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Unpacking “Realism”

August 29th, 2022 | 13 min read

By Michael McKoy

There is a fascinating ambivalence regarding the term “realism.”

On the one hand, many claim to be realists since the alternative would be to be, well, unrealistic. Political realism built its modern brand during the interwar period as the sensible alternative to the naïve idealism that believed war could be outlawed, making it ill-equipped to confront the threat posed by the totalitarian Axis powers.

Following World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr helped establish “Christian realism” as an alternative to pacifist Christian idealism and to provide spiritual heft to the emergent Cold War liberalism. Such was realism’s dominance that Martin Luther King, Jr., heavily influenced by Niebuhr, denied being a “doctrinaire pacifist” and instead claimed he “embrace[d] a realistic pacifism,” which King argued was needed to prevent the danger of nuclear escalation and annihilation.[1]

Christian realism has arguably remained the dominant ideology of American Christians actively engaged in politics, but not without contestation. Providence magazine, which has become Christian realism’s most stalwart standard-bearer, is engaged in a three-front battle against a Christian idealism that views itself as above politics, a Christian cynicism that seeks withdrawal and isolation, and an amoral realism that seeks power for power’s sake.

This final point, however, demonstrates the ambivalence that lingers over realism. Even among its ostensible proponents, realism is rarely allowed to stand on its own. Self-professed realists often feel the need to attach an adjective beforehand, in order to check against realism’s more cynical connotations. The “Christian” in Christian realism is there to give realism moral foundation and direction. Jesse Covington, Bryan McGraw, and Micah Watson recently advocated for a “hopeful realism” that is “hopeful insofar as it is unequivocally moral” and “animates and directs our actions to human goods,” and “realist insofar as it recognizes the consequences of the Fall and the tensions in our moment of redemptive history.” (Full disclosure: one of the authors is my department colleague and academic dean.)

Along with being morally gray, realism can also be a slippery term. Since its alternative is being idealistic and unrealistic, anything that proves to be successful or intuitively common-sensical can potentially be deemed realist. This allows realists to always claim that they’re right, regardless of the outcome, without rigorously having to prove it.

The brief but fun book, The Godfather Doctrine by John Hulsman (who has also written about “ethical realism”) and A. Wess Mitchell, provides an illustrative example. The authors argue that the Godfather’s three sons, Tom, Sonny, and Michael respectively exemplify the foreign policy philosophies of liberalism, neoconservatism, and realism. (Once again, Fredo was stepped over.) Tom’s unsuccessful attempt to use outdated institutions to preserve the Corleone family’s power illustrates liberalism’s failings. Sonny’s reckless use of excessive violence to battle the Corleone family’s enemies illustrates neoconservatism’s failings. But Michael’s successful combination of violence and diplomacy represents realism’s superiority. And what, according to the authors, made Michael’s strategy specifically realist? That it was successful! The authors offer little argument beyond this, which well captures realists’ often post hoc self-appraisal.

(For what it’s worth, I believe Michael is a neoconservative, but a much smarter one than Sonny. Don Vito is the true realist. And as for Fredo …)

But rather than providing greater clarity, adding adjectives worsens the problem, because it further widens the parameters for identifying a policy as realist. For instance, what policy would Christian realism dictate the United States take towards the Ukrainian-Russian war? If the US was only involves diplomatically, one could argue that to be less engaged and primarily focused on one’s own security is realist, and to prioritize peaceful diplomacy over violent engagement is Christian. If the US becomes militarily involved, one could argue that to defend the innocent is Christian and using hard military power to do so is realist. As it stands, the US has provided significant military support to Ukraine while assiduously avoiding direct military conflict with Russia, which Christian realists claim is the right calibration.

Further exacerbating the problem, Christian realism contains within itself multiple adjectival realisms. Robin Levin, in his book Christian Realism and the New Realities, provides perhaps the best systematic analysis of Niebuhrian Christian realism. Lovin claims that Christian realism comprises three types of realism: theological realism, moral realism, and political realism. Lovin’s description of political realism — which is my main concern here — focuses on its strategic nature (which I discuss further below), but it does not fully delve into its core elements.

We are therefore still left to ask: what is realism, in and of itself, stripped of its adjectives? And how do these core realist precepts cohere with Christian values and virtues?

Realism to a great extent has been formed more by what it’s not rather than what it is. I therefore believe realism is best understood, not as a set of principles per se, but rather as a set of priorities between contrasting principles or beliefs. Realism provides guidance to political actors on what they should prioritize.

