Gregory Moore’s lecture at the Christianity & National Security Conference, 2022.

Gregory Moore discusses Christian Realism, Reinhold Neibuhr, and American foreign policy.

All right. Surprise speaker is right. It was a surprise to me too. So… so we’re all in the same boat. Um, well, I uh… I actually as a master’s degree student… I was a brand new Christian, I… a little biography here, I grew up in the Lutheran Church, which I would now call the liberal Lutheran Church. My Mom’s in the Missouri Synod, more conservative Lutheran Church, now, but uh, I, uh, got good training but was never challenged to be a follower of Jesus, as I understood it. Or maybe I would… Maybe it was me, not them so much. But I became a Christian in 1989, and that Fall I went to the University of Virginia to do a master’s degree in government and foreign affairs, and uh, had a professor Michael Joseph Smith who was a good Episcopal, and so I knew he was a Church guy.  

So I said, you know, so I’m a Christian and I’m studying politics, international relations. What should I read, you know? How it is my faith relates to what I study? And he said you should read Neibuhr. And so I did and I began reading Neibuhr and ended up doing my master’s thesis on Reinhold Neibuhr and it was mostly just for my own curiosity to figure out what I did believe and what does this mean, you know, how do I connect my faith to my work?  

So thirty years later, I have a book with Oxford University Press on… on my master’s thesis. So you never know. Your undergraduate thesis or your master’s thesis could actually become a book someday. So do it well. But then again, always remember. What my… one of my professors told me, the best thesis or the best dissertation is a done dissertation. So don’t do it too well, but uh, anyway. Um, so, um, I… I’ve written a book about Neibuhr, but it’s… it’s really not his, uh, it’s not his theology, so I don’t think I would go to his Church, actually. Uh, I… I would just say, I… I look. To Neibuhr, um, not for his theology, I look for his political philosophy and how he takes a Christian world view and, and projects it into politics and into foreign policy. I find that just brilliant. He had some quirks about him.  

I’ve heard some people say they weren’t sure he’s Christian. I… I feel pretty sure he is a Christian. He believed in Jesus, he believed Jesus was the only way. Uh, head some weird hang-ups about miracles. I never quite got that, but uh, but he, I think he has a small Orthodox view of Scripture. Um, and so I… I… he starts with human nature, as I do, and projects out from there. So that’s what I’m going to present to you. So, um, and… and the other thing he wrote. So much stuff… it’s so disparate. It’s really hard to find what he did write well. You could go out and read Moral Man in a Moral Society is famous. But that was him in the early 30s, which is very different than him in the 50s.  

You could go read The Irony of American History, which is a brilliant book because the best thing I would recommend for you if you want to understand him on foreign policy. I would recommend that book, but what my book tries to do is kind of… kind of sift through all that stuff and bring it together in one place. We get to see the biography of Neibuhr, sort of the… the intellectual, um, development of his… his thinking and his application to politics and to collective life into foreign policy.  

And then what I do is I kind of apply it to some modern things like the rise of China, the Iraq War, R2P, stuff like that. And that’s kind of what I do in the book, so uh, for those of you who don’t know much about him, he was a Lutheran pastor first and then he went on and became a, uh, a… a professor at Union Theological Seminary. Um, I would not recommend going there, uh. It’s very liberal now, uh it probably was kind of liberal, then, but at least a little more Orthodox but uh, he… he was a professor most of his life, but he became a public intellectual and that’s the… the Neibuhr that most of us came to know.  

He was on the cover of Time Magazine at least twice as the man of the year. I mean he, he had an audience with presidents and foreign ministers and heads of state kind of in a way, the way Billy Graham did in his later years where people would call him and say, you know, I need to bounce some ideas off you. He was really brilliant. And uh, he’s worthy of study as a man of faith, a Christian who then articulates politics. Um, and so that’s the interest, I think I… I have in him. In 1948, he… there was even a movement, uh, to… for him among the Democratic party. Actually, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who was pushing him to run for president, so he was a… he was a Democrat. Okay, now I’m not… I’m a Republican, but funny thing about him is, um, he was attractive to left and right because he… he’s a man of nuance. He’s not a man of category. He’s really hard to categorize. Um, and I think it was really… it was around right after 9/11 that um, Michael Novak and some other… Arthur Schlesinger Jr.  

