I signed “A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy” and endorse it heartily. To get people to agree on things these days is hard, and the work that was done in putting this well thought out document together is worthy of our praise and admiration. It is especially important in these times for Christian citizens in America to learn to speak again in public and, equally important, to speak as Christians and not merely as citizens. The qualifier matters because what we believe and know is not just the icing on the cake or a cherry on top of our liberal democratic sundae. It deals with the very truth of reality and meaning and purpose of history. That’s not a small deal for politics.
And while I heartily affirm what is stated in the document, it is what has not been said that gives me pause. Because you can’t say everything, there is much that must be left out, but some material cannot be left. The most glaring weakness in the Declaration, by my lights, is the failure to reckon with and address the kingship of Jesus Christ. One of the great rediscoveries of the 20th century was the centrality of the Kingdom of God for theology and its implications for politics and society. In the Declaration there are headings for “World Order”, “America’s Role”, “Human Nature”, “State and Church”, and “Use of Force”, which are all helpful and worthy areas of focus for foreign policy inflected by Christian thinking. But if this is a Christian foreign policy, then the primary heading to which all other discussion must stem is how we understand our political rule in light of the rule of the resurrected Son of God, who now reigns at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
If we have anything to learn from our forebears in the faith about politics, it is this basic truth. The doctrine of “the two”—most famously enunciated in St. Augustine’s “two-cities” and, in a different fashion, recited by Pope Gelasius to Byzantine Emperor Anastatius in the 6th century—was an attempt to formulate the purpose of regal authority now that there was only one true King. The developing consciousness of kings and rulers in the early Middle Ages was that the gospel of Jesus Christ called rulers as rulers to offer obedience to the Christ through the execution of their princely duties. How could it be any other way? Christendom was not perfect, but as the response of a society to the summons of Jesus Christ, it offers us at least a pattern that we must contend with. Even as late as the 20th century, one can find these sentiments expressed in the Irish Constitution (1937) and the German Constitution (1949). The preamble of the Irish Constitution is bracing for its explicitly Christian language:
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation, And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations, Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.
The American tradition set itself out in stark opposition to the Old World: no nationally established churches, freedom of exercise for all denominations, the eventual disestablishment of all state churches by the mid-19th century. The first amendment was the fruit bore of a long Anglo-American tradition that cultivated religious toleration and freedom of conscience. It was also a compromise among various protestant factions. From the beginning Americans sought to manage pluralism amongst protestant denominations, which eventually extended to Catholics and other religions. The role of faith in American political life has never been direct as in the established churches of Europe. And that was intentional. As Madison wrote in his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”:
Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.
We developed a rather complex civil religion that prided itself on being nonsectarian, even though political life was dominated by a protestant elite.
In modern America both Christians and non-Christians have often come to see this offering of obedience to Jesus Christ from our rulers and institutions as a violation of democratic principles. The fact that the charge of “theocracy” is immediately launched shows how misinformed and skittish we have become about the role of faith in public life. The early republic was more comfortable with overt public displays of faith and of seeing a tighter relationship between Christianity and government, even as they sought to distance themselves from the European state-churches. For a while this consensus proved sturdy. But its sturdiness was in large measure due to the important role churches played in American public life. The tacit consensus no longer holds. Elites in many institutions and large corporations have turned against Christianity or view it with indifference.
This is the state of play in our current context which brings me back full circle to the kingship of Jesus Christ. The Declaration bears the definite marks of Abraham Kuyper and his influence on Reformed social thought. Genesis 1-3 and the metaphor of “tending the garden” lay the primary conceptual groundwork for thinking about international relations. But elaborating creational structures while leaving the fundamental question of the status of lordship unaddressed or within the personal realm of salvation belies both the emphasis of the New Testament and subsequent formulations. Jesus’ death is a public death, not a private one, and his ascension above rulers and authorities forever changes the political landscape, because “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:18) has been given to him.
Why the silence on the rule of Christ? Is it a strategic silence that hopes to gain an audience before we open the floodgates? Is it a principled pluralism silence that thinks international politics is just not the place for us to be declaring this rule too loudly? There seems to be a not-so-latent Niebuhrianism that too quickly brackets these questions in favor of a politics of constraining sin. But politics is also a theatre of divine activity. The Lord is the judge of the nations, even today: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations belong to you!” (Ps. 82:8).
I hope this critique doesn’t come across as nostalgic or reactionary. I am neither. I don’t pine longingly for the medieval manor. The strengths of the American liberal order that was built in the post-war era are many. What I do have in mind is for us to take stock of our thinking about foreign policy and the world order that America has lead the way in building against the long canvas of political thought and the revelation that grounded that project. Could it be possible for us to think about foreign policy and the international order as an obedient summons of our King without repeating the errors of the past? I think so. Perhaps a more daunting question is how we imagine political authority being exercised as a divine vocation against the backdrop of unbelief.
The most important reality—reality from which and to which all of our thinking and acting must start and return—is not the truth of the democratic liberal order, as valuable as it may be, but the truth of the gospel that illuminates all things. Political forms and ideas can only be rightly understood when we see them within this light. And on that point I believe the signatories of this document find themselves in complete agreement.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Crown in Stockholm. By Abi, via Flickr.