Eric Patterson’s lecture at Christianity & National Security 2022

Eric Patterson discusses Christian realism, wishful-thinking idealism, and national security stewardship. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Well, it’s a pleasure to be here with you all today, and ask me during the Q&A what’s the best thing that has ever happened at one of these conferences. And Mark… and Mark, you know, um, but do the rest of you know the best thing that’s ever happened in the past six years at a Christianity & National Security Conference? And I think this will be of great importance to all of you singles there. 

Well again, my name is Eric Patterson and as Mark said, I work with the Religious Freedom Institute here in Washington D.C. I’m pleased that we have a couple of our former and current interns with us today, and uh, also have an affiliation with Regent University and with Georgetown University… My talk today is going to really set up many of the talks for the next two days, because what I’m going to do is make a defense of what’s called Christian realism, a way of doing foreign policy analysis and thinking about national security stewardship.  

And I’m going to do that by beginning our conversation today by poking at what I would call wishful thinking idealism, and that’s where I’d like to start. And what I mean by that… it is so often the way that politics happen, at least, in comfortable settings like this is people sitting around and talking about the way the world should be. Now, I’m not against an optimistic vision of us rolling up our sleeves and thinking about the way the world should be and working towards that. That’s not what I’m talking about. Wishful thinking idealism is people who imagine the world and then pretend that they’re living in that imagined world as if their imaginary way of thinking is going to deal with the real facts in the world in which we live. 

Let me take you back to 1929. Now, most of you recall that Adolf Hitler did not come to power until 1933, but in 1929 he gave a speech that told the world this is what we’re going to do. It’s often called the German Dagger Speech. This is before a crowd in Munich in 1929. March 1929. “If men wish to live, then they are forced to kill others. The entire struggle for survival is a conquest of the man’s of existence which in turn results in the elimination of others. From these same sources of subsistence, as long as there are other people on this Earth, there will be nation-against-nation, and they will be forced to protect their vital rights in the same way as the individual is forced to protect his rights. One is either a hammer or an anvil. We confess that it is our purpose to prepare the German people again for the role of the hammer. We admit freely and openly that if our movement is victorious, we will be concerned day and night with a question of how to produce the armed forces, which are forbidden to us by the Treaty of Versailles. We solemnly confess that we consider everyone a scoundrel who does not try day and night to figure out a way to violate this treaty. For we have never recognized this treaty. We’ll take every step which strengthens our arms, which augments the number of our forces, and which increases the strength of our people. We confess further that we will dash anyone to pieces who should dare hinder us in this understanding. Our rights will be protected only when the German Reich is again supported by the point of the German Dagger.” 

How did Europe respond to this threat? Interestingly, about six weeks later, 57 governments signed what we today call the Kellogg Briand Pact, which is formerly called the treaty to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. So, while Hitler is telling the world this is what we’re going to do, they created a treaty to outlaw war. What was the policy of wishful thinking idealism that the West pursued in the 1920s and early 1930s? This is what they did: They disarmed and then they further disarmed, by saying if we disarm more we’ll prove to the Germans and others we really mean it and that we don’t want war. Hitler said thank you very much. 

What else was the policy? Grand pronouncements, public statements, declarations of intent… those are the things that I’m talking about when I’m talking about wishful thinking idealism. Wishful thinking idealism believes that we can put our faith in the principle of compromise for its own sake. Wishful thinking idealism believes that everyone must be reasonable if we can just reason with them. We can find some compromise. Wishful thinking idealism says we can put all of our trust in international law, all of our trust in international cooperation, all of our trust in international treaties, not just some of it.  

Wishful thinking idealism says if we just keep demonstrating good, we’ll… we will win them over because they must be people of good will, and if we lower our armaments, if we lower our shields, if we show them that we don’t mean them harm, certainly they’ll feel the same way about us. And so, wishful thinking idealism avoids the facts. It avoids putting oneself into the culture, ideology, and position of the other, and it… and it wishfully assumes good intentions from the other side. It chooses to live in an idealistic world of its own choosing rather than working towards idealistic goals but in a pragmatic and systemic and often costly fashion. 

