Archive for the ‘Barack Obama’ Tag

Political Empathy and Wisdom (and the Absence Thereof)   2 comments

On the Duty of a President of the United States to Be the Consoler-in-Chief

May we praise those elected officials and candidates for elective office who act wisely and with empathy as we condemn those who act to the contrary.  And, when the time to decide for whom to vote arrives, may we reckon wisdom and empathy as credit to those who possess them, just as we properly lambaste and vote against those who lack them.

I realize that empathy is not a constitutional requirement for Presidents of the United States, but I also argue that voters the right to insist upon it.  Presidents with whom I have generally agreed with with whom I have generally disagreed have mastered the role of Consoler-in-Chief.  In the wake of a hurricane in New Orleans, Louisiana, Lyndon Baines Johnson carried a flash light one night and knocked on doors, to greet his fellow citizens in distress.  Ronald Reagan consoled the nation after the explosion of the Challenger.  He used Peggy Noonan’s words, of course, but he had empathy.  Besides, Presidents have had speech writers for a long time.  Bill Clinton was a fine Consoler-in-Chief after the terrorist attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Barack Obama led the congregation in “Amazing Grace” at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, after the racist shooting there.  Excelling as Consoler-in-Chief used to be a standard part of being the President of the United States.

Donald Trump is a self-absorbed and immature little man.  He should think about the country and the world first, not about himself.  The contrast between he and Joseph Biden is stark.  Biden, who has buried his first wife and some of this children, understands grief.  When he says he knows grief, he speaks accurately.  He also speaks with empathy.  Biden looks presidential.  He is already the Consoler-in-Chief.




The Seventh Party System   1 comment

Above:  Alexander Hamilton, First Leader of the Federalist Party

Image in the Public Domain


I am convinced that the United States of America has been in the Seventh Party System since or shortly before January 20, 1993.  As a teacher of U.S. history on the college level, I think about various matters of the past, especially when students’ questions prompt me to do so.

First a brief review of the first six party systems is in order.

The First Party System was the Federalist-Jeffersonian Republican divide, with parties forming during George Washington’s administration.  The national Federalist Party did not field a presidential candidate after 1816, but not all Federalists became Jeffersonians, some of whom had begun to sound like Federalists by that point.

The Second Party System grew up around Andrew Jackson in the 1820s.  His supporters were Democrats, and his opponents merged into the Whig Party in the 1830s.  Before that, however, they were National Republicans and Anti-Masons, the latter of which gave us the presidential nominating convention in 1831.

The Third Party System emerged in the middle 1850s, in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854).  The Whigs came apart, as did the Democrats to a lesser extent, and the Republican Party emerged with a platform which included opposition to the expansion of slavery but not support for immediate abolition of that damnable peculiar institution.

The Fourth Party System began after the 1896 general election, in which Republican William McKinley won a landslide victory.  The Republicans controlled the presidency for all but eight years (the Woodrow Wilson Administration, 1913-1921) through the end of the Herbert Hoover Administration (1929-1933).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt inaugurated the Fifth Party System, during which the Democratic Party controlled the presidency for all but eight years (the Dwight Eisenhower Administration, 1953-1961).  This system ran its course until the 1968 general election and the election of Richard Nixon, who employed the notorious “Southern Strategy.”  Lyndon Baines Johnson was correct; he gave the South to the Republicans when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Sixth Party System began with Nixon and ended with George H. W. Bush.  Republicans controlled the presidency for all but four years.  Jimmy Carter, the sole Democratic president (1977-1981) during this system, was hardly an FDR-LBJ social programs type.

The Seventh Party System, I am convinced, began with the Clinton Administration or during the campaign of 1992.  This fact has become obvious to me only in hindsight.  (Historical analysis does require the passage of time.)  Here is my case:

  1. None of the presidential elections (1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016) has been a landslide, certainly not in the popular vote.
  2. Regardless of the identity of the President, about half of the population seems to hate his guts.
  3. A vocal proportion of that livid portion of the population entertains unfounded conspiracy theories.  For the record, Vince Foster did commit suicide.  Nobody murdered him, so there was no murder for the Clinton Administration to cover up.  Also, the George W. Bush Administration was not complicit in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011; a hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, was the birthplace of Barack Obama in 1961; and Osama bin Ladin is dead.  One can, however, find websites arguing against all these propositions.  This means nothing conclusive; once I found the website of the Flat Earth Society.
  4. Vitriol, unvarnished hatred, and unapologetic indifference to objective reality has become increasingly politically acceptable.  The abuses of power (and threats of them) commonplace in third world countries have entered mainstream political discourse in this country.

