Cattle, Pigs & Skunks (O My!): A Brief Reflection on the Religious Foreign Policy Persuasion

This week Providence is publishing a series of responses to our friend Mike Doran’s stimulating essay “The Theology of Foreign Policy,” which appears in the May issue of First Things. The printed essay is a slightly revised version of an address he delivered on March 8 of this year at Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology. The video of that lecture—then titled The Theological Roots of Foreign Policy—can be found here (be patient: Rusty Reno’s introduction is delivered to a dead microphone. Rest assured that Mike Doran comes in loud and clear).

As Mark Tooley nicely summarized yesterday, Doran’s basic framework explores the two primary divisions that shape American foreign policy. These differences are deeply theological and pit Protestant fundamentalists—exemplified by Andrew Jackson—against their progressivist cousins.

In describing the differences, Doran writes:

Allow me to stand, like a tourist on the lip of the Grand Canyon, and marvel at the wonderous chasm that separates the Jacksonian and Progressive persuasions. They differ in their understandings of human nature (as broken or perfectible, static or malleable); morality (as absolute or relative); the relationship between the individual and society (as requiring personal responsibility, or as requiring collective and systematic solutions); the proper role of governments (to safeguard personal liberty, or to safeguard equality); the mission of the United States in the world (to be a beacon of freedom, or to lead the way toward a new era of peace and brotherhood); and the meaning of history (as maintaining a holding pattern until the end of days; or as leading inevitably to human betterment).

The direct foreign policy implications of these poles are equally stark. Set against what they perceive to be jingoistic Jacksonians, the progressive persuasion enjoins a “preference for multilateralism, an inclination to seek systemic solutions to human problems, and an aspiration to universal peace and brotherhood.” These dispositions lead, inexorably, to a desire “to bind the United States to the kind of international organizations that Jacksonians deeply distrust.”

The Jacksonians distrust elitists’ willingness to bind the United States to anything outside itself because the fundamentalist camp views Americans as a “chosen people” in a “promised land” shoulder-tapped by the Divine to a special mission. Jackson himself intoned:

Providence has showered on this favored land blessings without number, and has chosen you [fellow citizens] as the guardians of freedom, to preserve it for the benefit of the human race.

As Doran describes it, the Jacksonian commitment is to “influence history by honoring the covenant between God and our democracy” and in carrying out our mission to “guard and defend our freedom.” The emphasis is, of course, on the “our.”

While these distinctions are inherently religious—theological—disagreements played out publicly in the political realm, Doran is right to point out that the disagreements nevertheless continue even as “God recedes from our public life.” The problem is that both the Jacksonian fundamentalists and the progressives were drawing from the same theological resources—so they could actually have a debate as they offered arguments and counterarguments against a common source. However, “in a secular world,” Doran notes, “there is no universal moral authority capable of adjudicating between the two sides.”

This presents a number of problems. One of which is that once you’ve abandoned the common text, all you have left are the competing interpretations of it. Mike calls these interpretations “persuasions.” He employs the historian Marvin Meyer to define a persuasion as a:

Set of attitudes, beliefs, projected actions: a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment. The community shares many values; at a given social moment some of these acquire a compelling importance. The political expression given to such values forms a persuasion.

To describe one aspect of why this is a problem, take the Jacksonians’ primary insistence that the government’s fundamental responsibility “is to protect the community [and] to safeguard its freedom.” Jacksonian populism is often characterized as a continued revolt against centralized power—hence the Jacksonian fear of being bound to anything external.

Now, one of my doctoral supervisors was fond of reminding his students that historical figures—whether Aristotle, Augustine, or Andrew Jackson—are not our next-door neighbors. His point—sometimes overstated—was simply that the context in which earlier thinkers lived is different than our context. Therefore, easy translations of their ideological commitments might not easily translate into our present age.

Andrew Jackson, for instance, came of age in an era of constant conflict in a very young America. Born just before the climactic events of the Revolutionary War, Jackson was a young boy when he and his brother defiantly refused to polish the boots of an English soldier in the streets of their hometown. For their refusal, they were both sword-whipped. Jackson was scarred on his head and heads, and his brother was slashed up a bit as well. Both were thrown in prison where they each contracted smallpox and nearly died of starvation. That likely leaves an impression. In his young adulthood, he led wars against the Creek Indians, fought the British (again) in the War of 1812—where he won the critical Battle of New Orleans when losing it would likely have been a national disaster—and then fought further wars against the Seminoles and others.

All this to say, when one’s formative years involve a series of wars in which one’s nation is facing an existential fight, it’s quite reasonable to be rather nationalistic, homeward focused, and hesitant to risk newly earned—and tenuously held—sovereignty by overextending one’s reach in foreign entanglements. One therefore needs to ponder carefully before becoming convinced what Jackson’s political commitments might look like in an age when his country is now a superpower.

Christian morality is characterized by case-based ethics. Love is the principle, without contest. But the question is what does love look like in this historical moment, now—in a circumstance that, really, has never actually happened before. Such moral “flexibility” isn’t always amenable to the concrete assertions of those who—to use contemporary jargon—insist that America be great or those who insist that she be good.

I’ve touched on this before, but it seems to me that the proper Christian persuasion—at least in the Augustinian realism that this journal champions—needs to exhibit the moral courage to refuse binary assertions and to pursue the good as our fidelity to biblical norms, circumstances, and prudence lead us to understand the good.

There is nothing wrong in wanting one’s nation to be great and secure in its own liberty. The Jacksonian persuasion is correct in assessing the primary purpose of government is the provision and maintenance of the common good of the people over which it governs—characterized by the presence of justice, peace, and order—and these things cannot be had by any nation whose greatness is insufficient to overcome the threats against it. But one’s conception of the nation’s greatness must never be absent a vision of the nation’s coexisting goodness.

For a nation as exceptionally blessed as America, greatness can be had for a song. But goodness can be harder to come by and is more easily lost. This is partly because seeking to be good is far riskier than merely wanting to be great. One needn’t be a progressive to be willing to stand up for those foreign neighbors who cannot defend themselves, even when our immediate interests are not in sight. Americans of all persuasions do this all the time. It can be seen in such acts as the willingness to kick in doors to get at the bad guys rather than simply leveling the village entirely, or in expending a measure of our own blood and treasure abroad that others too might flourish.

Christian theo-political witness has always contended that political responsibility cannot be had by seeking either greatness or goodness absent the other. Or, to use Doran’s terms: one can love cattle, pigs, and skunks as well as NATO.

Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence.

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