Michael Singh’s lecture at Christianity & National Security 2023.

Michael Singh discusses American exceptionalism, Christian realism, and morality. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

We’ve been looking forward to our next speaker. Michael Singh, head of the Washington Institute. Uh, a man of vast international expertise, but during the George W. Bush Administration, he worked for the National Security Council and presided over mid-East policy, uh, which obviously is very relevant to the current moment. And he also is a Washington D.C. Anglican. All the sophisticated people in D.C., or many of them, are Anglicans. So, uh, Michael, thank you so much. 

Give me a glass of water? 

Oh yes, I’ll get you one.  

Thank you. I appreciate it. Well, good morning everybody. So it’s uh, it’s exciting to be here with you this morning, because this is a topic I don’t ordinarily get to speak about. I give lots of talks um, most of them are about Iran’s nuclear policy or Israeli-Palestinian conflict or something like that. But I want to talk to you guys today not about, you know, some foreign policy issue as seen through the lens of Christianity, although in the Q&A we can talk about whatever you want. I’ve uh, I started my career working on the Middle East, but I’ve worked on many foreign policy issues and so I’m happy to answer questions about any of them.  

What I want to talk about is something that I actually spend a lot of time thinking about. When I was probably the age of many people in this room, and that’s what does it mean to be a Christian engaged in foreign policy, engaged in diplomacy, in the world? Um, and one of the reasons I’m speaking about this, you know, and not um, Just War Theory or something like that is I don’t really know much about those things. Um, you know, I could… I… I know more Judge Reinhold lines than Reinhold Neibhur lines. So um, I’m… that’s only funny to people of a certain age. I’m sorry. Um, so I’m not going to… I’m not going to go into those things. I heard you guys got a talk yesterday about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis uh, and war, and I think uh I… I should have shown up for that because that sounds great.  

But no, I’m going to talk about really, my personal reflections on what it’s like to be a… a Christian in the world of foreign policy. Um, because, if you’re like me and considering a career in national security, it’s something you think about. Um, how do I sort of reconcile my faith or my beliefs with this work, um, uh, which involves lots of different things? So when I became a Christian when I was 18 years old, right towards the end of high school, and I… I had it in my head that um, sort of after I became a Christian, that you know, the right thing to do that… what I want to do is become a shepherd, which may sound strange because I had this iidea that, you know, the sort of the… the sort of the… the noble thing to do was something very humble and modest and so forth.  

And so I thought you know, um, I’ll go out and I’ll sort of uh, you know, tend the sheep like people did in the Bible. And so, I was 18 years old, so you have to forgive me for this. Um, I didn’t want to get caught um in material pursuits. Um, and uh, I thought this was, you know, a sort of a way to humble yourself. The problem was um, I had no idea what shepherds actually did. It turns out it’s very hard work, by the way. I never tried it, um, but it’s not sitting under a tree and sort of thinking big thoughts about life. Uh, they do very hard work. And second, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I was, you know, I was lying to myself obviously in a sort of uh, 18-year-old idealistic way. Um, what I really wanted to do, though, I realized was something that I could find intellectually stimulating um, but also allowed me to feel as though I was serving a higher purpose in life, something that wasn’t a material pursuit, something that wasn’t just about, you know, the accumulation of wealth or the um, pursuit of prestige or something like that but something that served the world, essentially, because I thought well, that’s what we’re called to do, really. And foreign policy, serving overseas as a U.S. diplomat seemed like it fit that bill.  

And this is a time when, you know, when I was… fast forward a couple of years. I was in college and most of my classmates, uh, were applying for jobs in investment banks, you know, management consulting, uh, what we then called “dooms” that have been the smart route. I think in retrospect, um, those people are all billionaires now. I think, um, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to serve a higher purpose, and I wanted to make a difference in the world. Especially, I wanted the chance to work for peace because in the Sermon on the Mount, uh, Christ exhorts us to be peacemakers. Um, and I thought, well you know, if you have the opportunity to do that in a pragmatic way, not just by, you know, sort of invoking peace and saying the right things, uh, or even showing up to uh, a demonstration or something like that, but actually being out there making a difference to the course of conflicts and the course of… of history, well then that’s something worth doing. 

