Prophets and Politics

by Kenneth W. Thompson

Kenneth W. Thompson was in 1957 Assistant Director for the Social Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. Dr. Thompson who gave the 1957 Riverside Lectures at Riverside Church in New York City, under the title, “Philosophy and Practice in American Foreign Policy: A Protestant Realist Critique,” has written a number of articles for such journals as World Politics and Political Science Quarterly. A former Northwestern University professor, he grapples unceasingly with such problems as those raised in “Prophets and Politics”.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis May 1995. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis. Used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


Walter Lippmann in The Public Philosophy grapples with an issue that has long concerned Reinhold Niebuhr in lectures and writings, namely, the problem of a relevant political ethic. There are, Mr. Lippmann argues, two realms that earlier and wiser philosophers and theologians described as the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. The one is the realm of the spirit; the other is a realm of immediate, particular, and ambiguous events.

Walter Lippmann in The Public Philosophy grapples with an issue that has long concerned Reinhold Niebuhr in lectures and writings, namely, the problem of a relevant political ethic. There are, Mr. Lippmann argues, two realms that earlier and wiser philosophers and theologians described as the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. The one is the realm of the spirit; the other is a realm of immediate, particular, and ambiguous events. He doubts that the wisdom of one can serve the other, for there is a hiatus between religious and philosophic truths and the actual perplexities with which man must deal. In a day when religious prophets and secular high priests often proclaim that political problems would quickly be swept aside if leaders trusted more to their common humanity, Mr. Lippmann shockingly asserts that modern-day seers and saints have remarkably little to offer by way of practical advice and specific guidance. For those who look to eternal verities for directly applicable political solutions, he observes: "The deposit of wisdom in the Bible and in the classic books does not contain a systematic and comprehensive statement of moral principles from which it is possible to deduce with clarity and certainty specific answers to concrete questions." In consequence, men look to religion in vain for tidy, comprehensive, or deducible answers to specific current problems.

This view is patently a heresy if we hold it up to recent official pronouncements of Catholic and Protestant leaders. One highly placed churchman writes that the Evanston Report on International Affairs which "asserts the Christian imperatives of action for peace" certainly "provides relevant guidance for….the years immediately ahead." Another far bolder declaration of November 20, 1954, by the Administrative Board of the Catholic Welfare Conference implies that the godly righteous who have renounced atheistic materialism will be able "to withstand the enemy from without." The Catholic hierarchy concludes that the godly righteous in the name of the Cross can triumph over the new paganism of godless sinners expressed in secularism in politics and avarice in business and the professions. A third and more recent Protestant pronouncement is found in this statement: "As for the relation of church agencies to the program of technical co-operation it will suffice to say that in so far as this program is essentially humanitarian in character, Christian missionaries and the personnel of church-related institutions are prepared and eager to co-operate with this program, on a consultative and voluntary basis."2 The balance of the text invites us to infer that unless the church can impose its own humanitarian terms on the enterprise of states, it will eschew co-operation.

If Mr. Lippmann's views are alien to present-day religious thought, it must be said that the distillate of these three pronouncements taken together comprises a political ethic that bears almost no relationship to the thought of devout and learned minds through the ages. At the same time it spurns the honest secular wisdom compressed in Mr. Lippmann's little book; it has no more in common with Augustine than with Niebuhr. It seems bereft of the deepest Reformation insight placing us all, whether sinners or saints, under the same condemnation in the city of this world where "there is a law in their members which wars against the law that is in their minds." For moderns, the prevailing and official approach to the relation of church and state, whether Catholic or Protestant, is more buoyantly optimistic about the translation of objective religious truths into concrete political policies than about the theory of the two realms. The historic view insists that although no definitive demarcation line can be drawn between the two orbits, the texture of one is existence and of the other, spirit. The relation between the imperatives of religion and politics is a never-ending problem for inquiry in each contingent circumstance. Religion is at one and the same time irrelevant as a sure guide to the perplexities of practice and eternally relevant as ultimate transcendent principle. The assumptions and consequences of the historic and modern approaches are in this sense fundamentally at odds with one another. In no sphere is the choice of one or the other conception of political ethics more fraught with consequences than in international relations, for the answer to the query whether ethics have any bearing at all upon international politics rests with the formulation of a more relevant concept of ethics. When a particular version of international morality is found wanting in practice, publicists, philosophers, and politicians conclude that morality has nothing to do with politics. This happens to be a rough and approximate account for international politics of the temper of our present era. Wilsonian morality which equated peace and a good international society with democracy and national self-determination was rather too simple to meet the harsh necessities, for example, of a viable economy in Central Europe. Even great men or perhaps especially great men -- join, without knowing it, the procession Burckhardt called "the terrible simplifiers." If there is an absolute in the realm of political ethics, it is that no single proximate moral standard, whether self-determination or the United Nations, can be held up as an absolute.

