July 28th, 2010
01:47 PM ET

New book explains Barack Obama's favorite theologian

When I first started reading about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I kept coming across one name: Reinhold Niebuhr.

Niebuhr was a Protestant pastor and theologian who lived during the mid-20th century. He’s best known for writing the Serenity Prayer ("God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can..."). But he also exerted a profound influence on King.

It turns out that Niebuhr is also one of President Obama’s favorite theologians, as I detailed in an article earlier this year.

Now one of the Niebuhr scholars quoted in my article has come out with a new book that should satisfy the curiosity of anyone who had the same question I did: Why is Niebuhr such a big deal.

Richard Crouter, author of  “Reinhold Niebuhr, on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith,” writes that he wants to explain Niebuhr to "non-specialists" interested in his relevance for today.

Both liberals and conservative Christians cite Niebuhr - liberals for his emphasis on social justice and conservatives for his willingness to use force to oppose evil.

Crouter, who heard Niebuhr lecture in person, writes in his book's introduction:

He is cited by the left as a radical political liberal and by the right as neoconservative. His reputation as a Christian theologian is both assured and, at the same time, contested.

What do you think Niebuhr would say about polarizing issues like Afghanistan and Wall Street reform?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Barack Obama • Books • Christianity • Culture wars • Jesus • Politics • Uncategorized

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Emmitt Langley

    Either I'm having a deja vu or this article has run before...

    July 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  2. Wizard

    To Grant- If you "pick" a religion based upon what's in it for you then I think that falls short of a valid reason. If in fact you went to a Catholic school then you should know that they teach a lot more than god loves and forgives you (which they do teach). Forgiveness comes to those that recognize and acknowledge their failures AND seek forgiveness. It's not given willy nilly. I also think love is best if it's a 2 way street, don't you agree. There's no free ride, we all have responsibilities here. Hope you decide well.

    July 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
    • Grant

      But why is seeking forgiveness limited to this life? If there is a God then once I did and come face to...face? with him, I should be able to seek forgiveness then and be forgiven.

      What it boils down to is this: You have made an argument with Pascal's wager with certain human-made assumptions in mind. Namely: There is a God. He is ever present in our lives instead of just a creator and watcher. He is a jealous God that cares what each of us does.

      The problem is, you don't know these to be true. Sure, you believe them, but that's your call. Unfortunately, it holds absolutely no water with me. Dismissing these assumptions as pure musings, Pascal's wager whittles to nothing as well.

      And I still refuse to pick a faith based on Pascal's logic.

      July 28, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  3. Jake

    To Reality- Nor you the shackles of your atheistic one.

    July 28, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  4. Reality

    It appears the added early bio on Professor Niebuhr got scrubbed. Tough crowd!!

    So once again with a change of wording as not to offend the sensitivies of our moderators and readers.

    Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, the son of German immigrant and German Evangelical pastor Gustav Niebuhr and his wife Lydia. His denomination was the American branch of the established Prussian Church Union in Germany; it is Calvinist (not Lutheran) and is now part of the United Church of Christ. The family spoke German; his brother H. Richard Niebuhr became a famous historian of religion; his sister Hulda Niebuhr became a divinity professor in Chicago.

    Obviously, he was never able to throw off the shackles of his Christian inheritance.

    July 28, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Prentiss

    To Bryan2010- One has a 1) in front of it, the other has a 2). What's your friggin' point? Oh, never mnd you have none. My response follows: 1) I know you exist but am not sure why and 2) I believe god exists

    July 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  6. Bryan2010

    What is the difference between these two statements?
    1) I know I exist
    2) I know God exists

    July 28, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  7. Prentiss

    To Gary- And one of his better compensated ones for sure!!

    July 28, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  8. Bryan2010

    What's the difference between these two statements?
    1) I know I exist
    2) I know God exists

    July 28, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  9. Gary

    I am agnostic but if satan exists I am sure Obama is one of his workers..

    July 28, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  10. Wizard

    To Grant- Really? So you support the notion of choosing no faith at all as your answer? You think just looking at the good you may have done (not to mention what "bad" you did) will be good enoug? If there is a god, how would your disblief in "him" figure into the equation? As to your second point, if there is a god then yes I would think it would matter what his creation thought/believed since it mattered to him to create them in the first place. If the Christians are right Christ is the only way and belief in him is necessary. Really a compelling approach if you study it.

