Eric Patterson, executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Robert Joustra, director of the Albert M. Wolters Centre for Christian Scholarship at Redeemer University, discuss their recently released book, Power Politics and Moral Order, and defend the necessity of a Christian realist framework with which to pursue political ends. Here’s transcript:
Mark Tooley: Welcome everyone, this is the Institute on Religion and Democracy as well as Providence, a Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, with the delight of hosting the unveiling of a new book very connected to our major themes of Christian realism it is called Power Politics and Moral Order: Three Generations of Christian Realism- A Reader, put together by two friends of our organization, Eric Patterson, who is on our IRD board of directors, and Rob Joustra, who has come all the way from Toronto to be here with us this evening for this special book unveiling. Rob Joustra is associate professor of Politics and International Studies and founding director of the Center for Christian Scholarship at Redeemer University in Toronto. Eric Patterson is the current vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute here in Washington and scholar at large at Regent University in Virginia Beach. It also should be pointed out that our Providence executive editor Marc LiVecche contributed a chapter to this book. I am Mark Tooley, president of the IRD and editor at Providence. Special welcome to all of you who are here physically this evening in downtown Washington, D.C., to all of our viewers on Facebook and Twitter and to our future viewers on C-Span Book TV where this video will be airing no doubt many times in the near future. Eric Patterson wants to speak first, and he will explain the rest of the evening to you. There will be plenty of time for questions and comments later. I’m sure you will be experiencing intellectual overload so each of you will have many questions but there should be time of all of you.
Eric Patterson: Well good evening, again my name is Eric Patterson, I serve as executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute here in Washington, D.C. and a scholar at large at Regent University in Virginia Beach. I’m delighted to be here with my colleague Rob Joustra. I’d like to start by saying thanks to the IRD and Providence its journal. Several of the essays in Power Politics and Moral Order were given to us gratis to reprint in this book and I’ll tell you a little bit more about that in just a moment. I’d also like to thank our two universities Redeemer and Regent both provided financial resources for us to get copyrights for some of the chapters in the books, they provided research assistance we couldn’t have done it without them.
Let me take you back to the summer of 1940. For the past six months London and other British cities are being bombed it’s the battle of Britain. World War II officially started a year before, September 1, 1939 as Hitler invaded Poland and it brought the whole continent into the war. So here’s the question: why is it then with bombs falling on London and other British cities that C.S. Lewis had to go to Oxford University and give a famous speech, “Why I am not a Pacifist.” Now Lewis is famously unpolitical, but you have to ask yourself the question how is it seven years after Hitler takes over Germany and all of the things that had happened and now bombs are falling on the heartland of Britain, that Lewis has to defend self-defense against the Nazis. And part of the answer to that lies in what E.H. Carr called the 20 years crisis, the period from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II in which the western world largely tried to look the other way and not face the problem of Hitler and the Nazis or Japanese imperialism in the far east. The reason they did it was in part pragmatic pacifism (and by that I mean World War I was so destructive we’ll do anything to avoid being responsible for our neighbors and standing up to Hitler) and there was also kind of a utopian idealism that maybe we could just legislate war away. For instance, the Kellogg brand pact, I believe in 1925 at the start of the League of Nations, these things actually were designed to outlaw war. Of course, if it’s outlawed who then would break the rules and cause a war–certainly that’s not what Hitler wanted he just needed a little bit of elbow room, right? That’s the context of the growth of what we call Christian realism, especially associated with people like Reinhold Niebuhr, John C. Bennett, and others in the United States and in the United Kingdom. It’s this reaction to that utopian, idealistic irresponsible pacifism and the like. What this book does is it goes beyond just Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian realist that so many people know about, and what we do is document a history of 90 years of Christian realism.
One of the contributions of this book is laying this tradition out in three generations. The first generation being the fight against fascism and early communism 1932-1965. The second era is essentially from the Vietnam war in the late decolonization period to the end of the Cold War 1990. Then the last generation, with names that you would know, is this period of the disorder of the 1990s and the era of terrorism and global response since 2001. Now those names I mentioned are people like George Weigel, James Turner Johnson, Marc LiVecche who’s here with us tonight Daniel Strand one of our Providence writers, myself, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Rob Joustra, and many others–you’ll find their writings in this book in that third generation. Let’s take a step back, I’ve kind of assumed for a moment that by identifying a counter to pacifism and that type of irresponsible idealism that you know what I’m talking about with Christian realism. But let me just mention a couple of the tenets that we talk about in this book that make up Christian realism. For those of you who study political science or international relations theory, you know that there are all sorts of realisms out there and it means a realistic non-utopian approach to foreign policy analysis. What we’ve done in this book is distinguish pragmatic forms of realism like Machiavelli like Thomas Hobbes from moral forms of realism, specifically Christian realism in a number of ways.