Also, for the record, Barack Obama is neither a Socialist nor a Communist.  There are Socialist and Communist Parties in the United States, and they do not mistake him for one of their sympathizers.

It is long past time to lower the political temperature and retire over-the-top charges which distract from the serious issues of the day.  We have a nation, one which has lasted for more than 200 years.  Childish antics do not honor the highest ideals upon which our founders created the United States.

How should we, as citizens, respond when the lunatics take over the asylum?  How should we respond when the temporary occupant of the Oval Office spews a combination of venom, rumors, and falsehoods casually, thereby degrading his office and the country, yet labels documented journalistic stories “fake news”?  How should we respond when many of our fellow Americans, members of a cult of personality, affirm  whatever Il Duce with bad hair utters and tweets?  How should we respond to the American Il Duce‘s fondness for authoritarian leaders?

Donald Trump is a domestic threat to the United States.  Trumpism is a domestic threat to the United States.  We should recognize these truths and utilize the constitutional methods available to us to resist both.

I derive some comfort from the realities of demographic changes, which will usher in the Eighth Party System, as soon as more people of certain demographic categories vote in sufficient force consistently.





Updated on November 7 and 9, 2016

Updated October 9, 2018


Feast of Reinhold, Ursula, Hulda, and H. Richard Niebuhr (July 5)   15 comments

Above:  A Partial Niebuhr Family Tree

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor



Christian Educator

sister of


United Church of Christ Theologian

husband of 


Episcopal Theologian and Advocate for Women’s Rights



United Church of Christ Theologian






Niebuhrs have made vital contributions to Christian theology and public life, especially in the United States.  Reinhold Niebuhr has received the most attention.  His brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, also an influential theologian, has received much attention as well.  They have deserved all the attention they have received.  In the process, however, other Niebuhrs have received too little attention.




Gustav Niebuhr (1863-1913) was a minister and church planter for the old Evangelical Synod of North America, founded by members of the Lutheran-Reformed Prussian church who had immigrated to the United States.  Gustav, who had arrived in the United States at the age of 18 years in 1881, was a Belle Époque optimistic liberal with pietistic tendencies and a firm grasp of the Greek and Hebrew languages.  He lobbied for his denomination to conduct services in English.  (Attachment to the language of the mother country ran deep among many immigrant Christians in the United States.  This was cultural, liturgical, and psychological, sometimes with a theological veneer.  Among the Swedish-American Lutherans of the old Augustana Synod (1860-1962), for example, some argued that preaching the Gospel in English, not Swedish, would dilute the truth of the Gospel.)

Lydia Hosto (Niebuhr) (1869-1961) was like many wives of ministers; she did much pro bono work in parishes and became, in the minds of many parishioners, an extension of her husband.  She was far more than that, of course.  Her legacy has fallen into the shadows of her husband and two famous sons, unfortunately.  Lydia was sister of Adele Hosto, a deaconess in the Evangelical Synod of North America, and a daughter of Edward Hosto, a missionary of that denomination.

Gustav and Lydia had five children–one daughter and four sons.  One son died as an infant.  The language at home was German.  Gustav alienated Walter, his second child, and discouraged Hulda, his daughter, from pursuing higher education.  Gustav had old-fashioned ideas about gender roles.  He, from 1902 to 1913 the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Church, Lincoln, Illinois, also served as an administrator at Deaconess Hospital.

Gustav Niebuhr, aged 50 years, died in 1913.




The eldest of the Niebuhr children was Hulda Clara August Niebuhr, born in 1889.  According to Gustav, her father, a woman was supposed to marry and bear children.  He thought that a woman’s desire for higher education was unseemly and egotistical, as well as a distraction from an interference with marriage and child-bearing.  Hulda pursued higher education anyway.

For her own reasons she never married.




Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr entered the world at Wright, Missouri, on June 21, 1892.  He was the third son and fourth child born to the family  “Reinie” graduated from the denominational college (Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Illinois) and seminary (Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri), as well as Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut.  He, ordained at St. John’s Evangelical Church, Lincoln, Illinois, served at Bethel Evangelical Church, Detroit, Michigan.  Denominational rules mandated a two-year commitment; he served for thirteen years, until 1928.




