Irony in Apocalyptic America: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Presidential Rhetoric of Good and Evil after 9/11

This chapter is from Political Leadership and Rhetoric in Democracy, Lee Trepanier, ed. Cedar City, UT: Southern Utah University Press, 2010. Southern Utah University has given Voegelin Principles permission to reprint this.


"And in this war, we’re countering the terrorist’s dark and hateful ideology by offering a more hopeful vision – and that’s one based on freedom…. We’re engaged in the great ideological struggle of our time – between the forces of freedom and the forces of tyranny."

President George W. Bush, August 20, 2008, addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention

"Everybody understands the obvious meaning of the world struggle in which we are engaged.  We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice."

Reinhold Niebuhr, opening sentences of The Irony of American History, 1952 


When President George W. Bush initiated what his administration called the “war on terror” after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the twentieth century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made an unexpected comeback.  Bush never identified Niebuhr as an influence on his presidency. However, as can be seen by comparing the epigraphs above, there are at least some rhetorical similarities between Bush and Niebuhr.  Both speak of a civilizational struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of tyranny.  In Bush’s time, the great threat to America was – and continues to be – Islamist terror; in Niebuhr’s time, the primary threat was communism.[1]  For both Bush and Niebuhr, dialogue and diplomacy by themselves were not enough to contain these threats; in order to protect America responsibly, military force, or the threat of such force, would have to be employed.   Given these parallels between the policies of Bush and the thought of Niebuhr, a number of prominent academics and journalists came forward to defend Bush’s war on terror using Niebuhr’s writings. 

In political science, Niebuhr is perhaps best known as the liberal Protestant thinker who tried to revive traditional Christian accounts of “just war.”  Throughout his life Niebuhr was critical of non-violent liberals and Christian pacifists who argued that war was never morally permissible.  Against the “pacifist disavowals of war as such,” which claim that non-violence is always the morally correct position, Niebuhr retorts: “It is not possible to disavow war absolutely without disavowing the task of establishing justice.”[2]  If we yearn for some type of justice in this life, then war cannot be dismissed out of hand.  Certain enemies of democracy, like fascism and communism, are such a major threat to basic justice that refusing to confront them militarily constitutes an even greater immorality than resisting them through force.  Niebuhr was an early critic of efforts to appease Hitler.  He also argued that nuclear deterrence was a justified measure to contain the communist threat.  With these views, Niebuhr is often described as a “Christian hawk.”

Niebuhr died in 1971.  With the end of the Cold War his influence outside of university departments and theological seminaries waned somewhat.  However, after the attacks of 9/11, America and Western democracies were once again faced with an existential threat, this time from al-Qaeda and other like-minded Islamists who preached violent jihad against the West.  The Bush administration responded, first by invading Afghanistan and later invading Iraq, all part of a general “war on terror” – a war which included expanded intelligence agencies, increased homeland security, targeted assassinations, prison camps, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” for suspected terrorists.  Many on the left wing were critical of these measures, especially the war in Iraq.  Some argued that the United States should take a non-violent approach to resisting terror.  To counter such advocates for non-violence, a number of commentators tried to defend Bush’s policies by reviving Niebuhr’s thought.[3]   In the two years following 9/11, conservatives such as the historian Wilfred McClay, the journalist David Brooks, and the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain all cited Niebuhr to justify Bush’s handling of the war on terror.  Six months after 9/11 in the journal First Things, McClay stated: “Niebuhr might well approve of President Bush’s remarkably skillful and sensitive handling of the events of the past few months.”[4]  Later that year, Brooks acknowledged McClay’s article and wondered if it was possible for the left wing in America to support a militant response to terrorism.  Brooks concluded: “If there is going to be a hawkish left in America again, a left suspicious of power but willing to use it to defend freedom, it will have to be revived by a modern-day Reinhold Niebuhr.”[5]  Elshtain, in her 2003 book Just War Against Terror, asked “Where is the legacy of Niebuhr?” as she criticized what she called the “crypto-pacifism” emanating from mainline pulpits and left wing commentators.  Elshtain defended the war in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror by appealing to just war theologians such as Augustine, Paul Tillich, and Niebuhr.[6]  Later, in the 2004 edition of the book, Elshtain would also defend the invasion of Iraq along the same lines.  If the strategy of commentators like Elshtain, Brooks, and McClay was to shame the left by citing Niebuhr, then it worked – at least in part.  So-called “hawkish liberals” started to evoke Niebuhr to defend the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, most notably the journalist Peter Beinart in his 2006 book The Good Fight.[7]  Politicians of different political strips also started to cite Niebuhr with greater frequency, including unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and disgraced Democratic New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.[8]   Most dramatically, the influence of Niebuhr would extend directly to the White House itself.  In April 2007, as Barack Obama was starting his unlikely campaign to become president, he announced to David Brooks in the New York Times that Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” Obama then proceeded to speak at length about Niebuhr’s key text The Irony of American History.[9]

The purpose of this paper is to examine the relation between this post-9/11 Niebuhrian renaissance and the presidential rhetoric of Bush and Obama – specifically their rhetoric of “good and evil.”[10]  For Niebuhr, as a socially engaged Christian theologian, concerns about good and evil were not just theoretical but practical.  Even though he was, generally speaking, considered to be a “liberal” Christian, he was not afraid to refer to a murderous political ideology like communism as “demonic” or a “monstrous evil” – something that would make most liberals uneasy.[11]  One of the defining features of President Bush’s rhetoric was his frequent use of the words “good and evil” and his willingness to label America’s enemies as “evil-doers.”  The language of good and evil was such a prominent aspect of Bush’s rhetoric that the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer dubbed Bush “the president of good and evil.”[12]   There is no question that Bush’s rhetoric made many people uncomfortable, inspiring a great deal of controversy and commentary.  That said, Bush was not the first president to use the language of good and evil, nor was he the last.  As I write, Barack Obama is in the second year of his presidency, and during his tenure in the White House he has used the language of good and evil as well – not as much as Bush, but nevertheless on a number of significant occasions.  Obama’s references to good and evil are important, and reveal a rhetorical departure from his predecessor in the Oval Office.

It is precisely this departure I will examine in the concluding section of my paper.  In order to understand its full significance, I will, first, discuss the thought of Niebuhr himself so that the presidential rhetoric of good and evil can be placed within a proper Niebuhrian context.  For the purposes of this paper I will focus on Niebuhr’s Irony of American History, which Obama identified as having had a direct influence on his thinking.  I will explore several key issues in the text, especially Niebuhr’s account of modern “irony,” his critique of modern “idealism,” and is interpretation of the Christian doctrine of original sin.  Central to my analysis is Niebuhr’s condemnation of the “apocalyptic” dimensions of modern idealism.  There are millenarian inclinations throughout modern culture, including within the United States.  It is easy for any politician – particularly a president – to use rhetoric that exploits these apocalyptic tendencies, sometimes with violent effect. 

Second, I will argue that, contrary to the Niebuhrian defenses of Bush, the majority of Bush’s rhetoric of good and evil after 9/11 was profoundly un-Niebuhrian, if not blatantly anti-Niebuhrian.  The rhetoric was, in actuality, symptomatic of an idealistic and outright apocalyptic mentality that Niebuhr criticized throughout his life.  As such, Bush’s words, I will argue, were an accurate reflection of his administration’s policies – policies that were presented to the public as hard-nosed realism, but were infected by a harmful idealism, especially during Bush’s first term in office.  This culminated in certain “ironies” for the war on terror.

Third, I will conclude by considering the Niebuhrian shift in President Obama.  I will demonstrate that though Obama’s rhetoric contains idealistic elements, it is not as idealistic as is sometimes argued by his critics.  Though elements of his presidential campaign were tinged with idealism, Obama’s presidential language has been decidedly more sober and, in crucial respects, more Niebuhrian.  This is especially true of his rhetoric of good and evil.  Obama’s language is indicative of a different type of mentality – perhaps one that Niebuhr would have favored in a president.  If those conservative commentators who evoked Niebuhr were looking for liberals who would be more militant when confronting terror, then they got one such liberal in Barack Obama.  I leave it to future commentators to decide if Obama’s Niebuhrian shift was in fact beneficial for the United States.

Irony, Apocalypticism, and Original Sin: Niebuhr’s Critique of Modern Idealism

In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr argues that one of the defining characteristics of the modern world is irony.  There is widespread incongruity between what moderns claim they are and what they really are, between their stated intentions and their actual accomplishments.  For example, communism claimed to be a movement that would liberate humanity once and for all from oppression and injustice; instead, it created unprecedented forms of political subjugation and mass murder.  Communism is an obvious, and particularly insidious, form of modern irony, but modernity in all of its political and ideological permutations is inundated with similar incongruities.  According to Niebuhr, genuine irony occurs whenever an acting subject overestimates his abilities to such an extent that he becomes unaware of his own defects.  In other words, he has an exaggerated opinion of his own excellence.  Consequently, his ostensibly good qualities and pure intentions start to take on contradictory features.  Niebuhr writes:

If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed on it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits – in all such cases the situation is ironic.

