Trump’s UN Realism and Christian Benevolence

Many Christian elites will not like Donald Trump’s United Nations speech this week, whose key phrase was “we reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.”

Similar to last year’s UN speech, Trump extolled national sovereignty while denouncing perceived international governance. He hailed nationalist-minded governments in Poland, India, and Israel plus the Saudi monarchy, which is ostensibly reforming. He derided the World Trade Organization, International Criminal Court, and UN Human Rights Council, among other multilateral groups.

American white evangelicals are routinely described as Trump’s bedrock supporters. But many evangelical elites in academia and parachurch groups disdain “America First.”  Most Catholic elites are also negative, as are of course liberal Protestants.

Christian elites typically are discomfited by unalloyed nationalism. They rightly identify with the church universal. Some see any patriotism as idolatrous. Most would affirm qualified patriotism while rejecting nationalism, the latter of which they equate with “MAGA.”

For these elites, Christian compassion for global humanity entails support for free-flowing immigration, lots of US foreign aid, commitment to multilateral cooperation, reducing US military spending, and aggressive pursuit of peacemaking. For many, fighting climate change is more urgent than fighting terrorism or countering rogue regimes.

Most of elite Christian opinion in today’s America envisions a world of harmonizing cooperation. National self-interest equates with personal selfishness. Divine love entails self-abnegation and turning the other cheek, for governments as well as individuals. Generosity is not just a personal virtue but imperative national policy.

Christian elites don’t like coercion and threats, backed by lethal power, which are central to traditional global statecraft. According to them, spiritual maturity seeks and assumes better.

American presidents, in their addresses to the UN and elsewhere, have typically incorporated these humane assumptions of Christian elites, at least rhetorically. Presidents typically were also very mindful of the imperative of American power and interests. But they appealed loftily to global humanity, with appeals to multilateralism, democracy, and human rights.

Trump speaks very differently. And Christian elites rightly understand that his language is not theirs. The international version of American civil religion has usually echoed the appeals of missionaries and idealist theologians. Trump does not feign to be an idealist or theologian.

Critical Christian elites might consider that the lofty presidential language of the past rarely represented the full reality. Presidents may have woven celestial visions of global peace and collective collaboration. But every administration by necessity has sustained the state’s lethal and coercive machinery to impose America’s will on the world to the extent possible and necessary.

Trump’s language is rawer, but the realities that sustain America as a superpower continue as a constant. Christian elites and others who share their humanitarian views should consider a more honest appraisal of statecraft’s cold requirements. Escapism does not equal Christian fidelity.

High-minded presidential rhetoric need not be escapist. Conventional presidential speechmaking, when portraying America as the chief global humanitarian, served a noble purpose. Preach faith until you have faith, evangelist John Wesley counseled. High-minded talk often leads to high-minded actions.

Past presidential calls for America to sacrificially lead the world to a closer approximation of God’s Kingdom ennobled American self-understanding. Such calls inspired genuine American humanitarian achievements while also importantly advancing American interests.

The poetry and sermonizing of more traditional American presidents reflected the nation’s intrinsic religious character. They revealed what Americans, in their best moments, wished their country to be. And such rhetoric, even if mocked internationally, still unconsciously reassured the world about America.

US statecraft may not quite be a missionary exercise. But the world knew that American foreign policy, however necessarily self-interested, was far closer to benevolent missionary idealism than what alternative powers offered.

Of course, not even Trump’s UN speech is devoid of global humanitarian ideals: “We must pursue peace without fear, hope without despair, and security without apology.” But this appeal doesn’t exactly soar. It’s anchored by unapologetic cold calculation.

Trump commends a “future of patriotism, prosperity, and pride.” The global equilibrium he suggests would be roughly achieved by nations respectively nurturing their own sovereignties and pursuing their own legitimate interests.

This vision arguably lacks illusions. But Trump’s very realist rhetoric lacks some important music central to American self-definition. Henry Kissinger styled himself an unalloyed realist but warned that America was at heart a Wilsonian nation. It wants to dream, reform, and aspire beyond the confines of narrow self-interest.

Such dreams need not and should not embrace abstract globalism at the expense of reality and prudence. But the aspirational dream, like a biblical prophecy, should at times be uttered, even if the prophecy can’t be entirely fulfilled.

Americans like a glimpse of the New Jerusalem, even if they know they will not see it. It stirs them closer to greatness in both virtue and power. And the world typically benefits when America aspires both to virtue and power.

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

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