Abstract

This essay continues the ongoing discussion Robert Terrill began and Joshua Reeves and Matthew May joined regarding the moral, philosophical, and rhetorical choices made in Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel lecture. We argue that Obama’s address is best understood as an articulation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s rhetoric of Christian Realism—Obama wrote the lecture himself and prepared for it by studying the influential theologian’s works. Importantly, Obama is not the first rhetor to use the moral and political thought of Niebuhr to situate his or her public address; the list includes Martin Luther King Jr., Saul Alinsky, Jimmy Carter, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton. Yet Niebuhr’s vocabulary remains largely unstudied by public address scholars and rhetorical theorists. We argue that criticizing the moral and political judgments made in Obama’s address by the Niebuhrian standards the president sets for it provides an alternative method by which to evaluate the speech’s successes and failures. In so doing, we also provide the field of public address with its first account of the rhetorical possibilities and limitations of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work, specifically his vision of a “spiritualized-technician”—a rhetor who speaks the language of realism, idealism, and irony, to expand an audience’s moral imagination.

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