Genuine irony is not simply fortuitous, but due to weaknesses on the part of the subject – weaknesses of which he is not conscious because he is blinded by his own vanity.  As such, a person or nation bears responsibility for causing the ironic situation through negligence: neither truly undertook the work of gaining self-knowledge, which means knowing your limits and weaknesses before you act.  The irony can dissipate only if “men and nations are made aware of their complicity in it.”  Such awareness will lead either to “contrition” insofar as the subject will seek to abate the original vanities and come to a more realistic assessment of his true nature; or it will lead to a “desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.”  Communism is an example of the latter, in that it endeavors to hide its own character flaws: the more unjust it becomes, the more frantically it proclaims itself to be absolutely just.  As Niebuhr puts it: “Insofar as communism tries to cover the ironic contrast between its original dreams of justice and virtue and its present realities by more and more desperate efforts to prove its tyranny to be ‘democracy’ and its imperialism to be the achievement of universal peace, it has already dissolved irony into pure evil.”[13] 

As the title of Niebuhr’s book suggests, the United States is also awash in ironies.  Niebuhr observes: “Our modern liberal culture, of which American civilization is such an unalloyed exemplar, is involved in many ironic refutations of its original pretensions of virtue, wisdom, and power.”[14]  Writing in the midst of the Cold War, Niebuhr points out that American “dreams of pure virtue” are refuted by the fact that the United States can only exercise the virtue of protecting Western civilization by threatening to use atomic weapons; in this way, virtue starts to take on the qualities of evil.  Similarly, even though America has become more powerful than ever before, it is “less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy.”[15]  America is now burdened with the responsibilities of power, limiting the freedom it had before it was a superpower.  Furthermore, the more American power expands, the more it learns the limits of its power, and realizes that it cannot control everything that happens in the world.  In these ways, the surge of American power seems to increase awareness of American weakness.  If America recognizes these ironic refutations of its virtue and power, then it can minimize its hubristic pretenses and make pragmatic decisions to protect the West; if America, like communist societies, tries to cover up these ironic refutations by accentuating its vanities, then it moves towards “pure evil” by insisting on its absolute virtue, omniscience and omnipotence.

The fervent idealist not only overestimates what he is, but clings to the vain illusions he has created of himself – possibly even after these illusions have been refuted by irony.  Niebuhr is, thus, critical of all forms of idealism, be they left-wing or right-wing, secular or religious, pacifist or militarist.  He identified two dangerous poles of American idealism during the Cold War:

Our idealists are divided between those [pacifists] who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those [militarists] who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.[16]

On the left wing of American idealism is what Niebuhr calls the “pacifist idealists” who are both “Christian and secular.”  These idealists, confident that their pacifist position is unassailably correct, desire to retain American “purity of soul” by demanding we categorically renounce the use of military force.[17]   Such idealists believe that any potential violent conflict can be resolved through non-violent resistance, engagement, appeasement, and rational compromise.  By refusing to consider the possibility that war and other coercive measures should be used, pacifists, according to Niebuhr, place too much faith in the inherent goodness of human beings.  They also overestimate the purity of their own position, since they would make the West vulnerable to malicious attack and thereby unwittingly support the imperial war machines of fascism and communism.  By trying to be innocent, pacifists become guilty of facilitating the greater evil; in Niebuhr’s words, they do “not understand that the disavowal of the responsibilities of power can involve an individual or nation in even more grievous guilt.”[18]

On the right wing of American idealism are the militarists, or so-called hawkish “realists,” who believe that any violent method America uses is “good” without reservation, as long as it effectively preserves and enhances the strength of the United States.  Such “realists” are, in fact, idealists because they have an inflated sense of American virtue: they refuse to acknowledge that the exercise of power always entails some type of moral culpability, especially when it involves warfare.  These idealists also tend to demonize the enemy in an unreflective manner, thus becoming angry zealots in their advocacy of American force.  The enemy, in their eyes, is so irredeemably demonic that any method is justified when confronting it.  Ironically, the American hawk starts to resemble the very enemy he fights.  As Niebuhr writes: “This is why a frantic anti-communism can become so similar in its temper of hatefulness to communism itself, the difference in the respective creeds being unable to prevent the similarity in spirit.”[19]

Both the pacifist and the militarist stumble into unintentional irony because each has an inflated sense of his own moral worth.  The consequences are politically and morally disastrous: the pacifist would not face down Hitler; the hawk would destroy a city to save it.  In order to avoid these two idealistic extremes, Niebuhr, in Aristotelian fashion, tries to find a position in-between them: one that, like the pacifist, is aware of the evils of power and does not whitewash the impact of American military force, but one that, like the militarist, is willing to enter into violent conflict when necessary to preserve American democracy.  As Niebuhr writes, in an oft-quoted passage:

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.  We must exercise power.  But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimatized.[20]

Contrary to the pacifist, Niebuhr argues that America must be willing to undertake “morally hazardous actions” to protect the West, which means using violent and coercive measures that potentially compromise our highest moral ideals; but, contrary to the military hawk, Niebuhr recognizes that these measures are in fact morally hazardous, not morally pure.  Failure to find this in-between position will implicate America in terrible ironies with devastating political consequences. 

Niebuhr struggled to find this middle ground by living his own form of “Christian realism.”  As noted earlier, he actively supported American military involvement during World War II, and was an early critic of efforts to appease Hitler.  He also supported American nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union.  Regarding the United States during the Cold War, Niebuhr observed: “Though confident of its virtue, [America] must yet hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration.  It may actually make the conflict the more inevitable by this threat; and yet it cannot abandon the threat.”[21]  The threat of atomic warfare is without question morally hazardous, but, in comparison to conceding to communism, it is the lesser evil.  That said, a lesser evil is still an evil, and it should not be idealized – as the hawk would have it – into something good.  The decision to enter into the realm of moral hazard is, for Niebuhr, “tragic,” and during wartime we must not allow the onslaught of idealistic propaganda to let us lose sight of this tragic dimension.  The tragic position of moral hazard is tough to strike when facing an enemy, but it is the only genuinely realistic one for Niebuhr.  He did not, however, always advocate the use of American force against formidable enemies.  Notwithstanding his strong stance against communism, Niebuhr opposed American military involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s.  Not every war America undertakes should be supported.  For Niebuhr, we can only consent to moral hazard on a case by case basis. 

Niebuhr’s type of realism is “Christian” because it is rooted in his interpretation of the doctrine of original sin.  In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr states that this doctrine claims “man sins inevitably and by a fateful necessity.”[22]  Humans are necessarily fallible: all human intentions and actions, no matter how ostensibly good, are somehow tainted by imperfections and selfishness.  In this sense, we are fallen “creatures.”  We are also, at the same time, “creators” in the image of God.  As creators, humans have a certain degree of freedom to act within history, and must take responsibility for their actions.  However, in our freedom we overestimate our abilities and unintentionally cause harm, which was the opposite of the “good” we intended.  In this sense, the condition of original sin is ironic.  The failure to see irony, such as the example of the communists above, is rooted in the failure to perceive original sin. Niebuhr writes: “The evil in human history is regarded as the consequence of man’s wrong use of his unique capacities.  The wrong use is always due to some failure to recognize the limits of his capacities of power, wisdom and virtue.  Man is an ironic creature because he forgets that he is not simply a creator but also a creature.”[23]  This is the lesson Niebuhr takes from the Eden story: the humans ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge because they wanted to be “like God,” but ironically, once they ate from the tree and acquired divine knowledge, they became even less like God.  The first man and woman thus became painfully conscious of their limitations.

The claim that there are limits to human power, wisdom and virtue, and that we must be conscious of these limits so as to minimize our potential evils, is not something readily accepted by most moderns.  Niebuhr writes: “Practically all schools of modern culture, whatever their differences, are united in their rejection of the Christian doctrine of original sin. “[24]  Through this rejection, moderns are blinded by various types of idealism which do not accept the inevitability of human sin and claim that humanity is sufficiently virtuous to become “master of historical destiny.”[25]   Evil, for both liberals and communists, is not integral to fallen humanity; rather, it can be overcome through human initiative.  Niebuhr writes: “In the liberal world the evils in human nature and history were ascribed to social institutions or to ignorance or to some other manageable defect in human nature or the environment.”[26]  All that is necessary to defeat evil is to reform unjust social institutions, provide enlightened education, and use science to cure human “defects.”  For Niebuhr, communism stands as the most dangerous example of this modern idealism.  Communists understand the root of evil to be located in private property and class distinctions, not in fallible human nature.  Once the social institution of private property is abolished through violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, human wickedness will disappear from the earth.  Heaven on earth will appear in the form of a classless society; humans will no longer be malicious because all of their needs will be met.  As Niebuhr puts it, the communists are confident that “slaughter will purge the world of evil.”[27]  The communists are thus unable to see their own fallibility and corruption: their supposed disinterestedness in saving humanity is infected by pride and the lust for power, giving rise to “demonic” totalitarianism.  The perfect society they dream of is impossible because evil is rooted in fallen human nature.

