William Inboden’s long-form essay of August 1, 2016, in War on the Rocks, “Dark Days: Trump, Christianity, and a Low Dishonest Decade,” has garnered a great deal of attention, but has not, as far as I can tell, been answered in print. I do so here by taking quite seriously his claim (a correct one, I believe) that the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr needs to be brought to bear on our current predicament.

There is a serious issue that Inboden raises, namely, how should we “situate Trump and his peculiar convictions in the context of history.” We are in sore need of such an accounting, not simply to understand Trump, but to assess the historical prejudices of the post-1989 world, which have informed both neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinkers and policy makers. Donald Trump opposes both.[1] Inboden counsels us that we need a bigger framework than the-politics-of-the-moment to understand him.

That framework is the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, the last great 20th century Protestant thinker with a comprehensive grasp of both theology and global affairs. How do Trump’s ideas contrast? Trump, Inboden claims, is akin to the Isolationists of Niebuhr’s day, who acknowledged the evils of the world but insisted that they were not America’s problem. In addition, Inboden claims, Trump is a Protectionist, who misunderstands that nations are indeed part of a larger global order, from which they benefit. Following Niebuhr, again, states cannot go it alone.

To leave it at that, however, is to miss the deeper question of the day, which Niebuhr is indeed helpful in clarifying: is this a world of nations, or is that mode of understanding outdated and obsolete? Niebuhr fought with those who thought that the world could be understood only in terms of nations. But Niebuhr vehemently denied what Neo-Liberals and Neo-Conservatives today take for granted—that a “Liberal Order” will ever prevail. Said otherwise, Niebuhr opposed the idea of a world “System.” Only God can bring about global unity. Each time man attempts to do this, he does so in his own, prideful, image. Yes, Niebuhr wrote against Isolationism in the 1930s. Evil has to be opposed, with force. But recall Niebuhr’s warnings at the end of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, written in 1944. There, he sees with steely-eyed precision the temptation of the post-war world, namely, to believe that man can make a successful global order in which peace reigns. Niebuhr can take both of these positions because of his understanding of original sin: man must oppose evil with force and man must constantly check his own pretensions to build a comprehensible and manageable whole—say, a liberal global order.

On Niebuhr’s reading, then, states cannot remain completely unto themselves and states cannot be tempted to believe that their understandings of order can be successfully extended to the world as a whole. We live in a world of nations—along with the hope that such a (limited) world will not be the final word. This understanding means that if we think of the world only as nations, Isolationism and Protectionism are, indeed, harmful arrangements; but that if we think of the world as a comprehensive Liberal global order, we have misunderstood what is possible, and must turn back towards the state, to rebalance our understanding.

From the vantage point of those who misunderstand what is possible in the way of a global order, the proper understanding of the place of the state in the world order looks like Isolationism and Protectionism.

Consider, in this light, Trump’s phrase: “America first.” From the purportedly global vantage point, this looks small-minded, or worse. Niebuhr, however, thought that nations will always put themselves first, and that the best we can do is build rough and tentative alliances through and with them. Man lives in nations, is called by God to aspire for more, and because of man’s pride, will never be able to fully construct the world God calls him to construct. Hence, the Christian category of “hope.” Man lives in hope, attentive to his brokenness. Politically, man lives in nations—and yet hopes for more. That is why there can never be anything other than a tenuous international “system.” There will never be a liberal global order. We must set our sights lower, even as we are called, by God, to hope for something higher.

Does Trump have “distain for American Alliances”? No, just ones where the counter-parties don’t pay what their treaty obligations stipulate. “Disparagement for American military interventions”? No, just ones done in the name of a theory of history according to which democratic governance is the end-state of world affairs.[2]

How about NATO, and the protection of the Baltic States? These are delicate matters, and I will not pretend to get inside Trump’s mind. That said, let us ask the question, first to our European allies, and then to ourselves: if Russia pressed westward, at what point, really, would Europe—peaceful, “never-again,” Europe—draw the line and declare, “with our blood and treasure, we will stop you here.” In awkward conversations with our European friends, they cannot tell us where that line is. If they do not have the stomach to close with the enemy, how, really, is the United States going to be able defend a border somewhere thousands of miles from home with blood and treasure? Europeans live in a post-war world; in their minds and manners, war is unthinkable. The United States cannot defend allies who do not believe it is necessary to defend themselves. Insisting that European nations “pay up” presses them to recognize that the age of nations, and therefore the age of war, has not passed.

