While walking back to my flat after the St. Andrews library closed one evening, I reflected on the readings my professors assigned. They were much too idealist, suggesting the world could have some kind of “positive peace” if society eradicated not just war but also cultural and structural violence (for them, “negative peace” occurs when there is no war but social structures limit human potential). I was unimpressed. They ignored that humans permanently have what their theories might have called an “inner violence,” or what theologians call “depravity.” As long as more than one human is in a structure, there will be enough depravity or inner violence to prevent my professors’ desired positive peace, making that dream utopian. Believing this, I would have been a cold-hearted realist if not for my Christian faith that offered sober hope. As I turned onto Hope Street, a term hit me—Christian realist. Maybe I could be that. Of course, my idea was not original.

As I read books on international relations, Reinhold Niebuhr and his Christian realism never came up. I first heard of him while interviewing for a deputy editor position with Providence. Now for the last two years, I have been reading through his Christianity and Crisis journal, which helped develop Christian realism and inspired Providence. His essays here and in The Nation once influenced Democratic liberals, and Barack Obama considers him his favorite philosopher. In the early Cold War days, Niebuhr’s articles and journal helped convince Democrats to abandon former Vice President Henry Wallace’s friendliness with the Soviet Union and support President Harry Truman’s new doctrine to resist communism.

Below is a summary of my impressions on Christianity and Crisis from 1945 to 1947, which were critical years when the United States and Soviet Union moved toward the Cold War. Others in these pages have written about the basics of Christian realism and what Reinhold Niebuhr argued, so these are my humble observations on how he and his contributors were right, how they were off, and how their work might guide Christian realists today.

Depravity, Grace, and History

In Providence multiple authors have highlighted that Christian realism is different from other political theories because it emphasizes original sin as part of human nature. Niebuhr and his contributors were not the first to realize the political consequences of original sin, as Christians have written on this for centuries. Though, for some writers in Christianity and Crisis, their understanding of sin was not quite orthodox, at least not by today’s standards perhaps, as they were part of a twentieth-century modernist theological movement (Niebuhr was part of a neo-orthodoxy movement). Nevertheless, the concept of sin heavily influenced their political thinking.

Niebuhr’s editorials in 1945 as the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan reveal the implications of original sin on global affairs. While Americans celebrated and reveled in their goodness and righteousness, he warned against the “pride of victors.” They too were sinful, even if the Nazis committed horrific atrocities. So Americans should not give their nation “uncritical loyalty” because “an uncritical attitude toward our own cause may lead to a growth of those very qualities which one condemns in the enemy.” He continues:

Christians should be aware, if no one else is, of the potential evil which lies in the pride of victors. There is no greater snare and delusion than the perpetual hope that all the evil in the world is embodied in our enemy, so that the destruction of the enemy will lead to the redemption of the world from evil. It is by this very pride that we accentuate the evil in ourselves, which we have in common with the enemy.

Therefore, he wanted victorious Allies to be humble and sober in victory as the United States acquired a new responsibility after liberating Europe. Because of their sinful nature, Americans faced a temptation to mistreat those who previously lived under Nazi rule. Therefore, Niebuhr routinely called on readers to feed their former enemies and wrote about the Germans’ plight. In this, he represents the best of Christian realism.

My tradition’s view of sin emphasizes total depravity—humans are incapable of doing good. Even when they try to do good, they usually do so for a sinful reason. Therefore, they require grace from God so that he can do good through them, not because of what they have done but despite it. Undeserved grace, not human action, is the sole catalyst for improvements in the world. Other Christian traditions, such as in Catholicism, do not have this interpretation of sin.

