In 2010, Barack Obama famously said that his favorite philosopher was Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who lived between 1892 and 1971. As with so much that Mr. Obama says that at first sounds profound, closer scrutiny reveals fundamental confusion. If Obama’s favorite philosopher was Niebuhr, he’s never really read Niebuhr, or, if he has, he hasn’t understood him.
Niebuhr was a man of the left, the old left. Obama is a progressive, marinated in the new left, which Peggy Noonan calls liberalism without blood. Niebuhr was a realist. Obama is an idealist. Niebuhr stressed the sinfulness of the human character, Obama the perfectibility of the same. Niebuhr disdained all attempts to build political utopias, while Obama seems to think nothing is beyond his own enchanted endowments.
Niebuhr was not an orthodox Christian, and denied the supernatural in his theology. Yet he deeply impacted several generations of political and religious thinkers with what one writer calls the “Niebuhrian temper:” skepticism towards the perennial dreams of those who think they can change the world through good intentions, combined with a recognition that the chief end of government is not to improve human nature, but to channel the irrationality of mankind into the common good. Adam Smith would agree.
Perhaps the theologian who most closely echoes Niebuhr without sacrificing the centrality of the supernatural was C. S. Lewis. On the 22nd of this month, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death. Here are Lewis’ words concerning utopians. This would include Mr. Obama.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end because they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”