Q&A with Peter Feaver, professor and public intellectual

Being an evangelical in my environment has made me bilingual in a way that my friends who are more squarely in the center of different tribal identities cannot be. Unlike many of my evangelical or my policy friends, I can "speak" academese. Unlike many of my academic or my policy friends, I can speak evangelicalese.

March 6 th 2009

Comment: In an interview with John Seel for Comment, Timothy Shah mentions you as a significant evangelical public intellectual. What do you understand to be the particular task of the public intellectual (in particular insofar as it is distinguishable from the tasks of the scholar and the journalist)?

Peter Feaver: I hadn't thought of myself as a public intellectual until Tim Shah "outed" me as one, but I guess it is a fair label. I am definitely in the education business. I am, obviously, a teacher at Duke, and so I earn my daily bread by teaching undergraduates and graduate students how to think critically and creatively about the world and America's role in it. And I earn my daily garnishes by offering my thoughts on these and other topics to a wider audience through scholarly and not-so-scholarly writing and speaking. Even my last stint in government was in something of an educator's role; I was an "advisor" rather than a "decider," and so my job was to weigh evidence and make observations and let my superiors bear the terrible responsibility of actually being responsible—and that is a pretty good description of a professor's role.

A scholar is expanding the frontiers of knowledge. A journalist reports on what other people are doing. The metaphysical questions about those professions, I suppose, are these: If a scholar discovers something and doesn't tell anyone about it, has the frontier of knowledge really expanded? And if someone hasn't done it but a journalist reports it anyway, does that mean it really happened? Alas, there are probably too many cases of scholarship that speak only to the narrowest of audiences and so do not add much to human knowledge, and too many cases of reporters writing what they believe rather than what they know and so contributing to public confusion.

A public intellectual is something of a go-between, a translator between two worlds—the academic, and the non-academic—that often do not converse. So a public intellectual is Janus-faced: in regular dialogue in one direction with the "knowledge producing" world and in another direction with the rest of the world.

This is all a very pompous way of saying that I read a lot and write a lot and talk a lot.

Comment: In your experience, what difference does it make for a public intellectual to be an evangelical?

PF: I think being an evangelical has had at least four effects—I won't say differences because, I suppose, someone could have any or all of these without a saving faith in Jesus Christ. First, it has made me acutely aware of and empathetic with my own human frailty, and that of others. I don't think evangelicals should be surprised by sin, by missing the mark, by either the pride or the fall before which it goeth.

Second, I hope it has made me less judgmental and more committed to the complexity of truth. My field—foreign policy—is dominated by caricatures and false moral equivalencies and mythologies, and I find it hard to sustain them while also trying to be a faithful follower of Christ. Part of this may be due to having experience both inside and outside of government, but I also think it has been shaped by my personal experience with grace.

Third, it has meant that I am fully at home being not at home; I am comfortable as a fish out of water. A Christian should love and enjoy this world more deeply than others, and yet should also look beyond it to a more perfect world that is both already formed and not yet formed. Throughout my career I have found myself in this same sort of ambivalent position: a moderately conservative thinker in an immoderately liberal profession, a Christian in the academy, an academic in the endemically political world of Washington policy making, and so on.

And fourth, for these reasons, being an evangelical in my environment has made me bilingual in a way that my friends who are more squarely in the center of different tribal identities cannot be. Unlike many of my evangelical or my policy friends, I can "speak" academese. Unlike many of my academic or my policy friends, I can speak evangelicalese.

Comment: Perhaps your most noticeable gigs as a pundit, at the moment, are as part of the Shadow Government blogging team for Foreign Policy magazine and as one of the moderators of the Washington Post discussion board Planet War. So far, what have you found to be the most positive and negative elements of working in these kinds of online media?

PF: My brief and tentative forays into the blogging world have been fun (so far). In one sense, blogging is just making public the private commentary that I inflict upon friends, students, and loved ones. I have to be more careful online, because a careless error lives longer and thus punishes me more thoroughly when it is published on a blog rather than mentioned at the water cooler. And I have to put more effort into being original. As a wag once put it, I have to strike the sweet spot of true and new, because the world of punditry is filled with stuff that is true but not new, and new but not true. So blogging helps squeeze extra value out of the work I already have to do, and, along the way, it sharpens my own thinking. On the other hand, the Internet attracts the most extreme opinions and those who hold these opinions tend to respond the most vigorously to what I write. I have received more than my fair share of hate commentary and it is unpleasant, even when it is easily dismissed as pure spite without any insight or grounding in truth.

Comment: You are co-author, with Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler, of the forthcoming Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts (Princeton, 2009), and much of your work as a scholar and public intellectual has been concerned with the problems of war. What introductory reading would you recommend to Christians who want to think seriously about war, but have never done so before?

PF: I assume you mean, "besides buying the Feaver oeuvre available on remainder shelves everywhere." Actually, if someone actually bought and read one of my books, they would both join a very exclusive club and see that I have not written in a self-consciously Christian or evangelical voice. I believe what I have written is true, and thus passes the Philippians 4:8 test. But it is not sectarian in the noblest sense of that term.

For work that fits more what you are talking about, I still consider Michael Walzer's book, Just and Unjust Wars, to be one of the more thought-provoking books about war. Walzer writes in such an engaging way that can appeal to laymen and experts alike. He is not a Christian, but he is writing within the just war tradition, which has been heavily influenced by Christian thought. For a somewhat more self-consciously Christian treatment of this issue, there is always James Turner Johnson's excellent Morality and Contemporary Warfare or Jean Elshtain's Just War Against Terror. And, of course, Reinhold Niebuhr has been very influential in shaping the way the church in America has understood these issues. A good compendium is his Moral Man and Immoral Society. Most faithful Christians who have thought about these issues deeply through the ages have come down somewhere within the just war tradition when it comes to issues of war and peace. However, there is also a very important Christian pacifist tradition, and I would hope that every thoughtful Christian has at least wrestled with that perspective and not carelessly settled for just war, or, as some of my pacifist friends might say, settled just for war. A good introduction to this alternative Christian perspective might be John Yoder's The Politics of Jesus.


Peter Feaver (BA Lehigh 1983; PhD Harvard 1990) is the Alexander F. Hehmeyer Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University. His scholarly work is in the areas of American national security policy, civil-military relations, public opinion, and nuclear weapons; his most recent academic book is Paying the Human Costs of War (Princeton Press 2009, co-authored with Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler). He is also co-author (with Susan Wasiolek and Anne Crossman) of Getting the Best Out of College (Ten Speed, 2008), a how-to guide aimed at incoming undergraduates. He blogs at Planet War on washingtonpost.com and Shadow Government on foreignpolicy.com. He served in the Clinton White House in 1993-94 and the Bush White House in 2005-2007. He is an avid, aging, but utterly ungifted basketball player. He is married to Karen, and they are proud parents of three children.