Self-Regard Over Altruism

First, realism prioritizes self-regard over altruism. While it is possible for individuals to prioritize others above themselves and even make substantial sacrifices for them — whether they be loved ones, strangers, or enemies —communities must be self-regarding. Countries and societies can coalesce around righteous values, such as justice and charity, but not around those that threaten communal survival and integrity. If communities acted altruistically towards those who would threaten or exploit them, they would almost immediately collapse, either through external attack or internal defections.

Prioritizing oneself allows communities to more ably and sustainably bless others. Paul Miller calls for “all countries to use the power they have to cultivate the garden of world order… I think this is a good thing for the United States to do to lead the world towards, because first of all we care about our interests. I think foreign policy ought to be self-interested. We ought to aim for our own good, that’s what government is for.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to completely square a prioritization of self over others with Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Niebuhr attempts to settle this by calling Christ’s sacrificial love “the impossible possibility,” which will only be achieved in His Kingdom to come rather than imposed today through human politics. Christian communities are free to hermetically live this way if they so choose, but they should not promote this as a political virtue or obligation. Niebuhr claims to do so would not only be wrong but heretical.[2]

It’s this condition that leads me to disqualify King as a realist, despite his protestations. King states that for both the individual and society, an altruistic, sacrificial love is necessary for a fruitful politics. Employing the Good Samaritan parable, King distinguishes between a self-regarding politics that asks, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” and an altruistic politics that asks, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”[3] Realists recognize the virtue of the latter question, but nonetheless assert that, when it comes to politics, the former question must be paramount.

Materialism Over Sentimentalism

Second, realists prioritize materialism over sentimentalism. By “sentimentalism,” I mean the belief that the expression of moral values and emotions can have a significant independent effect on political outcomes.

Realists assert that moral values are politically irrelevant without the material power to enact them and to cajole, intimidate, or defeat those who might oppose you. Mao Zedong’s famous aphorism, “Power grows out of the barrel of gun,” well captures this idea. Mao was a utopian of the worst kind, but he nonetheless recognized that his utopian vision meant very little if he did not have the material coercive means to enact it.

This applies to peaceful persuasion as well. One shouldn’t expect others to be won over strictly by the appeals of attractive values. People are won over by the tangible results of those values. To use biblical phraseology, “They will know you by your fruits.”

As noted, modern realism cut its teeth combatting the interwar idealism that believed significant political change could happen strictly through moral suasion. Niebuhr mocked Gandhian nonviolence as not only ineffective but complicit in the spread of tyranny. Rather, “[i]t is because men are sinners that justice can only be achieved by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and the resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand.”[4]

Here again King breaks with realists. (It is notable that current Christian realists rarely, if ever, interact with King, who, along with Gandhi, was arguably the most influential pacifist of the twentieth century. Instead, their preferred foils are most often John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.)

King’s ultimate aim is to break cycles of violence and establish a permanent peace. King recognizes this is not fully achievable in the eschatological sense, but even from a current-political perspective, “[v]iolence only brings temporary victories; violence, by creating more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace.”[5] Though realists may push back on whether violence creates more problems than it solves, they do recognize that violence perpetuates itself.

Central to realist thinking is the “security dilemma,” in which people must arm to protect themselves, but by arming you at least implicitly threaten others, which causes them to arm, which only increases the impulse for others to arm, and so it goes. Niebuhr, while acknowledging “the element of tragedy” in the Cold War, still asserted that the United States “must yet hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration. It may actually make the conflict more inevitable by this threat; and yet it cannot abandon the threat.”[6]

Tragedy Over Utopianism

This leads to the next priority: tragedy over utopianism. For realists, the reality of sin is the defining and insurmountable feature of human politics, and its existence means all human endeavors will ultimately be corrupted. This is perhaps the most commonly agreed-upon principle among realists, dating back to Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. They critique idealists — be they Christian, Marxist, or liberal — for promoting the falsehood that there is “some fairly simple way out of the sinfulness of human history.”[7] Niebuhr responds, “The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning,” such that “no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice.”[8]

Christian realists do, however, seek to distinguish between a tragic awareness and a pessimistic fatalism. Niebuhr calls for an “ironic” perspective, which acknowledges the likelihood that “virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue,” but argues this should engender contrition and humility rather than defeatism.[9] Covington, McGraw, and Watson argue that we should joyfully embrace that “we are not in charge [of human destiny] and do not aspire to be” but instead recognize that we are “called to engage [politically] with conviction and compassion, with a confident assurance not in our strength but in the One who calls and has promised to someday straighten the crooked and smooth out the rough paths.” Richard Jordan likewise asserts, “Christian realists have an additional advantage: we know how it all turns out. We do not need to impose our utopias, because the New Jerusalem will be better than anything we might dream.”

