chapter  10
12 Pages

One cheer for classical realism, or toward a power politics of religion


Both religion and classical realism are enjoying renewed attention in international relations scholarship, so bringing them together seems a natural progression. As most of the other chapters in this volume make clear, many of the seminal figures associated with “classical realism” took the subject of religion seriously. For some, realism amounted to a secularized variant of particular theological claims. For others, religion was simply a major part of political life and hence something that any observers of power politics ignored at their peril. Does this mean, then, that their writings provide a means of bringing religion back into realism? We caution against enthusiastic answers in the affirmative. We argue

that uncovering the religious roots of specific variants of realism does little to help us situate religion as an analytic component of realist theory. Similarly, finding “room” for religious forces within either classical or, as some have recently argued, neoclassical realism does the study neither of religion nor of power politics a great service.1 Religion is implicated in, constitutive of, and influenced by power-political dynamics in myriad ways. Classical realism, along with other flavors of realism, handles religion better than specific contemporary variants precisely because-if you will excuse the turn of phrase-it is more catholic in its understanding of the sources and dynamics of power politics. But that flexibility should not be mistaken for providing a superior alternative for contemporary theorizing of religion and politics. Instead, we ought to treat “realism” less as a theoretical tradition and more as a wager about the inevitability of power politics. (See Jackson and Nexon 2009) Doing so shifts our attention to specifying underlying mechanisms of power-political dynamics, which will sometimes include religious dimensions. We begin by discussing the relationship between realism and religion,

and caution against the utility of classical realism in studying religion and international relations. We then present an alternative approach that draws on the analytical wager of classical realism, that power pervades all politics. Finally, we close with a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of a return to classical realism.