The Sobriety of Hope

What is it about Reinhold Niebuhr
that makes him a thinker of
“promise” for President Obama?
The president’s appreciation of Niebuhr
may go back to his earlier days as a community
organizer on Chicago’s south
side. Saul Alinsky, the inspiration and
interpreter of the community organization
movement, regarded Niebuhr as
one of his mentors and may have led
the president to Niebuhr’s works.1

My speculations on an Obama-Niebuhr connection are based not only
on learning from Alinsky’s Reveille for
Radicals and Rules for Radicals
but on
hearing him lecture in one of my University
of Chicago Divinity School classes
in the late 1940s. My stint as pastor
of a congregation/settlement house in
Bridgeport, a south side Chicago community
adjacent to the stockyard district
where Alinsky honed his skills in
community organization, further bolsters
my speculation.

Alinsky was a passionate reformer
who believed that social change happens
when appeal is made to the self-interest
of the underdog, rather than
relying on preachments to the powerful.
He sought to develop coalitions of
the aggrieved–including groups that
often were pitted against one another–in the struggle against common afflictions. There is a doctrine of human
nature at work in these assumptions
and strategies. We are all “sinners,” although
Alinsky did not use these biblical
terms. Self-interest is, therefore, a
crucial factor in organizing the powerless
in the quest for justice. And it means that
the powerful can only be challenged by
the powerless organizing to check their
hubris. At work here is the realism that
Niebuhr espoused. And, like Niebuhr, it
was blended with a vision of a world of
human flourishing.

Obama, the “visionary realist,”
demonstrated that difficult mix in his
lecture upon the receipt of the Nobel
Prize. Jeff Zeleny caught this creative tension
in his report of the event, commenting
that “He delivered a mix of realism
and idealism, implicitly criticizing both
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as naïve
about a dangerous world and President
George W. Bush as too quick to
set aside fundamental American values
in pursuit of security.”2 The “implicit”
should be unpacked. The president reveres
King. Obama, however, observed
here, and many times elsewhere, that the
responsibilities of a head of state are not
the same as those who are the head of
a movement, such as King and Gandhi.3
The president is reflecting a theme illustrated
by sociologist Robert Hoover’s bell
curve. Hoover argues that effective social
change happens when a small cadre of
“innovators” have their cause taken up
by a larger group of “early adopters” who,
in turn, bring aboard the yet larger company
of “early majoritarians.” Such a coalition,
he contends, reaches the tipping
point of the sought-for change.4 Not a
few later commentators called this visionary
realism “Niebuhrian.”

While the biblical “vision” is a radical
norm–for Niebuhr it was the Kingdom
of God in its purity at the end of history–for Alinsky and Obama it would be
a utopian hope of social transformation. Although perhaps for Obama-the-believer,
it also would be that Kingdom. Romantic
expectation of its achievement in
this world, however, is given up. Rather,
the vision functions as a lure toward
higher approximations and a judge of
lower ones. Thus, as the president has
said, be wary of “emotional absolutism,”5 and remember that “the perfect
can be the enemy of the good.” The good
has to do with a maximum feasible goal
in a particular circumstance in this
world of competing self-interests/sin
that plague history to the End. This
means that often the visionary realist
will find himself/herself opposed, or
not understood, by the visionary who
assumes that the perfect is possible, on
the one hand, and the simplistic realist,
on the other, whose goals are too
pragmatic or captive to the givens. Of
course, the one who seeks to blend vision
and reality is not exempt from the
temptation to sacrifice one value for
the sake of the other.6 Stay tuned as
we watch the president walk this tightrope.

An irony attends the current interest
in Alinsky. Niebuhr, with his own
appreciation for irony, viz. The Irony of
American History
, would be among the
first to discern it. Dick Armey, fierce
critic of Obama, is said to have learned
from Alinsky how to mount grassroots
protests against the president’s policies.
Thus the August 2009 display
of raucous outbursts by attendees at
many town meetings held by members
of Congress, magnified by the 24/7
news cycle on cable TV. Thus too, the
signs and shouts of “liar” and worse,
engineered by Armey’s organization
and those of like mind. One must
ask, however, whether the pretended
realism in the methods and goals of
these protests has not morphed into
cynicism. The dictum holds true that
“where there is no vision the people

If those who have discovered in our
midst a stewardship of that vision in
company with a sobriety about hopedfor
outcomes are right, then “Reinie”
does seem to be around just when we
need him.


1 In an observation by Jerry Kellman, an associate of
Obama’s in his community organizing days, both
Obama’s debt to Alinsky and his critique of him
come clear: “There is a machismo which makes
organizers afraid to admit that they are moved by
ideals rather than self-interest. But most of what
we do in life is, of course, a combination of both.
Barack understood this, and so did I, and so Alinsky’s
teaching on self-interest was balanced by
Dr. King’s appeal to our mutuality.” In The Bridge:
The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
(New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 2010), 164. On the larger matters
of ultimate commitment, see Obama’s insightful
discussion of the current religious landscape and
his own basic convictions in the chapter, “Faith,”
in The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming
the American Dream
(New York: Crown Publishers,
2006), 195-226.

2 Jeff Zeleny “Accepting Peace Prize, Obama Offers
‘Hard Truth'” The New York Times (December 11,
2009), A17.

3 So described by Remnick, The Bridge, op.cit, 348.

4 Robert Hoover, “Empirically Tested Categories of
Normative Adopters.” Figure 6, mimeograph, 1971,
referencing data in Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation
(New York: Free Press, 1962).

5 Remnick, The Bridge, p. 430.

6 The brilliant biography by David Remnick, The
, while essentially a narrative, demonstrates
through-out the quest by Obama to hold
together passionate ideals in tension with political

Gabriel Fackre is the Abbot Professor of Christian Theology
Emeritus at Andover Newton Theological School.
He resides in West Hyannisport, Massachusetts. This
essay is excerpted from the preface to the new, thirdedition
of The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr, scheduled
for publication by Eerdmans in late 2010.