In the May 2018 issue of First Things, Michael Doran argues that the essential debate in American foreign policy is theological. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Protestants in the United States underwent a great schism, sorting into two persuasions, theological modernists and theological fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, or Jacksonians, root their worldview in the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei, the belief that mankind is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-28). By extension, they claim the purpose of US foreign policy is to preserve American liberty until the Second Coming. In contrast, theological modernists, or Progressives, gave rise to the Social Gospel to alleviate man’s suffering and, above all, eliminate inequality.
Doran’s reading of American theological history goes far in advancing our understanding of American foreign policy, but the analysis is only half-complete. Nowhere is this more visible than in the two paradoxes which emerge from each persuasion. As Doran notes, Jacksonians take the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei as their first principle. As applied to foreign policy, Doran points to Andrew Jackson’s Farewell Address when the president exhorts his audience to be defenders of liberty “for the benefit of the human race”. Jacksonians in turn distrust elites who would delegitimize the value of the common man in favor of the technocratic whiz kids.
But if Jacksonians root their ideology in the belief that man was created in the image of God, then why are they indifferent to “developments beyond our borders”? Would not a more thorough application of Imago Dei suggest, at a minimum, concern for developments beyond our borders that affect fellow Christians? (This says nothing of what obligations Christians have to be peacemakers.) Although Doran interprets Jackson’s passage as limited to the American people exclusively, there is nothing either in Jackson’s language or in the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei that suggests the precept to defend liberty is or ought to be constrained.
Progressives likewise fall victim to a political ideology that is unrestrained by faith. Their belief in the perfectibility of man is the foundation for their near obsession with advancing social justice, reducing inequality, and criticizing America. But herein lies another paradox, namely that Christian faith does not teach that mankind is perfectible in this life. The best each of us can strive for is to maintain a confessional state of grace so far as we are able. Here I am clearly speaking in the broadest of terms. Some Christian traditions teach that even the achievement of grace is beyond human capacity, but that is precisely the point. When God is proscribed from politics, so too are the restraints on human fallibility.
To make sense of these paradoxes, we must look elsewhere. One such source is the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Writing in The Age of Secularism, Del Noce argues that secularism is at best a re-proposal of Christian ideas. For him, secularism is a process of modern thought “that has atheism as its rigorous conclusion.” As secularism unfolds, politics constructs an eschatological vision wherein mankind will be saved not through a reunion with God but with practices and dictates of politics.
Both the Jacksonian and Progressive persuasions exhibit symptoms of secularized politics. The former exalts the common man under a nationalist guise; the latter, a cosmopolitan social justice world state. Neither persuasion articulates a truly Christian view of politics or foreign policy. A properly Christian foreign policy would, almost necessarily, create tension with both of these persuasions by affirming the dignity of all, while simultaneously reminding us that human institutions are but an imperfect substitute for the heavenly city. Secularism views man not as Imago Dei, but as Imago Hominis—made in his own image. Anyone who gets in the way of a humanist ethic ceases to be treated as deserving of human dignity.
To be sure, Progressives might object by claiming that secularism advances human achievement by relegating God outside the purview of politics. Doing so saved mankind from the most egregious excesses of religion. Jacksonians might mount a different objection, critiquing my view as just one more example of elitist rhetoric. In the first case, progressive objections are more than merely unfounded; they get the relationship precisely backward. Whatever excesses can be traced to the faithful in previous centuries, the twentieth is one tragically marked by secular-atheism’s extremes, to the count of hundreds of millions dead. In the second, it suffices to mention that the doctrine of Imago Dei means that even those so-called elitists have a dignity to be heard and respected, even if Jacksonians will, in the final analysis, overrule their advice.
My point here is to caution against treating secular politics as a panacea for our times. The Jesuit James V. Schall writes in Roman Catholic Political Philosophy that politics becomes corrupt when it seeks to give an account of the whole. In other words, when politics includes ideas and actions that should be outside politics. The history of the twentieth century could easily be told as a story of man’s rebellion from God. At times this rebellion is easy to see, as in the case of communism’s explicit denial of religion. Other times, the rebellion is much more nuanced, but the effects are the same. For if our fellow citizens cease to be understood as brothers and sisters in Christ—or at a minimum, made in the image of God—then any restraint on persecuting our political opponents vanishes.
Christian faith, rightly understood, should lead individuals to two mutually reinforcing conclusions: humility before God, and humility before each other. In the absence of such humility, the schism between theological modernists and fundamentalists will not only continue, it will risk widening and intensifying until the political community which we call the United States will be consumed in the fires of mutual acrimony.
Luke M. Perez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin studying religion, ethics, and US foreign policy. He is currently a graduate fellow of Governance and the Clements Center for National Security, both at The University of Texas. His dissertation examines the rise of religious freedom as a core component to American grand strategy. This fall he will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at St. Vincent College, in Latrobe, PA. A native of California, Luke earned his B.A. in Greek and Latin at The Ohio State University and his M.A. in Political Philosophy at Villanova University. He is also a 12 year veteran with the California Air National Guard.
Photo Credit: Andrew Jackson’s statue in Lafayette Square in front of the White House. By US Department of State (IIP Bureau), via Flickr.