This is at the root of our modern predicament as a current example will illustrate. The halls of Congress are perhaps not the most likely schoolroom for an examination of political ethics, and yet the pathos of our quest for a relevant political ethic was caught with clarity and perception by a staff member of the New York Herald Tribune who on February 22, 1955, reported on the statements of Mr. George V. Allen, former Ambassador to India and at this writing Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, and of Mr. Van Kirk to the Sub. committee on Technical Assistance of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The former ambassador cast his argument for technical assistance to countries like India in essentially political terms.

It was in our interest to prevent India from turning for aid and comfort to the Communists. If we would avoid the stigma of hypocrisy, we should not conceal the fact that the imperatives of our national existence command us to lend what assistance we can to this pivotal Asian member of the British Commonwealth. If we are less forthright, we shall only invite the resentment, disdain, and rebuke of the Indians, who will point to the dross of self. interest that joins inextricably with the gold of moral purpose in every foreign policy. The best we can do, Mr. Allen advises, is to identify and consolidate our interests with those of India. Indeed, the highest ethical standard for nations may be the mutuality of their national interests and purposes. India, with a subcontinent to exploit and develop, shares with us the need of an era of economic growth, international peace, and security. Thus it must be said that the relevant political ethic for the diplomatist requires, to begin with, an awareness that the texture of interstate relations is comprised of multiple national interests, with their military, political, economic, and moral components, which clash in conflict or are resolved in consensus and agreement. In politics, interest or power and morality can rarely be conceived of in isolation; and ethical judgments must be made not in the abstract but in relation to the contingent realities of the particular situation. Moral principles in their pure form seldom intrude on the political but are modified in the light of the facts of interest and power.

Dr. Van Kirk, on the other hand, prefers to believe that good policies can be free of any such ambiguity and uncertainty. The issue of right and wrong is unequivocal and unmistakable. If government policies result in programs that "are essentially humanitarian in character," the churches will give their support. "It is important….that programs of technical co-operation be kept wholly independent of considerations of military or defense strategy." He contends that "the U. S. Technical Co-operation Program is sufficiently important and effective to stand on its merits and is therefore fully justified without reference to military or defense support objectives." In these terms the art of governing is the quest for broad humanitarian objectives, not the search for practical national objectives that serve both the state and its friends.

The crux of the problem confronting us emerges in the juxtaposition of these two points of view. On the one hand, the diplomat who proceeds within the narrow limits of the national interest is unlikely to conceive of principles or programs divorced from the necessities of the state. On the other hand, the churchman transcends the turmoil of politics as such. The statesman's first duty is to the people, or "generations living and dead," whose safety and welfare he is pledged to protect and defend. If acts of generosity and magnanimity endanger national security, he cannot but turn his back. In the same spirit he looks to responsible leaders of other states as, first and foremost, their peoples' guardians. Recognizing the paramountcy of the national interest for those he represents abroad, he can hardly be surprised to find others subject to the same standards and considerations. With moderation and wisdom he may be enabled to discover the points at which his national interest and theirs come together, not primarily in abstract pronouncements but in the daily search for consensus on specific issues and policies. Technical assistance, no less than military assistance, must be viewed in this context; and it will not do to say that what is done in one sphere has no bearing or dependence upon what is done in the other. Both are grounded in the mutual self-interest of the participating powers and the convergence of their needs and interests at the nodal points where policies are worked out. For, as the West's experience in Asia attests, there must first be created a viable economic base before programs 0f military assistance can be expected to succeed. Likewise, economic reform in the absence of military security can only tempt the lurking aggressor. It is significant that India, which more than any Asian country has emphasized the primacy of economic over military aid, was among the first, through its ambassador, to commend American policy makers for the firm stand taken in 1950 in Korea. This, the Indians were convinced, was an earnest of our decision not to scuttle Asia; it was the indispensable prerequisite for programs of social and economic reform on which, with our help, others hoped to embark.