    July 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
    • Grant

      More to the point, what reason do you have to say that what I believe isn't good enough? Yes I've done good and bad, as has everyone. But if I recall my 12 years of Catholic teaching, God loves and forgives all. If this is the case (and you can't say it isn't just as much as you can't say it is) then I don't see the issue with just trying to be as good a person as I can be and proudly stand trial at the end of it all.

      Again, I refuse to pick a faith based on what's in it for me. Just because Christianity promises salvation for those who believe doesn't make it so. It is your belief that God is a jealous God. I believe any such being would be above such human faults. After all, pride is a deadly sin.

      July 28, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
    • Grant

      And by pride I mean envy....ruined my closer!

      July 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
    • bobcat1a

      I believe it was Shaw who was asked on his deathbed what he would say if God asked why he didn't believe. Shaw said his response would be, "Not enough data, Lord." A reasonable god would not ask his children to believe in that for which there is no evidence.

      July 28, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
  11. Wizard

    To Grant- I agree with you however I point you to Paschal's wager. Given what may be at stake isn't it safer and more logical to have faith in the existence of a creator than to deny the existence of a creator if you can't see, touch or prove. If those that believe in a god are correct they have a lot to gain. If they are not correct they have nothing to lose. The oposie is trur for atheists. If they are right nothing matters, if they are wrong well....I don't know but Paschal was smarter than those of us here.

    July 28, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • Grant

      I am aware of the wager, but also opposed to the notion. I don't support the idea of picking your faith based on what is at stake afterwards. If God exists and is all-loving and all-forgiving, then I'm sure when I am judged, all the good I have done will weigh more heavily than my skepticism. And if God does not exist, then I'm no worse off.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • Grant

      So really, I suppose the argument behind Pascal's wager is only valid if you make the assumption that God cares about whether or not you believe – a claim which is also not supported by proof.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  12. AnnBChrist

    First Let's All gain some literacy on the subject before attaching labels to anyone who happens to form an opinion ....apageinthelife dot blogspot dot com.. and consider yourself lucky if you can access the pages

    July 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  13. Wizard

    It is a "religion" in the sense that it is a belief. Atheists do believe something, they "believe" there is no god, they "believe" there was no creation. No answers, just a huge leap of faith and an easy position that they don't have to defend. Well, are you an atheist peace2all? Don't really care, just curious given your predictable and juvenile position.

    July 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
    • Grant

      Quick point, Wizard. Belief does not equal religion. Belief = Faith. It's just that faith is typically assigned to religion, but need not be.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
    • peace2all


      Again, your lack of knowledge in world religions and what makes something 'a religion' shows your willingness to try and argue a position without even knowing the basis on facts.

      You again resort to name calling...... Can't have any rational debate when someone is name calling and isn't even up on the facts on which to discuss the topic at hand...

      You are obviously a blog 'troll' take care of yourself.. good luck..!


      July 28, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  14. Taurus

    Good points Frank. I am..on the fence. It seems to me atheists just say no to a god saying there is no "proof". yet they have no answers or explanations of their own. They of course can offer no proof at all, just expect everyone to believe faith in a god is for the simple minded, never realizing that what they believe (i.e. no creator at all) is a far bigger stretch. I think I'll reevaluate my beliefs. Atheists offer nothing at all.

    July 28, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
    • Grant

      Taurus, the difference between an atheist (who has thought things through) and a theist is that an atheist looks at the questions and says "I don't have the answers, but that's not to say they won't come, and while I cannot offer an alternative right now, I don't believe there is a 'god' behind everything" while a theist says "while I don't have the answers, I believe science will provide some of them, but the answer to the ultimate questions is 'God'"

      It's not a matter of going with what offers the most. It's a matter of going with what you believe and what you feel you need at your particular stage in life.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  15. The Wizard

    To Peace2all- And neither is your belief a fact. You apparently are an atheist, which is every bit as much a "religion" as that Christian woman. Quit acying like it isn't moron. In fact your beliefs REALLY ask for incredible leaps of faith. A know it all who knows nothing.

    July 28, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • peace2all

      @The Wizard;

      1) I did not state that 'my' belief is a fact.

      2) No... you are making an 'assumption' that I am an atheist. You don't know what my true beliefs are.

      3)No... In fact if you look up any reasonable definition 'Atheism' is NOT a religion. Religion, especially of the christian kind is a belief in a deity, has rituals surrounding that deity, a holy book, etc....