Niebuhr, in fact, categorizes communism as a type of “apocalypticism,” insofar as it envisions a future utopia and the final defeat of human wickedness.  As Niebuhr writes, the entire Marxist worldview has the character of religious apocalypse.  But it is a very modern kind of religious apocalypse; for it contains the dearest hope of all typical moderns, Marxist and non-Marxist.  That hope is that man may be delivered from his ambiguous position of being both creature and creator of the historical process and become unequivocally the master of his own destiny.[28]

This passage identifies the millenarian dimension of modern idealism: modern humanity, in general, is filled with apocalyptic hopes of escaping from their precarious condition as fallible creatures – hopes prevalent in Western democracies as well as Marxist tyrannies.  Apocalypticism is, generally speaking, the belief that history is guided by some type of providence, governed by either a transcendent God or an immanent historical process, and that this history will culminate in the final defeat of suffering and human malice.  Though modern apocalypticism stems from Biblical faith, apocalyptic movements can be religious or secular, right wing or left wing, passive or aggressive.  A more conservative apocalypticism claims that humans are necessarily fallible, and hence cannot bring about an apocalypse through their own efforts; only God can do this at a moment of his choosing.  A more radical apocalypticism claims that human initiative can bring about some type of historical culmination.  This type of apocalypticism can be religious, insofar as the millenarian thinks he can instigate the apocalypse with God’s blessing, but it can also be secular, insofar as the millenarian thinks utopia can be created without divine assistance.  Regardless of whether a God is involved or not, this more radical form of apocalypticism has confidence in the human potential to control destiny.  Modern idealism has tended in this direction.  As Niebuhr puts it: “Modern man’s confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every older conception of an overruling providence in history.”[29]  Communism is simply the most ruthless and most secular form of this modern apocalyptic idealism. 

Niebuhr argues that apocalyptic dispositions have been present in American culture from the very beginning.  He identifies the “two great religious-moral traditions which informed our early life,” the one being New England Calvinism, or Puritanism, whose apocalypticism was rooted in biblical faith, and the other being “Virginian Deism and Jeffersonianism,” which also had biblical overtones but was more influenced by Enlightenment rationalism.  Notwithstanding the profound differences that exist between these traditions, Niebuhr claims they are similar in terms of their idealism.[30]  Both considered the founding of America to be exceptional – to be the start of a new, and perhaps final, chapter of human history that was categorically distinct from everything that had come before.  This understanding of American exceptionalism is accompanied by conceptions of America as an “innocent nation”; or, as Niebuhr puts it, America has “illusions of a unique innocency,” perceiving itself as a nation of innocents charged with messianic purpose to initiate a new world. [31]  In Puritanical and Jeffersonian idealism, there is a sense that human nature can return to a state of innocence through the American founding.  The start of America, understood in this way, is an eschatological event.

The apocalyptic understanding of the American founding is most obvious when considering the Puritans.  As James Rhodes points out in his essay for this volume, “the millenarian bent was introduced into American rhetoric by John Winthrop on the Arabella as the Puritan ship neared New England.”  It was Winthrop who, in 1630, spoke of New England as a “City Upon a Hill,” a New Jerusalem in the new world.  As Niebuhr puts it, the New England theocrats believed that the “church which had been established on our soil was purer than any Church in Christendom.”  And though the emphasis was on the purity of the church, “even the Puritans envisaged a new and perfect society.”  Niebuhr quotes from Edward Johnson’s Wonder Working Providence of Zion’s Saviour (1650) in which Johnson identifies New England as the place “where the Lord would create a new heaven and a new earth, new churches, and a new commonwealth together.”[32]   Johnson’s language is lifted directly from the Book of Revelation, 21:1-2, which envisions the “New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” after the final judgment, creating a “new heaven and a new earth.”[33]  Johnson’s rhetoric suggests that the Puritans in New England are playing an active role in bringing these events to pass.

A century later, Thomas Jefferson would also understand America to be a definitive break from the evils of the past.  The apocalyptic dimension of Jefferson’s idealism is less apparent than that found in the Puritans, but it is nevertheless present in his conception of American innocency and exceptionalism.  For Jefferson, a new world could be created by establishing better political and economic institutions, thereby liberating humanity from the oppressions of old.[34]  This would be a definitive, and possibly final, break from the evils of the past.  Against the tyranny of monarchs who had dominated human history, Jefferson espoused the Lockean politics of minimal government and free enterprise.  He also possessed the Enlightenment faith in the progress of human reason.  In Jefferson’s deistic religion, America was blessed by God and would lead the march towards a freer, wiser, more reasonable humanity.  In this way, America was perceived to have a messianic purpose insofar as it would spread the ideals of the Enlightenment with God’s blessing.

The early American idealists had at least some reservations about what Americans could accomplish through their own powers.  Niebuhr writes that “in both the Calvinist and the Jeffersonian concept of our national destiny the emphasis lay at the beginning upon providence rather than human power.” In other words, human accomplishments were to some extent dependent on God’s blessing.  America was conceived as the “darling of divine providence,” and Americans could help fulfill this providence through their actions, but in the end it was God who was in control of history.  However, there were early indications of more radical inclinations, which put greater faith in human abilities.  “The Puritans,” Niebuhr writes, “… gradually shifted from their emphasis upon a divine favor to the nation, to an emphasis upon the virtue which the nation had acquired by divine favor.”[35]  In other words, the Puritans began to overestimate their own virtue which they had acquired from God, and underestimate original sin.  This is an ironic turn of events, given the Calvinist emphasis on human depravity and predestination.  As John Gray puts it: “Puritans served as a vehicle for the idea … that human effort could hasten the arrival of a perfect new world.”[36]  This overestimation of American virtue would not remain confined to the Puritan legacy, but would also pervade the liberal Enlightenment tradition that descended from Jefferson.  As Niebuhr points out: “The liberal world has always oscillated between the hope of creating perfect men by eliminating the social sources of evil and the hope of so purifying human ‘reason’ by educational techniques that all social institutions would gradually become the bearers of a universal human will, informed by a universal human mind.”  As American power increased in the world, the United States became the “prime bearer” of these liberal hopes and dreams.[37]

America’s past and present is imbued with apocalyptic expectation.  Due to a number of factors, the United States has mostly managed to restrain radical apocalyptic movements from dominating federal politics.  Though American idealism, as Niebuhr points out, is similar to communist apocalypticism in that it is filled “with milder forms of the same pretension,” it has “not resulted in the same evils.”  The Civil War aside, America has never undergone the sort of genocidal revolutionary overhaul that was witnessed in communist societies such as Russia, China or Cambodia.  This is because the apocalyptic myths of innocency “are not as consistently held” in America, nor has the United States bestowed its ostensibly innocent leaders with “inordinate power.”[38]  A strong mistrust of government is an essential aspect of the American ethos and political system; this has helped mitigate the possibility of a single party dominating with a radical agenda.  Still, radical millenarian currents exist in American life, and any American politician, if he wants to, can exploit these.  Niebuhr warned against this: the effort to conquer destiny through overconfidence in American wisdom, virtue and power will culminate in ironic refutations, revealing the full extent of American ignorance, vice, and weakness.

Presidential Dualism: Bush’s Rhetoric of Good and Evil          

"I’ve spoken to you about good and evil, and this had made some of you uncomfortable." 

President Bush in his last address to the nation, January 15, 2009[39] 

"Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake".

President Bush at his final press conference, Jan. 12, 2009, when asked by a reporter if he had made any mistakes.[40]

Now that we have explored Niebuhr’s thought it is time to examine the post 9/11 rhetoric of good and evil as expressed by President Bush, and consider to what extent – if any – his language reflects a Niebuhrian worldview.  Bush spoke of evil on the evening of September 11, 2001, when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office: “Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror…. Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.”[41]  From this point on, the words good and evil were commonplace in Bush’s speeches, provoking much commentary and controversy.  Though I speak of “Bush’s rhetoric,” he was obviously not the sole author of his speeches; his words were co-authored by members of his staff and speech writers hired for the task.  This is true of any president elected to office today. That said, it would be a mistake to argue that Bush is just reading from a script whose words bear little relation to his own thoughts.  As is well known, Bush is a self-proclaimed born-again Christian within the evangelical tradition of American Protestantism. In a 1999 debate in Des Moines of Republican presidential candidates, Bush famously proclaimed Jesus to be his favorite political philosopher.  Bush quickly became the favorite candidate of conservative evangelicals, whose support helped bring him to the White House.  Much of Bush’s language borrows heavily from scripture and is more overtly religious than the rhetoric of any other president in recent memory.  In these ways, Bush’s words resonate with the tradition of American idealism established by the New England Puritans.  That said, his rhetoric is not completely absent of Jeffersonian idealism either.

What is most striking about Bush’s religious discourse is its dualistic vision.  He divides the world into simple, black and white, categories: good and evil, moral and immoral, right and wrong, freedom and tyranny, “us” and the “terrorists.”  Richard Bernstein argues that this dualist worldview is symptomatic of an “absolutist mentality”: on the basis of strong convictions, Bush claims to be on the side of absolute right, with little admission of fallibility or limitation.  Evil is something external or other, and hence categorically distinct from the good.  As such, Bush’s language exaggerates the extent of American moral wisdom, virtue and power, creating a sense of moral omniscience, omni-benevolence, and omnipotence.  The rhetoric does not, to quote Niebuhr, indicate any “awareness of our own pretensions of wisdom, virtue, or power” – an awareness that, for Niebuhr, occurs when one is truly conscious of original sin.[42]

  1. Wisdom: The Language of Moral Omniscience

At the epistemological level, Bush claims to have perception of eternal moral truths, which he expresses by appealing to binaries.  Consider the following selections taken from Bush’s speeches between 2002 and 2009:

Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. (Address to West Point Military Academy, June 1, 2002)[43]

We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.  (Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005)[44]

We are making our case through public diplomacy – stating clearly and confidently our belief in self-determination, and the rule of law, and religious freedom, and equal rights for women – beliefs that are right and true in every land, and in every culture. (Address to Chrysler Hall, October, 2005)[45]

As we address these challenges – and others we cannot foresee tonight – America must maintain our [sic] moral clarity…. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere.  Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. (Farewell Address to the Nation, January 2009)[46]  

Notwithstanding our intuitive acceptance of the values Bush espouses (protecting women, religious freedom, etc.), the rhetoric implies that Bush possesses moral omniscience.  Over and over again, Bush asserts that moral truth is the same in every culture, and that he has access to this truth.  Moral wisdom is understood dualistically: the wise man, regardless of his cultural background, has clear perception of eternal right and eternal wrong.  Other cultures in different circumstances may have different practices than the United States; but if those cultures are truly moral, then, in Bush’s words, they are using “different methods, but not different moralities.”

