Mark Tooley interviews Eric Patterson about Christian Realism. He’s executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute and scholar-at-large with Regent University. In 2003 he published a wonderful primer on this topic called The Christian Realists: Reassessing the Contributions of Niebuhr and His Contemporaries.

In this conversation, Patterson explains what Christian Realism is, who its major thinkers are, what role Reinhold Niebuhr played, whether it’s primarily Protestant, to what extent its critics think it’s cynical, and its application for today.

It’s a whirlwind conversation, so buckle up and enjoy!

Rough Transcript of the Conversation:

TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence, a Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy. I’m sitting on my back porch in West Virginia for the first time in six months on an enjoyably hot summer day, and even more enjoyably conversing with Providence contributing editor Eric Patterson, who is a scholar with Regent University and also executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC. Eric is a distinguished writer on issues relating to just war and Christian realism. And I’m going to ask him about the latter, about which there’s often some misunderstanding, but perhaps there have there been few times in American history when Christian realism has been more needed. So, Eric, thank you for joining.

PATTERSON: It’s a pleasure Mark, thanks for having me.

TOOLEY: So, Eric, please define for us what Christian realism is.

PATTERSON: Well to paraphrase one scholar, Christian Realism is Christian in its emphasis on classical Christian doctrine and biblical motifs, and it is realistic in rejecting utopianism and naive idealism. So Christian Realism is a way of thinking about foreign policy, law, politics, and society, that is Christian and realistic in its orientation.

TOOLEY: And so typically, people will associate Christian Realism with Reinhold Niebuhr, but it’s much wider than that, isn’t it?

PATTERSON: That’s right. Niebuhr is very important. He blasts onto the scene in the mid-twentieth century with a useful corrective against naive pacifism, and he calls the US and the West to fight against first the Nazis, and then the communists. But the seeds of this go all the way back to the Bible, things like Romans 13 and early Christian thinkers, most notably Augustine, who emphasized the responsibility that political leaders in their vocation, their God-given vocation, have to order and to justice. And over the centuries we see these themes in Thomas Aquinas, we see them in Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, right up to the twentieth century with people like Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, and others. And those themes, themes of justice and order in political life, are the themes that we see over and over again.

TOOLEY: All right, Reinhold Niebuhr is probably recognizable to most people, even if they’re not very familiar with him. But he obviously was a mid-twentieth century, very important, Protestant intellectual who taught for decades at Union Seminary in New York. But tell us a little bit more about what Niebuhr believed.

PATTERSON: So, Niebuhr in the early twentieth century was a pastor, and a pacifist, and a socialist, if you can believe it. But he was mugged by reality in the early 1930s, because those values could not stand up to the Japanese marching in the far east and the fascists marching across Europe. And so, by the late 1930s, he was trying to call to action the United States to take responsibility to fight injustice, to fight the satanic, Hitlerian Nazis, as he called them. And he had others come alongside him, John Foster Dulles, another theologian, John C. Bennett, and others during this critical time. And at the end of the Second World War, they called for constructive projects like the United Nations, as a way to balance or check power, and they also were strong anti-communists against the Soviet Union. And over the next two decades, a younger generation of Christian realists, people like Paul Ramsey and Kenneth W. Thompson from the University of Virginia, developed. And then after the Cold War, a whole other set of Christian realists who emphasized political order and justice in world affairs developed. People like Jean Bethke Elshtain, some just war thinkers like George Weigel, others, and some contemporaries: Joe Loconte, Daniel Strand, myself, Marc LiVecche, and others.

TOOLEY: A few of the other important Christian realist thinkers of the twentieth century—you mentioned Paul Ramsey, who taught at Princeton, was an ordained Methodist from Mississippi, prominent in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and addressed the ethics of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Tell us a little bit more about Paul Ramsey.

PATTERSON: Yeah sure. Two things. First, you mentioned nuclear weapons, and there are some themes that you see, whether it’s in the forties, or the seventies, or today, among Christian realists as they think about foreign policy. One is weapons of mass destruction. One is what we might call ‘just war thinking’ or the ethics of how Christians participate in conflict, and usually against pacifism. A third is what are the best ways to have domestic and international order? A fourth is the issue of justice, and how does justice play out with political order? And usually you see Christian realists talking a lot about restraint and limits, rather than a kind of revolutionary view that we can burn down the old regime and start from scratch. And Ramsey is a great example of this. He was both a medical ethicist, who was on the cutting edge of thinking about some of the issues that are with us today, things like euthanasia and whatnot. But he was also a just war scholar who wrote extensively about the responsibility that governments have to promote order, about how to seek justice in international life, and he wrote on specific themes as well. He looked at WMDs in that time period. He looked at the ethics of nuclear exchanges. He looked at the ethics of the Vietnam War and other wars that were either anti-colonial, or wars of national liberation, or wars of communist subversion. So he was just an important Christian realist thinker in the fifties and the sixties.

TOOLEY: Someone else about whom you’ve, if not written, you edited a book that included him. He is often forgotten today, but I enjoy talking about him; he’s sometimes described as the British counterpart to Reinhold Niebuhr. Butterfield, prominent again in the mid twentieth century, another Methodist, better known for his work on the Whig theory of history, but also a Christian Realist.