Others could talk about changing the world, but I thought, you know, if you’re a diplomat and you’re working in foreign policy, there’s your chance to actually do it. And I think that if you are an American and working as a diplomat or working in foreign policy and you are a person of faith, whether that’s Christian faith or another faith, I think you have a luxury. Because U.S. foreign policy wants to be moral, I say, wants to be… I’ll get back to what it actually is in just a minute. 

We have the privilege as Americans, if you’re Americans in this room uh, it’s not only true of America. Obviously, there’s other countries which you could say this about of representing a country founded on values that are highly compatible with our faith. Um, our country was founded by men and women who took inspiration um, from the Bible, who took inspiration from the writings of, uh, early Christian… Christian philosophers as well as other sort of Western philosophers, enlighten… Enlightenment philosophers along the way. Um, and so we have… we have that luxury of representing a country that wants to project those values and defend those values in the world.  

And Americans, uh, if you look at polling, really believe this. It’s not just something that politicians say. So there’s a… there’s a polling institute here in Washington called the Public Religion Research Institute, and they did a poll in 2021. I’m going to give you some of the results of this pull. So 74%, ¾ of all Americans believe America has always been a force for good in the world. Now, whether that’s true or not, I think we can… we can… some of you might qui… you might point out this scenario or that scenario. But the point is, Americans believe it about their country. 

44% of Americans believe God has granted America a special role in world history. Again, you can agree or disagree with that, that… but the point is that half of Americans believe that. Now, that happens to be way down from just ten years ago. Ten years ago, 64% of Americans believed that. And… and why that number has gone down by 20% is maybe a question that you know, Mark or someone else should answer, because I’m not an expert in religiosity in America.  

What if you ask Americans what makes someone truly American, and you know, you list all sorts of attributes, the one that gets the highest ranking from both Republicans and Democrats, both conservatives and liberals, is believing individual freedoms, which I would argue there’s… there’s nothing really more compatible with our… with our faith than that. And 75% agree. It is still possible for the U.S. to achieve the ideal of our national motto e pluribus unum: from many, one, by the way.  

I don’t know if any of you… you guys know what ice breakers are, the mints. So you know how there’s a side where it says many and one? So I have a 17-year-old son who likes to take one from the many side, and then he says “unum.” It’s a… he’s a bit of a nerd, I’m sorry. 

Um, so if… so the reason I recount these things is to say that if you’re representing the United States, this is what you’re repres… these are the people you’re representing, uh, and you do represent a people if you’re a diplomat for a democracy. You don’t represent a president or a congress. Um, you represent a country. You represent a nation. You represent a people. And these are the people you have the luxury of representing as an American diplomat. 

People who believe that their country should, is and should be, a force for good in the world. And that’s a luxury. And if you look at our strategy documents, if you start getting into this question of national, where does it impact? National security. It’s clear that many of our, in fact, most of our presidents have believed this as well. So I’m going to read you an extended quote, and so, bear with me, from President Obama’s introduction to the 2010 National Security Strategy. So these are his words, with his name attached to them:  

“In all that we do, we will advocate for and advance the basic rights upon which our nation was founded and which peoples of every race and religion have made their own. We promote these values by living them, including our commitment to the rule of law. We will strengthen international norms that protect those rights and create space and support for those who resist repression. Our commitment to human dignity includes support for development, which is why we’ll fight poverty and corruption. And we reject the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights. Democracy does not merely represent our better angles. It stands in opposition to aggression and injustice and our support for universal rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of our strength in the… the world.” 

That really sort of is a policy distillation of… of those, really those poll results that I mentioned before. And it’s not just about promoting human rights and democracy. Sort of that softer side, you know, and many regard it as kind of an optional side of American foreign policy. When he wrote in that same letter, President Obama, about the war in Afghanistan, he described the war in Afghanistan first and foremost as right and just. Now of course, that sentiment changed over time. But the point is that this is how we see ourselves in the world. 

In practice, what I found as I sort of made my career in diplomacy, and I started my career at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and right off the bat upon landing I, I was uh, dumped into the middle of the second Inapa. Um, so a very violent situation, suicide bombings on both sides. I then went to work back at the State Department for Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State. And I traveled all around the world with him. I did the same with Condoleeza Rice when she was Secretary of State and then I went to the White House to serve on the National Security Council. And eventually I was senior director for the Middle East, coordinating all of our policy in that region. And since then, I’ve uh, I’ve been in a think tank thinking. Um, so in practice what I found through those jobs was that, in practice, things get messy, right? 

