WASHINGTON, D.C. — Christianity entails a concern for global peace and justice which means the United States has a duty to intervene in the world, according to Christian foreign policy experts who presented “A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy” in the nation’s capital on Tuesday. Three experts behind the document, compiled by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and published in the journal Providence, argued that America should tend the “garden of world order.”
“We understand it to be an imperative for the United States, I would actually say for all countries, to use the power that they have to cultivate the garden of world order,” declared Paul D. Miller, a former White House staffer for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama who serves as associate director at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.
Miller pointed to Genesis 2:15, where God places Adam in the Garden of Eden to take care of it. The declaration explains, “Cultivating the garden of world order means tending to the tasks that uphold public safety, execute justice, and promote human flourishing. This is a mandate shared by all peoples, but those of us who live in a powerful country [like the United States] have special stewardship responsibilities.”
Miller argued that the document is not “theocratic,” but rather articulates the Christian position on international justice. “Our understanding of justice is drawn from a common faith which most Americans share, but we don’t think that justice is the exclusive possession of our faith,” he explained. The document leaves the term “justice” vague, so as to bring Christians together.
The UT professor argued that America’s tendency to withdraw from global affairs is a rejection of the country’s moral duty to the world and has negative consequences.
When asked for his specific advice to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Miller said, “President Obama has over-learned the lessons of the recent past,” namely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While America made mistakes in those countries, “using past failure to lower our moral goals in the future is the exact wrong response.”
John Owen, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, compared the world’s perilous situation today to the turbulence of the 1930s. “This is a story of abdication by Western democracies,” he argued. While the United States remained involved in Latin America and the Caribbean, the nation withdrew from the affairs of Europe and passed the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff. This deepened the Great Depression, which contributed to “the rise of fascism in Europe and to militarism in Japan.”
In the 1930s, the global order became “not a garden, but a jungle,” due to American withdrawal, and the world of today faces the same kind of threat should the United States retreat.
Next Page: Why today’s America is tempted to make the same mistakes as it did in the 1930s.
“The analogy of the 1930s also came to me,” admitted Mary Habeck, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. She argued that the United States looked then like it does today: “It was economically wounded, disillusioned by engagement with the world. It had gone out there and attempted to bring democracy to Europe and in fact it had led to failure, and to pretty much a worse world than when the United States had started. There was a tendency on the part of many Americans to simply withdraw.”
But if the United States were to withdraw, Habeck argued, it would lead to more disorder and violence. If America “sits back,” the United Nations won’t fill the void, but other powers will achieve their interests and “not things that we see as right and just.”
Habeck admitted that “there are rarely perfect choices” in foreign policy, but America has a moral obligation to make “the least bad choice.”
Indeed, the declaration stressed that “government can err by oppressing others; but it can also err by failing to uphold order or pursue justice. Policymakers must avoid both the sins of omission [not acting] and commission [actively doing harm].”
All the panelists agreed that applying the principles of this declaration is a matter of prudence. The document only aims to achieve a basic consensus for Christians in foreign policy, to bridge vast divides between elite opinion.
Paul Miller, the UT professor, pointed to his newly released book, American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy, for more specific ideas and guidelines. “I don’t have a bumper-sticker for you,” but rather a suggestion for reforming how American leaders make foreign policy decisions.
Next Page: How does an interventionist foreign policy square with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek?
One of the key objections to the declaration and to the scholars who presented it came from Christian pacifism. A questioner argued that the words of Jesus are “more commensurate with pacifism,” and noted that some Christian denominations teach that “just war theory is a heresy from the pit of hell.”
In response, Marc LiVecche, an editor of Providence and scholar at the IRD, quipped, “maybe not quite from the pit of hell, maybe from Hippo,” the North African city where Saint Augustine served as bishop. LiVecche argued against this kind of Christian pacifism, noting that a full investigation of the person of Jesus in the Gospels does not fit this narrative.
“We think of love as just desiring someone’s happiness … not flourishing but some kind of gassy pleasure.” But this is not God’s idea of love, LiVecche explained. He argued that the history of the two World Wars “shows that things tend not to flourish on their own because of the [sinful] condition of the human heart.”
Quoting Matthew, Jeremiah, 1 Peter, and Romans, the declaration argued that “government is a divine ordinance, created by God to be a blessing to all people, a check against the worst abuses of human sin and evil.” In this context, LiVecche argued that the just war tradition teaches “one can in fact love their enemies to death,” because using force to remove a tyrant actually does good even for the tyrant — it is “good for the person who is prevented from doing that act of evil,” since it saves his soul from further sin.
Speaking about people who are pacifists in their gut, Miller quipped, “when you bring up the Nazis they are no longer pacifists.” Habeck, the Johns Hopkins professor, noted that the Islamic State (or ISIS) is “literally enslaving people and carrying out genocide.”
LiVecche acknowledged that “both the Old and New Testaments are vastly different from today’s world,” and pointed to the long Christian tradition, specifically including Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others. If Christians ignore this tradition and focus only on the text of scripture, he warned, they will either end up completely withdrawing from politics or non-critially adopting “what the nation is doing at the time.”
“I think the church needs to stand in judgment over the nations, including our own nation,” he concluded.