Implicitly, Bush confronts the specter of moral relativism in these passages – the position that moral opinions are relative to the culture or individual, and, hence, are entirely subjective.  Relativism is often espoused by those who want to promote tolerance.  They argue we should not “judge” what is different or strange, because this provokes confrontation.  Taken to its extreme, however, relativism logically entails that “everything is permissible”: if we cannot judge, then nothing is truly immoral and nothing can be legitimately resisted.  Bush addressed the issue of relativism in his welcome to Pope Benedict XVI in April 2008.  Bush said directly to the Pope: “In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this ‘dictatorship of relativism,’ and embrace a culture of justice and truth.”[47]  Bush uses the Pope’s term “dictatorship of relativism” to suggest that the battle against relativism is akin to battling dictators.  Relativists lack “moral clarity” because they do not think genuine moral judgments are possible and inadvertently lend theoretical support to tyrants and terrorists.  Bush asks implicitly: “How can we criticize Hitler or Osama bin Laden if we believe that morality is relative?”

There is much here that Niebuhr would agree with.  Certainly, like Bush, he would condemn relativism and would agree that we must possess moral clarity; and he would agree that free societies must defend themselves against tyrants, oppressors, and mass murderers.  But struggling to maintain moral clarity against the tide of relativism is one thing; embracing moral simplicity in the belief that you possess eternal wisdom is something else entirely.  Bush’s dualistic account of moral wisdom simplifies the nature of ethical decision making, and exaggerates the degree of clarity that humans can achieve in their moral perceptions.  Consider the moral verities that Bush claims are absolute and eternally true: targeting innocent civilians, brutalizing women, and oppressing citizens are “always wrong”; self-determination, the rule of law, religious freedom, equal rights for women, and freeing people from oppression are “eternally right.”  Most people in the West, regardless of political leaning, would agree with these all-too-general moral intuitions; indeed, some of these verities are too general to be truly helpful.  The main problem is that Bush suggests moral wisdom is found in those who perceive their moral intuitions dualistically. Ethical deliberation amounts to distinguishing between absolute right and absolute wrong on the basis of these intuitions.  Bush does not suggest that principles which appear absolute and universal can conflict with each other in specific situations.  Peter Singer, in his critique of Bush, argues this very point.  Singer claims that most of us probably share the moral intuition that it is wrong to lie; we also share the moral intuition that we should protect innocent life.  Both of these intuitions seem absolute.  However, Singer asks us to consider the following classic moral quandary: imagine that I am hiding an innocent person in my house; then imagine that a murderer with the intent to kill comes to my door asking if I am hiding that person.  In this situation, my moral intuition “Do not lie” comes into conflict with the intuition “Protect innocent life.”  I am suddenly in the realm of moral hazard, because I find myself in a situation where I am forced to compromise a moral principle for pragmatic reasons – in this case probably “Do not lie.”  Singer argues that genuine moral clarity depends on recognizing those circumstances when our moral intuitions are in conflict, and reasoning about how to best proceed in a practical manner.[48]

Now consider Bush’s 2009 pronouncement “Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right.”  Obviously, Bush is engaged in self-justification here at the end of his presidency, suggesting that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are manifestations of eternal goodness.  He speaks as if these wars are unambiguously good, without moral hazard.  As such, his words express the type of the hawkish idealism that Niebuhr warned against, where Americans are “ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.”[49]  From a Niebuhrian perspective, freeing people from oppression and tyrants entails moral hazards, because such actions usually involve violence, destruction and civilian casualties.  Bush’s eternal principle “Free People from Oppressors” is in conflict with the principle “Do Not Harm Others.”  Just war theory entails cost/benefit analysis, considering if the benefits of toppling a tyrant and freeing a people will be worth the amount death and destruction entailed by such an action.  In some cases, a tyrant must be left to stand, because toppling him would bring even greater harm to those we intend to liberate.  Furthermore, such an action may not serve America’s interests, which may explain why Bush, quite reasonably, did not attempt to overthrow all oppressive nations in the world – just those that were deemed a threat to the United States.  Considerations like these are complex and practical, requiring subtle deliberation about American self-interest, the interests of others, moral principles and practical consequences; these are not matters that can be resolved by appealing to moral intuitions alone.   

All of this is fairly rudimentary ethics, but none of it is reflected in Bush’s rhetoric of moral knowledge.  It is for this reason that Richard Bernstein argues that Bush’s use of the term “evil” constitutes “an abuse of evil” because it does not encourage genuine moral reflection; on the contrary, it forces us to make unreflective decisions, usually on the basis of strong convictions and intuitions.  Bernstein writes: instead of inviting us to question and to think, this talk of evil is being used to stifle thinking.  This is extremely dangerous in a complex and precarious world.  The new discourse of good and evil lacks nuance, subtlety, and judicious discrimination.  In the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ nuance and subtlety are (mis) taken as signs of wavering, weakness, and indecision.[50]

The obvious objection to these criticisms by Bernstein and Singer is that Bush is not trying to engage citizens in the subtleties of moral debate, nor is it his responsibility to do so.  The language of “moral hazard” has no place in presidential rhetoric, since it would suggest “wavering, weakness, and indecision.”  It is incumbent upon any president to depict the American cause as absolutely just, based on moral principles that are eternally true, and then do whatever is necessary, no matter how nefarious, to protect the United States.  From a Niebuhrian perspective, however, such arguments are unacceptable.  Bush’s rhetoric is corruptive because it paints an idealistic account of moral choice and an inflated sense of American moral knowledge.  Bush proclaims epistemological infallibility in the realm of ethics: he claims we can know, with absolute certainty, the right thing to do in every case, and we can be confident that our absolute knowledge will be shared by other right-thinking people.  As such, his rhetoric both inculcates and reinforces idealist tendencies in American consciousness.

A genuine Christian realism is acutely aware that American success in the world depends on being conscious of epistemological limits.  This means recognizing that moral principles which appear absolute may come into conflict with each other when facing a specific situation.  It also means acknowledging that certain values that appear universal may in fact be historically contingent to some extent.  Therefore, we must be especially careful before we try to impose these values on others.  Generally speaking, we must accept that we live in a pluralistic world, which is not the same as accepting relativism.  It means, rather, that we must learn to live with viewpoints and cultures that are different from our own, so long as these do not represent an immediate, existential threat.  America, in its position as a limited superpower, must engage the plurality of religious, cultural and moral viewpoints in a way that is simultaneously respectful, open, and pragmatic.  There are, obviously, limits to such tolerance; nevertheless, pluralistic engagement is sound policy in terms of diplomacy and forming alliances.  As Niebuhr puts it: “Today the success of America in world politics depends upon its ability to establish community with many nations…. This success requires a modest awareness of the contingent elements in the values and ideals of our devotion, even when they appear to be universally valid.”[51]

  1. Virtue: Idealizing American Benevolence

Bush’s dualist rhetoric not only presents an idealistic account of American moral wisdom, but also of American virtue.  Bush’s language is striking for its suggestions of American moral infallibility, evoking, once again, the myth of American innocence.  Bush employs the standard rhetorical technique, used by most presidents, of appealing to the virtue of everyday Americans.  On the evening of 9/11, Bush said: “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.  And we responded with the best of America – with the daring of our rescue workers, the caring for the strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”[52]  Similarly, in his address at the National Cathedral on Sept 14, 2001, Bush said: “In this trial, we have been reminded, and the world has seen, that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave…. And we have seen our national character in eloquent acts of sacrifice.”[53]  What Bush says in these passages is not unreasonable, and the heroism of many Americans – especially the firefighters who lost their lives in the Twin Towers – is truly noteworthy; but, when combined with the dualistic rhetoric of absolute right and wrong, it creates an amplified account American virtue, as if 9/11 bestowed moral purity on the United States.  The attacks by themselves become proof of American innocence. 

Occasionally, Bush will suggest that the United States has been morally weak in the past, living a materialistic lifestyle that elevated the pursuit of pleasure above duty to country.  According to Bush, this changed after 9/11.  In his 2002 State of the Union Address, Bush claimed that we “began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.  For too long our culture has said ‘If it feels good do it.’  Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: ‘Let’s roll.’  In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like.”[54]  September 11 thus becomes a new foundational myth: this cataclysmic event has allowed America to return once again to a state of innocence.  Notwithstanding the slight reservations about American virtue, Bush’s rhetoric – from a Niebuhrian perspective – generally exaggerates the goodness of the United States.  Any moral failings are in the past; a new day has emerged.  Now there are only two sides in the world, and nations are either on the side of innocent America, or evil terrorism.  This effectively idealizes American virtue in the complicated world of geo-political affairs.