Uh, people like them began to write sort of, in popular media sources. Like we really need Neibuhr now in this day and age because of the way the world has gone. Uh, Schlesinger said that was a historian and a democrat, but he said why in an age of religion, religiosity his… Neibuhr, the supreme American theologian of the 20th Century dropped out of 21st Century religious discourse. Evil was back. Neibuhr wrote about evil, and a lot of the people on the left just kind of didn’t think evil was a thing and… and just as recently as maybe January of this year… I mean if you traveled around Europe and talked to IR people and the foreign policy establishment types. They did not believe that Putin was going to attack Ukraine, and you know, we all know now that that was really naive. But that’s the way a lot of thinking was… and… and 9/11 serves that purpose back then, to wake people up and say no, there’s evil in the world and we have to deal with it.  

And that’s something that Neibuhr really spoke to. Um, what he’s no… most notable for, I think, as, uh, in these circles is his Christian realism or, uh, human nature. Realism is… is it sometimes called, uh, in… in IR theory circles so it’s… it’s not realism driven by structures or balances of power, per se. It’s not a structural theory. It’s a… it’s a human nature theory, okay? And that’s kind of… it’s kind of old school, but it’s become new school again. So I don’t know if anybody here is studying a whole lot of theory these days. But rockstar constructivist Alex Wendt has been… he wrote a book called Quantum IR, which is about kind of cognitive, like, neuroscience. And he’s talking about human nature and Steven Rosen at Harvard University is talking about human nature. And so they’re not my co-religionists, but they recognize human nature matters.  

And as a Christian, I think human nature is where I start. And… and it’s, you know… are humans born good? Are they born evil? Or are they born somewhere in between? And that’s where Neibuhr started, and I learned that from Neibuhr. And Neibuhr’s conclusion is, I think as… as Christians should conclude that humans are… are evil. And fair enough. It was, you know, before the… the fall that God made them good, and then the fall happened and we’ve been in that cycle of evil and sin ever since, uh. But starting with that view of human nature, Neibuhr draws the conclusion that realism is the only conclusion that makes any sense at all. 

Um, so interestingly, he started out as a liberal Protestant, as a Lutheran and a pacifist. So in the 20s and early, very early 30s, he saw human nature as good and it was really I think the excesses of, um, maybe World War I and uh, I think Stalinism that began to shake his worldview a little bit. And he began to be attracted to socialism and I guess also the excesses of Fordism, sort of industrial America. He got a pastorate in Detroit and a lot of his, uh, his flock were workers at Ford and he thought they weren’t always treated well so he became a socialist. And then, I think, as Stalin’s purges, you know, kicked in more in the 1930s, he began to see this also was not the answer that he was looking for, and Stalinism became worse than the disease it was meant to address. 

So then that is when he began to move into what we now call Christian realism, and he’s probably one of the most if not the most famous examples of that. So he rejected liberal Protestantism and its idealism. He rejected pacifism. He rejected Marxism. And then during the Cold War he becomes the arch hawk, one of the most, if you want to call… I don’t know, is hawk right-wing? I mean there are hawks on the left side as well as the right side. People who believe that the world’s dangerous. So we need to use force. He became a hawk in the Cold War and then anti-communist, um, and so again, human nature is where he starts. So you start at the micro and you human nature is where we start, and then you move up, then, to the level of the group.  