In practice, finding that moral clarity and pursuing um, a sort of moral path as a country and a person is different. Um, we’re… we’re told a little bit about this sort of dichotomy between government and faith uh, in the New Testament. So most of you will be familiar, I think at least in a cursory way, with Matthew 22. It’s in Matthew 22 Jesus speaks this famous line: “Render unto Ceaser what is Ceaser’s. Render unto God what is God’s.” 

It’s a… It’s a line from the Bible that most people who, you know, aren’t Christians or don’t go to Church would recognize, because it’s you know, sort of entered popular culture. So the, the… if you look at that story in the Gospel, the folks who are questioning Jesus, the Pharisees, the Herodians, they’re trying to trap him and entangle him, and anyone who has worked in foreign policy is very familiar with this dynamic. This sort of how could you believe X or how could you do X if you say, you know, also believe Y. And this is essentially what they’re trying to do. Then they say, you know, should we pay this tax, um, and the idea being that if he says yes, he’s, you know, acknowledging Rome’s sovereignty and denying the sovereignty of… of God, um and if he says no, then he’s um, disobeying the law. He’s a rebel, right? And Jesus speaks his…  

I mean, in so many words he speaks his famous lines and he frustrates this attempt to trap him. And… but I think that as people in government, um, what’s interesting about this is that what this meant was that Jesus was not coming to overthrow the world, worldly government. He was not coming to overthrow the Roman Empire and take over, you know? He wasn’t representing a faith that was looking to take the reigns of the state. He had a different kingdom in mind. Not an earthly kingdom, uh, but a Heavenly kingdom in his mind. And he was advising people to obey the secular authorities, to obey the authorities on Earth and this sort of establishes, in a sense, this idea that there’s a separation between faith and government.  

Uh, back then, including now. And so, if I asked you, “are our national security institutions Godly and moral?” I think most of you would say well absolutely not, right? I mean you would… you… and if you need examples of that, uh, all you have to do is like, look at my tweets and look at the replies to my tweets and you’ll see that people are very happy to supply examples of where the United States has gone astray. There’s… there’s no shortage of those things, um, and frankly I think if we are honest with ourselves in all modesty, yes. The United States has gone astray. Many, many times in our history. 

Um, should we expect our national security institutions to be moral? I would argue no. That not only have they not been the… the idea that we should expect them to be is naive because no human institution is going to be. I mean, put aside “perfect.” No human institution is going to be moral. The imperatives of the state are not the same as the imperatives that we learn about in the Bible that are given to us as individuals. The state is here to provide justice, order, security, liberty… the things that make it possible for us to thrive as believers, to thrive as individuals, regardless of what your religion is. Regardless of what you believe the state provides that foundation in that context for the individuals to then go and do that work.  

And so, if I… If I asked you, is it right to turn the other cheek? Some of you would say yes, some of you might say no. Depends on what you believe. But if I ask you, would you want your military or your police department to adopt that as their policy? I think almost everyone would say no that doesn’t make sense. The police department, our national security institutions are there to provide security. That’s what we want from them. Um, and so when we try to claim our institutions or policies are Christian, or are, you know, somehow um, moral in that sense I find that more often than not this is sort of a post-talk rationalization. That we’re actually bending what we mean by Christian to suit our policies rather than the other way around.  

And it’s an… it’s an error. It’s a sort of trap. And we have to be very careful of, uh, as Christians, as believers, um. Nevertheless, where we see our policies and our institutions uh, depart grossly from the values that we expect them to espouse and that the Americans expect them to espouse, going back to those poll results, I do think that, you know, if you’re a person working in the government, if you’re a diplomat, or if you’re just a citizen who’s outside the government, you actually have an obligation to call them out.  

But the beauty of our system in the United States, and again I think we have a great luxury to live where we do um, and to be in the system that we are in, is that we can usually safely and effectively do that calling out from within the system. Uh, there’s no contradiction between disagreeing with the state and trying to change the state’s policies and then serving the state and serving in national security institutions, unlike so many countries of the world. 

