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.

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

  1. Douthat: This can leave the impression that his public wrestling with history’s tragic side is somewhat cynical, mostly highlighting crimes that he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in (how much theological guilt does our liberal Protestant president really feel about the Inquisition?) and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).


  2. Noah Smith (economist) has an interesting post constructing parallels between the crusades and jihad.

    If memory serves, the two parties in the late 50's were all over the place on issues of war and peace. Ike had done his Open Skies proposal, Khrushchev had come to the US, Ike wanted a Paris summit meeting, then Gary Powers got shot down. Some Dems were hawkish, with Symington pushing first the bomber gap, then the missile gap. But Stevenson seemed more sympathetic to test bans, etc. JFK was hawkish on Cuba and missiles, but dovish on Taiwan, while Nixon and the old China Lobby were hawkish on Taiwan and dovish on Cuba.


  3. Dr. Fea,

    A couple thoughts: Douthat was saying Eisenhower's speech was dovish. His mistake was not in seeing it as hawkish, but rather in assuming that his anti-hawkishness was directed towards the Republicans rather than the Democrats. So Douthat is wrong about it being self-critical, as Dr. Silk makes clear, but he is certainly right that Eisenhower's military career gave him a certain moral authority when warning against the military-industrial complex.

    I'm also struck by the sharp focus on the Crusades–to the exclusion not only of Jim Crow, but also of the Inquisition. The Jim Crow line immediately made me think of Daniel Silliman's brutal, horrifying, and excellent essay on “Sam Hose's Christian America.”

    I do wish a little more attention was paid to his mention of the Inquisition, as it provides an interesting comparison to ISIS. I'm not sure the comparison really works as President Obama intended, as it relies on a Whiggish caricature, but I do think there's an interesting insight hidden in there too.

    Contemporary progressives tend to cast ISIS as some kind of holdover from benighted Dark Ages religiosity–even though is a thoroughly new phenomena. Douthat does a good job dealing with the “wrong side of history” line about ISIS. There's a certain resonance here with the classic Whiggish story of the Inquisition as a medieval leftover, in contrast with more recent scholarship that recognizes the modern and statist aspects to the Inquisition. I expanded a little on the Jim Crow and Inquisition comparison over at my blog.


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