Christian America & National Sovereignty

Today, after passing several shouting Code Pink demonstrators, I lunched at the Mayflower Hotel with the Federalist Society to hear National Security Advisor John Bolton blast the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Like most of the world, the US is not part of the ICC, but the organization has threatened to investigate alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan. Bolton threatened sanctions against ICC persons if it prosecutes US personnel.

Coincidentally, Bolton was undersecretary of State in 2002 when President George W. Bush had the US “unsign” the ICC’s Rome Statute treaty, which the US Senate had never ratified. Today, Bolton stressed the US Constitution as the final legal authority for Americans.

Bolton also cited the US closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, DC. The Palestinian Authority has threatened to seek ICC prosecution of Israel, which is also not a party to the treaty. Bolton pledged the US would protect US and allied citizens from unjust ICC prosecution.

These actions Bolton announced touch on Christian political witness in several ways.

First, Bolton’s stress on national sovereignty is alien to much of the current American Christian elite thought. Christians are ostensibly post-national citizens of heaven and the world but decidedly not of the United States, to whom loyalty is ostensibly idolatrous. From this perspective, assertion of the US Constitution over an international treaty, even one the US never ratified, verges on blasphemous and is certainly selfish.

Second, Bolton stressed that US law is more than sufficient to address war crimes and other misconduct by US military personnel. Pacifist and anti-American Christian thinkers and chatterers will of course strongly object, insisting America is a virtual rogue nation that cannot police itself. They would also cite Bolton, with his long record of assertive US foreign and military policies, as the incarnation of outlaw America. He celebrates American sovereignty but disses the sovereignty of other nations, they insist. The charge has some truth, as Bolton is a realist and believes America has a duty to assert itself unilaterally when necessary in defense of its own interests and of its allies.

Third, much of Christian elite thought is critical of Israel and partial to Palestinian nationalism. Shutting down the PLO office and trying to preempt any Palestinian initiative to prosecute Israel for war crimes through the ICC will deeply offend their sensibilities. From their view, Israel like America is rogue and should be prosecuted by international authorities. Real or imagined, the failings of America and Israel remain almost the exclusive human rights concerns of many Christian elites in America.

Many of these Christian elites, with their bias against America and Israel, are reacting against conservative Christianity’s traditional patriotism and Zionism, which is to them, as elites, embarrassing. They seek for themselves a separate distinct voice in their quest for wider social esteem.

But there is a deeper philosophical motivation for these Christian elites. They are universalists and not nationalists. As the Gospel is universal, and as the church is universal, they presume Christians politically should shun deep national loyalties. Today I learned of an amusing anecdote related to this point.

A new hip, predominantly white Anglican congregation outside DC is meeting in a black Baptist church. Like most black churches, it has an American flag in the sanctuary. The white Anglicans remove the flag during the course of their worship and return it when done. Apparently, its presence was deemed that offensive.

The flag and patriotism don’t typically offend black Christians, Hispanic Christians, various immigrant Christians, working-class white Christians, or generic traditional Christians. But Christians who are very well educated, usually young, white, affluent, and urban often react against what they perceive as Christian hyper-nationalism and believe the church must separate from deep national loyalties.

These Christian flag removers probably won’t like Bolton’s speech today. But historical Christian teaching in fact does affirm nations not as idols, but as divine instruments that merit our love and concern. Nations were present early in the human story, and they will persevere until the end. They seem to continue even into the restored creation. Christians do indeed love universally, but we approach the world typically first through our own nation.

America, as the most powerful nation and one shaped by Christianity, earns disproportionate contempt by intellectual elites everywhere, including within Christianity. And Israel, as the ultimate first nation, summoned directly by God for the world’s salvation, is the other main target of universal intellectual disdain.

Truly thoughtful Christians will resist this always faddish intellectual contempt for America and Israel. Instead, they should seek to better understand our own divine vocation within God’s purposes for our nation. And they might even consider the merits of Bolton’s assertions about the importance of American sovereignty in pursuit of a just order.

Mark Tooley is co-editor of Providence and president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

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