What is Christian about Christian Realism? Reinhold Niebuhr and the ethics of war
Christian Realism, as most famously associated with twentieth-century Protestant ethicist, pastor, and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, oﬀers an account of social and political life that cuts a middle path between two untenable alternatives: on one hand, amoral and a-religious forms of political Realism and, on the other, sentimental or perfectionist forms of idealism. The conceptual underpinnings of Niebuhr’s thought seek to oﬀer a more ethically robust account of political life than can be found in classical political Realism and the often reductive accounts of religion that characterize many social scientiﬁc studies of politics. For Niebuhr, the moral and religious elements of his framework-the importance of love, justice, and humility-militated against overly pessimistic and cynical forms of political Realism; at the same time, Niebuhr also clung tenaciously to a well-steeped doctrine of sin, which warded against the overly optimistic tendencies of religious moralists and secular idealists. (Niebuhr 1953: 119-20) While it was usually idealists who were being accused of being “unrealistic,” Niebuhr believed that the refusal to integrate ethical values and religious considerations into political reasoning similarly failed to recognize the realities of a given state of aﬀairs. On matters of war and peace especially, the two dominant approaches too
sharply sever ethical from political reﬂection. Political Realism views the use of force as an instrument of state power, an inevitability that states undertake in pursuit of their interests. Clausewitz’s famous refrain that war is but the extension of politics by other means is exemplary of such a view. Realists, Machiavelli tells us, understand how polities really behave-not by adhering to moral standards but by resorting to violence, as dictated by “necessity,” to preserve their power and pursue their interests. Moral judgments, when considered at all, simply reinforce a state’s political goals and become a form of window dressing. In contrast, idealists (or moralists as I prefer) set ethical norms and good intentions over and against political interests or other factors that Realists accept as perduring rules or limitations of politics. Moralists invoke authentic ethical commitments, idioms, and vocabularies, often articulated through frameworks rooted in moral and religious traditions. Moralism issues a statement about the way things ought to be, political constraints notwithstanding. Resisting the Realist tendency to
manipulate moral impulses or sweep politics clean of ethical ideas, moralists call upon polities to hew strenuously to moral standards. What distinguishes moralism from other forms of ethico-political thinking is an uncompromising spirit of perfectionism, which often elicits the telltale sign of irony. In its resistance to Realist statecraft-its unwillingness to be morally compromisedmoralism invites a form of political irresponsibility that undermines its sincere and otherwise exemplary moral commitments. The moralist’s virtue, ironically, becomes a vice. One listening to a moralist in one ear and a classical Realist in the other
would ﬁnd their views of war irreconcilable. Indeed, part of a common dialectic, Realists and moralists each invoke the other to clarify and defend their positions. There is much provisional truth in the apparent contradiction that both camps presume exists between politics and morality in times of war. Yet neither moralism nor Realism fathoms or adequately explains war’s underlying moral-political connections as Christian Realism seeks to do. Christian Realism proposes a more capacious account of ethics, statecraft and war-a conceptual framework that is, simultaneously, morally and politically realistic about the use of force as an instrument of justice. Political Realists ignore the ethical realties and possibilities of force much as moralists ignore certain political realities and limitations of war. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism corrects both kinds of errors. Niebuhr’s prominence during his lifetime, followed more recently by the
scholarly and popular resurgence of interest in him by ﬁgures that include Barack Obama, point to the theologian’s successful ability to inform secular as well as religious discourses. (Brooks 2007; Elie 2007; Lovin 2008) For these same reasons, though, Niebuhr’s strongest critics are often fellow Christians who charge that his religio-ethical framework too comfortably accommodated political structures, justiﬁed American power and policies, and reinforced liberal and democratic values at the expense of authentic Christian belief, commitment, and community.1 In short, they say, Niebuhr’s Christian Realism is not nearly Christian enough: it is more Realism (in the disparaging sense of the term) than Christian. This essay counters that charge and argues that Niebuhrian Realism oﬀers
a compelling, practicable, and realistic account of the moral complexities of politics and war. Such a view avoids the reductive propensities of classical Realism and the naïve tendencies of moralism. A focused discussion of the US Civil War-as a window onto a Christian Realist approach to war more generally-oﬀers an illuminating contrast to cynical and idealist interpretations of America’s wars. Having considered the possibilities of Christian Realism as a morally viable ethic, I shift to a discussion of its Christian (speciﬁcally, Augustinian) foundations. Niebuhr’s presuppositions about human nature, religious experience, and the conscience show that his theological inﬂuences extend signiﬁcantly beyond his famous preoccupation with sin. Thus by defending Niebuhr against the charges of Christian moralists, one sees how deeply Niebuhr’s theological framework informs his social and political ethics, thereby oﬀering
a richer conception and interpretation of religion than can be found in political Realism or much contemporary political thought. The value of Christian Realism goes beyond Niebuhr’s insightful discussion of past wars to provide an inchoate ethic of war and peace. Reconstructed for our times, it applies to uses of force Niebuhr could not have conceived.