God can use his grace to improve the world through believers, and he can use common grace to improve the world through non-believers—such as how Mongol conquerors created empires with religious liberty that blessed Christian and Jewish communities. So Christians should not arrogantly assume that God needs them or their churches to improve the world—he can use others. Further, when God works through this kind of common grace, Christians should not read history and conclude that God providentially wanted the Mongols to seize the land as they did, gave them the land, or actively caused their actions. They should also not look at history and confidently say God wants the world this way or that way because that is how the world is. Those conclusions risk making God the author of sin, which is heresy. Instead, God can providentially and gracefully restrain humans from fully acting on their depravity, limit the devastation from their sins, and direct their actions to good despite their intentions. Consider, God wanted Israel to have judges instead of kings but relented to their sinful desires, leading to a course of history he did not want. Yet he turned history in a way that led to the Cross.

Therefore, because of depravity, human action cannot solve political problems or global crises. On their own, people at best change the type of depravity that occurs, or at worst create disaster. Undeserved grace, whether through believers or non-believers, is the only solution to a crisis.

Christianity Is Not Bad Magic

In July 1946, Reinhold’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, wrote against “Utilitarian Christianity,” or how Christians may use the religion for an earthly purpose. In particular, he wrote about how some theologians in his day wanted to use religion to improve the mental health and material lives of people. He admitted that Christianity has “imperatives” and commands to serve God. But fulfilling these tasks is not a means to an earthly end or reward; Christians do them because they love God and love what he loves. While God blesses those who serve him, they cannot control him by completing a good action that he must reward. Niebuhr writes that fulfilling imperatives, such as repentance, for the sake of a blessing that God may give “is a bad kind of magic.”[i] He continues:

Repentance is called for not because we shall suffer or because civilization will perish if we do not repent, but because others are now perishing for us and because we are attacking the very son of God or God himself in our endeavor to escape suffering and to maintain our civilization at any cost.[ii]

Today some focus not on saving civilization, but on restoring the American nation through religion—in these appeals they usually make complaints that Americans have made for centuries.[iii] Some call for a religious revival and stronger churches. As I heard someone say recently, “The problem with society is with the souls of man, so we need to save souls.” Certainly, Christians should want healthy churches full of genuine believers. But evangelism has a religious aim that may have secondary benefits, and using it for an earthly end will warp the endeavor. Moreover, Christians should resist the pride of thinking that they are doing the good work, or that their churches can save the community, nation, or civilization. Such pride ignores how human depravity affects every institution, including the church, and ignores the need for grace for any improvement in the world. It risks giving believers a self-righteousness that justifies awful behavior. Christians should also recognize that while God gracefully blesses his followers with what they need when they need it, they cannot force him to provide something they want—such as a strong country, well-behaved children, professional success, etc.—with their devotion or (impossible) good behavior. That would be a doomed attempt at magic. Instead, Christians should be humble and pray for God to use imperfect people like them to bless the world, recognizing that he can do his work either through them or non-Christians. I believe that most Christians in the first camp understand this, even if they may not say it directly.[iv]

A second, smaller camp includes illiberal or post-liberal conservatives—such as integralist-friendly Catholics and like-minded Protestants. Broadly speaking, this group wants to use the state to privilege a church, often to save the nation—not as a sovereign state in a Westphalian system, but as a group of people with a strong common identity that Christianity guides somehow. My own writing rejects this proposition and looks at how amplifying a church through state privilege would have negative consequences for society and the faith. After spending months traveling through Europe in 1946 and 1947, Reinhold Niebuhr also disliked states privileging a church:

The intimate relation between church and state, prevalent almost everywhere in Europe, preserves the formal idea of a national Christian culture. But these Christian nations of Europe are certainly as secular as our own country and possibly more so. And there is no line where the church ends and the national society begins. There is, therefore, no challenge for men to declare themselves for the Christian faith, a challenge which sectarian Christianity introduced into American church life, and for which we may well be grateful. Furthermore there is not sufficient tension between the church as a community of grace and the national community under this official arrangement.

