Wednesday, December 16, 2009

First Thoughts: "Did First Things Influence the Obama Doctrine?"

Joe Carter has a tongue-in-cheek (I think) post at First Thoughts speculating (and then dismissing said speculation) that First Things might have played a role in influencing the so-called "Obama Doctrine" on the exertion of military power, which (to the extent the President's Nobel speech actually announced a doctrine at all) appears to have been inspired by the "Christian Realism" of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

(Niebuhr is obviously trendy at the moment as, just yesterday, I linked to an LA Times piece by Neal Gabler in which he mentions that Bill Moyers "has also called himself a Christian Realist, after the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr".)

An interesting discussion ensues at First Thoughts, but my attention was most drawn to this comment, which ponders how Obama's "Christian Realism" might play a role in arbitrating winners and losers in the Culture Wars:
... We learn from Mr Brooks that the Brooks-Obama doctrine of ‘Christian realism’ is grounded on ‘core struggles within human nature’ or paradoxes of the human condition, namely ‘humanity’s noble but sinful nature’, ‘prophetic Christianity and the human tendency towards corruption’. So far, so good. It sounds Pauline, even evangelical.

But place these memes and paradoxes together with the tactical message of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame in which he indicated that there are two seemingly irreconcilable positions on abortion: a woman’s right and the right to life. Now what do we have? A perfect argument for the Christian Realist to take up the mantel of Arbiter-in-Chief in the culture wars, the umpire in the new American multi-faith, multi-cult society in which everyone has his or her own truth and there is no health in us.

Brooks-Obama presents a new, appeal-to-the-evangelicals, twist on the old story of American pragmatism. It is not the Unifying One who is being put forward as Presidential Persona by Brooks, but the Christian Realist One who will constitutionalize (forgive the barbarism) relativism as the new American civil religion.

Questions of war and peace and much else (gay marriage, abortion, stem cell manipulation, freedom of conscience and general cultural mayhem) can, thanks to the paradoxes of human nature and the human condition, be rendered perfectly harmless by being translated into pragmatic considerations because they are undecidable. You see, Brooks-Obama is even a tad post-modern.

None of this is new but it took Mr Brooks to spell it out theologically and politically.

The anticipated result: a big knock down to Evangelicals of the conservative persuasion, Catholic Bishops, idiots in trailer camps, signers of the Manhatten Declaration, Neocons, American exceptionalists, grumpy old men and women and, of course, Mrs Palin who doesn’t know a relativist from a fundamentalist except that she does know that certain things are wrong. I’m not carrying a brief for Palin but I can’t resist pointing out how un-Realistic she is.

I would like to ask a pragmatic question. Is Brooks-Obama confecting a winner in the cultural wars? By contenting moderately the moderates and shunting aside what will now appear to be the fanatical fringes (Palin to Dolan), it might be possible to acquire both majority and legitimacy. Brooks suggests that Obama’s Christian Realism can offer both success and the moral rearmament of liberalism.

The price is that we must agree that there is no truth, even if truth is something we strive to find and understand rather than possess. We will be offered an analysis of multiple and conflicting problems, rights, needs, paradoxes, perspectives, positions, values and truths, held together by the numbing tragedy and limitations of the human condition. And, oh yes, there is a bright side: we will have a President who is the constitutional guarantor of relativism as the alternative to civil war.

The choice Brooks-Obama offer, and which they want us to accept, is false and demeaning.
[emphasis added]

An interesting (and troubling) perspective.

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