Yet, it is not always easy identifying the line between a moderated hopefulness and unadulterated utopianism. For instance, C.S. Lewis disparages the utopianism that believes “anything we can do will eradicate suffering.” Lewis instead advocates for “limited objectives, such as abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or [curing] tuberculosis” as opposed to “those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.”[10] If abolishing the slave trade is a “limited objective,” then one has to wonder what policies would count as utopian. In many cases, the charge of utopianism risks becoming a straw man employed for those occasions when realists need justifications for seeking less righteous aims.

Though adjectives may provide clarity regarding realism’s moral floor, they add further ambiguity regarding its moral ceiling.

Constrained Rather Than Voluntaristic

This is partially addressed by the final priority: the recognition that human agency is constrained rather than voluntaristic. Regardless of one’s own self-interest, morality, and resolve, these are insufficient to achieving one’s desired aims. Rather, a successful political actor must take into account the self-interests, values, capabilities, and resolve of others as well. Doing so allows you to evaluate whether your aim is possible, what would be necessary to accomplish that aim, and given those costs, whether the aim is worth pursuing.

Lovin particularly emphasizes this point when discussing political realism, stating, “Political realism forces you to pay attention to the whole range of interests that are actually at work in a situation, rather than simply those interests that your ideology or your moral theory tells you are important.”[11] Lovin’s statement is not fully accurate, as realism’s materialist priority dictates that others’ material capabilities should guide analysis. However, he does capture the realist contention that political actors must consider the impact of multiple self-interested actors strategically interacting with each other. This inevitably constrains the actions of all involved.

A strict voluntarism assumes that through personal effort, faith, and righteousness, any impediment can be overcome. This aligns with Biblical declarations that “all things are possible through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) and “with the faith of a mustard seed you can move mountains” (Matthew 17:20). Realists would respond that such faith must be accompanied by wisdom, humility, and prudence (which has become a particularly favorite buzzword among realists). Jesus also said that before building a tower or going to war, one must count the costs first (Luke 14:28-33). A humble faith takes seriously the agency and desires of others and the incentives and impediments created by culture, politics, technology, and other societal features.

Given that, realists believe peace and stability is best achieved through “balances” or “concerts” of competing power centers, in which self-interested competition grudgingly induces mutual cooperation. Such is the American political system of checks and balances and the American economic system that Niebuhr claims “managed to achieve a tolerable justice in the collective relations of industry by balancing power against power and equilibrating the competing social forces of society.”[12]

Realists, both conservative and progressive, also favor a foreign policy of restraint, which is cautious in promoting disruptive social changes abroad. Realists are particularly wary about foreign state-building (often wrongly called “nation-building”), believing foreigners inherently lack the knowledge, the long-term commitment, and even the moral right to build another nation’s state. Realists further warn that such efforts will likely provoke a nationalist backlash from those supposedly being helped. The long record of “catastrophic successes” in foreign state-building would seem to bear this out.

For this reason, I question the extent to which the just war tradition fits within the realist school. Just war, when launched offensively to promote “justice” abroad, assumes both the ability to purely evaluate one’s own motives and the ability to “fix” another society. These smack of utopianism and voluntarism. Miller adopts the term “Augustinian liberalism” for just war principles, which is more accurate, as it explicitly assigns moral superiority to those who ostensibly hold liberal values.[13] It is antithetical to realism, regardless of the moralistic adjective attached, to believe that any actor would have the moral wherewithal to ably reconstruct another’s society.

Taking these four priorities together — self-regard, materialism, tragedy, and constraint — we can better understand, identify, and evaluate realist practices. Or to again use biblical phraseology, we can ask, “How then shall we live?” Many realists have addressed this question, but I find King’s to be the best, even if he cannot be included in the realist camp:

“Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward nonviolently, accept disappointments, and cling to hope.”[14]


  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 161.
  2. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Church is Not Pacifist” in Christianity and Power Politics (Hamden: Archon Books, 1969), pp. 3-6.
  3. King, Strength to Love, p. 26.
  4. Niebuhr, “Why the Church is Not Pacifist,” p. 14.
  5. King, Strength to Love, p. 7.
  6. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008), p. 1, emphasis mine.
  7. Niebuhr, “Why the Church is Not Pacifist,” p. 3.
  8. Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, p. 3.
  9. Ibid., p. xxiv.
  10. C.S. Lewis, “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory (New York: Zondervan, 2001), p. 79.
  11. Robin Lovin, Christian Realism and the New Realities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 7.
  12. Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, p. 31.
  13. Paul Miller, Just War and Ordered Liberty (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
  14. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, p. 48.