Christian Realism is a philosophical perspective developed by the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Niebuhr argued that the Kingdom of God cannot be realized on earth because of the innately corrupt tendencies of society. Due to the injustices that arise on earth, a person is therefore forced to compromise the ideal of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Niebuhr argued that human perfectibility was an illusion, highlighting the sinfulness of humanity at a time when the world was confronted by the horrors of experiences such World War II, the reigns of both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and the Holocaust. The movement was in part a reaction to the Social Gospel movement. Numerous political figures have been influenced by Christian realism, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, Madeleine Albright, and John McCain.
Christian Realism exerted a strong influence on American foreign and domestic policy in the Cold War era. Many members of the neoconservative movement have claimed to inherit Niebuhr's philosophy, however others argue that neoconservatism neglects Niebuhr's commitment to social justice.
Perspectives on Christian Realism
"Christian realism inspired no hymns and built no lasting institutions. It was not even a movement, but rather, a reaction to the Social Gospel centered on one person, Reinhold Niebuhr. The Social Gospel, by contrast, was a half-century movement and an enduring perspective that paved the way for modern ecumenism, social Christianity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the field of social ethics."
"(Niebuhr's) emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue... Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power."
"Q. What insights of Niebuhr’s are most pertinent for the nation’s public life today?
A. His sense that elements of self-interest and pride lurk even in the best of human actions. His recognition that a special synergy of selfishness operates in collectivities like nations. His critique of Americans’ belief in their country’s innocence and exceptionalism — the idea that we are a redeemer nation going abroad never to conquer, only to liberate."
Christian Realism in the 21st century
In the post-9/11 era, a number of scholars have been questioning the secular underpinnings of political realism, especially in the face of post-modern critique. Charles Jones of the University of Cambridge has suggested that International Law and normative theory presuppose Christian ethics despite the edifice of secularism that pervades International Relations Theory. Despite the Christian Realist underpinnings of scholars originally associated with the English School, the revival of an interest in the place of religion in International Relations is relatively recent.
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