Christian realists do look at foreign policy analysis, they do look at security they do look at power politics. But they don’t only look at it through the lens of government versus government and the security dilemma; instead, we recognize that this is really an Augustinian tradition rooted in biblical and early Christian sources, most notably the way Augustine thinks about human anthropology and human politics. What do I mean by that? Christian realists are united in recognizing that human beings are fallen and we are sinful and so much of what motivates us is self-interested, but that’s not all there is to the story. Christian realists also tend to be hopeful because of the imago Dei, so individuals have worth but they also have responsibility to act in political life. That’s the difference between that and irresponsible forms of “oh that’s someone else’s problem or I can’t dirty my hands by trying to save and protect.” Christian just war thinking is a species in a sense of this Augustinian tradition. Another part of this is a focus on the ways that not just individuals, but that groups have their own kind of natural forms of limitation and sin. It seems that humans and groups are actually more chauvinistic–fascism, communism, ethnonationalism–we’re more chauvinistic in a group than we are just as individuals. Christian realists highlight the way that whether it’s an ethnic basis, a racialist basis, or some other form of prejudice based on ideology like fascism or communism, that all of those are idolatrous “isms” that put the group or they put some sort of populist leader in an idolatrous position instead of the God of the Bible.
You’ll also find that Christian realists, like other realists, are very concerned about unintended consequences. They’ll often debate among themselves limits and restraint when thinking about foreign policy action. There’s a lot more about that in the book that hopefully you can read for yourself, but in this second part of this idea of generations of Christian realism one thing that you’ll find is we found that the Christian realists typically answered the same sorts of questions decade after decade. In that first generation in the 1940s and 50s they thought about, “How do we have a liberal world order that that buttresses the peace responsibly and doesn’t fail like the League of Nations? How do we think about atomic weapons? etcetera, etcetera.” Those same types of questions are asked in the 1970s the 1990s and to today. So you’ll find that there’s this commonality of these big questions and a commonality of approaches to how they’re answered. In conclusion for my portion, Rob and I are both going to point out a couple of readings that are our favorites from the book. I will say this a runner-up is that in the last section Rob and I actually have contrasting chapters where we slightly disagree on the importance and the potency of international institutions and multilateralism that reflects a little bit my American bias and his Canadian bias. Another great chapter in the Third Generation is by George Weigel well known here in town with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, but it’s an essay that he wrote in a book with James Turner Johnson in 1991 defining peace and how to think about peace when confronting Saddam Hussein and the disintegration of the cold peace of the Cold War. But I’d like to read to you just a couple of excerpts from 1948. This is by Martin White in an essay called, “The Church, Russia, and the West.” Now Martin White is really the father of modern international relations theory in the English school, the primary way that we teach this is in British universities. It’s very influential, his two textbooks which were published after his death are still bestsellers today in international relations theory. He’s writing in 1948 about the jumble of international relations after 1945. The Soviet Union doesn’t leave Iran, the Soviet Union leaves its troops in eastern Europe, there’s communist infiltration all around the world, there’s now atomic weapons, China seems to be teetering–he lays this all out in the first pages of a forty-page chapter and then he steps back and says, “How should we as Christians think about this, what are the categories that we should use?”
Let me just read a little about what he says about history, “The distinction between secular and sacred history is the stuff of our argument between history as process only and history as purpose. If we use one metaphor, we could say that secular and sacred history interpenetrate. If we use another metaphor, and perhaps a truer one, we will see secular history as just the surface of the time process, dead and glassy; but we’d see sacred history as that same time process, but transparent and visible against the light of eternity, the sum of all the depths of destiny. This is the distinction between Saint Augustine’s two cities: the earthly city which is built by the love of self to the contempt of God and the heavenly city which is built by the love of God to the contempt of self.” He goes on to say, “Two beliefs have hitherto underlain the ordinary non-Christian attitude toward the present crisis, the attitude of the ordinary secular level in our post-Christian world. One of these is a broad Pelagianism, the belief that we are on the whole well-meaning people doing our best and will somehow muddle through. The other secular approach is an optimistic belief that because we’re well-meaning and doing our best, things will then tend to come out right. That what happens will be for the best anyway; hence, perhaps the way in which it has been used in modern times is just to see public affairs as a succession of questions or problems to be solved in the immediate time. Neither of these beliefs are Christian. We’re not well-meaning people doing our best, we are miserable sinners living under judgment with a heritage of sin to expiate. We will not somehow muddle through. If we repent and cast ourselves upon God’s mercy we have the promise that we shall be saved. That’s a totally different thing which carries no assurance of muddling through in this world nor do we find in the Bible anything resembling a secular theory of progress, what we find in the Bible is a scheme of purification through catastrophe, and redemption through suffering.” Then he goes on to tell us how to think about dealing with the Soviet Union–I’ll leave it to you to read that. Thank you very much.