Cultural nativism? Only a globalist could conceive of the term. Nations matters. The American nation is an amalgam of immigrants, who, if our national fable is to be believed, came for liberty and prosperity for their families. (Slavery, the great wound and the great agony, is the exception, with which this nation still struggles.) In exchange, they gave up their ancient allegiances to homeland, broadly understood. But nations, as both Augustine and Hobbes understood, are particular things, with laws and mores of their own. They are, if I may so put it, wagers about what is important and how to build a world together. In our case, that wager is the U.S. Constitution, and all that it presumes about man, his passions, and the best way to organize around them. Nations are always native. They are not inclusive. What inclusiveness they achieve internally depends on whether the rule of law prevails. If it operates well, all who are inside can hope to have recourse, through law, to a measure of equity.

In times of peace, nations have the prerogative to decide from which other nations they will receive immigrants, and in what numbers. In times of war, constrictions increase. If in Saudi Arabia, Christians from abroad had declared a Holy War against that country, how many Christians would the Kingdom allow in? The answer: none. Does this mean that all Christians who want to enter have nefarious intentions? Of course not. But groupings matter. As a blunt consequence, any number of peaceful Christians would lose their ability to gain entry to Saudi Arabia because of their group affiliation. We may be “individuals,” but we are not just “individuals.”[3]

Should we be troubled by Trump’s seeming fascination with Putin and other Authoritarians? Yes; but here he is just being yet another silly American President-in-the-making who thinks that he can “handle” Putin and the rest. Obama was no less naïve, about both Russia and the nations of the Middle East. The truth of the matter is that American Presidents do not set the terms of engagement with men like Putin, who are different types of humanity, ones that Americans neither understand nor can produce. Should Trump become President, we will discover whether he has the competence to deal with Putin after he has been shown that no rapprochement is possible, that America will have to live in an enigmatic world that no American President can fully understand or control.

To conclude on the matter of foreign policy and the prospects of a liberal global order, Christianly speaking, these are always “dark days.” We live in hope that the broken world will be redeemed, not by man alone, who is implicated in the brokenness he witnesses, but by God. Liturgically speaking, man lives between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Looking back on the post-1989 world, so many of us thought that we had arrived at a new moment in history—for the Left, this meant “global norms”; for the Right, this meant “global democratic governance.” These are, so to speak, Easter Sunday fancies. To live between Good Friday and Easter Sunday—and here I rehearse Niebuhr more fully than does Inboden—is to live in an ineluctably plural world. There are nations in which liberty is held in high esteem (even if occasionally not well-protected), and nations where it is not. Niebuhr thought that Christianity was the wellspring of liberty and, so, thought it important that the United States defend itself and Europe, Christianity’s long-time home. The alternative to pacifism was not policing the entire world on behalf of a liberal global order, but rather a circumscribed use of American power. By a strange concatenation of events, after 1989 that intermediate position looks to defenders of a liberal global order to be a species of pacifism. It is not. It is the position that resides, again, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between the irreducible plurality of nations and the world-community, the latter to be accomplished by God at The End of Days. The real extent of the Liberal global order can never be more than the actual cost willing to be borne to defend it. Debt financing can only mask those real costs for a time. Limits matter. Not all things are possible—least of all a global order, of any nation’s contrivance.

Something must be said here about Protectionism, that arrangement through which the state uses its enforcement power to protect certain corporations from foreign competition, so that they may grow and flourish, with a view to increasing the wealth of the nation. In his magisterial work, The Wealth of Nations, Smith had laid out just this argument. But in that work, Smith asks who, exactly, will look after the interests of the state? It turns out that that corporations care not a jot for the state. Smith worried a great deal about that. Yes, “free trade” can increases the extensiveness of markets, and makes a global division of labor possible; but the corporations involved in it increasingly have interests that do not coincide with the state at all. The state initially protects them—and if they then flourish, their interests, not surprisingly, shift away from the state that protects them.