Helmut Richard Niebuhr, the youngest of the five children, entered the world at Wright City, Missouri, on September 4, 1894.  He graduated from Elmhurst College in 1912, Washington University in 1917, Yale Divinity School in 1923, and Yale Graduate School in 1924.  H. Richard, ordained into the ministry of the Evangelical Synod of North America in 1916, pastored an ESNA parish in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1916-1918 then a Congregationalist church in New Haven during his doctoral work there.  For the rest of his career H. Richard was an academic–a professor at Eden Theological Seminary (1919-1922), the President of Elmhurst College (1924-1927), again a professor at Eden Theological Seminary (1927-1931), and finally as a professor (specializing in Christian ethics) at Yale Divinity School (1931-1962).

In 1920 H. Richard married Florence Marie Mittendorf.  One of their children was Richard Reinhold Niebuhr (1926-2017), a professor at Harvard Divinity School from 1956 to 1999, as well as the father of Richard Gustav Neibuhr (b. 1955), usually listed as Gustav Niebuhr.  The grandson of H. Richard Niebuhr has distinguished himself as an award-winning religion journalist (through 2001) and academic (since December 2001).  After his work at Princeton University (2001-2003) (Richard) Gustav Niebuhr joined the faculty of Syracuse University, Syracuse New York, teaching journalism as well as the history of religion.

Harvard Divinity School has honored Richard Reinhold Niebuhr by naming a professorship after him.




Gustav Niebuhr died in 1913.  At that time Walter, the eldest son, whom Gustav had alienated, rescued the family financially.  He, a devout Christian, had gone into secular life as a journalist and a businessman, making real money.

The Evangelical Synod of North America assigned the bachelor Reinhold Niebuhr to Bethel Evangelical Church, Detroit, Michigan, in 1915.  The membership stood at 65 when he arrived.  It was also entirely of German extraction.  Hulda and Lydia worked in the parish.  Hulda specialized in religious education for several years.  Lydia was effectively the co-pastor.

At Detroit Reinhold became deeply involved in liberal politics, siding with labor unions, opposing Ku Klux Klan-backed candidates for local offices, and imbibing deeply of Marxian thought (Conflict Theory).  He, shedding Social Gospel optimism and moving toward Christian Realism while writing Moral Man and Immoral Society (published in 1932).  Meanwhile, the Niebuhrs grew Bethel Church to 700 members by 1928.




Hulda, who had begun her higher education at Lincoln College, Lincoln, Illinois, in 1912, completed her undergraduate degree at Boston University, starting in 1918.  At B.U. she also earned her M.A. in the School of Religious Education and Social Service.  The university became her professional home; she was one of three female assistant professors there in 1927.




By 1928 Reinhold had come to the attention of Henry Sloane Coffin, President of Union Theological Seminary, New York, New York.  Coffin hired the pastor in 1928.  Reinhold and his mother moved to New York City that year; he taught applied Christianity and Christian ethics.  He remained at Union Theological Seminary until declining health forced his retirement in 1960.




Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton, born in Southampten, England, on August 3, 1908, would have offended Gustav Niebuhr (1863-1913); he would have accused her of egotism.  Ursula not only pursued higher education, but excelled at it.  She graduated with honors in history and theology from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, then became the first woman to win a fellowship to Union Theological Seminary, where she, aged 23 years, arrived in the fall of 1930.  Ursula chose not to date Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom she met there; she wrote,

I thought him rather too Teutonic and too Prussian for my taste.

She did fall in love with Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, however.  Ursula had a mind of her own.  She as a lay minister in The Church of England, had dared to preach, thereby doing what only men were officially supposed to do in that milieu at that time.  She married Reinhold at Winchester Cathedral in December 1931.  During their marriage (1931-1971) the couple debated theology.  Ursula remained in the Anglican tradition; she was an Episcopalian.  Reinhold likewise remained true to his background as it turned into the Evangelical and Reformed Church (in 1934) then the United Church of Christ (in 1957).




Ursula was a formidable scholar.  She had an interest in Biblical archeology.  Her thesis at Union Theological Seminary was “Ultimate Moral Sanction as According to the New Testament.”  Ursula also taught the history of religion at Columbia University and founded then chaired the Department of Religion at Barnard College, retiring in 1960, when her husband retired from Union Theological Seminary.