Robert Joustra: Well, thank you, Eric; thank you for hosting this launch this evening for the Institute. Very grateful even for inviting a Canadian here to come and talk to you about politics and power. I trust by the time I’m finished talking about what I am you’ll shoo me out of town for all of my middle-power institutionalism and all the heavy lifting that the Americans have to do. Well, I won’t make your judgments for you. My heart was very warmed as Eric was reading this passage, my Calvinist heart was very warmed as I was hearing you read about the depredations of sin. By way of biography, this was one of the ways that I actually came to the tradition of Christian realism. I didn’t initially study politics in college, I studied history and I studied Calvinism. When I first encountered Herbert Butterfield, who’s one of the chapters in here that I love very much, I encountered him as a historian not as an international relations scholar, not as a political scientist. So, one of the sort of journeys that I went on was sort of coming from the other side of the ocean over back, whereas for a lot of people when they think about Christian realism you know they think about the American experience. They think of Reinhold Niebuhr, they think I think very appropriately about people like Paul Ramsey, and this is right. But I think one of the contributions we were able to make in this reader was that, “yes and amen” to the great cast of American Christian realists, but also I think a transatlantic perspective as well. Certainly the English school people like White that we just heard from, people like Herbert Butterfield that I studied initially as a historian but also was an extraordinary and an incredibly sensitive scholar of international relations and had views on nuclear weapons that I daresay might be a little closer to my Canadian sensitivities (but we’ll let you give me a hard time about that later), I was deeply entrenched in this thing called the English school.
As people like Simon Polander and others have argued, this tradition that has some resonance also perhaps something that they’ve called the Amsterdam school. People like Abraham Kuyper and Hermann Bavinck and others who perhaps are better known as pastors and theologians but also were politically active, were active in politics and policy. Kuyper himself served as prime minister of the Netherlands, made foreign policy, and I would be remiss (although it is a bit baffling that I just finished publishing a book with another Doctor Joustra who I have the good fortune of being married to, Jessica Joustra) on Abraham Kuyper’s stone lectures called “Calvinism for a Secular Age,” and that came out just the month before this book did. So if you if you say, “What is this Amsterdam school and who is this Abraham Kuyper,” there is a wonderful book for you to go and state your attention and interest in. This to me I think adds really essential flavor to the tradition of Christian realism. I don’t want to take a step away from the American school at all, I don’t want to take a step away from Reinhold Niebuhr, although there are places where we disagree, certainly not Paul Ramsey; but it is to say that the cloud of witnesses, those in the late imperial context of the United Kingdom (I think at least the way we in Canada sort of measure it we talk about the sort of decline of the British empire happening sometime around 1956 which is also conveniently when our minister of external affairs Lester B. Pearson burst on the scenes and introduced the United Nations emergency force that we’ve come to call peacekeepers and so on, but they say you know this is the moment in which you know the United Kingdom was very much coming to terms with its post-war decline). There is a sense in which, “Well what does Christian realism look like?” there not at the height of superpower prowess, as the United States of America was experiencing after the second World War, but in the late imperial context or in the Amsterdam school where were people like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck are being forced to ask very different questions that, frankly to a Canadian like myself. sound a lot more familiar. They’re saying, “Boy there are some really powerful countries right next door and sometimes they’re really friendly and sometimes they’re not, and how do we imagine making an ethical foreign policy in that context where we don’t dominate the agenda, where we do not set the terms where we cannot by virtue of coercive force imagine solving this resolution?”
It’s actually one of the reasons why, if I’m given the choice between teaching Canadian foreign policy and American foreign policy, I’d rather teach Canadian. I know you all make fun of me for this (people do all the time, in fact, the best joke I ever heard was “What do you do after the first two weeks?” No, no there’s a full course there, there’s a full course of content) but one of the reasons why I love teaching Canadian foreign policy is that students who enter into American foreign policy come in often with a premise of imagining that the problems in the world are theirs to solve. “How can we solve this? We have the power to affect this change.” And you almost have to spend a whole semester sort of deconstructing that impulse and helping them understand the limitations, the hubris of power. You know maybe make them read Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” In Canadian foreign policy we start there, I know we don’t actually have to do a lot of heavy lifting to convince you that this major sort of geopolitical quandary is going to be solved by Canada—no. I mean maybe in partnership, maybe in collaboration, maybe with a kind of credible contribution, but I would argue to you that’s actually not a bad place. That is a more humble and more productive, a more collaborative, yes, perhaps even a more multilateral place to start. And that I think is one of the reasons why the transatlantic perspective that we bring in addition to the generational perspective in this volume is so helpful.