Besides trying to use Christianity for a kind of “bad magic,” the post-liberal view downplays or ignores how depravity affects even the church. Some good news for America is that because of religious liberty the state does not privilege a faith, allowing other churches to emerge more easily from the ruins of scandal to minister to the community. Furthermore, this liberty stops the state from using the church for depraved ends, as Vladimir Putin has done with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Some with post-liberal views also mistakenly assume that the state can coerce, compel, or otherwise induce goodness. For those who reject the theology of depravity and believe in the possibility of humans doing good works, this might make sense; for others it should not. The state can approximate some justice. While the government cannot make a murderer a good person, it can justly punish him to prevent future murders. That result is sufficient for now in this imperfect, already-but-not-yet age. But coercion does not produce goodness. Remember, someone who abstains from murder to avoid punishment may still be sinning because “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” And if the sin isn’t harboring such anger, then there is another depravity that prevents goodness.

So attempts at state-coerced goodness do not cause goodness, even if it creates a righteous façade. At best, the result is a new depravity in a different hue. At worst, the state gains immense power that could cause a future tragedy.

Accept the World as It Is

Immediately after World War II, writers in Christianity and Crisis advocated for an overly accommodating relationship with the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. For example, Reinhold Niebuhr suggested that the United States should give Moscow the atomic bomb to build trust and avert a global split. Later he disliked Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech because he thought that it stoked tensions. He and others also criticized Catholics for being reactionaries who wanted to vigorously confront the USSR. Some also hoped that democracy and communism would merge into a middle way. Because most of the journal’s contributors were left-of-center, they may have been unwilling to recognize the danger of communism the same way that they recognized the threat of fascism. Or perhaps they were so focused on critiquing the right that they ignored problems on the left.

Starting in roughly mid-1946, the journal’s tone shifted. Though some still sided with the communists in places like China, downplayed the Soviet threat, or suggested Moscow misbehaved largely because it feared the West, Niebuhr and others gradually recognized that Moscow would aggressively push its communism wherever it could, threatening world peace. An observable change occurred after Henry Wallace gave a speech in September 1946 that denounced Truman’s “get tough” with Russia policy. The contributors criticized Wallace—a darling of the left who was Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president until January 1945 and who was popular among many Christianity and Crisis readers—and called for firmness toward Moscow. In December of that year, the editors co-signed a declaration that advocated confrontation: “Insofar as Russia represents a new totalitarian threat against established forms of justice in the Western world, we have a responsibility which must be met by firmness. Mere yielding to Russian pressure will not guarantee peace.” By the spring of 1947, Niebuhr and most other contributors supported the Truman Doctrine to resist communism in places like Greece.

A robust understanding of global affairs likely drove the journal’s writers to support US efforts in the emerging Cold War. Some editors, including Niebuhr, traveled and wrote reports from across the globe. They also shared different perspectives from others, such as missionaries, who spent years overseas, even though these articles did not always include much if any theological reflection.[v] By listening to those with significant knowledge, researching the crises, and explaining global situations to readers, they moved toward the wiser foreign policy option.

The shift offers an enduring lesson. As many writers in these pages have emphasized, Christian realists must have a solid understanding of global affairs and accept the world as it is. During a Providence conference, Walter Russell Mead observed that too many religious dignitaries give lofty opinions on policy without properly understanding the issue, so government officials politely ignore them. Following Nigel Biggar’s advice, that Christians interested in foreign policy should read less philosophy and read more history, could help alleviate this problem. For rough pragmatic guidance, I would suggest that Christian realists read at least two books on history or global affairs for every book on theology, political theology, or philosophy—beyond those for personal edification.

Christian realists should not be satisfied with being able to quote St. Augustine or some other theological luminary, as if that would convince a cynic. They should aim for knowing their policy issue just as well if not better than everyone else in the room, so that even cynics look to them for guidance.[vi]

Kind, Not Nice

While the Christianity and Crisis editors agreed that the US should be firm with the USSR, they did not agree on what firmness meant in practice. Certainly, they were firmer than other Christian elites. But some of the journal’s writers were at times still too soft on the USSR. They warned against hysterical or reactionary forces, such as in the Catholic Church, that wanted to counter all communists. Insofar as they meant the US should not preemptively go to war with the USSR, they were right—though they arguably punched at a straw man given the public’s war-weariness. Ironically, those who wanted to relentlessly oppose communism had a better Cold War strategy that proved successful in the 1980s.