Ursula scaled back her career due to Reinhold’s declining health.  In 1952, while returning from a meeting with his friend Adlai Stevenson, Reinhold suffered a stroke.  He was able to continue to teach until 1960 and publish into the 1960s.  In his last major work, Man’s Nature and His Communities (1965), Reinhold acknowledged Ursula’s influence on his evolving thought.

In recent years some scholars have asked to what extent Ursula and her husband were co-authors.

Ursula, aged 90 years, died at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on January 10, 1997.




Hulda spent 1928-1946 in New York, New York.  She began work on a doctorate at Union Theological Seminary ad the Teachers College of Columbia University (as part of a joint program of the two institutions) and was A.B.D. (All But Dissertation).  From 1930 to 1945 she was a religious educator at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.  Hulda also wrote two books and six articles about the religious education of children from 1928 to 1944, and was an adjunct faculty member at New York University from 1938 to 1946.

In 1946 moved to Chicago, Illinois, to accept a position at the Presbyterian College of Christian Education, associated with McCormick Theological Seminary.  She became an Associate Professor of Religious Education.  Upon the merger of the college and the seminary in 1949, she joined the faculty of the seminary, which made her its first female full professor in 1953.  Hulda, who shared her home with her mother, wrote two more books and 18 more articles.

In one of those articles, “Red Roses and Sin” (1958), Hulda wrote:

We bemoan the fact that our church members do not know the Bible, while at the same time we waste opportunities to make it available to them.  Children (not to mention adults) like to hear good stories told and retold.  The Bible teems with dramatic material that can be presented to them in story form.

Hulda, who emphasized teaching children in ways in which they learned best, died on April 17, 1959, one month shy of retirement.  She was about 70 years old.




To make decisions in faith is to make them in view of the fact that no single man or group or historical time is the church; but that there is a church of faith in which we do our partial, relative work and on which we count.  It is to make them in view of the fact that Christ is risen from the dead, and is not only the head of the church but the redeemer of the world.  It is to make them in view of the fact that the world of culture–man’s achievement–exists within the world of grace–God’s Kingdom.

–H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York:  Harper & Row, 1951), 256

H. Richard, quite an influential theologian, as well as the only member of the family in his generation to earn a doctorate, thought and wrote deeply about the relationship of faith to culture.  In the seminal Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929) he wrote of secular influences, such as race, social class, regionalism, and nationalism–or institutional religious life.  Then, in The Church Against the World (1935) and The Kingdom of God in America (1937), H. Richard emphasized spiritual influences on culture.  In The Meaning of Revelation (1941) he pondered the relationship of Christian community to the revelation of God, the absolute, and argued that the revelation of God is relative and in the context of faith community, which functions as a safeguard against many excesses of members of that community.  Perhaps H. Richard’s most influential work was Christ and Culture (1951), in which he argued against separation from the world as well as accommodation to it.  The majority Christian position, he wrote, is a synthesis of Christ and culture.  H. Richard did not approve of that either; he preferred Christ as the transformer of culture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of the theologians who has simultaneously critiqued and affirmed the theology of H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr.

H. Richard, not yet retired, died on July 5, 1962.  He was 67 years old.




Harlan Ellison has said that being consistent requires one to remain as poorly informed as one was the previous year.  Reinhold Niebuhr, who changed his mind many times during his nearly 70 years of life, valued avoiding naïveté and hypocrisy, not seeking consistency with himself when he was younger.  Thus he, once a pacifist, a socialist, and a Social Gospeller, rejected many former opinions.  Reinhold became a champion of Neo-orthodoxy (which retained the social justice aspects of the Social Gospel while rejecting the optimism that World War I had belied) and Christian Realism.  He was too liberal for many conservatives and too conservative for many liberals.  Reinhold’s theology recognized the reality of the gray, not just the black and the white.  He came to support the George Kennan-style Containment policy during the Cold War, and condemned Senator Joseph McCarthy as an agent of evil.  Reinhold, who supported U.S. involvement in World War II, opposed the war in Vietnam, as did Kennan.

The author of the Serenity Prayer (in the 1930s) won the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1964, helped settle refugees in the 1930s, came to oppose Christian attempts to convert Jews, and influenced a host of influential people, including Martin Luther King, Jr.; Senator John McCain; and Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.  Reinhold was Obama’s favorite theologian.