Yes, we will hear from the American school as we should, but we will also hear from the English school and we will also hear from the Amsterdam school and that will help us think about late imperial power. It will help us think about middle power, it will help us think about lesser powers but still powers, still countries, still states that have responsibilities, that have ethics, that have obligations. And what does justice mean for them? Justice after all is not simply the purview of the great superpowers of the world, it is the purview of anyone with political power. That is certainly I think the way that Augustine would put it to us and so I think this a really helpful introduction of this transatlantic sort of dialogue on Christian realism. I wish somewhat self-interestedly that there would be more work excavating–and particularly the English school in which there’s been much but bringing it up–and making it contemporary. I know Providence has done some of this and building out also the Amsterdam school and helping us hear those voices from other parts of the tradition around the globe.
This is what I think is one of the exciting pieces of contribution, but I want to focus on two pieces in here. One is by Butterfield, so one is an English school, and one is an Amsterdam school from Nicholas Waltersdorf that I’ve included here as well. They both nudge on aspects of American Christian realism, certainly realism in the case of Butterfield. I’ve just been listening (I’ve had a friend of mine convince me to listen to audiobooks which I never had the tolerance for because they’re too slow but I’ve sped them up and now I’m now I’m in it to win it and some of these authors read themselves), I’ve been re-listening to General McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty. I’d read the book before, but he reads it himself in the audio and his impressions of President Johnson are not to be missed. And one of the things he’s critical of is the emergent the quants, the whiz kids, as they begin to set the terms for power politics for communication along the way. And this is one of the things that Butterfield I think gets right at the heart, how in human nature and the dominion of fear, in his chapter where he says we think about fear as this kind of feature of the international system, and it’s there although we can talk about whether it’s natural (a feature maybe, but natural? well that’s a broader theological discussion) but he says “Look, it’s not always something that we can quantify entirely easily; there’s an emotional and affective element to it.”
This is such a rich aspect of the English school; this is what he says, “Fear is a thing which is extraordinarily vivid while we are in its grip, but once it’s over it leaves little trace of itself in our consciousness. It is one of the experiences that we can never properly remember, one also which since we may be ashamed of it we may have no reason for wishing to remember. We are in the position of those unsympathetic parents, who, though they can recall the concrete things that happened in their lives have forgotten what it really felt like to be in love. It is curious that moods and sensations which mastered us in the past and which may almost consume a man are so difficult to recover or to reimagine afterwards. Because it is so hard for us to recapture the feeling in our imagination, we can be thoroughly non-participating when there is a question of fear that is not our own. If another person is the victim of it we may fail or it may never occur to us to even try to apprehend either the thing in itself or the range of its possible consequences. It would seem that we are not always easily convinced of the existence of fear in other people, especially when other people are political rivals or potential enemies.” Here there’s an argument for empathy. “At any rate, historians are not easily convinced when they deal at a later time with former enemies of their country. Above all if the thing which the other party dreaded is a danger that never materialized it becomes easy to be skeptical about the genuineness of the fear itself. When the historian cannot escape recording the terror that Napoleon inspired or the German dread of Russia at one time in another, or the apprehension of a people in the face of imminent attack, he may produce a factual statement that gives little impression of the force and the effect of the emotion actually experienced. Sometimes he is jolted into a realization of his deficiency as he finds himself confronted by an event, and sees that the rest of his picture provides only an inadequate context for it. It turns out there was something some standing factor in the story a terrible feeling of thunder in the atmosphere which he had imperfectly apprehended or merely failed to keep in mind. A little small addendum: we do not always realize and sometimes we do not like to recognize how often a mistaken policy and obliquity of context, a braggart manner or even an act of cruelty may be traceable to fear.”
This is the way of talking about it. Yes, it doesn’t rule out rational calculation does not rule out realpolitik; but it imagines human beings I would say in almost an Augustinian way. It imagines us as emotional desiring creatures and that that affects our politics and our policies and our priorities, not as pure rational material calculus but as the full aspect of human beings. I think the American tradition on Christian realism is good on that, but the American tradition of realism is less good on that. Butterfield really puts his finger on some of this.
Last little segment here from Nicholas Waltersdorf. This is from his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace, and he’s writing about liberation theology. For some of us are not perhaps old enough–when somebody says liberation theology you have to hear behind it the controversy, I’ve got to say something like critical race theory and they say oh yes–funnel all the emotion of that debate and all of those ideas into when you hear liberation theology. And then it goes through that and says, “Actually, as it turns out there’s one, there’s a couple of key points of affinity here.” This is where it’s going to nudge American realism too. After this you can certainly chase me out of the office. Quote, “Liberation theology and neo-Calvinism [the Amsterdam school] have similarities that extend beyond the fact that they are both contemporary versions of world-formative Christianity. Both express, for example, a significant concern for the victims of modern society (though it is true that they differ in their specific definitions of which groups constitute the victims of a given society). In addition, both express concern for the victims in essentially the same manner, not by applying bandages but by searching out what it was that inflicted the wounds, seeking to affect change in that quarter. Both find the culprit in the structure of modern society and the dynamics underlying that structure rather than in acts of individual waywardness. Both offer, this is actually a Kuyperian term, “architectonic analyses of the ills of modern society, and both locate the crucial dynamic in the economic sphere and in the political sphere in so far as it supports the economic.”