And he observed that, uh, groups were more difficult to manage than individuals. So individuals might have a capacity to overcome their selfishness and their, um, self-interested sort of behavior, you know in… in Christ. I mean, you could… you could teach someone, you could, if they… if they become Christians, then the chances go way up that they can rise above that. Sometimes, as you know, Romans 7 reminds us that, you know, even Paul’s a worm of a man. If he’s a worm of a man then I’m a grub or I’m an amoeba. I don’t know what metaphor you want to use, but we’re sinners. And… and Christ can help us to rise above that on occasion. And the light of Christ comes through, and praise God for every good think we can eek out of this otherwise quite dark world.  

But he… he observes that there’s a kind of moral dualism so that you might turn your other cheek, let’s say, to your fellow here. And you might decide I’m not going to hit back. But if you’re dealing with groups or if you’re… if you’re a policeman or if you’re a president, a head of state, you don’t have the option to turn the other cheek if it’s… if you’re going to risk the safety of others, if you want to sacrifice yourself on the altar of pacifism or cheek turning that’s… that’s maybe brilliant. That may be what God calls you to do. But as I read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, and I was really challenged by that book, and I, you know… it’s… it’s an anabaptist pacifist sort of treatise, and I shared that with my wife and she looked at me and said, so like if you and I are walking in the park and I’m attacked by a mugger or a rapist, you’re going to stand there and tell the guy that Jesus loves me and you’re not going to do anything? And I just said well, I guess that’s the end of my pacifism because that… that’s not love. And that… that’s the lesson the… Neibuhr learned love means…  

A shepherd carries a staff as well as the little hook to hold the sheep back. He also has to whack bears and lions and… and wolves. And so a shepherd has to have a weapon and so um, that’s the conclusion that Neibuhr reached. That conclusion I read. So groups… group egoism is more intense and more dangerous than individual egoism, and that’s why IR, international relations, is a… is always going to be a violent enterprise that it’s peace is… is… we can hope for peace, we can work for peace, but as Neibuhr says, for peace sometimes you must risk war. Um, it’s one of his famous quotes. And so that’s the Christian realism. 

He brings the Christian view of human nature, leads him to the conclusion that war is always possible and you always have to be ready because evil… humans are evil. They’re selfish. They’re going to try to get what they can. The strong will do what they can, the weak will have to accept what they must if they’re not ready. And so that’s why he argued for a strong defense and, um, though he was liberal politically, when it came to these things he was a conservative and a hawk. And I find it helpful as we think about the world today. Um, the… 

The concept of responsibility to protect, ironically, is not always appreciated as much on the right as on the left. But I think it should be. And… and I think Neibuhr, R2P as it’s called now was not around when he was alive. But in the 30s he was arguing against, famously, against his broth H. Richard Neibuhr. Don’t get them confused. Christ and Cultures, H Richard. All the other stuff is… is Reinhold. Reinhold wrote a lot more but, uh, in Christian seminaries, probably his brother H. Richard is more famous because of Christ and Culture, which is a great book, but… Neibuhr and Richard had an argument about the war of the Japanese… the Chinese… the Japanese invasion of China, and uh, H. Richard wrote a book called the Grace of Doing Nothing. Pacifist argument, and Neibuhr wrote back we… we can’t do nothing. We have to stand up, because if we let this happen, what’s next? You know, kind of a domino idea, really. If we let this go, what’s next is morally wrong to stand by and do nothing.  

The Good Samaritan story comes to mind. All these people walked by, and then somebody helped the guy and Jesus praised that person. He was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. A white, middle-class guy from the Midwest had really reached out to the black community and other places, and he cared about racism. Really bothered him. And actually Martin Luther King Jr. was very inspired by Neibuhr. They were both pasters, after all, and they both realized racism was an evil, horrendous sin. And so he was an early civil rights guy. He was, Neibuhr, very early, perhaps because his wife was British and the British saw Hitler a little earlier as a danger than Americans did in the mid-30s. He was already arguing the United States has to get more engaged, Hitler’s dangerous, he’s very dangerous, and he was arguing for U.S. intervention in the war early. He was a Zionist. He was arguing, again before the Holocaust, do the Jews need a homeland? He was very close to a lot of the Jewish intellectual leaders on the East Coast during his day, and was one of the… or played a very important role, actually after World War II in pushing the World Council of Churches, the British government, and others to recognize the need for a Jewish homeland. So those are all the kind of things he stood for. 