Reinhold broke religion into two categories–prophetic religion and priestly religion.  He defined prophetic religion as the source of human religious consciousness.  Reinhold was critical of priestly religion, which he defined as that which people use to replace, blunt, or domesticate true religion, that is prophetic religion, which is essential to human personality (cheapened by modern industrial society) as well as societal cohesion.

That societal emphasis, which Reinhold had in common with H. Richard, informed an understanding of original sin–more than individual, corrupting society and social institutions.  Therefore only God can usher in the Kingdom of God.

Sorry, Walter Rauschenbusch, whom I also esteem highly.

Reinhold died at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on June 1, 1971.  He was 78 years old.




One may disagree respectfully and civilly with any of these four saints on various matters.  Yet, if one is honest, one cannot fail to recognize their contributions to the Church, and societies.  Of course Christian educators should use effective pedagogical methods.  Of course churches and societies influence each other, for good and ill.  Of course corrupt social institutions, which even the most pious institutions, which even the most pious cannot avoid, involve those pious people in societal sins, so that, as the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) affirmed in 1962, in a statement with Niebuhrian influences:

Man cannot destroy the tyranny of sin in himself or in his world; his only hope is to be delivered from it by God.

–Quoted in The Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1965), 332

I wonder what these four Niebuhrs would write and say about today.  I wonder what advice Hulda would offer to contemporary Christian educators, given the shortened attention spans and the ubiquity of screens and smart phones.  I wonder what critiques H. Richard, Reinhold, and Ursula would offer for U.S. foreign and domestic policy.  I also wonder how they might adapt their critique of industrial society in the context of post-industrial society–an information economy amid globalization.  I wonder what they would make of social media.  They would offer discomforting words of wisdom, I suspect.  And those words of wisdom would not fit into sound bytes.

I also wonder about another matter.  I collect and consult calendars of saints.  A wide variety of these calendars exists.  Not one, to my knowledge, lists any of these four Niebuhrs as saints.  That surprises me.  Anglican and Lutheran ecclesiastical calendars count legacies, not miracles.  Certainly I am shocked not to find H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr on any Anglican or Lutheran calendar of saints.  During this process of renovating my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days–with this post, in fact–I hereby merge the former feasts of Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr as I add Ursula Niebuhr and Hulda Niebuhr to the commemoration.  They deserve it.






Almighty God, we praise you for your servants Hulda, Reinhold, Ursula, and H. Richard Niebuhr,

through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life.

Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit,

whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 46

1 Corinthians 3:11-23

Mark 10:35-45

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 60


The Hitler Analogy   Leave a comment

Above:  The Front Page of Stars and Stripes, May 2, 1945

Image in the Public Domain


Just leave Hitler out of it.

Morning Joe, April 12, 2017

As Sean Spicer has learned this week and, to his credit, he should have just left Hitler out of a discussion of the crimes of the dictator of Syria.

The Hitler analogy is one I hear people of various political stripes invoke against their opponents frequently.  The analogy applies well to only a select group of individuals that includes Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, the body count of each of whom exceeds that of the Fuherer, responsible for the Holocaust.  I recall that, in one statement, my Paul Broun, Jr., my former Congressman, compared Barack Obama to Hitler and Stalin–one a Fascist and the other a Communist–representatives of two opposing ideologies.  I remember hearing someone say “Hitlery Clinton” years ago.  I also recall hearing more than one person liken advocates of gun control to Nazis.  Oddly enough, I do not remember hearing anyone condemning the ownership and driving of Volkswagens, vehicles of which Hitler approved, due to the Nazi connection.

The crimes of the Nazis–especially Hitler–were of such magnitude that one should never trivialize them.  If every other thing is as bad as something the Nazis did, how bad could the Nazis have been?  The answer to that question is or should be obvious:  (1)  The Nazis were especially evil, and (2) Very little has ever risen to the level of evil of the Third Reich.  Evil of a magnitude lesser than that of the Nazis has long existed; examples have included Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad.

As Jeffrey Toobin has said, “arguments are easy at the extremes. ”  I conclude that the comfort level with the simplicity of easy arguments makes many people want to avoid the messier arguments between the extremes and leads them to resort to fallacies such as the misuse of the Hitler analogy.  Doing so also weakens their arguments and reveals them to be idiots.

Can we just leave Hitler out of it when he does not belong there?