PATTERSON: Yeah, that’s right. You’re referring to my book, The Christian Realists, which was published almost twenty years ago, so it’s a bit hard to find, but it’s biographies of some of Niebuhr’s contemporaries, who are less well-known. Butterfield was a lay Methodist preacher. He was a very important British academic. He led the British Committee on International Relations that was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which is very similar to one led by Niebuhr in the US. And as a historian, he was very important in the mid-twentieth century. But what made him so powerful in thinking about international affairs was his bringing, first of all, an Augustinian sense to world affairs. That we live in a world where we’re pursuing justice; where there’s God’s hand, a providential hand, in human history; that history is going somewhere—in other words that there’s a divine hand in history, it’s not just doomed to repeat itself in an endless loop. And he was quite a hopeful or optimistic individual. Not naïve, not utopian, but he called for an ethical foreign policy for the British empire during a time where the empire was changing from its old imperial roots to a commonwealth and releasing its colonies.

TOOLEY: Someone far more recently whom you mentioned, Jean Bethke Elshtain, who at the close of her career was tied to University of Chicago, originally Lutheran, became Catholic later in life, and much missed, did not live long enough, we wish she were still with us, but tell us a little bit about her.

PATTERSON: Jean Bethke Elshtain is a very important thinker. She wrote about ‘just war statesmanship,’ as she would often call it. She often wouldn’t say Christian realism, but she’d call it just war statesmanship. She wrote the foreword for one of my books, another book on Christian realism, Christianity and Power Politics Today, which she gave me some critical insight on. Jean was very important. One of the things that she talked a lot about in the book about Augustine was some of the key themes in Augustine’s City of God—that there’s a heavenly kingdom, but there’s a separate earthly kingdom. The two aren’t entirely detached from one another. The values of the kingdom of God render judgment on the earth. And so we, whether it’s a statesman, or a soldier, or a policeman, or a judge, or someone involved in some sort of other public service, we’re called upon to use the talents that God has given us for the common good. And that’s a big corrective. Elshtain was always trying to correct utopian tendencies that would either take Christians, on the one hand, entirely out of political life, or utopian tendencies that would say, “Oh, we can just have a revolution, burn down the old system, and start with some sort of idealistic new system.” She walked this kind of central, very important path, that said Christians have a responsibility to order and to justice in the world in which we live.

TOOLEY: And as I mentioned, she became Catholic later in life. Many people maybe have the impression that Christian Realism is a Protestant thing, but is that really true?

PATTERSON: That’s really not true. There are some reasons that Niebuhr and others in his generation tussled back and forth between Protestants and Catholics over issues about, for instance, natural law, but when we take a step back and we think about the last two thousand years of biblical teaching — like I mentioned from Romans, Augustine, Aquinas — this larger Christian Realism, or this larger Augustinian realism, has a variety of strands. It has a Lutheran strand; it has a just war strand. And you find these teachings both within Catholic and Protestant, but also Orthodox traditions. And so today, there are individuals who I would label as Christian Realists, like George Weigel, and especially Joe Capizzi at Catholic University. They’re brilliant intellectuals. It is not something only for Protestants.

TOOLEY: And we, at least at Providence, tend to associate Christian Realism especially to issues relating to war and peace, but it has a much wider application, in terms of its resistance to any kind of utopianism. And perhaps there’s an application today with this spirit of protest abroad in America in many of our cities.

PATTERSON: Yeah, so Niebuhr, back in the twenties and the thirties actually was involved with civil rights and labor protests in the city of Detroit, where he was a pastor. And the reason was, is that he recognized that the way that political life works, often those who hold power, like Henry Ford did, won’t be persuaded towards a more just situation without a countervailing sense of power. So Niebuhr, in his writings, talks a lot about checks and balances and balance of power. He saw democracy, not as a noble ideal, but as a way to have checks and balances. He saw the United Nations, not as a noble, idealistic enterprise, but a way to have balance of power in international life. And so too, when we think about things today, Christian realism, on the one hand, says, “We need a level of political order in society. We should be pursuing justice. We recognize that there are times where power has to meet power.” Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, regularly cited Niebuhr as an influence on his thinking. The kind of popular protests, the marches, the sit-ins, et cetera, were rooted — people should read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” where King situates what he’s doing — in natural law, Christian natural law thinking. That’s Christian Realism. But that’s quite different than either a nihilistic or anarchic approach to just burning things down out of hatred, or on the other hand, a revolutionary impulse that believes it can build a new utopia. Neither of those comport with Christian realism.

TOOLEY: And then finally Eric, I think there are many Christians today who are skeptical perhaps of Christian Realism. They think it’s maybe too cynical, too worldly, not sufficiently lofty in its ambitions in terms of applying the so-called ethic of Jesus to the world today. What do you say?

PATTERSON: Well, Niebuhr said that he was a realistic optimist. Jean Bethke Elshtain said that the principle Christian value was hope. Niebuhr and others told us that what we should be doing in society is we should be motivated by neighbor love. And they’re citing Augustine. So, when you think about the cardinal Christian virtues, when you think that we’re called to faith, to hope, and to love our neighbor, and then you ask the question, “So how do I really love my neighbor in a fallen world? How do I do that in my vocation? How do I do that as a steward? What are the kinds of policies that are common good policies?” This Christian realist approach that starts with Christian values and recognizes that we live in a fallen world, but a world also full of people with the Imago Dei, that have the creative power, the creative intellect, to try to work towards the common good despite our sin, that’s the best possible and the most realistic way to make progress in the society in which we live. And people who either deny human sin, or on the other hand, justify human sin and say, “Well, we can just live that way; that’s all that we have to do.” Neither of those are really an approach that accords with the New Testament. And the Christian Realist ethic is applied New Testament ethics.

TOOLEY: Eric Patterson, scholar with Regent University and vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC, thank you so much for a wonderful overview of Christian Realism.

PATTERSON: Thanks Mark. Bye-bye.