Christian realism

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Christian realism is a political theology in the Christian tradition. It is built on three biblical presumptions: the sinfulness of humanity, the freedom of humanity, and the validity and seriousness of the Great Commandment.[1] The key political concepts of Christian realism are balance of power and political responsibility. This political-theological perspective is most closely associated with the work of the 20th-century American theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr.[2] 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 among people, we must be willing to compromise the ideal of Kingdom of Heaven on earth.[citation needed] Niebuhr argued that human perfectibility was an illusion,[3] highlighting the sinfulness of humanity at a time when the world was confronted by labor disputes and race riots in industrial hubs like Detroit, Michigan where he pastored, the horrors of the Second World War, the Communist and Fascist totalitarian regimes, and the Holocaust.[4] Christian realism was in part a reaction to the 20th-century Social Gospel movement. Numerous American political figures have been influenced by Christian realism, among them Barack Obama,[5] Martin Luther King Jr., and Jimmy Carter.[6]

Political influence[edit]

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 allegiance to Niebuhr's philosophy, however, some critics argued that neoconservatism neglected Niebuhr's strong commitment to social justice.[7]

Perspectives on Christian realism[edit]

Gary Dorrien wrote:

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.[8]

A New York Times opinion piece by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., written 20 years after Niebuhr's death, read:

[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.[9]

Christian realism in the 21st century[edit]

In the post-9/11 era, a number of scholars have been questioning the overly secular character of political realism, especially in the light of postmodern critique.[10] Charles Jones of the University of Cambridge has suggested that international law and normative theory presuppose Christian ethics in the international relations theory. Despite the Christian realist underpinnings of scholars, originally associated with the English school, the revival of the interest towards religion in International Relations is a relatively recent phenomenon.[11]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Tsonchev 2015, pp. 1–2.
  2. ^ Hyde-Price 2008, p. 19; Rasmussen 1988, p. 198.
  3. ^ ""The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr" | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute". 9 March 2015. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  4. ^ Woodbridge & James 2013.
  5. ^ Brooks, David. "Opinion | Obama's Christian Realism". Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  6. ^ "Scarce First Edition of Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society". Brian Parkhill Rare Books. 6 October 2013. Archived from the original on 21 October 2013. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  7. ^ Steinfels, Peter (25 May 2007). "Two Social Ethicists and the National Landscape". The New York Times. p. B6. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  8. ^ Dorrien, Gary (2009). "Society as the Subject of Redemption: The Relevance of the Social Gospel". Tikkun. Vol. 24 no. 6. ISSN 0887-9982. Archived from the original on 16 April 2013. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  9. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. (22 June 1992). "Reinhold Niebuhr's Long Shadow". The New York Times. p. A17. Retrieved 12 July 2018.
  10. ^ Joustra, Robert (13 March 2009). "Recovering Christian Realism in 'Terrifying Times'". Comment. Hamilton, Ontario: Cardus. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  11. ^ Rowe, Paul S. (2010). "Review of God and Global Order by Jonathan Chaplin". Policy in Public. Vol. 3 no. 3. Hamilton, Ontario: Cardus. pp. 67–76. Archived from the original on 23 December 2017. Retrieved 24 February 2018.


Hyde-Price, Adrian (2008). "Christian Ethics and the Dilemmas of Foreign Policy". In Blewett, Timothy; Hyde-Price, Adrian; Rees, Wyn (eds.). British Foreign Policy and the Anglican Church: Christian Engagement with the Contemporary World. Aldershot, England: Ashgate. pp. 9–27. ISBN 978-0-7546-6037-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Rasmussen, Larry (1988). "Reinhold Niebuhr: Public Theologian". CrossCurrents. 38 (2): 198–210. ISSN 0011-1953. JSTOR 24459153.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Tsonchev, Tsoncho (2015). The Christian Realist Perspective: The Political Theology of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Reinhold Niebuhr (PDF) (MA thesis). Montreal: Concordia University. Retrieved 12 July 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Woodbridge, John D.; James, Frank A., III (2013). Church History. Volume 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (published 2017). ISBN 978-0-310-51514-2.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

Lovin, Robin W. (1995). Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. New York: Cambridge University Press (published 1997). ISBN 978-0-521-47932-5.
Niebuhr, Reinhold (1953). Christian Realism and Political Problems. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Romero, Victor C. (2010) [2009]. "Christian Realism and Immigration Reform". Penn State Legal Studies Research Paper 17-2009. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1493352. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)