The theology that was evident throughtout Obama’s Nobel speech was that of Reinhold Niebuhr. His book, The Irony of American History (1952) made the case for the just war. In the ’50s and ’60s I was a reader of Niebuhr when he was noted as a neo-orthodox Christian and I would read him either in the New Republic or Nation magazine. (Wikipedia has a good bio that doesn’t mention neo-orthodox but certainly describes it.) The shift that R.N. made during his lifetime as a minister and professor of theology is quite dramatic. He was the first intellectual religious writer that I encountered. It is interesting to note that Martin Luther King was also greatly influenced by Niebuhr but his writings moved MLK towards non-violence and pacifism.
This site has a lenghty discussion of the relationship between Niehbur’s writings and Obama’s speech:
That book was written in 1952 at the height of the Cold War, but it is as relevant today as it ever was. Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” has written an introduction to a new edition of Niebuhr’s classic work. In a Boston Globe essay penned after Obama’s election, Bacevich explained Niebuhr as he explored the new president’s affinity for the theologian:
“At the root of Niebuhr’s thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, ‘cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest.’ Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness — never an American strong suit — poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself.”
Because Niebuhr (1892-1971) was not cited explicitly, those who did not pick up on the Niebuhrian themes (not to mention the speech’s thoroughly religious and moral orientation) understandably seemed flummoxed. Without the theological framework, Obama’s address read not as irony but as a series of contradictions that collapsed in on themselves — because they were viewing Obama through the “dualing” political categories of liberal-conservative, dove-hawk, president-candidate. Yet as a theological meditation of the sort favored by Niebuhr (and, yes, MLK and JFK and JPII) Obama’s speech makes perfect sense because it recognizes that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world that requires hard thinking and tough moralizing, about oneself and about the world.
Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, a former speech writer for Bush, had noted Obama’s Niebuhrian affinities a year ago, and he saw them again Thursday in “a Niebuhrian tension between a fallen world that demands force to restrain evil and a realm of ideals that draws us beyond those compromises. And he embodied this argument in a kind of dialogue with Martin Luther King, Jr., recognizing the power of nonviolence, but pointing out its limits. It was a bold and powerful historical statement.”