Now Nick goes on to say he says this doesn’t mean that we need to hose down liberation theology with baptismal water and say they got it all right; of course, there are clear important significant disagreements along the way but he does say now here is something that we need to perhaps learn: that systems and institutions are also structures and they are prejudiced they are predicated they nudge they push human behavior and they need the full attention of Christians. They are not simply neutral. We know all of this with technology now, right, we’ve learned this you know 10-15 years ago, “Is Google making us stupid, does Facebook make us lonely?” I don’t know what Instagram does but it’s nothing good. You know we know that and we say, “Wow it’s not the systems that do it human beings have human agency.” Of course, they do, none of this robs human beings of agency. What it says is that the systems and the institutions that we construct they must be subject also to our Christian analysis. Because they make, they push for, they nudge for better justice, better mercy. This is what Bonhoeffer said, it is not enough to rescue to pull those out driven under from the wheels of injustice we must drive a spoke into it. Desmond Tutu I think put it even better, he said it is not enough for us to pull bodies out of the river we must go upstream and ask why are so many people falling in? This is real Amsterdam school stuff, I think this is an architectonic critique looking at our systems and institutions–not to burn them down, it’s not revolutionary, heck Kuyper “Anti-revolutionary Party” it’s right there in the name–not to burn them down but for reformation, for justice. I think this also makes them fit in an Augustinian way so nicely into this transatlantic dialogue on Christian realism. I should leave it there–I could read from it all night. I think we have some Q and A.
Andrew Davenport: Thank you both for speaking it’s wonderful hearing from you. On this issue of Christian realism when you look at current, past presidents on issues of international institutions where you see an organization like NATO where some politicians have pointed out other countries sort of maybe not holding up their end of a bargain in these international institutions–how does Christian realism approach a situation like that where these other countries may not be doing their part in these international institutions, yet the answer may not be withdrawal completely from those.
Robert Joustra: Let me answer the question in theory and let me answer the question in practice–and you’ll probably be more satisfied with my answer in practice. In theory, why engage why engage multilaterally at all? One of the key foundational arguments that we actually advance in the introduction of this book is that one of the fundamental, it’s really the cornerstone of realist theory and it’s fundamentally flawed, and that is the sort of the fulcrum the sort of ontological moment that gives reality to all the other logic of international relations is fear. We’re afraid of each other, we have a power dilemma, we have a fear dilemma. It’s very primal and we all learn this, anarchy etc. which doesn’t necessarily mean a war against all right just means no overarching authority. The argument that we make, and it’s a very Augustinian argument, is that that that is actually it’s a really fundamental departure point, that is wrong. The organizing principle of politics is actually not fear it’s love, and this is a very Augustinian answer. We are bonded together not out of common fear but out of common love, out of common objects of our desire. Lest this all sound too mushy I you know we write we often write these things down actually if we love them, if they’re important. Some of us have had this experience and we call them things like constitutions, we call them things like charters; we write them down we way these are the that we love. If that’s the basis on which political communities (this is an Augustinian idea I’m not making this up, this is an Augustinian idea commonwealths of love) if that’s the basis then on what level should we participate with other communities in the international system. Well I think we should participate, we should seek to work alongside those who share right those desires, those loves–not perfectly, there’s always going to be sort of you know Venn diagrams of overlap along the way. but they’re going to be close. And that along the way is also going to advance our material self-interest, it’s going to advance the things we believe and our values and so on and so forth. That’s the premise.
