But it also feels the responsibility to act with others in doing what we can. Hope, in other words, is grounded in the judgment and promise of God and not in the power of humanity. Not that we are weak; but the power belongs to God, and we are stewards, wielding that power not for ourselves but for the sake of those who need help.
This theological divide runs back through our nation's history. One can argue the merits of each for political leadership. I think the promise of humility, of "pessimistic optimism," is exactly the kind of humble and unifying leadership we need for this nation and its place in the world today.