You know the story of the 1930s. 1931, Japan invades Manchuria. How did the West respond? They sent a five-man team that wrote a report called the Litton report, and to note, the Litton report said “we’re not quite sure who’s responsible for this so we’re asking that everyone stand down.” That was the response to Japan. Japan learned a lesson. Keep moving. Italy invaded Abyssinia under Mussolini’s fascists. By the way, Churchill said “boy, that guy know how to run a country.” What happened? Western governments pled with the Abyssinians to accept the loss of half of their territory rather than any further steps toward war. Just be content with losing half your territory.  

1933, 1934, 1935… In 1934, ad the plight of Germany’s Jews was becoming more and more dire, Ramsay McDonald, the British Prime Minister, was asked at a press conference as he was sailing to the United States… He was asked “Prime Minister McDonald, what do you think about the plight of the Jews in Germany?” and his answer was, “you know, I’m not really on this trip to talk about that now.” That wasn’t very satisfactory because it was becoming quite well known what was going on in Germany at this time. So they asked him again, “Prime Minister McDonald, what do you think about the plight of the Jews in Germany?” And, no joke, he looked up at the sky and he said “Isn’t this pleasant weather we’re having? Next question.” 

This is wishful thinking idealism, and it is typically irresponsible. As people burying their heads in the sand, they pretend that they are aware but they’re not responsible. They don’t take action. Now you notice I’m not saying what action is should be. The first act is to say “we might have to take action.” Let’s plan, so let’s switch gears. 

There’s good news. You all know that eventually there was good news. In that time, one of the most important set of voices during the time were actually Christians. Christians like Reinhold Neibuhr, John C. Bennett, Herbert Butterfield, Martin White, John Foster Dulles who became the Secretary of State later on… and these were people who, by the 30s, had been mugged by reality, really. Many of them were pacifists in the 20s because they thought war was so horrible, but their perspective shifted towards “we have some responsibility both to our own security and to others.”  

And so that’s what’s been identified is a school of thought that we call Christian realism. That has its roots all the way back in the Bible, all the way in the back of… in classical thinkers like Augustine, and I’m going to quickly run you through eight quick points that are on the article on the Providence website called “Eight Points of Christian Realism,” and then we’ll apply them, and then we’ll take Q&A. 

So first, for our purposes, for this conference on national security, what we’re talking about is Christian realism as a… as a way to do foreign policy analysis and international relations theory. So it’s in that species of realism which says we need to be prudential and pragmatic and look at the world the way it is. It’s in that tradition. 

Second, Christian realism is rooted in a Biblical and an Augustinian worldview, and in specific, the way we think about anthropology and sociology. And here’s what I mean by that. Christians believe that God created this world and it was good. And He created mankind, and we are very good. He gave us responsibilities to be stewards over the Earth. He gave us creativity to build institutions, and we spend… and the fundamental reality of human experience is that God’s humanity is flawed by sin and that fundamental sin is that we put ourselves on that… on that altar. We idolize ourselves above him, and if you don’t understand that as a driver of what happens in all parts of law, society, and politics, then you’re missing the reality. You’re living in wishful thinking idealism if you don’t start with human sin and the limitations on us as individuals and in our families and in our communities and in our society. 

Reinhold Neibuhr wrote: “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” Next, Christian realism emphasizes political order and justice. You don’t build all of the great things until you establish order. Now, we in the U.S. take this for granted. I mean, look around. Are we suffering? But in many places that myself and other… the faculty have traveled: Afghanistan, Congo, Angola, Pakistan, Iraq and other places, I can tell you, people do not even have basic order. They wake up to gunfire. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They don’t know if the government is going to stay the same week to week and… and we have to re-center on the fact that just like in Romans 13, we’re told government is for our good to establish law and justice. Order and security come first, and then from that we can build towards justice in society. The Bible has a lot to say in Proverbs and examples in the Old Testament and then again in the New Testament about promoting justice, promoting security, working towards the common good.  

Now fourth, Christian realism emphasizes power. You can’t just wish for the world to be a different way. People have to take responsibility and act and that has to do with power. And power is not a bad word. We can talk more about it if you like, because God told humanity that we had a responsibility to do stuff. That’s really what… power is… power’s not a bad thing, right? With great power comes great responsibility, and the United States has unique power, and it has therefore unique responsibility to think about how it should act and not act, not just wish for a different world.  