Moving on to the question of just war. I argue in my book that he is a just war guy. Okay, now I… I know, uh, somebody who as actually a teacher to me in a program. I was a part of it, uh, this Pew thing that I did as a PhD student. Keith Pavlochek’s… some of you may know Keith. Keith argues that… that Neibuhr was not a just war person, that he was an anything goes kind of guy. And I don’t think that is right, and I talk about that in the book. But I would argue that Neibuhr was very much in the just war tradition. I mean he clearly wasn’t too pacifist, so what’s left if you’re a Christian? Just war, but there can be different ways to articulate just war and I think Neibuhr was pretty consistent.  

He didn’t write as much about the jus in bello part, which is part of the reason I think Pavlochek rightly in some ways criticizes him for not being clear about it. Uh, he… he sort of waffled on the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. He called it… we’ve… he in one place he says we’ve lowered ourselves to the level of Nazi morality, you know, like the Dresden… like the Nazi bombing of London and the bombing of… of Japan in ‘46. I think he said that, but later during the Cold War he changed his view and he came to see that nuclear war could be within the just war tradition, and that’s a debate that went on. But I applied to him in the book to the Iraq war, and my conclusion on that one was that the war on terror could be argued as being just. And that I think he would have argued it as such, but that the war on Iraq was not in the just war tradition. And I paired him up against Gene Elshtain, who wrote a book called just war on terror. And I think the book has tons of holes in it, and I think he would have pointed out all those hole.  

And so I argue that he would not have called the 2003 invasion of Iraq a war in the just war tradition after all. We were not attacked by Iraq. Iraq, we know now they did not have weapons of mass destruction, although there is evidence that the North Koreans actually had talked to Saddam about an exchanged, but they actually stymied him, uh, just sort of ripped him off, actually. Um, but uh, and they were not preparing to attack us and… and they were not involved in the 9/11 attacks. And so for all those reasons there, that… there’s other things we could argue there, but I don’t think that was really, um, a good candidate for a just war from an American perspective.  

I also argue about… China’s what I study. Um, that’s most of my writing is about Chinese foreign policy, Chinese politics. So I asked the question… I have a chapter. What would Neibuhr say if he was around right now about the rise of China? And he wrote a lot about the Soviet Union and obviously China and the Soviet Union are pretty different but there’s some patterns. They’re both communist dictatorships. Somebody might argue China’s not really communist. Yeah, it’s not. Neither was the Soviet Union. I mean if we’re talking about Orthodox Marxism, neither one of them was, but they both hold to that sort of ideology and so… so I… I… it’s a fairly long chapter and I argue that… that he would have been a hawk on China and that, you know, it’s regime type, you know, being undemocratic is a threat. Um, the… 

The sort of master narrative of the Chinese Communist Party today stands in direct contradiction to Western theories of openness and liberalism and human rights and all that kind of stuff. The brainwashing that goes on today is more advanced, more brilliant, or you know, more heinous than anything we’ve seen so far. I mean, you think North Korea is bad, they’re closed. I mean it’s a closed society. China’s so open, and yet the people are all like the people in the Matrix is the best analogy I can think of. You’re plugged into this thing and you don’t even know that you’re being fed, uh, an alternate world that anybody else who does not live…. Their news is not true and… and you know, some of my… my wife’s Chinese and some of the loved ones, relatives that I care about, are deceived by this. And it’s very dangerous and so a government like that can say jump and the people say how high. And that’s a dangerous thing from anyone’s perspective if you’re on the other side of that.  