His most famous articulation of this dualistic worldview occurred in his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001.  Bush gave the world an ultimatum: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make.  Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” [55]  Bush was careful in this same speech and throughout his presidency to distinguish between the religion of Islam and those radicals who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam.  As he said to Muslims in the same speech: “We respect your faith…. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.  The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”[56]    This is, in fact, an idealization of Islam, since not all of its teachings are “peaceful”: one need only read the so-called “sword verses” of the Qur’an to critique Bush’s statement.[57]  Nevertheless, by refusing to equate terrorism with the religion of Islam, there is at least some subtlety in Bush’s words.  He does not, like some, speak of a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Muslim world.  However, the moral choice presented by Bush is still black and white: we must decide between the forces of “civilization” (represented by America and its allies) and the forces of “terror” (presumably in all of their manifestations).  Though the tasks that lie before America and her allies are difficult, the moral choices are patently obvious.  As Bush stated in his 2002 State of the Union Address: “Rarely has the world faced a choice more clear or consequential.”  Any state that aids and abets terrorists will be part of an “axis of evil.”[58]

This motif of a struggle between good and evil in which there are only two sides, in which we must choose one side or the other, and in which there can be no neutrality, appears in Bush’s speeches throughout his presidency.  Near the end of his 2001 address to Congress, Bush said: “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”[59]  The words here suggest a broader ongoing struggle, with opposing sides that have “always been at war.”  The war on terror is to be understood as part of this grander metaphysical conflict, with America leading the armies of righteousness.  If one does not make a firm commitment with America, then one is not on the side of divine goodness.  Neutrality is not morally justifiable because God is “not neutral.”  Bush returns to this theme again and again.  Consider the following selections spanning from the start of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001 to Bush’s last address as president in January 2009:

Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader.  Every nation has a choice to make.  In this conflict there is no neutral ground.  If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers, themselves. (Address to the Nation, Oct. 7, 2001)[60]

I view this current conflict as either us versus them, evil versus good [sic].  And there’s no in-between.  There’s no hedging.  And if you want to join the war against evil, do some good.  (Address to Troops in Alaska, February 16, 2002)[61]

There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it. (Address to West Point, June 1 2002)[62]

There is no neutral ground … in the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death.  (Remarks from the East Room, March 19, 2004)[63]

I’ve spoken to you about good and evil, and this had made some of you uncomfortable.  But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. (Last address to the nation, January 15, 2009)[64]  

The confident dualism expressed in these passages, however, lands Bush in a Niebuhrian irony.  When Bush divides the world into dualist categories and proclaims the unblemished goodness of the United States, he mirrors the rhetoric of radical Islamists, who similarly divide the world into two, and proclaim the absolute goodness of their understanding of Islam.  On the same day that the war in Afghanistan began, Osama bin Laden issued a videotaped statement in which he said: “these events have split the entire world into two camps: one of faith, with no hypocrites, and one of unbelief – may God protect us from it.”[65]  A few years earlier, in his declaration of jihad against “Jews and Crusaders,” bin Laden called on “religious scholars, their leaders, their youth, and their soldiers, to launch the raid on the soldiers of Satan, the Americans, and whichever of the devil’s supporters are allied with them, to rout those behind them so that they will not forget it.”[66]  Bruce Lincoln has argued we see “symmetric dualisms” in the rhetoric of Bush and bin Laden: both try to press a “complex and variegated world into the tidy schema of two rival camps.”[67]  In this manner, Bush resembles the very enemy he despises, similar to Niebuhr’s depiction of the vehement anti-communist who resembles the fervent communist.  Rather than being truly opposed in their mentalities, they are simply two sides of the same coin.

The possibility that America itself might be morally culpable in some way, or that its response to 9/11 will entail moral hazards, are, for the most part, not even remotely suggested by Bush.  America’s fight is absolutely justified, without reservation.  Consider the original name for the planned invasion of Afghanistan in September 2001:  “Operation Infinite Justice.”  The name was later changed to “Operation Enduring Freedom” because, as Donald Rumsfeld explained, America did not want to offend Muslims for whom only God can provide “infinite justice.”[68]  But the original slip in the code name is revealing: in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration considered its military mission to be an act of divine chastisement, meting out infinite justice against an irredeemably evil foe.  The rhetoric reinforces the perception of American moral purity in the midst of a millenarian struggle.

  1. Power: American Omnipotence and Millenarian Politics

As we can already see, there is an explicit apocalyptic dimension to Bush’s rhetoric, with his suggestions of an ongoing war between the forces of good and evil.  The war on terror is the simply the latest chapter in this lengthy conflict, but it is not an endless struggle.  Evil will one day be defeated.  In this regard, it is essential to consider what the president said in his speech at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001:  “Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history.  But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”[69]  Two days later, in his press conference on the South Lawn, Bush said: “My administration has a job to do, and we’re doing it.  We will rid the world of evil-doers.”  Later at that same press conference, Bush spoke of the effort to rid the world of evil as a crusade, outraging much of the Muslim world: “This is … a new kind of evil…. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.”[70]  On December 20, 2001, Bush said again: “with the help of freedom-loving countries around the world, we will do much more to rid the world of evil and of terrorists.”[71]  Finally, on January 22, 2002, Bush ridiculed anyone who thought that the United States “won’t commit the resources necessary to rid the world of evil.”[72]

These are remarkable statements coming from an American president, quite possibly unrivaled in terms of their millenarian implications.  The ultimate aim of the “war on terror” is not simply to punish the organizers of 9/11, or to dismantle al Qaeda, or, even more ambitiously, to rid the world of Islamic extremism.  Bush claims that America is on an historic mission to rid the world of all “evil.”  This millenarian mentality was clearly shared by key members of the Bush administration during those early years, such as David Frum and Richard Perle, who would write a book entitled An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror.[73]  The rhetoric coming out of the administration not only implies moral infallibility but omnipotence by suggesting that American military force and economic power can exterminate all “evildoers.”

Bush, after possibly being advised that his rhetoric was too extreme, said something slightly different in his honorary speech to Martin Luther King on January 21, 2002: “Here on all roads of life,” said Dr. King in a sermon, “God is striving in our striving.”  As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us.  Evil dies on the seashore, not merely because of man’s endless struggle against it, but because of God’s power to defeat it.  Martin Luther King Jr. lived in that belief, and died in that belief.[74]

In this passage, Bush acknowledges that humanity’s struggle against evil is “endless” and that only God has the power to defeat it.  He articulates a less radical apocalypticism.  Humans, with God on their side, have the power to fight against specific evils, like racism and terrorism, but this fight never ends through human effort alone.  Only God can rid the world of evil, once and for all.  This is a subtle, but significant, change in Bush’s rhetoric, since it no longer suggests that American power alone can rid the world of evil.  This change was echoed near the end of his 2003 State of the Union Address: “We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone.  We do not know – we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.”[75]  This statement can be given numerous interpretations, but it nevertheless suggests there are limits to human knowledge and endeavor.  God is ultimately in control of destiny.

It is noteworthy that after January 2002, Bush would rarely, if ever, speak of ridding the world of “evil.”  He would, however, say that America would “rid the world of terror,” “rid the world of terrorism,” or “rid the world of terrorists” on at least twenty separate occasions between 2001 and 2003.[76]  After 2003, and the debacle in Iraq, Bush would rarely speak of ridding the world of anything.  However, in his radio address of February 25, 2006, Bush would positively affirm Governor Mike Huckabee’s words that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan “remain upbeat and focused on ridding the world of terrorists.”[77]  And, as late as September 8, 2008, Bush would assert: “We will meet the test that history has given us and continue to fight to rid the world of terrorism and promote liberty around the globe.”[78]  Notice that these words spoken near the end of his presidency quote, almost verbatim, the words he uttered at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, when Bush first proclaimed America’s goal to rid the world of evil – only the word “evil” has been substituted by “terrorism.”

All of this suggests that while Bush mitigated some of his most extreme millenarian rhetoric as the years advanced – especially in his second term – he never relinquished it entirely.  Terrorism, in Bush’s rhetoric, becomes synonymous with evil, and all “evil doers” become “terrorists.”  Even if we acknowledge that attempting to “rid the world of terrorism” is a more modest goal than trying to “rid the world of evil,” it is still too vast and imprecise to be realizable.  “Terrorism” is a general category that could apply to a number of clandestine groups and individuals, ranging from the Unabomber and Basque separatists, to global networks such as al-Qaeda; the term can also apply to states that sponsor terror, and include states that use terror against their own citizens, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or North Korea.  There are, however, substantial differences between the state terror practiced by tyrants like Saddam Hussein and the terrorism advocated by Islamist radicals like bin Laden.  These distinctions, perhaps deliberately, were obscured by Bush’s rhetoric, which only served to sow confusion in the minds of citizens.  It was also, perhaps, indicative of confusion within the Bush administration itself.  The bi-partisan 9/11 Commission stated in its final report: “the enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil.  This vagueness blurs the strategy.  The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific.  It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism – especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology.”[79]   The lack of clarity in Bush’s rhetoric was possibly an indication of policy confusion in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  This may explain why the Bush administration chose to attack Iraq, and make the defeat of Saddam the centerpiece of its war on terror, rather than remain focused on the true hotbeds of Islamic radicalism, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The administration wanted to rid the world of all “terror,” not just Islamist terrorism, and figured it could advance towards this more ambitious goal by taking over Iraq and transforming the Middle East. 