Fifth, Christian realism opposes strongly any form of collective chauvinism. What do I mean by collective chauvinism? I mean anytime that one group based on its ideology or race or some other factor elevates itself as morally and intrinsically superior to others. The Aryan supremacy of the Nazis is a collective chauvinism, the ideology of Stalinist Communism is such a collective chauvinism. Christian realists do not believe that there are some sort of category or group that is morally superior inherently to others. And that’s why, interestingly, most of the Christian realists in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s actually were centrists or center-left, because they were very big supporters in our country of… of a right to unionize into labor, to protect the common man. And they were early advocates of the Civil Rights Movement to protect African Americans and, keeping a hold of these legacies, of protecting every single person: red, yellow, black, and white, from the moment of conception to death is important. 

Sixth, just like any other part of international theory, Christian realists look at all three factors or levels of analysis. We study individuals, we study domestic politics, and we study international affairs. We don’t only focus on one area. 

Seventh, related to the collective chauvinisms is a deep skepticism of any ideological “ism” that explains the entire world. Now, you and I both know that there’s a different idealism that I haven’t talked about. There’s a different type of wishful thinking that’s not just wishful thinking. It’s an idealism that’s empowered, and it will crush you. And that’s any form of revolutionary idealism. There’s every kind of idealist who says “my little group knows all the answers. We’re going to burn down everything from the past, and trust us, we will impose the new utopia on you.” That’s what the French revolution was, that’s what the Russian revolution was of 1917, that’s the Chinese revolution as it unfolded with a cultural revolution and the so-called five-year plans. That’s what that was. Revolutionists are idealists, but they’re not just wishful thinkers. They will mow you down to build their utopia. Christian realists are very skeptical that there’s some sort of grand plan that applies to every place and every time, and are very skeptical of the kind of people who want to get into power and jam that down your throat. 

And last, Christian realism emphasizes limits and restraint. Limits and restraint why? Because we ought to be humble even in when we’re audacious. Why? Because you never know in a complicated world what the reaction is going to be to a policy. There are a lot of unintended consequences that happen. So we want to count the cost before we act.  

Well, the good news is that eventually, the West did wake up. People like FDR, Harry Truman, and others, and perhaps most importantly Winston Churchill decided that the values of Judeo-Christian Western Civilization were worth fighting for, and not just for themselves but to live in a world of world peace. It’s, uh, the 30s are really bizarre and ugly history, but if you think about a tradition of ideas that undergird the types of speeches that you heard Winston Churchill make, or if you think about the legacy of civilization that is a bedrock for the way that the U.S. and the British in particular finally responded to the Nazis… 

If you think about where did the ideas come from for the genocide convention? To call it the Holocaust, for the anti-torture convention, the revised Geneva-Hague inventions after the war… So what that… where did that whole human rights thing come from? Well it’s the application of principles like these that are from our shared Christian heritage, and it’s the hard work of trying to make them happen in the world in which we live. So that’s what Christian realism is about. A lot of this conference is about big ideas, noble values, and the hard work of politics is doing them. 

So what I’d like… like to do now is open it up for questions and answers from you, and I think that you want them recorded on the microphone so, if you will, if you will step to that microphone, uh… tell us, and for the whole conference, here’s what… here’s what we’re asking you to do when you ask a question: Very briefly tell us who you are and where you’re from and then ask a short question. Thank you, and we’re going to call on students first, please. Okay. Regent Table. Nazar, yeah. Go right ahead. 


Question: Hello, uh, my name is Nazar. I come from Regent University, but originally, I lived most of my life in Ukraine. So I had a question connected to that. Sure. Um, at the beginning of the invasion after February 24th, and right now we’re also… hear some steps too that Ukraine should give concessions to the… Putin’s regime to basically prevent a global war. Is there, like, a connection between Japan and Manchuria, Third Reich in Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine? 

Answer: Now, yeah. Thank you for the question and bringing up the Ukraine war, and uh, it is a very important… and it’s a great case study for us right here. So let me point out a couple of areas where what I would call… we’ve had wishful thinking policies in recent years. One of those wishful thinking policies was that the whole first year of the Biden Administration… the Biden Administration refused to provide any support, armaments to Ukraine, and so the policy dramatically shifted. We eventually said “oh let’s rush military supplies to them,” but recall that the first year, most Western governments, particularly the Untied States, said no we’re not going to do that. It would be provocative. So remember, the first weeks of the war, the government in Kiev was passing out old rifles to its own citizens, and it was teaching its people how to make Molotov cocktails online so that people could defend themselves because military… the national military did not have enough supplies. 