So why would, for example, a superpower go busy collaborating with other middle power institutions, because it’s not it’s not ultimately about just that state. It’s actually about the things that that state stands for, it’s the things that that state loves. This may seem sort of vaguely blasphemous. It’s not just only about the United States of America, it’s about what the United States of America believes, it’s what it stands. I realize this is some subject of debate, as it should be in a democracy, you know but it’s about that and then you participate in advance on that basis. Now what happens when you end up with a power imbalance that creates a free rider dilemma. You know you won’t I see me quoting President Trump too often from a microphone but on this I think he was completely correct. I’m saying this is a Canadian, countries like Canada have been subject for too long to free riding. This is not me criticizing the Canadian armed services who have indeed continued to make more bricks with less and less straw year on year, it’s that they simply haven’t been resourced to the level they’re supposed to be (the two percent GDP). I think friends need to have hard words with each other. I think it is right when you say, “Look are we enjoined in this project or aren’t we enjoined in this project? Are we working together on this project or aren’t we?” There’s an imbalance here I know that there’s a limit to what other middle powers and lesser powers can contribute there’s no question of that; but, it is a question of whether we’re enjoined in this and not. If you push me on it I would say it’s an injustice to be honest, and it’s a sad injustice because I think many of these middle powers and many of these lower powers have actually contributed enormously to the tradition of multilateralism and indeed to the tradition of global order. It being June 6 right I am impressionably aware of Juno Beach which I have visited. I’m the son of immigrants from the Netherlands, my dad had his first taste of chocolate from a Canadian soldier because it was the Canadian army that liberated the Netherlands as part of the draw to the north–that’s how my parents ended up in Canada. So, I’m profoundly aware of what the country has and can contribute. But this is where I say actually as friends, as Americans, I don’t think you should let us get away with it. I don’t think it’s just. I think there’s a contribution that’s necessary and fundamental. So that’s my practical answer to that question–I think it’s right that the United States pushes on its allies and on its partners, that they continue to push on that. And I think there has also been some movement in that direction, so I don’t want to be sort of unlimitedly critical here. Eric, do you want to correct me I feel like I got a bit sad at the end.
Eric Patterson: Yeah, I was hearing the stars and stripes play as he was saying that so I think we’ll leave it, there’s more that could be said but I think we’ll leave it at that.
Marc LiVecche: Thanks guys! Congratulations on the book, it’s beautiful. You’ve circled around this a couple of times, but one word that has been said an awful lot is interests. What role does interests play in Christian realism, very often interest is kind of the “eye-roller,” it’s “wrong,” it’s “unchristian.” What role can interests play in Christian realism?
Eric Patterson: Let’s start with the Bible, and there’s a verse in Philippians that we often hear sermons about the second half but not the first half, and that verse says, “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Then it goes into the portion about how Christ sacrificed himself for us. I’ve never heard a sermon though on, “look not only to your own interests.” It’s important to recognize that it’s almost impossible to care for someone else if you’re not healthy first and foremost. This is why when you’re on an airplane and those little things drop if you lose cabin pressure, they say put on your own mask first and then take care of the person next to you even if it’s a child. The principle is that we have a certain responsibility for ourselves first and foremost. Now that doesn’t mean to the exclusion of others, a complimentary principle to this is that we have expanding circles of responsibility of what our interests entail, and this is tied to the Catholic concept of subsidiarity, it’s tied to the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty, so first and foremost, Marc, you as a husband and a dad you have an interest. Interests are actually responsibilities. We often talk about them in some sort of craven way, self-interested selfishness; certainly that’s possible, but part of your interest, what you are interested in, what you are responsible for, is your wife and your two children. And there’s another expansive circle, the person who’s next to you, the person is in your local community, your parents, the people in your church or in the other organizations that are part of your civic and associational life. When we think about interests, we need to be thinking about what or who am I responsible for? And the Christian realists like Niebuhr and others talk a lot about this. This perhaps best encapsulated in the just war principle of legitimate political authority, it’s not about authorities war making, it’s saying, “Oh, political authorities have a big duty, they have a big obligation, they are responsible for the lives, the livelihoods, and the way of life of the people who are entrusted to their care.” That’s how we ought to be thinking about the national interest.
Robert Joustra: I agree with that. Interest gets a bad rap, we cover this almost every freshman seminar on political economy where everyone says well isn’t it a terrible thing because capitalism people pursue their own self-interest. I say, “Well yeah, who else do you want to define your interests?” You’re going to define them or someone else. There are limits to these things as there is in any sphere (I mean I feel like we almost edged into sphere sovereignty language there, but I’ll restrain myself from that Kuyperian impulse). There is this sense in which interest is natural, and there is a way in which it’s tied to the moral communities in which we’re in, there is a way in which there are natural laws norms that are intrinsic to those, and that’s right and that’s good. This is again another place where I honestly feel like there’s more clarity in this conversation when we move it out of a superpower context and we move it into a middle power context, because we inherently begin at a point of limitation right. I find that very clarifying sometimes to begin at a point of limitation. As I often have to remind my students, limitation is not actually as a result of the fall. Human beings are limited because we’re human beings, that’s baked in. God made us limited and said that’s good right–you’re not me you’re you, you’re humans. Those limitations make us part of communities, those communities have their own agendas their own moral intuitions, their own moral goals. That makes serving those interests one of the. I hear this argument periodically from sort of more cosmopolitan–and I you know I won’t say theologians cause my wife’s a theologian, but you know you just can’t trust theologians on this stuff–where they say you’ve got to have a much more cosmopolitan ethic. And I say but we intrinsically know that this isn’t the case. The argument I always make to her is this, you know her parents’ road has a pothole and her parents’ house in Michigan. I have no moral obligation to fix that pothole. I’m not a taxpayer of the great state of Michigan, I’m not a member of that county. Whereas if there’s a pothole on in front of my neighbor’s street I might not even know their name but I actually have a kind of communal moral obligation to repair that and because of course the power of the state I will. That is part of a moral obligation of living in that community right and so there are boundaries and there are spheres in which those interests take place and they are exercised and there are limits and that’s normal and that’s human.
