Obama’s Nobel: The Norwegians Have Faith in Something


I have been writing lately about Jews and their accomplishments in liter

ature, politics, and, especially, comedy. So I’m feeling a bit verklempt about my own Norwegian heritage. Jews gave us Moses and monotheism, Starbucks, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Einstein, and almost a quarter of all Nobel Prize winners. What have Norwegians done for us lately?

The answer, of course, is not much. Sonja Henie was a famous figure skater in the twenties and thirties, and I seem to remember Norwegians doing pretty well in cross-country skiing in the Salt Lake City Olympics. But that’s about it, though my mor mor (mother’s mother) would never forgive me if I did not add that Norwegians invented the cheese slicer. And, for that matter, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Glenn Beck is ranting about why Obama doesn’t deserve the honor my Norwegian brethren bestowed on him today. So is the Taliban. But these fundamentalists aren’t the only ones denouncing the selection. Many who are sympathetic to Obama think the prize is premature. He hasn’t been in office for a year, and he hasn’t accomplished much of anything abroad.

These critics are right if the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize is to honor people who have actually fixed Ireland or the Arab-Israeli conflict. The last sitting U.S. presidents to be so honored—Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1916—had been in the Oval Office for years and had actually brokered peace treaties when they won. But many times in the past, the Nobel Committee has given this award more on promise than on performance, or to jump-start a peace initiative that in their view merited momentum.

All this may sound like hippie-dippie idealism, but Norwegians are known for anything but. In fact, they may be the most practical people on Earth. When my grandmother put a raisin on the top of your oatmeal cookie, it was for the nutritional value, not the effect. And who can afford to be impractical when it’s below zero outside, in the fall?

So why would practical people award the Nobel Peace Prize on the thin sliver of the audacity of hope? Because they understand that peacemaking is at least as much about perception as it is about reality. And they want the award to nudge one step closer to reality Obama’s vision of a world in which nations consult with allies, work via diplomats, and do not strike first in war.

In the Christian tradition faith and hope are eternally entangled in a ménage à trois with love. In this case, hope has nothing to do with that kind of faith. A 2005 Gallup International survey found that Norway is the least religious country in the least religious part of the world—Western Europe. Although virtually every Norwegian citizen belongs to the Lutheran state church by virtue of baptism, most of the actual churches are as desolate on Sunday mornings as the Norwegian Sea in winter.

These are not impractical people. And the only faith they have is in the power of ideas. Yes, Obama has so far given us mostly rhetoric—phrases like “mutual respect and mutual interest” and speeches like his extraordinary address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June. But as Judaism has long affirmed, words matter, as do the ideas they help to make real. So while they can’t be credited with parting the Red Sea or founding Starbucks, the Norwegians did pretty well for themselves today. Picking Obama was easy. But they also did something much harder: they made me proud of my heritage, or at least as proud as an uptight Norwegian-American can be.

Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and writes books, including God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, published by HarperOne. His latest is Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).