All this is well and good, we are told, because standards of living increase with “free trade.” That’s why Protectionism is such a bad thing. In our own day, however, the seemingly simple opposition between Protectionism and “free trade” has become blurry. NAFTA is hundreds of pages long; the TPP is ten times that large. The remarkable thing that has happened in our own day is that these “free trade” agreements are in fact a new form of Protectionism.  That is, they involve endless stipulations, enforced by the state and often promulgated by self-interested global corporations themselves, which protect those very corporations because smaller enterprises seldom have the compliance staff necessary to adhere let alone to understand those stipulations. For us today, so-called “free trade” is not opposed to Protectionism, it is a species of it. Globalization, to put the matter otherwise, involves not the supersession and growing irrelevance of the state, but the close alliance between growing state bureaucracies and large corporations—the name for which is crony-capitalism. Trump is publicly opposed to this arrangement, and wants us to reconsider it. He is not a Protectionist; he opposes the current form Protectionism is taking, namely, global crony-capitalism, of which the Clinton Foundation is Exhibit A.

A final thought. Inboden confesses to write from the Protestant Augustinian tradition. I share that confession. Central to that confession are Augustine and Niebuhr’s warnings about pride. The world cannot be made in man’s image. It will always remain, “Other,” to use a much over-used term. That is, the world is ineluctably plural. In The City of God, written as the Roman Empire was falling, Augustine describes a God who watches over a multitude of nations, gathering them together in due course, when and as He sees fit. It would be rash to say that Trump understands and can articulate the Augustinian / Niebuhrian insight we so desperately need at the moment, so that we might find our way in a world of nations, which hope for more. It is not rash to say, however, that Trump is onto this insight even if he cannot express it well. So, too, are millions of people in America, Britain, and Europe—however coarse their current expression of it may also be. The post-1989 moment, dominated by neo-liberal and neo-conservative sentiments, was a dream that could never come down to earth, a dream of a liberal global order animated and managed from above. We now have to set our sights on what is possible: a world of nations, with allies, living in a world that will never be made whole by man’s efforts alone. Putting “America first,” as Trump proposes, is consistent with the world Niebuhr thought man could not, by himself, supersede. A world of nations, hoping for more.

I do not believe Trump will win the upcoming election. I do not believe Trump has ever read Reinhold Niebuhr. I do believe that a number of his positions are very much in line with Niebuhr’s view of nations-in-the-world—a view that is more modest than the one to which universalists of both political persuasions aspire, and one to which we must return if we are to have a foreign policy that does not end up ravaging our position in the world of nations.

Joshua Mitchell is a Professor of Government at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age.

Photo Credit: In Boston. By Thomas Hawk, via Flickr.

[1] That, in part, is why Trump is receiving fire from all sides. Cui Bono, Hobbes asks? “Who benefits?” A great many Trump-haters in Republican and Democrat policy circles stand not to benefit from a Trump Presidency. Millions of everyday citizens who live far from the Beltway have not lost sight of this fact, and double-down on their support for Trump in proportion as insider contempt for him grows.

[2] I did support the Iraq War, for the record, but not because we would find weapons of mass destruction, or because I believed the Iraqis wanted democracy. I did so because Iraq in the 1940s and 50s was one of the gems of the Middle East, with a fine education system and a rich political culture. I had hoped—and still hope—that the deposition of Saddam might provide an opportunity for Iraq to recover what had been destroyed by the Baathist regime.

[3] I say this with not a little family history behind me.  My mother’s family was part German, and during both wars family members were looked at with suspicion—not because all German-Americans had malevolent intentions, but because we were at war with Germany, and some still felt the native pull homeward. I was, moreover, born in Cairo (while my father was doing research, in the mid-1950s, on the Muslim Brotherhood). In addition to the city of my birth being stamped in my passport, I have pages stamped from Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq. Why it is that blue-hair little old ladies from the Midwest get randomly searched while I, who look somewhat Lebanese and have all of that in my passport, go quietly through screening is quite beyond me. Only in a random world can this make sense. It would indeed by prejudicial to say that all Muslims should be denied entry to the United States. But somewhere between prejudice and randomness lies the prudent course of cutting back on immigration from parts of the world that are deeply hostile to the United States and the way of life it purports to stand for, a life wherein liberty matters. It might not be “fair” to particular individuals, but when at war, “fairness” is but one good among other, more pressing ones.