I think we sometimes imagine that limitlessness is actually what we’re intended, for but even eschatologically I don’t see that. And I’m just speaking theologically here, I don’t see that. There are questions that we simply may never know the answer to because we’re human beings. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there are also things that we simply may never be able to accomplish and never able to do. But what we have to see is where we’re responsible in the communities in which we are how they have been intended, how they have been designed per sort of natural law, per norms, what it means to do justice. And in that context interest is not a dirty word, interest is actually a good word. I think we should rescue it from how it has been taken in vain over the years.
Caleb Knox: Thank you guys for being here to speak with us, my name is Caleb Knox I’m a student at Patrick Henry College and I’m an intern here at IRD. You mentioned these psychological drives of love and fear, but I was wondering what you think and more broadly how Christian realism thinks, about honor. I think that seems to be a very prime motivation in foreign affairs; even when we talk about China there’s kind of this worn-out illusion to Thucydides and how we’re just in this Thucydides trap and honor is just going to take us there and it’s kind of given this bad rap in a sense. But I think honor is a very important force in human relations, and specifically you mentioned how Britain had to come to terms in the post-war period that they were in age of a nation that was in decline, and I think some of that mood kind of dominates today. How does Christian realism think through that?
Robert Joustra: In the first place, this is why I think transatlantic, perhaps even global Christian theology is so helpful for this and you have to think outside of what does it mean to think among the ruins as Augustine did? As Augustine is writing, he is deeply aware, existentially aware of the fact that Rome is falling. It’s falling apart, the great empire, the great center of civilization. (Those of us who are Orthodox will be quick to remind me that actually it persisted until 1453 but that was in the East, in the West there’s this sense of decline). One of the ways in which this begins to be accessed is to recognize that human beings are not simply utility and material maximizers. This is the what Butterfield gets at, it’s not about fear, the underlying thing is love. That’s the Augustinian idea. And how does that attach to honor? Well it attaches to cultures all over the world (and not just in the shame-honor cultures and so on) to ways of understanding loyalty, ways of understanding what is right and what is wrong, what is ethical, and that attaches to our deepest desires. Who we are? And boy that’s a hard thing to get, that’s a hard thing to encounter. How does Keller put it, the only thing the only thing you need is nothing but almost nobody has that?
There’s this sense in which we need to be oriented effectively toward the good and honor is a reflection on some level of what those goods that we hold are and what our sense of betrayal, our sense of lineage, our sense of parentage, a sense of what we owe to the past. And some cultures are very different that way, Charles Taylor describes the kind of North Atlantic cultures as having a pitiless ingratitude toward the past, that in some ways to exercise moral maturity in the present age is almost to betray our parents, which is ironically still honoring our parents in a perverse kind of way, we never escape our parents. This is how MacIntyre puts it, we’re on a stage not of our own making and in a drama not of our own design we’re born into it along the way. I think that’s part of what even when we’re trying to escape it in the North Atlantic world we’re still embedded in those networks of desire and that to me part of the reflection about cultures like shame and honor. We ignore that if it’s simply a utilitarian or material calculus, we ignore, for example, the way the history of the opium wars is taught in China. I have friends who are teaching in English schools in China and let me tell you the opium wars are taught as wars of humiliation and degradation that was done to them, in the last one also a little bit of the United States but primarily Great Britain. That memory lives, it has ghosts and in a way Christian realism actually pushes us in its thicker, more Augustinian anthropology into an acknowledgement that those things are real, they’re not just peripheral, they’re not just psychologizing, they’re not mere sociology. We can’t dismiss them they move foreign policy, like Butterfield says, they move human communities they move loyalty even if we might not understand them even if we wouldn’t behave similarly. I think it pushes us toward that kind of an acknowledgement Kuyper and Butterfield I think really agree on this, that good history, good foreign policy, gets us very deeply into political theology very quickly. Very deeply into how do we love, who do we love, where do we come from–those are the kinds of questions that a good foreign policy analyst needs to be asking. It’s not enough to count up brigades, you’ve got to be asking what do we love and what are we here for?