Besides rejecting supposed Catholic and right-wing “hysteria” toward communism, some of the journal’s writers advocated policies that unwisely tried to be nice to Moscow, even after the Wallace controversy. For example, in November 1946, John C. Bennett argued in favor of countering the “Russian-Communist drive for power.” But he still wanted the US to show unilateral niceness toward the Soviets to allay their fears that he thought made them aggressive. Specifically, he supported “the abandonment of bases that seem to be a threat to Russia” without requiring the USSR to give up something in return. He wrongly assumed that Russians would stop misbehaving if they did not fear or if America was nice. But unilaterally abandoning a few bases would not allay Russians’ fears. Wherever the West drew a red line, whether directly on the USSR border or further west, Moscow would be upset and fearful because of its geographic vulnerability. The Kremlin would eventually test to see how far it could push before hitting something firm. So the West needed to draw the line where it was advantageous for peace in Europe. Moreover, Moscow ultimately misbehaved not because it feared too much, but because it feared too little. If the Kremlin sufficiently feared the United States, it would be more cautious or more willing to negotiate in good faith.

While kindness is a Christian trait, niceness is not. At times, niceness can be unkind. The word nice was originally an insult, referencing someone naïve, senseless, ignorant, careless, weak, silly, or foolish. The meaning morphed because an ignorant person could be a charming person, and by the 1920s it was a vague term for “mild agreeableness.” For Christians, this word should contrast with kind. A nice, agreeable person lets others do as they wish to avoid confrontation. A kind person acts out of neighborly love, even if it causes confrontation or discomfort. A nice person might say to an alcoholic, “Stay, and have another drink on me.” The nice person would say, “Your drunkenness is harming yourself and others, so I must not enable you.” In global affairs, a nice policy would unilaterally abandon bases that anger an aggressor. This niceness could prove to be unkind if it fools the adversary into thinking it can act aggressively without consequence. In contrast, a kind policy might, if possible, reinforce those positions while offering an opportunity to negotiate in good faith.

Rejecting unbiblical niceness does not prohibit creative diplomacy, probing to find the bounds of what is possible, or remembering that depravity makes one’s side imperfect. A unilateral gesture that is temporary and reversible might create a positive response. But a kind foreign policy would recognize human depravity and prepare for betrayal or the rejection of friendship.

Democratic Stability

Though few remember the crisis today, one of the major controversies in 1946 was whether the United States should give the socialist-controlled British government a loan to stabilize its economy. Christianity and Crisis favored offering London generous terms, though most Americans disagreed and did not want to help fund socialist programs abroad. So Congress offered stingy terms that harmed Britain’s economy. Legislators risked their reelection prospects if they did otherwise.

The journal made a good point, and thanks to Soviet actions, Americans changed their mind about helping the UK by the time the Truman administration proposed the Marshall Plan in 1947 (this time the public recognized how helping Britain was in their self-interest). But on this and other issues, the contributors downplay voters’ self-interest, and seem distant from or dismissive of their concerns. An overriding assumption suggests that if a church has enough influence, its members can force the government to adopt a selfless and generous policy. This can be true for issues that may not require great sacrifice, such as feeding Germans after the war. But the logic is too idealist when it suggests voters would endure significant hardship for a greater cause that is not in their interest. Instead, Christian realists who want to support a policy that requires sacrifice should appeal to others’ self-interest or enlightened interest. Otherwise, a government that implements the policy risks social unrest or expulsion from office.

