Christian realism is a “community of discourse” rather than a formal ideology or disciplined school of thought. Reinhold Niebuhr, who is most associated with Christian realism, never created a formal “school” but was the most energetic engine of Christian realism as a community of discourse. During the mid-twentieth century, theologians, political scientists, historians, and others wrote, lectured, and articulated positions that over time became known as Christian realism, even though they did not necessarily have close, personal interaction.
Christian realism as a community of discourse contrasts from other more formal schools of thought. The latter typically have a founder, disciples, a genealogy, and place of origin. Unlike with the Columbia–Chicago school of economics, no place was distinctive for Christian realists. No narrowly focused faculty with graduate student acolytes and descendants promoted Christian realist views. Instead, Christian realism is a loose network of political observers, pundits, theologians, and practitioners discussing international affairs, in theory and in practice. As Niebuhr’s boss at Union Seminary, Henry P. Van Dusen, wrote when discussing a framework for ending World War II, Christian realists tend to propose “middle axioms”: working principles “between broad, general goals” and the “concrete plans which are the province of technical experts.”
As a community of discourse, Christian realists share general assumptions, eight of which are briefly elaborated below (in no specific order), which can be found in the works of Christian realists from Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett in the 1940s to Jean Bethke Elshtain and others after 9/11. Many of the principles that are called “just war thinking” or “just war statecraft” are consonant with Christian realism.
First, Christian realism is a strand of international relations thinking that accepts many of the basic tenets of classical international relations and political science realism. Christian (and non-Christian) realism recognizes that the world has no global government; states are the primary political actors that must care for themselves (“self-help”); and states’ principle concerns in their relations are power and security. Peace is often elusive in international life, and realists tend to define peace through order and security (e.g., balance of power) instead of idealistically as the “brotherhood of man.”
Second, Christian realism is theologically Augustinian in many ways, most notably in anthropology. It is a classical, orthodox Christian understanding that recognizes the irony of humanity, with its many talents, abilities, and creativity, based on the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei. People bear the image of the Creator God, but humans are limited by the Fall. Human sin is a fundamental characteristic of individuals and collectives.
Third, being Augustinian, Christian realism emphasizes political order in a fallen world and asks that governments take seriously their duty—from Romans 13 and elsewhere—to preserve order, punish wrongdoers, and advance justice. Augustine urged seeking the “tranquility of order.” This world will never be perfect, like heavenly peace in the City of God. But imperfection does not obfuscate the need for political order, which political leaders are obliged to promote. Christian realists are unlikely to blame immutable social forces for causing evils, whereas progressives and Marxists do blame such forces. Nor do Christian realists say, “This is the way it has always been and cannot change,” as political conservatives do. Christian realists, unlike quietists or pacifists, do not say, “We cannot stand up to evil because it will dirty our hands.” Instead, they act as morally engaged individuals and stand against evil.
Fourth, Christian realists talk a lot about power. Many of them learned from Marxist analysis in the 1920s to dissect, or what today we call “deconstruct,” power relations. Niebuhr did so in race and class relations as well as between various political powers. He exposed power relationships, including the subtle ones that most people miss. Christian realists stress security, justice, and equality. This point about equality is important. Niebuhr noted that an overemphasis on individual liberty, or license, usually costs someone else. Christian realism stresses equality because it restrains abuse of power. Equals are less likely to coerce each other than radically free individuals, who may have gained that liberty at the expense of others.
Fifth, Christian realism criticizes collective chauvinism. One example is extreme nationalism. Niebuhr underscored that individuals make choices based on self-interest but face many constraints in society. In contrast, groups are likelier to make chauvinistic or self-interested choices because their restraint is much lower. Contrast a mob with an individual; nationalist and racist behaviors are examples of what Niebuhr called the “accentuation of evil.” Niebuhr saw nationalism in the East and the West (National Socialism and Fascism in Europe, and predatory Communism in the East) as examples of this collective chauvinism. He also criticized, in America, the white majority’s disproportionate power and wealth, which often came at the expense of the black minority.
Sixth, Christian realism considers all three levels of analysis, what Kenneth Waltz called the three “images” of international relations theory. Waltz’s important book Man, the State, and War described three levels of analysis for political observers: the individual, domestic politics, and international affairs. Waltz argued foreign policy and international affairs rank highest in political analysis because they affect major decisions of war and peace. He dismissed domestic politics, especially the role of individuals, as unimportant for international relations analysis. In contrast, Christian realists are classical realists who consider each of the three levels of analysis and study the interaction among all three. This approach has a scriptural basis because the doctrines of vocation and authority (e.g., Romans 13) suggest that there are different types of God-ordained order, and that some are called to superintend the polity as magistrates, soldiers, and police.
Seventh, Christian realism rejects both idealism and conservatism. Niebuhr and his contemporaries strongly criticized idealism for leading to revolutionary projects not grounded in human reality. He lamented the French Revolution’s destruction of morality and institutions in favor of fantasies about human brotherhood and equality. Revolutionaries think the end always excuses their means, and their means tend toward violence and oppression, justified by “the cause.” But Niebuhr and other Christian realists were not traditional conservatives. Many were political liberals, socialists in the 1920s and 1930s, who became supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats, and liberal groups like Americans for Democratic Action in the 1940s and 1950s. Christian realism does not argue for the status quo. Niebuhr decried power inequalities and injustices, arguing for peaceful, moderated change. Christian realism is not quietistic. Whereas Niebuhr and other Christian realists were pacifists after World War I, they later realized that responsible, moral action must counter Hitlerism. Quietism was irresponsible because it maintained the unjust status quo. Christian realism stresses that morally responsible individuals must resist evil.
Finally, Christian realism emphasizes limits and restraint. Today’s progressive liberals typically are revolutionaries willing to radically upset the world for utopian schemes, while Christian realists are skeptical. Niebuhr called himself a “realistic optimist.” Christian realists are deeply concerned about unintended consequences. They recognize that in politics any stone thrown into the pond generates ripples difficult to track. More importantly, Christian realists are deeply concerned with politics’ greatest sin, which is hubris, or self-destructive pride. Over and over, particularly in Niebuhr’s most famous book, The Irony of American History (1952), he emphasizes how hubris clouds judgment with tragic results.