It is not a betrayal of Christianity to deny Syrian refugees entry into the United States, and the fact that liberals are saying it is reveals a lot about their view of politics and religion. As presidential candidates debate this issue, it is important to consider the actual effects of allowing thousands of unvetted refugees into the country, rather than using faith as a trump card for open borders. Twisting Christianity is not a problem unique to the left, however, as Republicans also engage in it to support their interventionist foreign policy.
In his 2005 second inaugural address, George W. Bush declared that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.” Even Peggy Noonan, an adamant Bush supporter and champion of religious liberty in politics, found this statement morally immodest.
At least Bush revealed the roots behind his goal of “making the world safe for democracy” — his unique view of faith. “God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind…the longing of the soul,” the president said. Bush called God “the Author of Liberty.”
“Making the World Safe For Democracy”
Despite President Obama’s landslide victory running as an alternative to former President Bush, the two share a common foreign policy vision. Bush invaded Iraq, while Obama supported regime change in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Both presidents thought it was America’s job to intervene in the world, to remove dictators and promote democracy.
This foreign policy dates back to World War I. President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) got the United States into World War I and tried to set up the United Nations, in the name of promoting democracy abroad.
Wilson used the context of being at war to expand the power and influence of the federal government. He attempted to fundamentally transform the U.S. economy, taking over whole industries in his “war socialism.” But Wilson’s greatest goal was to “make the world safe for democracy.” He aimed to use the Allies’ victory in World War I to remake the global order, issuing a set of Fourteen Points which dictated futures for sovereign powers and proposed a “general association of nations” which became the blueprint for the United Nations.
Asserting American influence abroad to support “democracy” around the world was endemic throughout Wilson’s presidency. Before World War I, this president launched a series of armed interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, declaring, “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.”
Wilsonianism, as Stephen K. Bannon and Alexander Marlow explained, consists not in defeating the enemy, but in making his country a good democracy. “The mission was never just to kill the enemy; instead, it was to win the enemy over to our way of thinking.”
Theological Roots of Wilsonianism
What does this have to do with Christianity? Short answer, everything. As Richard M. Gamble explained in The American Conservative, Wilson’s interventionism flowed from his heterodox understanding of Presbyterianism.
“The pastor’s son rejected orthodox interpretations of his denomination’s historic standards but at the same time claimed to be orthodox in his faith,” Gamble explained. For Wilson, “character counted more than creed, virtue more than dogma.” This president also “broke down the distinction between the sacred and the secular.”
The early Christian author Saint Augustine separated politics and religion in his classic book The City of God. To Augustine, there were two realms — the “City of God” and the “City of Man.” While Christians were to live in the world, they should always prioritize the concerns of Heaven. The goal of the worldly city is peace, while salvation belongs to faith alone.
This idea is quite separate from the “separation of Church and State,” both as the Founding Fathers saw it and as some commentators propose it today. Augustine did not mean that the government could not give churches money, as the Founders stipulated in the First Amendment (forbidding the establishment of a national religion). He also did not mean that a person’s faith has no business in the public square.
Augustine merely argued that the goals of politics and religion are separate — voting is not about going to heaven, and praying is not about political change.
Wilson, Gamble argued, blurred those lines. “He spiritualized politics and politicized his faith, believing that America could be Christianized and the whole world reconstructed politically, militarily, and economically according to the divine plan.”
Wilsonian Christianity Today
Gamble also tied the Christian roots of Wilsonianism to current events, noting that President Obama aligned himself with Pastor Rick Warren, who declared that “the only thing big enough to solve the problems of spiritual emptiness, selfish leadership, poverty, disease, and ignorance is the network of millions of churches around the world.” While the church’s job in an Augustinian framework does include addressing spiritual emptiness, reaching out to the sick and the poor, and teaching Christian doctrine, it does not include a political program.
“Throughout American history, the purpose-driven church has worked hand in hand with the purpose-driven nation,” Gamble argued. Calls for social activism and spreading democracy around the world do not belong in the pulpit.
Nevertheless, “righteous interventionism appeals to our national vanity and piety,” Gamble acknowledged. “To some, an America without the impulse to do good seems like no America at all,” which “makes realistic foreign policy a hard sell.” Gamble noted that Wilson himself called realism “selfish.”
The people who say that Christians must accept Syrian refugees also fall into this category. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the Augustinian separation of the “City of Man” and the “City of God,” calling on GOP candidates to “please stop saying how Christian you are unless you show at least a few signs of understanding the social obligations the word imposes.” Christianity does impose social obligations for individual believers — but not for governments.
The Current Presidential Field
This rings a bell in our years of “regime change,” from Iraq to Libya, Egypt, and Syria. As Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX) noted in the most recent Republican debate, “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama led NATO in toppling the government in Libya…because they wanted to promote democracy.” In a subtle dig at his fellow presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R, FL), Cruz added that “a number of Republicans supported them.”
Dictators like Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad may be horrible rulers with jaw-dropping human rights violations, but overthrowing them hasn’t exactly brought stability to the Middle East — and Cruz added that it hasn’t exactly helped America’s interests. Indeed, the power vacuum brought on by President Bush toppling Hussein in Iraq, and then President Obama withdrawing troops in 2011, led to the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
“Instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter,” Cruz argued, “ we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries.” Notably, Cruz and multi-millionaire Donald J. Trump have adopted a “realist” foreign policy, arguing against Wilsonian interventionism and for an “America First” policy many have called “Jacksonian.”
Gamble argued that “conservatives will have to figure out how to rehabilitate the language of national interests, safety, and modesty.” Ted Cruz and Donald Trump seem to have done just that.
At the recent debate, Trump declared “we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.” Cruz agreed, saying, “We need to focus on American interests, not global aspirations.”
Perhaps in these new candidates, the Republican Party has found a way to reject the Wilsonian misunderstanding of Christianity and adopt a realistic foreign policy of promoting national interests as opposed to saving the world through political power.