The following is from the December 31, 2009, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Robin Lovin is the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics at SMU and has written a new book, Christian Realism and the New Realities.
January 11, 2010
If you think the ideas that flow out of ivory towers have little influence, this installment of Point Person will challenge that assumption. The "Christian realism" that theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr presented after World War II has come alive again in the Obama years. The president says Niebuhr's work has influenced him, a point not lost on commentators assessing his first year in office.
Robin Lovin, the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics at SMU, has written a new book on the subject, Christian Realism and the New Realities. He shared his thoughts with Points last week.
Numerous people heralded President Barack Obama's recent Nobel Prize speech as the thinking of a Christian realist. Before we get into that speech, what is a Christian realist?
That's someone who sees politics through the lens of a Christian view of history and human nature. That primarily means they understand politics as the work of fallible people who tend to overestimate their own wisdom and righteousness. For them, the most important thing in politics is to act within the limits of our knowledge and power.
OK, given that definition, does the president qualify as a Christian realist?
It appears that he does. The way he has approached domestic politics and international relations is to move by limited steps and to be willing to compromise – too willing, some say. The willingness to compromise is characteristic of the realist's approach to politics.
But spending $850 billion to $1 trillion to reform health care is not a limited step. And the compromising has been done within the Democratic Party, which is a more liberal party these days.
We see the realism in the contrast to the way President Clinton went about health care. The Clinton administration devised the ideal plan, put it before Congress and said "pass it." The Obama approach has been to say, "We've got to deal with these enormous health costs, we need to cover more people and I will begin with whatever reforms Congress is willing to put in front of me."
Does the president's foreign policy meet the broad definition of a Christian realist?
Here again, we go by what a leader does rather than what he says. But Obama's showing a willingness to engage Iran and North Korea. He seems ready to engage the world he's got, rather than the world he wants.
But, as you know, Christian realism is not just about engaging other nations. It also understands leaders must use power to achieve certain goals.
This is perhaps where we need to look at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The president begins there to articulate a philosophy that is not hesitant to use power while being cautious about its limits. The Christian realist has to be willing to use power, but a realist also is careful not to claim more power than he really has.
That's a hard balance. How do you achieve it?
It's a matter of learning from history. Certainly Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century's great figure of Christian realism, talked mostly about learning from history. We're told that Obama is an interested reader of Niebuhr's book, The Irony of American History.
You note in your new book how Christian realism informed the thinking of leaders like Niebuhr, including their balance of power emphasis that became the Cold War's guiding philosophy. If another round of Christian realism takes hold, how do you think we will look back in, say, 50 years to see how it affected our world?
The most important change in the post-Cold War era is that we no longer are concerned with only the balance of power among states. The world of international relations today is shaped by corporations, cultural movements and religions, too. The assumption that was valid in 1945 – that states control what happens on a global scale – is no longer valid.
So, 25 or 50 years from now, we will measure the success of our policies that started in this century by whether they were able to create a balance of power between these different institutional and cultural forces. And whether they sustained peace and stability as well as the balance of power between states did after World War II.
Christian realists warn against the pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations. How do Obama and his team avoid that? They seem awfully confident.
Yes. That's the great problem of leadership. It requires confidence. The role itself tempts people to overestimate their wisdom. That's why he needs prophetic voices, as well as political ones, to give him perspective on the political situation of the moment, who can help him see it in a historical context.
Who's doing that for him?
That's an important question because it seems that the president himself is the primary realist on his team.
This Q&A was conducted and condensed by Dallas Morning News editorial columnist William McKenzie. His e-mail address is