Unfortunately in Ukraine, as you know, there has been a vocal minority for very many years that has had this kind of wishful thinking that if we just keep our heads down it will never happen despite the attacks on Crimea in 2014 and all of the other frozen conflicts in the area. So let’s say one of these types of policy… types of things is when countries basically disarm themselves or the international community does not let them defend themselves. And look at the changes in policy in places like Finland and Sweden based on the things that have gone on there. So, there’s one of these types of things is how do you do preparedness and preparedness and deterrence are a very, very important part of what I call principled national security thanks. Saijasi. 

Question: My name is Saijasi and I’m from Baylor University, um, interned at RFI last spring. My question is, first of all, what’s the best thing that’s ever happened at our idea… IRD conference? And then also, could you speak a bit more to the… specifically Christian, um, influences or characterization of, um, this higher theory? 

Answer: Yeah, so first of all, the uh, as… as almost all the faculty know, I’m a widower. And in 2016, one of my former students said I’d like to introduce you to a woman, and that was very nice of her and, uh, and she told me about this incredible, incredible person. And that person lived 200 miles away, and I never called her, and 14 months later I was speaking at this conference and I saw on the program that was going to be that woman, and I could tell you more about how it happened, but I asked Marc LiVecche, the editor of Providence. He and I were sitting on the front row and I said you know, that gal is very accomplished, but she seems… she seems really serious, and he says my wife Cara and I, we think that she’s one of the most fun people we know. And fun is important to me. Um, if you’re not fun you have to find people who are fun, and, uh, and we hit it off at the IRD conference and got married 11 months later. So that’s the best thing. Now, so I’m telling you Christian young people, events like this are important. Yeah, yep. So, Mark and Marc were very important in this. Uh, now your question… now, I’m in this glow so I don’t even remember… 

What’s Christian… okay. So a couple of things, uh, let me first say two kind of caveat things, kind of for scholars. The first one is… is that, unfortunately in our churches, particularly evangelicals, we have this… we have created a wrongful dichotomy between sacred and secular. And kind of our ministry life, what we do on Sunday, in Bible study, and that type of stuff is sacred and everything else is kind of secular, and we don’t think in a fully armed way about “what are all the ways that I’m a Christian first and foremost, and the way that plays into my vocation and, and, and, and frankly, how it alters my thinking about the phenomena that are part of whatever my discipline is.  

And I can tell you that every faculty member here that I know really, really cares about you being a Christian in every single part of life. There’s not just some secular distinction. It’s simply not Biblical in this sense. Now what is Chr- and so, when it comes to this matter, most of you know from your IR or poly-sci classes that there’s, uh, two or three different ways of thinking about realism in the social sciences.  

One of those is what you might call a… a materialistic realism that says yes, we live in a world where there’s competition and power, and most of the things you said, Eric, but it really all boils down to the struggle for material wealth and power. And that there’s not a normative framework… There’s not a values struggle that gives meaning to all of this. Constructivists say, well, there is meaning but it’s how we construct the meaning around that, so we construct a set of values that seem to work for us at the time – usually a survival strategy, right? That’s the selfish gene idea. But again, it really boils down to kind of our experiences and materialism idea. 

A… a second type of realism is one that says even if there is values out there, they are culturally contextualized and they’re really third order values because again, it really does come down to power and money at the bottom of things. And so, you have kind of vital interests: you’ve got to get your food and your oil, and somewhere down here, third and fourth is human dignity and human rights. But that’s the… there’s a values structure that’s imp- that’s really explicit… that a Christian orientation towards loving God and loving our fellow man kind of falls way down in the category. Right now, there’s a different way of thinking about realism that says yes, we live in this created world and though those materialist and anti-God value structures are what motivates lots of what happens so we have to be very smart about recognizing that, and we have to be even… be smarter and more humble about not falling into that trap when we make policy. 