      Atheism, is just 'no belief' in a deity... It is NOT considered a religion in any way shape or form.

      4)Finally-- Why is it believers begin start 'name calling' when someone presents a cogent and logic based assertion.

      So, @The Wizard...... I would suggest that YOU are the 'know it all' who really knows nothing...!

      You have offered nothing relevant to the discussion other than to name call and attack...


      July 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  16. smalltownmom

    I feel my belief in God in my heart. I don't think any kind of brainwashing could place something in my heart.

    July 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • peace2all


      Nothing wrong with your 'belief' other than to remember that your belief is just that..... a belief.

      belief does not = fact..


      July 28, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
    • Grant

      Unless you were brainwashed to believe you felt it in your heart.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
    • smalltownmom

      The heart does not lie. My belief is my truth. 🙂

      July 28, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
    • Grant

      Funny how using "my" instead of "the" is the difference between a valid and an invalid statement

      July 28, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • Peter F


      Misplaced belief could lead you astray though. Just because it is your belief does not mean it is THE truth. For example, I could believe that in the year 2026 sheep will all sprout wings and fly away to Mars. Absurd, yes, but what if I believed it in my heart? That is a pretty much meaningless argument... (This all coming from a Christian)

      July 28, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
    • smalltownmom

      @ peter f
      My belief is Bible based not what "anyone" told me to believe.
      does the word "my" make my statement valid?

      July 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
    • Grant

      Yes. I cannot argue with anyone's beliefs. So given that you made it your truth and not THE truth, there is no invalidity to what you've said.

      On the other hand, if everyone has their truth and their truth is valid for them, no single truth can be THE truth unless absolutely everyone shares it.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
    • smalltownmom

      @ Grant
      THE core Christian truth is there is one God, and Jesus died for everyones (even for those who do not believe) sin.
      The rest is the mud the human (that are christians) make it.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • Peter F

      Okay, just clarifying. I hadn't seen you mention the Bible... and to call yourself a Christian simply by believing "in your heart" that God is real is not a strong foundation. I'm glad you brought that up though.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • smalltownmom

      @ Peter F
      The first time I really dedicated my life to Christ I felt it in my heart not my head. 5th post down from my original says I am a Bible based Christian.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
    • verify

      smalltownwoman: The heart is a muscular organ, which pumps blood throughout the body. It doesn't 'know' anything. It responds to chemical stimuli generated in the brain by sometimes fluttering, skipping a beat, beating faster, etc. Would a heart transplant recipient know different things from the new heart?

      July 28, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  17. jeff

    @ Peter F you said "deeper reality" that's the best nonsense statement I ever heard.

    July 28, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
    • Peter F

      It simply means that a lot of people fail to recognize there is more than what meets the eye in this world.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • peace2all

      @Peter F;

      And.... in time, every deeper reality, has and will at some point in the future, be explained by a sound-scientifically tested theory, that will in time, be most likely turned into indisputable fact.


      July 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • Peter F

      Can matter come from nothing, and is that how the universe was created? What is the meaning of life? Where do morals come from? Why should we live by them? Or shouldn't we?

      July 28, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
    • peace2all

      @Peter F;

      You seem to like to just throw out the questions, just 'assuming' unquestioningly that anything seemingly unexplained to a full measure gets thrown into the see..... 'it is God'

      1)Meaning of life-– We all make our own meaning... that is a fact.

      2)Why should we live with morals-– If we didn't, whether you are a believer or not...... if we hurt each other, had no system of laws, then society would eventually crumble. Morals allow us to live and co-exist together. Again, believers and non-believers still break them.

      3)How did the universe get created..?-- I think you have seen enough theories that are continually being proven more and more. No... the universe did not get created 4,000 years ago...etc...


      July 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • Grant

      Peter, the whole "matter from nothing" question is a big one, indeed! And no matter what theories you put forth for the creation of the universe (spawned from the collapse of another past universe for instance), they are all subject to the infinite regression issue of "well what came before that?" But I have to ask as well, why is God exempt from this question – rather, He simply just....is.

