Monday, February 9, 2015

Ross Douthat and Mark Silk: Differing Opinions on Obama at the Prayer Breakfast, Niebuhr, and Eisenhower

I am in self-imposed exile today--working on my American Bible Society book.  But this whole Obama Prayer Breakfast stuff (see my original piece here) keeps drawing me away from my writing and back to the blog.

Did you see Ross Douthat's column in Sunday's New York Times

I like some it.  He acknowledges, for example, that Obama's "disenchanted view of America's role in the world contains more wisdom than his Republican critics acknowledge."

I also think Douthat is correct when he suggests that history is complex:

The first problem is that presidents are not historians or theologians, and in political rhetoric it’s hard to escape from oversimplication. You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy “Islam violent, Christianity peaceful” binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between the Islamic State’s reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multicentury story of medieval Christendom’s conflict with Islam ... and so all you’ve really done is put a pointless fight about Christian history on the table. To be persuasive, a reckoning with history’s complexities has to actually reckon with them, and a tossed-off Godfrey of Bouillon reference just pits a new straw man against the one you think you’re knocking down.

But after his short lesson in complexity, Douthat ignores it in his remarks about Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address:

Here a counterexample is useful: The most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history was probably Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned against the dangers of “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.

I think Douthat is probably correct about Obama's over-simplification of the Islam-Crusades comparison.  (Interesting, everyone is talking about the Crusades--what about Obama's slavery analogy?)  And I don't blame Douthat for failing to nuance the Eisenhower material.  As a someone who often writes in short spaces, I realize that the complexity of history rarely conforms to the genres in which it is presented in a digital age. That is why books are still important to the advancement of good history in the world. 

Keeping in mind all of these limitations, I now give you a taste of Mark Silk's response to Douthat's op-ed.  Silk is a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut and he blogs at Religion News Service:

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great political theologian of the last century, liked to warn against the failure to see the mote in our own eye — urging that, as Douthat puts it, “Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection.” Obama, however, was not really being self-critical when he called attention to Christianity’s less admirable past.
Which leads Douthat to contrast Obama’s remarks unfavorably with what he claims was “probably” the most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history — Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which famously warned against “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” Writes Douthat, “It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.”
That’s got it exactly wrong. Through the 1960s, the Republican Party’s perennial temptation was not war-making but its opposite. The party’s Whig progenitor opposed the Mexican War of the 1840s, and isolationism had its home in the GOP through the first half of the 20th century. In the just completed presidential campaign, JFK had been the hawk, attacking the Eisenhower Administration for allowing a (bogus) “missile gap” to develop between the U.S. and Soviet Russia and generally spending too little on defense.
Three days after Eisenhower’s farewell, Kennedy famously declared in his inaugural address,”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Less famously, he went on to say, “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
Talk about making the case for the military-industrial complex! Contra Douthat, Eisenhower was not being self-critical in his farewell address but warning against the incoming Democrats.
Read Silk's entire piece here.  I am not an Eisenhower scholar, but I always understood Eisenhower's speech to be more dove than it was hawk.