So we want to make policies that take all of that into account, but how do we order those priorities? And those priorities, first and foremost should be oriented around the dignity of the individual and the dignity of the institutions that God created. Institutions that individuals inhabit. God created the family. It is not a social construct. God created the Church. It is not merely a social construct. And He gave to humanity that creativity to create all sorts of other institutions like the Rotar Club and like my poor Dodgers and lots of other things, right? How do you have the winningest season almost in world history and then I… Yeah, I know you’re all… I know you’re feeling it.  

Um, so that’s where the Christian element is. It’s not something that we sprinkle on. We start from a position that there’s right and wrong. The Bible guides us. It guides our behavior. It gives us a general path forward. There is law, justice, morality, and then we work on it.  

Another question. 

Question: Hello. Peter Campbell, Baylor University. Um, I’m wondering, what’s the Christian realist view on how we confront, uh, extreme environmentalism and the impact that it has on national security policy? So, we know as Christians we have to be stewards of the environment, but, um, there’s… you know… it’s gone a bit… a bit far would be an understatement, uh, so… How do you… how do you… how do we think about that in a way that’s Christian but that also is practical in terms of things like energy policy? 

Answer: Yeah. Thanks. This is a very important right now, and of course there’s… there’s two extremes. One extreme is to, yes, yeah, oh sorry. So the question has to do with, uh, environmental policy and kind of particulate at the extremes of environmental policy, how Christian realists approach some of the… the big debates about climate change and things of that nature. So in terms of operating principles, one of those first operating principles is this and that is that we do live in a created world, and it’s a world created by God. And so the environment itself, however you call it, from the selfish gene to Gaia to whatever… it is not God. And many of these movements have got to the point where elements of the environment have taken a privileged place over humanity, and a corollary to that is… is that human beings both have the great responsibility, but that they are also different than the rest of the created order. 

We are not morally equivalent to dogs. Rivers are not morally equivalent to people. Now, if you know what I’m talking about, you know that both in Canada and in Latin America in the past year, there have been rivers that have been declared people, same rights as people and so these types of policies… A Christian realist, any Christian should be recognizing that those types of… of approaches are pantheistic, not the opposite extreme, which I actually don’t see that much, but at the opposite extreme would be to say the… the dominion mandate, where God says take over the Earth and subdue it. 

Dominion… Many young people, oh that sounds like power, and it sounds… I mean, that kind of sounds bad to me, dominating. That’s not how to think about the world. Think about the word “dominion” as you have responsibility over a domain. You’re responsible over a domain. You’re supposed to be a good steward over something that’s entrusted to you. If you dominate it, it goes away. It’s broken. If you steward it, if you cultivate it so that the… so that’s the operating principle. If you… so if you get the operating principle right, now I know that I’m not giving you a specific, well so how do we… how do we handle fracking, how do we handle climate change, how do we handle this? But we want to start with the operating principle. We live in a created universe. It is not inexhaustible, but we live in this time. We’re stewards not just of the moment, but of what we hand down in the future.  

And what we need is… we need a lot more Christians becoming great scientists to help in this area. And we need to not try to dodge the policy dilemmas, but face them head on and then you… and, and then we work towards them. Well, let me make one other aside on this. Many, many evangelicals and conservative Catholic young people are political conservatives as well. And what political conservatives want to do is they want to come to Washington and give the big speech and then suddenly, magically, everything changes. Well you know, that’s not how public policy works.  

The way that public policy works is having a 25 to 30 year policy horizon; a long view of the incremental steps you take across disciplines to have real change. And frankly, the reason that Democrats have been so much better at that since the New Deal than Republicans is because Republicans think they’ve changed the world by rhetoric, and instead you do it through policy. You develop policy expertise and you chip away at something over a long period of time.  

If you want to hear a great talk on this, have my wife give you a talk about how to do education or poverty policy change, and she can walk you through what needs to happen for the next thirty years. It’s actually a pretty brilliant speech but that’s now how conservatives in America have typically thought. They come to Washington, they give this big speech, they want to change everything. And one of her professors, formerly, is right here today from the Institute of World Politics. And those guys can tell you, you don’t do policy just by the big speech. It takes a lot of policy experts as you move along. Jennifer Marshall. 