It can, of course, be argued that local and particular interests are absorbed and disappear within the programs of the United Nations. This, in fact, is the prevailing view of moderns who insist that foreign policies must be humanitarian in character. In all this we are reminded of research trends in the 1930's in international studies when American scholars preferred to view every international movement as good, and all national efforts as bad. Where the League of Nations and National Socialism were concerned, this distinction was in general quite plausible. If the examples had been the Communist International and the legitimate aspirations for national security of, say, England or the United States, the dichotomy between good internationalism and bad nationalism would have been seen to be fallacious. Indeed, scholars since the war have conceived of international institutions essentially in terms of international politics, which is to say, they have studied the United Nations in terms of the respective claims for national security by the member states. International organizations provide the framework within which nations strive to harmonize their independent purposes, and United Nations policies are essentially the resultant of the policies of its members.

The same prophets who urge that defense and security objectives must be wholly disassociated from technical assistance are, however, inclined to conceive of the United Nations as dens ex machina. They seem to believe that if states in their practice are often self-consciously defensive and militaristic, the new international machinery will rid them of this archaism of an earlier, more evil age. Moreover, since the good life is associated with broad humanitarian objectives contrasted with narrow nationalistic aims, a program by the United Nations is by definition superior to one carried forward on unilateral or regional terms. It so happens in Asia and Africa where the memory of Western imperialism is strong, that a multilateral U.N. program of technical assistance based on genuine international consensus and executed by multiracial personnel is more likely to be well received. Yet the risk of too absolute a commitment in politics is illustrated on precisely this point Recognized authorities tell us that in some parts of the world, for example, at some places in Latin America, U.S. personnel have been more acceptable and effective than U.N. personnel, and in Asia the prestige of the Colombo Plan has often been very great. Moreover, it is sometimes argued that the number of autonomous agencies, whether national or international, in the technical assistance field together often fail to do justice to the magnitude of their task.

Mr. Lippmann is therefore right in at least three respects when he questions the relevance of religion for politics. First, the religious point of view which provides so-called humanitarian goals for the statesman as a direct and immediate substitute for selfish national purposes "misconceives the nature of international relations." It assumes that states, even more than individuals, are capable of pure altruism, whereas precisely the opposite is the case. Second, it falsely presumes that the components of foreign policy are easily separable and that what we do in the economic sphere need have nothing to do with our military aims. Since the various facets of our policy -- economic, psychological, military and political -- are all grounded in the same objective considerations of national interest and seldom susceptible for long to the whimsy or good will of a President or Secretary of State, this distinction is likewise defective. Third, and most basic, religion is so consistently irrelevant to politics because the problem of the translation of ideas from one modality to another is often obscured. Religion, like philosophy, assumes that objective and ultimate truths, as such, are absolute in character. Yet absolute truth in politics is singularly inappropriate. Moreover, religious observers and publicists create for themselves pseudoreligious absolutes out of political machinery and programs that are more wisely and effectively viewed in pragmatic terms by the diplomatist.

Religion, in short, is resistant to successful foreign policy when the city of man is equated with the city o God. More properly conceived, it offers resources for understanding the nature of man and politics. Christian realism, by illuminating the misery and grandeur of man, can be a textbook for the diplomatist. It can rid men of their illusions while preparing them for their "finest hours." But more important for our purposes, Christian realism provides proximate moral standards that are neither as lofty as "the law of love" nor as bitterly tragic as the struggle for power. I take it that Christian realism accepts the fact and reality of the two realms but dedicates itself untiringly to an inquiry into political behavior at the boundary line separating the two. If there is an answer to Mr. Lippmann -- and to some extent he corroborates this himself -- it lies not in official religious pronouncement but in the philosophy that informs Christianity and Crisis. Incidentally, the quality of mind and character of this journal's senior editor, Reinhold Niebuhr, that makes the deepest imprint on younger followers is the contempt he shares with John Milton for "a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."


1. Christianity and Crisis, Vol. XIV, No. 22, p. 176.

2. Statement by Mr. Walter W. Van Kirk, Executive Director of the Department of International Affairs of the National Council of Churches, to the Subcommittee on Technical Assistance Programs of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, February 21, 1955.