Um and then lastly, the role of human nature. I mean, the Communist party is run by humans and Xi Jinping now is unaccountable to anybody except maybe the United States. He’s unaccountable to the other members of the standing committee. There are seven guys there. There used to be a couple, two or three that would once in a while say with all due respect maybe we should think about this. Those guys are out and now a couple of new guys are in who are very young and are completely beholden politically to Xi Jinping. And so, you know it’s… it’s a… it’s a dangerous situation. He doesn’t have anyone to tell him he’s wrong ever now. And so that does not end well normally in… in politics and international relations. So, um, the other thing is just the material reality of China’s rights.  

It’s becoming powerful. The economy is growing and they have capabilities that they did not have before, which means they can do things and the United States has to be prepared. Um, I also talk about just, the whole rise of post-truth, and Neibuhr wrote a lot about leaders like Kennedy, uh, and… and others. He did not like Kennedy. He was… he actually voted Republican, I think, in that election because he didn’t like what Kennedy stood for. He though Kennedy is a cheater. He’s cheating on his wife. He’s having affairs. He… he thinks he’s God’s gift to the nation and he could not support Kennedy I…  

I conclude that he would not have liked Donald Trump. I’m sorry but, uh, I don’t think he would like Donald Trump and he… and he would predict that, you know, the book came out before Putin invaded Ukraine, but that’s exactly what he would have expected because the West did not really stand up to Putin sufficiently and there was so much division in the Western European capitals. They weren’t really afraid of Putin. They thought, oh no, he’s not that stupid. He wouldn’t do that. Well he did and he wasn’t stupid. He’s smart. He knew. He played his hand very well. And so I think Neibuhr would have foreseen that, um, and I think he would have been very skeptical about Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s attacks on truth and both sides’ attacks on truth these days. Right? 

I mean, it’s uh… we live in a world where truth now is, uh, you can have your alternate facts and you can… one side’s got alternate facts on the other side has mainstream media, uh, in their back pocket and can sort of push agendas. And it’s… it’s a weird place to live. So I… I read the New York Times and the Washington Times every day and try to figure out what’s really going on. That’s all you can do now. Um, so the post-truth world that we live in is… wouldn’t be a surprise to Neibuhr either, I guess. I mean, he lived in the 30s which unfortunately is looking more… Today’s looking more and more like the 30s than ever. The great ideologies are back. Um, you have the granddaughter of Mussolini now running Italy. Um, you have… you have Mr. Putin over there in Russia with the kind of ideology kind of a, uh, Euro-nationalist Russian nationalist ideology that is pretty racist, frankly. And… and it’s… it’s a weird world and… and Neibuhr… it’s… it’s good to go back and read Neibuhr, I think, in times like this.  

I think he’s a good tonic for this. So, um, I think I’ll wind down here. I have a whole chapter if you’re interested in theory. Um, I would argue that he had a heavy dose of existentialism undermining his theory which is why he was kind of really interesting, a lot more interesting than, lets say, Morgenthau or Mearsheimer or those newer realists. Um, myself I’m, uh… I… I find it helpful to be Christian realist as a prescription to foreign policy like when you’re trying to decide what to do. It’s still… Neibuhr it’s just brilliant. It makes a lot of sense to guide as I think about things. I think about it from a Niebuhrian perspective, but myself I’m really a constructivist. As I step back and just do analysis of the whole social media of the world that we live in and trying to understand what we live in and trying to understand what is true to me. 

Constructivism makes more sense with the human nature thing in there underneath that and so I’m going to end with just a couple of quotes of Neibuhr. For those who aren’t familiar with him, you know, he just… he has a famous quote. He says “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” I think that’s really true and the last one… and the one that maybe everybody in this room has heard, but you probably did not know it was Niebuhr is a prayer: “God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” And I think that’s something that’s really good to leave one from the other and I think that’s something that’s really good to leave with. So, uh, we have time for questions, I think, if Mark says it’s okay. And Mark is not here. So we can do whatever he want. Oh… oh he is there. He is listening, okay? Usually, usually he kind of appears over here. 