Eric Patterson: I would pick up and just make three quick almost teaching points. The first one is that if you’re going to do good foreign policy, and this is a contribution of Christian realism and the English school and other things, good foreign policy can’t only be like American political science which is usually quantitative and liberal internationalist–meaning it’s secular and materialistic. That’s not good foreign policy because it doesn’t explain Pashtunwali among Pashtuns in Afghanistan. We could go culture by culture, it doesn’t take into account what’s important religiously and culturally to the other side. If you do good foreign policy, you start with: I need to understand what matters to them even if I don’t like it or disagree with it. If you start with just statistics and econometrics, you never get there. Second is a criticism that you’ll find throughout this book of one form of honor, is honor as egoism. If what we mean by honor is actually hubris, expansive pride, Niebuhr and others are very much against it and it’s just an Achilles heel that comes back to haunt countries and empires and political leaders over and over. However, if the what we’re talking about with honor is what we love and we think of it in active tense how do we show honor? Well, that’s an important question all of its own. Marc LiVecche’s written abou,t this I’ve written a chapter about this looking at the Vietnam war. The Vietnam war is a very good case of this because four presidents in a row said that part of the fight in Vietnam had to do with honor and LBJ and Nixon and JFK all said you know we’ve already invested here, if we just pull out that’s not peace with honor. If you pull that logic apart that’s the logic that says, whether or not this is the right place to be, whether or not this is the right expenditure to have, the way we honor those who’ve already died is by killing more people. We’re allowing more of our people to die. That’s not the best form of honor (and by the way I’m a supporter that the U.S. was in the right in prosecuting the Vietnam War, but if the only argument you’re making is we’re going to fight or we’re going to prolong a war because we’re dishonoring the war dead, that’s not a great argument). The arguments have to be made on the mutuality of the interests of the parties involved and what’s best for world politics and there’s other ways to honor the wounded or the dead such as taking care of their widows, building monuments, taking care of the orphans, taking care of the wounded–we didn’t do that very well as a society in 1971, 1972, 1973, and so there’s a dishonor that happened there because we didn’t honor our battle dead and their families and the wounded in a good way.
So again three things: one is thinking about honor in that first way like Rob was in geopolitically understanding that honor and different manifestations matters in other societies, second is thinking about honor if we’re talking about hubris different definition that’s a problem for the Christian realists, and third is really dicing when a society or a politician says we’re going to honor verb we’re going to honor something–what are we honoring how are we doing it and are we doing it in a way that again comes back to these fundamental loves.
Mark Tooley: Gentlemen, any final comments from either of you?
Eric Patterson: I think that what I would simply say is that Niebuhr used to say that these were perennial issues, and the hubris of any generation is to say, “Oh what we’re going through right now is totally new, no one’s ever gone through this before.” A second temptation is to say, however, that “History is doomed to repeat itself, it only repeats itself.” The Christian realists would disagree in part with both of those. What they would say is that the conditions of individual sin of the hidden sin and power politics in a society that prides itself on all of its goods and hides all of its weaknesses and all of these other problems that that they’re part of the human condition so they’re natural so they do recur. But that doesn’t mean that we’re always doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. There’s hope, there is hope for progress at times, there’s hope for some change, there’s hope for making a difference in the lives of some people. I think about the high points of history, the George Washington’s the Abraham Lincoln’s in our own tradition here in the United States. In a sense they’re this viewpoint of kind of balancing the evil that we’re living in the world and doing their very, very best not just to ameliorate its effects, but to build a new order that’s better and I’d say that that’s kind of the lesson over and over to me of Christian realism.
Robert Joustra: I conclude by a word of thanks to Providence magazine. I know that the evening was sort of entitled “In defense of Christian Realism.” I was telling Eric beforehand I very rarely need to defend Christian realism to my students. They come as blank slates on this question. In many cases they often come baked in with a kind of easy instrumentalism, so it’s if force has to be used or power has to be used, well that’s a bad thing but sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet–sometimes you have to do some bad to get some good. That tends to be the kind of easy instrumental logic that sort of dominates coming in. I think Providence magazine, and I hope this Reader, and Christian realism as a tradition more generally is so essential in this moment because it really gives an opportunity for those students, for students who are coming, in to learn about the ethical complexity of their own tradition. In many cases they haven’t been catechized into, that in some cases they simply haven’t been educated into. It’s very rich and it’s very available and I’m very grateful. As I said my journey went from Amsterdam to England and then finally back to some of the more famous sources here in the United States of America for which I’m grateful. I am grateful that those sources were there to be had, to be mined, to be read, to be wrestled with because of people like Eric because of magazines like Providence and so thank you for that work and I know my students benefit from it as well even in Canada–perhaps even more where we badly need it there. I’m very grateful to the magazine and to the Institute for your work stewarding and shepherding it.