The 9/11 Commission provided the following advice to current and future presidents on how to communicate with citizens about terrorism: We do not believe it is possible to defeat all terrorist attacks against Americans, every time and everywhere.  A president should tell the American people: No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again.  History has shown that even the most vigilant and expert agencies cannot always prevent determined, suicidal attackers from reaching a target. But the American people are entitled to expect their government to do its very best.  They should expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance, and effective organizations.[80]

This advice offered by the Commission is essentially Niebuhrian.  On the one hand, the government must use its power responsibly to protect American citizens.  On the other hand, a president must be clear with the American people about the limits of power, setting “realistic objectives” to counter terrorism and never promising that government can create a world completely free of terror.  True to the Commission’s recommendations, Bush did not promise that there would never be another cataclysmic attack on American soil; on the contrary, he constantly warned that such an attack could happen at any moment.  However, Bush’s rhetoric does promise that through a long war fought on many fronts, America would one day be able to put an end to terrorism altogether, and perhaps even evil itself.  As the President stated in 2005, “we will not tire and we will not rest until the war on terror is won,” and “We will never back down, never give in, and never accept anything less than complete victory.”[81]  But complete and final victory over “terror” is not realistic in the sense articulated by the 9/11 Commission; instead, such an objective offers a millenarian vision of American control over destiny.

Unquestionably, these assertions that America will exterminate all terror emerge from the psychological trauma that was experienced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  This trauma, as Robert Jay Lifton has discussed, included unprecedented feelings of grief, humiliation, anger, and paranoia.  It is understandable, then, that an “aggrieved superpower,” as Lifton calls the U.S., would want to lash out against whatever harmed it and against whatever might harm it in the future.  This reaction, if not managed properly, can get out of hand, which is especially dangerous for a superpower with destructive weapons at its disposal.  The Bush administration in its first term worked to establish what Lifton calls “fluid world control” to bring an end to terror, which is “nothing less than an inclusive claim to the ownership of history.”[82]  The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy, released in September 2002, was straightforward: the United States would use it status as the world’s sole superpower to maintain a world order safe for America and its allies, which could entail fighting “preventive wars” to stop potential threats, and acting unilaterally if necessary.  This set America on an “apocalyptic confrontation with the world,” which mirrors the violent apocalypticism of the Islamists who attacked on 9/11.  As Lifton wrote in 2003: “we are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing war-making and military power.”[83]

  1. Niebuhrian Irony in the War on Terror

All of this raises questions for those who attempted to defend Bush along Niebuhrian lines.   Much of Bush’s rhetoric belies any sense of Niebuhrian realism.  One would assume that those scholars and journalists who evoked Niebuhr to defend the war on terror would also hope that the president’s rhetoric would reflect Niebuhr’s worldview.  This assumption, however, is not necessarily correct.  David Brooks argued that, in fact, it may be a bad thing for a president’s rhetoric to be Niebuhrian:

In the real world people do not undertake great tasks in the mood of cold, ironic realism that so delighted Niebuhr.  People need to have their hopes fired and their passions engaged.  The American Revolution could not have succeeded or even gotten off the ground without firebrands like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine.  Slavery would not have ended without the zeal of the abolitionists. Niebuhr overlearned the lessons of his age.  Because communism and fascism were fomented by zealous idealists, he came to suspect all displays of passion, all righteous indignation, and all poetic elements in public life.  But idealism in defense of democracy is no vice, at least not on balance.[84]

Is Brook’s reservation about Niebuhr correct?  Should presidential rhetoric exploit the idealistic tendencies within America to defend democracy?  Bush’s language unquestionably ignited passions and encouraged Americans to view the world in a particular way.  Most Americans, especially in the months following 9/11, seemed to accept Bush’s vision.  But this vision, as articulated in the rhetoric, would later culminate in Niebuhrian ironies, revealing the extent to which Bush had idealized American wisdom, virtue, and power.  Instead of demonstrating infinite wisdom, the Bush administration appeared at times deluded in its ambitions and sometimes lacked clear “intelligence,” especially when it came to invading Iraq; instead of demonstrating its infinite virtue, America’s moral reputation was sullied by a foolhardy war in Iraq, the torture of prisoners in detainment camps, the photos of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, and the specter of mounting civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq; instead of demonstrating its infinite power, the war in Iraq showed how limited America is in its efforts to change the Middle East, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan – now the longest in American history – revealed just how difficult it will be to bring an end to Islamist terror, let alone all “evil.”  It is true that another cataclysmic attack did not occur on American soil during Bush’s tenure after 9/11; nevertheless, the heightened security after 9/11 brought with it a perpetual sense of heightened insecurity.  This is how Niebuhrian irony manifested itself during Bush’s war on terror.

As the years passed, the Bush administration, gradually and painfully, seemed to become increasingly aware of its limits – possibly chastened by its experience in Iraq.  A greater sense of realism emerged in Bush’s second term, as any further ambitions to fight evil in Iran or North Korea were halted.  In Iraq, a surge of American troops, guided by more expedient management and assisted by greater cooperation from Iraqi Sunnis, brought partial stability to the region.  One could defend Bush by arguing he was president at a time of unprecedented national trauma, and he made the best decisions he could under immense stress – good enough to offset another terrorist strike in the United States.   We should not expect all-too-human presidents to be superhuman in their abilities to recognize potential ironies; this too would be idealistic.  As Niebuhr himself writes: “involvement in the actual urgencies of history … makes the detachment, necessary for the detection of irony, difficult.”[85]  But if detecting potential ironies is difficult for a leader caught in daily exigencies, it is not impossible.  Abraham Lincoln also ruled at a time of national trauma and yet, according to Niebuhr, had an acute sense of historical irony, and even articulated this sensibility in his public utterances.  Observing both the Confederacy and the Union during the Civil War, Lincoln noted that “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God.”  Each side idealized itself, convinced they were fulfilling the divine will with God’s blessing, but blind to the numerous ways in which they were fallible.  For Niebuhr, Lincoln was skeptical of all forms of idealism – even the idealism found amongst his fellow Unionists – because they cause people to overestimate their own virtue, underestimate their own potential to sin, and facilitate the descent into painful irony.  Niebuhr applies Lincoln’s approach to the Cold War:

Lincoln’s model … rules out our effort to establish the righteousness of our cause by a monotonous reiteration of the virtues of freedom compared with the evils of tyranny.  This comparison may be true enough on one level; but it offers us no insight into the corruptions of freedom on our side and it gives us no understanding of the strange attractive power of communism in a chaotic and impoverished world.”[86]

Replace the word “communism” with “radical Islam” and this passage is equally applicable to the war on terror.  Whatever Bush may have done right, his rhetoric is, quite simply, a “monotonous reiteration” of the virtues of American freedom over tyranny – rhetoric which, on one level is true, but, on another, demonstrates no genuine awareness how American power is morally culpable.  Such American hubris entails a destructive decent into irony, where America is forced to confront its limitations rather than consciously acknowledge these limits beforehand and make pragmatic decisions with them in mind.  “The ironic elements in American history,” Niebuhr writes, “can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue.”[87]  Bush’s rhetoric did not help America come to these terms; on the contrary, it only aggravated America’s idealistic conception of itself.

Obama’s Niebuhrian Shift

As we turn to consider the words of Obama, we must keep the following questions in mind: Is a Niebuhrian style of rhetoric possible for a contemporary president?  Are there ways of responsibly engaging the passions of Americans with rhetoric that is not idealistic?  Is it politically prudent for a president to wield power while acknowledging that all power is morally hazardous?

Barack Obama’s rhetoric, both as a presidential candidate and as a president, has also been tinged with idealism.  In terms of the founding traditions of American idealism, Bush’s rhetoric, at its most radical, leans in the direction of Christian millenarianism – the tradition that stems back to the Puritan founders; Obama’s rhetoric, while also unmistakably Christian, tilts more in the direction of Jeffersonian idealism, particularly the Enlightenment faith that human reason can create a new type of politics.  One of the key messages of his 2008 presidential campaign – a message he had been communicating since his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention – was that America could overcome the so-called “politics of division” that pitted Democrat against Republican, blue state against red state.  This was a Democratic critique of the Bush administration’s dualistic approach to politics – an approach that not only expressed itself in the war on terror, but also in domestic issues and political campaigns.  Bush, according to these critics, had succeeded in polarizing the country with his black-and-white politics.  Obama’s message was that Americans could overcome their political differences to form a more unified and reasonable front when facing national challenges.  The Obama campaign argued that it wanted to end “politics as usual” in Washington, with its highly partisan battles, and initiate a new era of trust and cooperation amongst political rivals.  These expectations were implicit in Obama’s campaign slogans “Hope” and “Yes We Can.”  Of course, once elected to office, the Obama administration could do little to curtail the polarized nature of Washington.  On almost all of his major initiatives during his first year and a half as president, such as health care and economic reform, Obama received little or no support from Republicans in Congress.  The rise of the Tea Party in 2009, created to mount fierce resistance to Obama and any other politician favorable to “big government,” was an ominous sign that Obama’s idealism was misplaced.  Instead of inspiring dialogue and compromise, Obama’s election spawned ferocious and determined opposition.   If Obama was going to achieve any of his agenda, he would have to contend with the politics of division. 

Obama also tried to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, in the hope that, once again, the ideologies of division could be defeated.  Obama stated in his 2009 Inaugural Address: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.  To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy…. [W]e will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”[88]  For Obama, America must take active measures so that it can gain the trust of more Muslims.  This is part of the reason why he unequivocally renounced the use of torture in American detention centers.  However, Obama’s emphasis on dialogue, engagement, and rational discussion led to criticism – especially from former Vice-President Dick Cheney – that he is an idealist on issues of international relations and nation security.  Understood in this way, President Obama is compromising the safety of the United States.