Q&A 

Question: Yes. Uh, Nathan Boyson, Laturna University. Uh, so have you read More Men in Immoral Society? I remember specifically that Neibuhr brings up this idea of a separated personal morality and a public morality in that because, as you mentioned, it’s difficult to be moral in large groups of people, or there’s all these competing ideologies. Uh, we have to somewhat separate ourselves from what… we can see more of that in the national setting. So what sort of precedent do you think that sets especially for us in the Christian national security community, where we’re trying to as Christians bring our faith to bear on broader politics. Should we follow Neibuhr’s idea of living out of the door a bit more? Should we, uh, try to engage that and risk the people of idealism?  

Answer: Okay, well. First of all, that’s a great question. Um, you don’t have to leave your morality at the door. Okay. Neibuhr, and that’s it. That would be a misreading of Neibuhr, and he would be the first one to say I never said that. Um, what he does say… there’s a quote he says, you can’t deal with Aunt Mary the same way you deal with Hitler. Okay. If your Aunt Mary is doing something really annoying, you know, you can talk to her. You can, you know… but, but with Hitler you can tell him, you can negotiate with him. And Neville Chamberlain did, the Russians did. Look at the Molotov Ribbon Drop Act. They made a deal and Hitler violated it.  

So the point Neibuhr would make is… this is not going to work with Hitler. That doesn’t mean you never negotiate, but it’s just… you have to be realistic about what you’re dealing with, uh, that would be one thing. But the… the… the moral dualism does make us uncomfortable because us… For us as Christians, there’s one Truth with a capital “T” and we do not compromise. I wouldn’t and I don’t encourage you to compromise, but that’s where the realism comes in. And there’s a… there’s a Hegelian dualism going on Neibuhr’s work, and on the cover of the book I have this little, you see, little orange in the blue fire kind of, like the… um, like the Emperor in Star Wars. When he goes, you know, that blue fire comes out and then there’s the, you know, the different color lightsabers.  

I mean, so Neibuhr saw the world that way. There’s these opposing forces. Um, but they’re not equal. I mean, the light is the light and the light’s going to prevail. But you’re dealing with, um, he… he liked this kind of dualism and this kind of dialectic, uh, and he… and… and this moral dualism would be one of those kind of things. It would… he would… he would say, you know we… we are who we are. We live for Christ. To live is Christ to die is gain. And yet if you’re the defense secretary or the President and you’re going to have to make some decisions, let’s say uh, in World War II the 633 Squadron, this thing where the… the Germans were building heavy water plants in Norway and the British Air Force, the RAF, was… decided we’ve got to take it out and they found the Germans had built an allied prisoner of war camp all around the facility, so that if… if you bomb it, you’re going to kill your own people.  

So what do we do? And this is the kind of thing that’s dualism. Well, we know what is right, but we also have to look to what is the greater good and it’s not an ends-justify-the-means thing, but it’s… it’s a realism about sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and so that’s I think how he would answer that question. I hope that helps a little bit. Thank you. 

Question: My name is John Tierney, Institute of World Politics. Again, that last statement you made about my home driver. Um, you know that… that statement, I’ve been an AAA for about 12 years and that is a statement. Oh, the prayer. Daily prayer, that’s right. That statement is repeated that’s right. Millions of ten… that’s right. I’ve never known the source of it. Thank you. Isn’t that crazy? Nobody knows where that came from but he wrote it in about 1955 and Alcoholics Anonymous… Anonymous adopted it and that’s the prayer they pray. And uh, one of my best friends got saved in Alcoholics Anonymous. I mean it’s not an evangelical organization but, but God’s kind of there. And so, yeah. It’s… it’s a beautiful thing. 

Answer: Thanks for that. I appreciate it. Yeah, that’s right. Old Neibuhr… Yeah. Any other questions? Neibuhr is so kind of all over the map. I’m surprised there’s not more questions. All right well. Thank you for your time. And, uh, yeah. God bless.