The celebrated American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and most of the thinkers studied in The Christian Realists belonged to a school of thought known as “Christian realism.” The ideas of that tradition build on Niebuhr’s thesis in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) that although individual human beings may at times rise above the confines of narrow self-interest, the same is not true of states, social classes, and other collectives, which tend to be governed by considerations of power and self-interest. Niebuhr tried to make this point to Christians who sought “social justice” at home through appeals to conscience and peace abroad through pacifism and international organizations.

This effort did not make Christian realism merely a sanctified Machiavellianism. Niebuhr and the Christian realists sought to avoid, on the one hand, a utopianism that imagined justice (domestic and international) to be attainable without the use of power and, on the other, a cynicism that sought no moral justification for the application and use of power. John Foster Dulles, who was associated with the Christian realist tradition early on, argued that although in the nature of things each nation’s foreign policy would be in some way self-interested, nevertheless it “should be judged by something outside itself.... [T]he moral law was the ultimate judge standing over and above [it]” (p. 69).

In the domestic arena, the realists appear to have been conventional liberals. In his essay on John Coleman Bennett, Niebuhr’s colleague at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, David McCreary praises the Christian realists for “tak[ing] the discussion beyond vague slogans, generalities, and panaceas” (p. 154). To illustrate this statement, he points to two axioms on which Bennett believed all Christians could agree:

  1. That the national community acting through government in cooperation with industry, labor, and agriculture has responsibility to maintain full employment.
  2. That the national community should prevent all private centers of economic power from becoming stronger than the government.

The level of political discussion in Protestant circles must have been very low indeed if these “axioms” qualify as “mak[ing] more specific the issues at stake” (p. 154). The first of them simply takes Keynesian economics for granted. Since when are “all Christians” expected to believe in one school of economics? The second axiom gives no indication of how “private centers of economic power” (“economic power,” like “national community,” being nowhere defined) might become “stronger than the government” or indeed of what that statement might even mean. (Are the big corporations levying taxes and waging wars?) If the twentieth century taught anything, it was the lethality of modern states and the dangers of unchecked political power—the kind of power that corporations, lacking the coercive apparatus of government, are scarcely in a position to exercise. Particularly in light of the bumbling and destructive history of American antitrust enforcement, one might expect that a person who calls himself a “realist” would have formulated something other than an utterly conventional and entirely unimaginative position on the relationship between the public and private sectors.

The fact is that, for all the plaudits the Christian realists receive in Eric Patterson’s collection, this tradition’s unique insights are in fact relatively few. Niebuhr was a conventional New Deal Democrat—hardly an indication of pathbreaking, cutting-edge thinking. Plenty of twentieth-century figures from a wide variety of ideological backgrounds, from Orwell to Hayek to Solzhenitsyn, emphasized the limits of politics, so the Christian realists were by no means alone on that score. In foreign policy, the Christian realists had some important things to say about the dangers of ideology and ideological wars and about the need for modesty and prudence, but their views were nevertheless entirely mainstream. They typically favored some kind of international organization: “Dulles,” we learn, “fervently pressed for the development of the United Nations” (p. 70). They simply warned that such an organization would not solve all problems or bring war to an end forever. Fair enough, but few serious figures thought it would.

Some of these figures did have important points to make, to be sure. The Christian realists were not an ideologically homogenous group, differing among themselves on such momentous issues as the Vietnam War and the morality of nuclear deterrence, and here and there someone would emphasize or draw out the applications of a particular aspect of the realist tradition in ways that genuinely contributed to the national conversation. Thus, Malcolm Thorp’s essay on historian Herbert Butterfield is perhaps the most interesting of the lot because it profiles a man whose thought was at least somewhat original and provocative (Butterfield, for instance, broke with his fellow realists in advocating complete nuclear renunciation). Like his fellow realists, Butterfield admitted that war probably could not be abolished, and he defended the idea that war might be just in some cases. Yet he was particularly concerned about the collateral effects of war and emphasized that wars even for good causes tended to have side effects so undesirable as to outweigh the benefits of military victory. This understanding was one of the reasons he generally opposed the idea of so-called humanitarian interventions, and it is a point that in our present circumstances bears repeating in a special way.

Although contributors to this volume genuinely admire the men they chronicle, they maintain a scholarly detachment appropriate to an academic study. Nevertheless, the University of Chicago’s Jean Bethke Elshtain, dwelling on her usual refrain, takes the opportunity presented by her foreword to speak on behalf of the “war on terror,” condescendingly implying that skeptics of that war are moral idiots incapable of the hard-headed analysis of the Christian realists. I rather doubt that all contributors to this volume are entirely comfortable with Elshtain’s foreword. In his own essay, Roger Shinn emphasizes the Christian realists’ call for modesty and an avoidance of messianism or ideological crusading in a nation’s foreign policy. He cannot resist pointing out the contrast offered by the Bush II administration: “One of the curious ironies of our time is that a President, who campaigned on an appeal for greater ‘humility’ in foreign policy went on to locate in three nations the world’s ‘axis of evil’ and then to mass a huge army thousands of miles from American soil, ready to accept the endorsement of the United Nations, if that should be forthcoming, but equally ready to go it alone, if the UN should refuse endorsement” (p. 193).

Because Christian realism was an approach to politics and morality rather than a specific program, it comes as little surprise that people holding sharply differing views claimed to have been influenced by it. For example, the architects of the Vietnam War, which Niebuhr himself came to detest, cited Niebuhr’s views in support of the conduct of that war. Niebuhr’s message that individuals could be altruistic but states could not began to be interpreted and acted upon in ways that the celebrated theologian himself would certainly have rejected. “Thus, men who were on the whole scrupulous in their private lives came to believe that when they stepped into their public role, everything was permitted. Impressed by the philosophical tension between moralism and pragmatism in public policy, they confused the two in the making of it. What was expedient also became right” (p. 221).

Relatively little in the corpus of Christian realism, even if it could be resurrected, holds out much promise for changing the terms of the present nondebate over American foreign policy. The Christian realists probably would have opposed the belligerence and unilateralism of George W. Bush, but one can easily imagine their interventionist outlook and rhetoric leading them down the path of Democratic challenger John Kerry, who said he also would have fought the Iraq War, just without Bush’s messianism and arrogance. Such was the phony choice that Americans faced in 2004: two candidates who, like the men of this study, trumpeted their “realism” against their parties’ isolationists and peaceniks. Although editor Eric Patterson has assembled a fine collection of essays that are useful in and of themselves, the times call for a much more radical critique of U.S. foreign policy and the present regime than the timid and conventional rhetoric provided by the Christian realists.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
Suffolk Community College
Culture and SocietyGovernment and PoliticsLaw and LibertyPhilosophy and ReligionPolitical Theory
Other Independent Review articles by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
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