There is evidence of idealism in Obama’s language regarding American detention centers for suspected terrorists.  As is well known, the Bush administration decided to operate outside of the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war.  Suspected terrorists, in camps like Guantanamo, were no longer designated as “prisoners of war,” but rather as “enemy combatants”; against these enemy combatants, the Bush administration allowed the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, to collect intelligence about terrorist plots.  Obama, in a not-so-subtle condemnation of the Bush administration’s use of these techniques, stated in his inaugural address: “As to our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”[89]  In other words, it is not necessary to resort to morally dubious methods when protecting America; on the contrary, it is possible to keep America safe and be morally pure at the same time.  Niebuhr taught otherwise: America would have to use morally hazardous actions from time to time to protect itself.  Obama’s rhetoric suggests that moral principles never need to be compromised to protect Americans, since the choice between safety and ideals is “false.”

For these reasons, Obama is sometimes depicted as more “idealistic” than Bush.  But, as we have seen, Bush’s rhetoric of good and evil is itself thoroughly idealistic – even though it often presents itself in the guise of hard-nosed realism.  Furthermore, if Obama has idealistic tendencies, he is not a pacifist idealist.  True, as a Senator, he opposed the war in Iraq, and he has always opposed torture.  But, as a presidential candidate, he stated his support for the war in Afghanistan, and, as president, he increased American troop involvement in the region.  He also increased the use of drone strikes to target al Qaeda in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in other Islamist hotbeds such as Yemen and Somalia.  Finally, though one of his first acts as President was to announce the eventual closure of Guantanamo prison, it remained open well into his second year as president, with no clear date as to when it would close permanently.  As these actions show, Obama does not think that Islamists determined to attack the United States can be won over by reason: it is necessary to attack them, apprehend them, and keep them incarcerated.  Most of Obama’s early policies regarding terrorism, national security, prisoners, and the war in Iraq, have not deviated too sharply from the policies established by the Bush administration in the latter part of its second term.[90]

Obama has also not been afraid to refer to al Qaeda and other like-minded Islamists as “evil.”  That said, Obama, during the first two years of his presidency, has not employed the rhetoric of good and evil as much as his predecessor.  This may be due to the fact that he did not have to respond to a terrorist event as cataclysmic as 9/11 during his early months as president.  However, the language of good and evil is not entirely absent from Obama’s speeches, nor is it insignificant.  For example, when visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp in 2009, Obama declared: “This place teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time…. But as we reflect today on the human capacity for evil and our shared obligation to defy it, we’re also reminded of the human capacity for good.  For amidst the countless acts of cruelty that took place here, we know that there were many acts of courage and kindness, as well.”[91]  This statement could just as easily have been uttered by President Bush as by President Obama.

For all of the apparent differences between Obama and Bush, they occasionally speak about good and evil in ways that are strikingly similar, particularly on the themes of moral knowledge and historical providence.  President Obama, like Bush, asserts that there are universal moral truths, and that living by these truths means to live in accord with divine providence.  For example, in his May 22, 2010 address to West Point Military Academy, Obama appeals to the Declaration of Independence as a document containing absolute truths accepted by all moral people:

We believe, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”…. And that belief is as true today as it was 200 years ago.  It is a belief that has been claimed by people of every race and religion in every region of the world.[92]

Again, such a statement would not have been out of place in a speech by President Bush, because, like Bush, it claims that America has stood for universal moral values from its inception.  Obama makes similar utterances in other speeches.  In his June 2009 address from Cairo, intended to reach out to Muslims, Obama stated: America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.  But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideals; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Near the end of that same speech, Obama also said: There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew.  It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world…. The people of the world can live together in peace.  We know that is God’s vision.  Now that must be our work here on Earth.[93]

The claim that the entire world can live together in peace, and that it is “our work here on Earth” to realize this divine vision, is every bit as millenarian as Bush’s claim that America must rid the world of evil; the only difference is that Obama puts it in kinder, gentler terms.  Obama’s eschatological vision of immanent world peace is rooted in his “belief” that all humans have access to absolute moral principles that he claims transcend time, culture, religion and personal choice: do unto others as you would have them do unto you; all men are created equal; all humans have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Those who do not accept these divinely revealed truths contained in the Bible, the Quran, and the Declaration of Independence, and who resort to terror are, as President Obama puts it repeatedly, “on the wrong side of history.”[94]

For Obama, history is the providential march towards greater freedom, but no human can perceive all of the precise details of how providence will unfold.  Speaking of Holocaust survivors in his Buchenwald address, Obama said: “In their hearts they still had faith that evil would not triumph in the end, that while history is unknowable it arches towards progress.”[95]  Addressing the nation regarding the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama said: “what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny…. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like.  Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there.  We know we’ll get there…. And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.”[96]  These statements are similar to what Bush said at the conclusion of his 2003 State of the Union: “We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.”[97]   Similarly, at the end of Bush’s second inaugural speech in 2005, the president said: “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom…. History has the ebb and flow of justice, but justice also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”[98]  In terms of appealing to universal moral standards and historical providence, the rhetoric of Obama and Bush is remarkably similar.

In other regards, however, Obama has introduced some significant changes to presidential rhetoric – changes that reveal a Niebuhrian shift.  For one, though he appeals to universal truths, he does not speak about good and evil in the dualistic manner of his predecessor, nor does he assert American moral infallibility.  Indeed, Obama expresses the ironic consciousness that you can think you are doing good and yet be complicit in extraordinary evil.  Referring to a church located above the dungeons at the Buchenwald concentration camp, Obama says it “reminds us that sometimes we can tolerate and stand by great evil even as we think we are doing good.”[99]  This is possibly a subtle condemnation of the Bush administration’s defense of enhanced interrogation techniques.  In other speeches, Obama addresses America’s moral fallibility directly, thereby acknowledging that the world cannot be divided simply into sides of good and evil.   For example, he admits that the United States and its Western allies have committed moral and practical errors that have created tensions between the West and the Islamic world.  In his Cairo address to Muslims, Obama said: “tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.  Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.”  In the same speech, Obama acknowledged that the trauma and anger provoked by 9/11 led the United States “to act contrary to our traditions and ideals,” specifically the use of torture in prisons such as Guantanamo.[100]  In his December 1, 2009 address at West Point, on the same night that Obama announced troop increases in Afghanistan, the President acknowledged that the “decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.”  It also caused “enormous cost in lives and resources,” and left “our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.”  As a result, Obama admitted that “we have at times made mistakes” and we are “perhaps not as innocent” as were in the past.[101]  Such confessions would be unthinkable coming from President Bush.  Notwithstanding the fact the Obama generally speaks of the United States as a force of good in the world, these acknowledgments of error and moral failing go against Bush’s rhetoric of moral purity and political infallibility.

Rather than speak of an millenarian struggle, in which America has the moral purity to rid the world of evil, Obama suggests a more specific target and a more modest objective: “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”[102]  Even this stated goal may be overly ambitious; nevertheless, it is more precise than a “war against terror.”  Indeed, the Obama administration no longer uses the phrase “war on terror,” presumably because such a designation is imprecise and distortive.  True to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, Obama identifies the enemy as Islamist extremism and not a generic evil like terrorism. 

This shift in rhetoric is suggestive of a more Niebuhrian approach to statesmanship than what preceded in the White House.  As we know, Obama, before elected president, declared to David Brooks that Niebuhr is one of his “favorite philosophers.”  In that same interview, Obama claimed to have learned from Niebuhr “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.  And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.  I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”[103] Through Niebuhr, Obama directs us towards a moral pragmatism, one in which we accept the responsibility to confront and minimize evil, but where we also realize that there are limits to what can be accomplished in this regard.  Recognizing limits should not make us cynical; rather, we must work to enhance and defend what is good, even though this will be hard.  Obama’s understanding not only goes against Bush’s idealistic agenda to rid the world of evil, but also liberal utopianism.

The account of good and evil offered here by candidate Obama has also appeared in the rhetoric of President Obama.  He uses his language strategically in different settings to counter the likely idealistic excess of his audience.  To potential military hawks, he warns that the problem of evil cannot be resolved through military force alone; to pacifists, he warns that the problem of evil cannot be resolved through peaceful methods alone.  In his May 2010 West Point Commencement Address, Obama encouraged graduating cadets, many going off for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, to face the world with “no illusions.”  He stated:

We understand that change doesn’t come quick.  We understand that neither America nor any nation can dictate every outcome beyond its borders.  We know that a world of mortal men and women will never be rid of oppression or evil.  What we can do, what we must do, is work and reach and fight for the world that we seek – all of us, those in uniform and those who are not.[104]

Obama does not, before a military audience, consider the issue of whether military force is justified; that is assumed.  What Obama does emphasize is that there are limits to what America can accomplish through war.  The American military must continue to fight with full recognition of these limits.  It is interesting to contrast this with what Obama said to an international audience composed primarily of pacifists.  In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, delivered shortly after he announced the increase of American troops in Afghanistan, Obama stated: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”  Immediately after saying this, the President acknowledged the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, both of whom advocated non-violence.  He then stated: I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.  But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.[105]

Obama’s words are clearly intended to counter pacifist utopians, many of whom would have been in attendance at the Nobel award ceremony.  Like Bush, President Obama wants his audience to recognize (“make no mistake”) that evil exists in the world, and that it must sometimes be resisted through violent conflict.  Such conflict, at the very least, will not be eradicated “in our lifetimes,” and never by human efforts alone.  Obama tries to steer the Nobel committee in a Niebuhrian direction – towards considering the possibility of “just war” rather than always advocating non-violence.  However, Obama also acknowledges, to an extent that Bush never did, that even a just war is morally hazardous.  As he says later in his Nobel acceptance speech: “So, yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy…. So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths – that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”[106]  

The Niebuhrian influence on the Nobel acceptance speech is beyond doubt.  Obama articulates to the world the tension described by Niebuhr in The Irony of American History – the tension between the need to use force responsibly in the defense of freedom, and the reality that force causes suffering.  As a president, he articulates his responsibility to protect his country against whatever evils threaten it, even if this means war; at the same time, he acknowledges the limits of his power and the tragedy that war necessarily entails.