So do you have time for one more question? Yes we do. Here we’re going to put them both up, so just hop up right behind her and we’re going to hear them both. 

Question: Um, I’m Abigail Wilson. I’m from Patrick Henry College. My question is how do you advance democracy from a Christian realist perspective? How do you avoid taking a, um, a grand strategy perspective that… that assumes you can go into any sort of country and through either foreign direct investment or through, um, broad policies, come in and overwrite a country’s culture and establish more of a democratic regime? How do you… how do you address that from a more nuanced perspective? 

Answer: Great. Thank you for asking that, and I have five journal articles on that topic, um, around U.S. democracy promotion, for the last three administrations – I’m going to bore you in a moment. 

Question: Nathan Moyes, LeTourneau University. In a similar vein, when we talk about Christian realism using government to… through the pursuit of power instill justice and order, uh, how do we balance that with, you know, the accusations of being the world policeman or being involved in preemptive strikes or areas that really are morally beneficial but aren’t politically beneficial such as Burma? 

Answer: Yeah, so the operating principle, of course, is that a Christian realist is going to be thinking like a Christian, and one of those thoughts is going to be should we or should we not… Wishful thinking is, oh, the world should be without then counting the cost of it. That’s the way the world should be. Then our… Do we have a responsibility to do something? Can we recognize what the problem is? But we don’t have the power, the resources to do it. Should we not be meddling in there in the first place?  

So that’s… that is the operating principle here, by the way. The revolutionary idealist says if we want to do it, just do it. If it’s going to be an r- revolutionary and, and there’s no moral calculus other than the ends justify the means, and that… so Christian realism is quite different. Now, it comes to democracy promotion, kind of… the question that you’re asking and it really is tied to kind of, a global policeman type of thing.  

Let me say first that what is often missed in this conversations is do we have a treaty obligation? And if we do have a treaty obligation to do something, then we should do it. So the United States has made commitments, say for instance, under the genocide treaty. And we both have an international covenant and we have U.S. code obligating us to act in certain situations. So if we have… and we have alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, and if under the NATO charter there’s an action that we have promised to do, then se should stop doing it.  

Now there are treaties that outlive their usefulness and there’s a process for stepping back from them, but what was so horrific in the 1930s was the way that the Western world, which had agreements, kept, uh, well we’re not going to really act so we’re going to kind of stretch, do another fact-finding mission type of things, and avoided responsible action. Hitler re-militarized the Rhineland? No respponse. For instance, the French High Command knew, because the Germans were practicing how to take tanks through forests. They shelved reports and said no we’ve built the magical line. They’ll never go through Belgium even though they’re practicing it. That’s what is wishful thinking. So when it comes, the first is do we have… have we made a commitment?  

Second is on this democracy promotion. That’s a huge type of thing, but I’d say this is the basic parameters of the rule of law: constitutional government and human rights are a common good for everyone everywhere, and even our bitterest enemies like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea pretend like they’re democratic. So it is… it is… it’s perfectly within U.S. policy to say everybody should be more democratic. If they’re promising that they are democratic and to support human rights organizations, select organizations on the ground, the transparency of communications, and things like that, what would butcher U.S. representative government? The rule of law everywhere. That’s different, though, than toppling a government and then trying to impose democracy. But to tell you the truth, in my opinion, that’s very, very rare in U.S. history. 

Almost every time that the U.S. has used armed force has been in response to a security situation, not to impose democracy from outside. Now, when it comes to the world policeman, just because there are a lot of weapons doesn’t mean we should use them, and the Christian realists like other forms of smart policy makers do have to do a calculus. We only have so many men. We only have so much money. We only have so much military material. What we want is… We want Christians at the table who are highly skilled, who have expertise in these fields to help guide national and security policy, and some of the people you’re going to hear over the next two days have this expertise. Some of them have served in the intelligence community. One is an expert on nuclear deterrence. Some have served at the State Department. One served at the National Security Council. And so that’s really Christian realism and practice is Christians doing the job. Thank you. 

Let me just say that a couple of us published a reader that includes a lot of pieces from Providence this year. It’s an eighty-year reader on first sources on Christian realism. Really from Neibuhr to Elsechain to LiVecche, and I’m going to leave a copy here for the conference so faculty can take a look and then someone just take it home with them at the end. Thanks.