Liberalism’s religion problem and the promise of Realism in a religious world
In the early twentieth century, ideological battle lines were drawn in many disciplines between those who saw human beings and society as evolving progressively and those who viewed human nature and institutions as fallen and history as generally cyclic (or better, recyclic). The former included a collection of voices including Social Gospel Christians, some of William James’s pragmatists, educationists like John Dewey, various forms of socialists and Marxists, chauvinists of Western civilization like Theodore Roosevelt, the second generation of scientists embracingDarwin, and a generation of diplomats, constitutionalists, and leaders like Woodrow Wilson. The latter-the Realistsrose to prominence as the Third Reich and Imperial Japan demonstrated political savagery and deep, human atrocity on a global scale. Much of the debate between “Liberals” or “Idealists” from the early to mid-
twentieth century hinged on human nature. Is, as Realists claimed, human nature depraved, fallen, sinful, motivated by the libido dominandi, and/or atavistically engaged in the survival of the ﬁttest? Or, as Idealists argued, are humans capable of reason, progress, development through education, cooperation, and the rational perfectibility of societal institutions? This was the “ﬁrst great debate” of international relations theory, one that had tremendous implications for both domestic and international politics from the 1930s through the 1950s, but which was ultimately eclipsed by the rise of scientism and behaviorism in the social sciences in the 1960s. (Ashworth 2002; Booth, Cox and Dunne 1999) It is inaccurate to suggest that ﬁrst great debate of international relations
theory ever really ended, at least in public discourse on human agency and morality. However, it is not the individual level, what Waltz calls the “ﬁrst level of analysis,” that is the primary concern of this chapter. Today Liberals and Realists continue to challenge one another on a host of international relations issues. Perhaps the most critical issue in international relations and the foreign policy of states today is that of religion: the potency of transnational religious movements, from the moral authority of John Paul II to the raw
destructive capacity of al-Qaeda. And when it comes to religion, Liberals have real problems. The ideational superstructure of contemporary Liberalism fails to adequately account for many of the issues that religion brings to international politics, including questions of legitimate authority, secularism, interests, ﬁrst principles, and a libertarian moral perspective. On many of these issues, contemporary academic forms of Realism also fall short, but it is the ascendancy of expressed Liberalism (liberal internationalism) in the foreign policies and theoretical commitments of Washington, DC, London, Ottawa, Turtle Bay, and elsewhere that is most short-sighted, and thus most troubling. This essay begins by considering the return of religion to the forefront of global aﬀairs, goes on to discuss the myopia of liberal analyses and responses to that resurgence, and concludes with suggestions for a research agenda rooted in Realism as better suited to the task of understanding and engaging with religious factors in contemporary international life.