Obama’s presidential rhetoric, with some exceptions, indicates that he is attempting to be a Niebuhrian statesman: cool and realistic, conscious of the tragic responsibilities and ironic potentialities of political office.  This has earned him criticism in the media for seeming detached and unemotional: “No-Drama Obama” has been a moniker attached to him since taking the Oval Office.  It is fascinating that the stirring and often idealistic message of hope and possibility spoken by candidate Obama has been tempered somewhat during his presidency by the Niebuhrian rhetoric of hard choices.  This may in part be due to the fact that Obama took office immediately after the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008.  Still, Obama’s presidential rhetoric of good and evil, in contrast to that of Bush, is more than just “mood music,” as some have suggested.[107]  It is indicative of a different type of worldview, one that is less idealistic, dualistic, absolutist, and apocalyptic.  In other words, President Obama is a better embodiment of the Niebuhrian statesman than President Bush.  That said, I write this essay in the second year of Obama’s presidency, as his popularity is deteriorating, as political opposition to him is mounting, as the economy remains stagnant, and as the violence in Afghanistan escalates.  It is uncertain just how successful his presidency will be.  From this standpoint, it remains an open question whether the influence of Niebuhr and a change in rhetoric will translate into effective political policy.

This chapter is from Political Leadership and Rhetoric in Democracy, Lee Trepanier, ed. Cedar City, UT: Southern Utah University Press, 2010. Southern Utah University has given Voegelin Principles permission to reprint this.

The book may be purchased here.

Copyright ©2010 Southern Utah University Press. 

[1] I use the term “Islamist” throughout this essay to refer to radical groups such as al Qaeda and like-minded affiliates who espouse violent jihad.  It is not to be understood as a synonym for the entire Islamic religion.

[2] Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957), 53.

[3] For an account of this renewed interest in Niebuhr, see Paul Elie’s article “A Man for All Reasons” in The, November, 2007,  The radio series Speaking of Faith on America Public Media has also addressed the resurgence of Niebuhr in two programs which are posted on  See “Moral Man and Immoral Society: The Public Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr,” and “Obama’s Theologian,”  The latter program contains a debate between David Brooks and E. J. Dionne on the significance of Niebuhr to Obama’s presidency.

[4]This statement appears in McClay’s “The Continuing Irony of American History,” in First, February 2002,

[5] Brooks, “A Man on a Grey Horse,” The, September 2002,       

[6] See Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 99-124.

[7] The full title of Beinart’s book is The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006).

[8] See Elie, “A Man for All Reasons.”

[9] David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse,”, 26 April 2007, r=2.    

[10] All citations of speeches by President George W. Bush are taken from the official White House archives for the Bush administration at   All citations of speeches by President Barack Obama are taken from the official White House website at  URL’s will be given for each new citation of a presidential speech.

[11] See Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), 1, 15, 22.

[12] See Singer, The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (New York: Dutton, 2004).

[13] Niebuhr, Irony, viii.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 2-3.

[16] Ibid., 5.

[17] Ibid, 37.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 170.

[20] Ibid., 5, my emphasis.

[21] Ibid., 1.

[22] Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Volume 1: Human Nature (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 241.

[23] Niebuhr, Irony, 156.

[24] Ibid, 17.

[25] Ibid., 65.

[26] Ibid., 4.

[27] Ibid., 15.

[28] Ibid., 66-7.

[29] Ibid., 4.

[30] Ibid., 24.

[31] Ibid. 28

[32] Niebuhr cites this quotation from Johnson in ibid., 25

[33] I have used the translation in the New Revised Standard Version.

[34] Niebuhr, Irony, 25.

[35] Ibid., 70

[36] Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (n.p.: Doubleday Canada, 2007), 22.

[37] Niebuhr, Irony, 68-9.

[38] Ibid., 22.

[39] “President Bush Delivers Farewell Address to the Nation,” The White House,

[40] “Press Conference by the President – Final Press Conference,” The White House,

[41] “Statement to Nation Sept. 11, 2001,” The White House, releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html

[42] Niebuhr, Irony,169.

[43]“President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point,” The White House, http://georgewbushwhitehouse.

[44] “President Sworn-In to Second Term,” The White House, releases/2005/01/20050120-1.html.     

[45] “President Discusses War on Terror,” The White House, /news/releases/2005/10/20051028-1.html

[46] “President Bush Delivers Farewell Address.”

[47] “President Bush Welcomes His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to White House,” 16 April 2008,

[48] See Peter Singer’s discussion of this in President of Good and Evil, 210-12.

[49] Niebuhr, Irony, 5.

[50] Richard Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11(Cambridge: Polity, 2005), 11.

[51] Niebuhr, Irony, 79.

[53] “President Remarks at National Day of Prayer and Remembrance,” The White House,

[54] “President Delivers State of the Union Address,” The White House, 29 January 2002, news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html.  

[55] “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” The White House,


[56] Ibid.

[57] For example consider the Qur’an 9:5: “When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post.”  Also consider 8:39: “[Believers], fight them until there is no more persecution, and all worship is devoted to God alone.”  I have used the translation of the Qur’an by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).  These statements, of course, are not the final word on Muslim understandings of war and peace.  They indicate, however, that Islam, like most world religions, can be simply idealized as “peaceful.”

[58] “President Delivers State of the Union Address,” The White House, news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html.  

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Presidential Address to the Nation,” The White House, /releases/2001/10/20011007-8.html.

[61] “President Rallies the Troops in Alaska,” The White House, releases/2002/02/20020216-1.html.


[63] “President Bush Reaffirms Resolve to War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan,” The White House,

[64] “President Bush Delivers Farewell Address.”

[65] “The Winds of Faith: October 7, 2001” in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, ed. Bruce Lawrence, trans. James Howarth (London: Verso, 2005), 105.

[66] “The World Islamic Front: February 23, 1998,” in ibid., 61.

[67] Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 20.

[68] See the BBC News report “Infinite Justice, out – Enduring Freedom, in,”, 25 September 2001,

[69] “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance,” my emphasis.

[70] “Remarks by the President Upon Arrival,” The White House, 16 September 2001,

[71] “President Blocks More Assets in Financial War On Terrorism,” The White House,

[72] “President Calls on Congress to Pass Economic Security Package,” The White House,

[73] New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.  Frum was a special assistant to the president, most famous for playing a role in the coinage of the phrase “axis of evil” in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address.  Perle served as chairman of the Defense Policy Board under President Bush.

[74] “President Honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” news/releases/2002/01/20020121-1.html.  

[75] “President Bush Delivers State of the Union,” 28 January 2003, The White House,

[76] Between 2001 and 2003, President Bush would use the phrase “rid the world of terror” at least fifteen times, “rid the world of terrorism” at least three times, and “rid the world of terrorists” at least twice.  This is based on a search of Bush’s speeches in the White House archives at

[77] “President’s Radio Address,” The White House, releases/2006/02/20060225.html.  

[79] The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Authorized Edition (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, n.d.), 326.

[80] Ibid., 365.

[81] “President Discusses War on Terror.”

[82] Lifton, Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press / Nation Books, 2003), 175; emphasis in original.

[83] Ibid., 1.

[84] Brooks, “A Man on a Grey Horse.”

[85] Niebuhr, Irony, 170.

[86] Ibid., 173.

[87] Ibid., 133.

[88] “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” The White House, 21 January 2009,

[89] Ibid.

[90] See Peter Baker, “Obama’s War Over Terror,”, 17 January 2010, at

[91] “Remarks by President Obama, German Chancellor Merkel, and Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald Concentration Camp,” The White House, 5 June 2009,

[92] “Remarks by the President at United States Military Academy at West Point Commencement,” The White House,

[93] “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” The White House, 4 June 2009,


[94] Ibid.  According to a search of Obama’s speeches at the White House website, the President has used the phrase “wrong side of history” on at least seven occasions between January 2009 and May 2010, most notably during his inaugural address, when he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.  See “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address.” 

[95] “Remarks by President Obama, German Chancellor Merkel.”

[96] “Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill,” The White House, 15 June 2010,

[97] “President Bush Delivers State of the Union,” 2003.

[98] “President Sworn-In to Second Term”

[99] “Remarks by the President at Cape Coast Castle,” The White House, 11 July 2009,


[100] “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning.”

[101] “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The White House, 1 December 2009,

[102] Ibid.

[103] Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse.”

[104] “President at United States Military Academy,” my emphasis.

[105] “Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize,” The White House, 10 December 2009,

[106] Ibid.

[107] See Baker, “Obama’s War Over Terror.”


Paul Corey

Professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Humber College in Toronto. He is author of Messiahs and Machiavellians: Depicting Evil in the Modern Theatre (Notre Dame, 2008).