More recently, controversy over the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines offers a case study. Here idealists at the World Health Organization and elsewhere chided wealthy governments for fully vaccinating their healthy citizens before vaccinating at-risk individuals globally. Ideally, manufacturers could produce vaccines for everyone quickly, or healthy voters would sacrificially wait another year in lockdown for the sake of poorer countries. But this was not the case. People were exhausted with lockdowns, and the risk of inevitable variants increased wealthy countries’ incentive to vaccinate their people first. Democratically elected leaders might lose power if they did what idealists wanted.

For the sake of democratic stability, I would place a greater priority on elected leaders addressing voters’ self-interests than Christianity and Crisis contributors did. For them, self-interest was a dirty word. But implementing a moral yet unpopular policy risks instability or a crisis if unrest escalates. Besides, what good is implementing a moral policy if citizens get angry and vote in new officials who overturn the law? Leaders and activists might more wisely spend their limited energy and political capital on more feasible priorities.

Therefore, Christian realists must accept that they may have to live with imperfect policies because changing them would risk too much turmoil.

Parting Thoughts

My Providence interns have sometimes correctly observed that Christian realism does not provide clear-cut answers to global crises the same way a political theory might. No one should confidently say this is the Christian realist position on a foreign policy question. For them, I’ve compared the school to other dilemmas Christians face—nothing in the Bible will explicitly say whom they should date or how, what career they should pursue, or how to respond to messy roommates. But there are guiding principles that offer direction and limits. For centuries other Christians have wrestled with global problems, and studying their writings can shine some light on today’s troubles. Through their study of this tradition, sober hope, recognition of humans’ sinful nature and need for grace, humbleness, robust global affairs knowledge, and neighborly love, Christian realists can better seek the peace and prosperity of their world and community.

[i] H. Richard Niebuhr’s article provoked some responses from Christianity and Crisis writers. They agreed with the bulk of his argument, with F. Ernest Johnson writing, “That Mr. Niebuhr has described an actual tendency in Protestant Christianity can hardly be questioned. It is to be hoped that his article will be made the basis of much study and discussion, for it has far-reaching implications.” But they explored how Christians can pragmatically live out the imperatives of the religion.

[ii] Whereas today a common focus is on saving the nation, the theme of saving civilization was common in the journal 75 years ago—this makes sense considering that atomic bombs just arrived. For example, in a co-signed statement from December 1946, the editorial board writes, “Civilizations, like life itself, are best saved, if we are not too anxious to save them… We may aggravate the perils of a civilization by trying to save, not civilization, but our peculiar conception of it.” Switch civilization with nation, and that may be a provocative editorial for today.

[iii] Nostalgic for a glorious past, every generation seems to complain that America needs a revival to survive, since at least the early 1800s if not earlier. In Christianity and Crisis, John Foster Dulles made a similar, albeit bizarre complaint in 1946. After growing up in the Deep South, and lecturing on civil rights history just down the road from where the Ku Klux Klan committed the Freedom Summer murders, I have no such nostalgia.

[iv] Some have suggested that if Americans simply understood Christianity better, the country would have fewer problems. I’m skeptical. Grace is still required. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Such a program would be like a mortal trying to heal a lame man by helping him understand that his legs don’t work; by itself, this knowledge cannot heal him. No one can say, ‘If you only knew how bad your legs were, you could stand up,’ so no one should say, ‘If Americans only understood Christianity better, the nation could rise up.’ God alone can successfully tell the paralyzed, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’”

[v] Niebuhr even rejected some articles because they were too theological and not appropriate for laypeople who read Christianity and Crisis.

[vi] When debating policy, Christian realists should also avoid purposefully cherry-picking data while ignoring counter-examples, employing blatant fallacies, or using other dishonest arguments. Similar behavior is expected of lawyers defending their clients. But in policy debates, this is the work of party hacks whose advice cannot be taken at face value. Meanwhile, be patient with those who seem to use these tactics; perhaps they think they’re using an honest argument but don’t realize the problem.