      With regards to morals, I am of the opinion that morality is an evolved set of principles. Humans (and their evolutionary ancestors) are social creatures that needed to organize into some form of society. This would not have worked well with everyone doing as they pleased. So over time (and considering how much time we're talking about), these learned rules for society's functioning became learned naturally and are now what we call "morals". Simply put, we should follow them because they allow society's to function. And – from an evolutionary perspective – genes would not survive if the children will be killed.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
    • Peter F

      You broke your own statement with response number one. We all make our own meaning, that is a fact. If that is a scientific fact, then prove it. Use data, observations, statistics, whatever you need. You cannot make a scientific assertion without any backup.

      If it's science, we want facts, proofs, theories, not simply statements like "that is fact" period.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
    • Peter F


      I really like your response there. Evolution has played a major part because, after all, pre Christian civilizations did not destroy themselves because their moral codes, laws, and social structures upheld their society. Lots of cultures and societies have thrived during the rise of Christianity in Europe.

      As far as the creation of the universe is concerned... well, that is another one of those questions that I doubt science will ever have a fact-based answer to. It is a matter of faith and belief whether or not you have a religious background.

      Thanks for the reply!

      July 28, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • Grant

      Well look at that, Peter, we calmly came to the conclusion of this "debate" – the only conclusion there is, yet people don't ever seem to understand it.

      You said it right on – All the unknowns are a matter of faith – You either have faith that God is behind it, or you have faith there is no god behind it. Given our current capacities, it is highly unlikely that science will answer this question one way or the other. This makes the question of "does God exist" a preposterous one to debate since the answer from both sides can be nothing more than "I don't know, but I believe God does/doesn't exist."

      In any case, thanks for keeping it civil!

      July 28, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
    • Jake

      Grant, Christians believe God exists outside of time. God did not exist before he created the universe, because there was no 'before.' When he created the universe he also created time. It may seem to some a sort of convienent fix to your question, but it's really a very complicated idea if you think about it.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
    • Grant

      I should hope the concept of God to be a very complex one. That being said, I feel it is so because we have made it that way. To make the concept of God within reason is to make it fallible, which simply won't do from a belief standpoint. So while the concept is complex, the use of it oversimplifies things.

      July 28, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  18. Toby

    Theology, as it is taught in our universities and colleges, is simply the study of myth and legend. You could study this stuff until you're old and gray, it still would not prove the veracity of absurd metaphysical claims put forth by the "sacred texts" of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. At the end of the day, it is simply wishful thinking by the credulous, the ignorant, and the fearful.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • Peter F

      As taught by our functionally unaffiliated colleges and universities I would agree with you. But I myself am attending seminary to become a pastor, and I see faith being rooted in a much deeper reality. When God is behind it all, there is significance, there is hope, and there is love.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
    • Grant

      And there are convenient answers to tough questions

      July 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • Peter F

      Not always. Believe it or not, Christians struggle with a lot of different ideas that are not "explained away" by the Bible.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
    • Grant

      Peter, please go on – I hope to learn something!

      July 28, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
    • Peter F

      Toby, name one issue that you, as a nonbeliever (I'm guessing), might struggle with in regard to morals or ethics. I bet you, in some way, shape or form a Christian would struggle with the same issue.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • cara

      However you might feel about theology in general, Niebuhr really doesn't fall into that character (nor does his equally famous brother, H. Richard). Niebuhr's whole shtick is Christian realism–meaning, we have to leave the ethics of Jesus behind in order to act in this fallen world. All he talks about is the hard, real choices of our lives–not myths and legends.

      Start with The Irony of American History.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
    • Bostonaccent

      You seem convinced that there are no 'metaphysical realities'. You also seem to forget that many great men such as Bach, Isaac Newton, Dostoyovsky, and the list goes on, have believed in these 'myths and legends'. The fact is, they believed them because they are rooted in history and the historical record and traditions are rock solid. You are mocking what you don't understand and have never researched fully.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • verify

      Wow, Boston, you have made at least 3 logical fallicies there:

      – Argument from Tradition
      – Argument from Authority
      – Argument from Popularity

      You can look them up...

      p.s. Newton also believed in Alchemy and occult numerology. Bach and Dostoevsky... I don't have time right now to find their idiosyncratic beliefs, but I'm betting they had them.

      July 28, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • bobcat1a

      Instead of theology, why not just call it ethics and leave the mythology out of it.

      July 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  19. Fred

    Does he know anything about anything????? He's just another smooth talkin, hypocrite.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  20. Peter F

    I didn't know Obama knew anything about theologians...

    July 28, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
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