So I myself often found myself disagreeing with this or that policy that the U.S. government was pursuing, but I always found in my case, it’s not the case for everyone, I always found in my case that I could effectively pursue those disagreements from within the system. Um, and when I say “effectively,” I mean I actually had the ability to help change or at least kind of adjust a policy. Um, and I would argue. That’s actually part of the duty of… of loyalty that we have to our jobs and to the state. Um, when we are… when we’re working inside the government, and in fact I think that if you area Christian going into government, you are personally equipped uh, in certain ways, to deal with the type of work you would have to do say, as a diplomat.   

One of the great frustrations about working in foreign policy is that nothing is ever finished. If you want to work on projects that you can see through from beginning to end, diplomacy is not the job for you. Because you’ll fix something, you know? You’ll get a peace or a calm, uh, you’ll have a treaty signed but then five years later, ten years later, it’s all undone. Uh, maybe there’s a coup as Peter was talking about, or… or maybe the human tendency to… to violence, uh, and to… to other such things simply takes over. Um, I think we as Christians understand that this idea… that you can strive for perfection. 

In fact, you do strive for perfection, but you never actually achieve it. And it’s the striving that is really the work, uh, that either as a diplomat or as a Christian you’re doing… I think we uh, as Christians, or as… as… as frankly as believers in other faiths um, understand that evil is a constant in the world. That we’re not going to be eradicated uh, in our lifetimes, uh, and that we have to accept that the world as it is in a sense, uh, and do our best to help those in it, um… And so, we’re striving, as I said, for perfection and full knowledge that we can’t achieve it on this earth. 

So what have I learned along the way? Um, I want to just briefly talk about this and then I’ll stop for Q&A. Um, and in the Q&A please feel free to ask me about anything, not just about um, these kind of collections of personal reflections… So what have I learned along the way? Um, in 25 years now of working in diplomacy, well to me the… the thing which I have most clearly taken away is that you know, look. If… if you’re a believer again, if you’re a Christian or of another faith I think you probably believe that God can move mountains, that God works in the affairs of countries, uh, of continents and so forth. But when you are out there in the world, it strikes me that the most powerful work that God does is in small spaces between people uh, and in the human heart.  

And this in a sense, um, corresponds with what we see in the Gospels. Think about the… the… Jesus’s interactions in the Gospels are almost always with individuals and with ordinary people, as far as I can recall. I think there’s only maybe two instances, and you guys can correct me if I’m wrong, where I can think of Jesus interacting with authority figures. There’s Pilate, of course, and then there’s the Roman Centurion. I can’t think of any others. There may, there may be more, you can tell me. But it’s… it’s largely ordinary individuals, and… and that Jesus is, um, working with those whose lives he’s transforming. 

That is a power that we don’t have in policy. One of the hardest things to do, uh, for a government or for you know, a communications apparatus or for… for anyone is to reach out to ordinary people and change the way they think about things. To you know, to change their hearts and minds, as we tend to say. As a… As a U.S. official, I have often had a platform and a voice that many would envy. So, so for example I co-chaired something called the Syria Study Group. I was appointed by Congress, uh, by the Republicans in Congress, to be the co-chair. A good friend of mine was a democratic co-chair and our task was to give our recommendations uh, for changes to American policy in Syria, where we were fighting a war at the time, and still are. 

I mean it’s a… it’s a significant platform but the thing is, you’re limited as a U.S. official in how you can use that platform. You have to use it with authorization if… and if you don’t have authorization, you can lose that voice or platform that you’ve been given and so just to give you an example, I…  

When I was working with the Syria Study Group, I traveled to a refugee camp, and in this refugee camp I met with a group of women who were essentially single mothers. They either… their husbands were either, um, still in Syria, location unknown, or they had been killed in the war, um, or otherwise were… were missing. Uh, and they were… they all had their… their children with them, um, and they were in a very difficult circumstance. They were… they had fled their homes. Uh, they were living in a refugee camp and they had very little, um, and they were pleading with us to help them, which is a circumstance that you’ll find a lot, you know, if… if you’re going to places like refugee camps and so forth. And what I could… I tell them… I could tell them that we were working to try to end the war.  

I could tell them that the U.S. government, through our contributions, had helped pay for the food and for the shelter in the refugee camp, but I couldn’t speak to the deeper needs that they had. The need to know that things were going to be okay, the need to know that their children were going to be able to have a brighter prospect in life, that their children would be safe from harm. I could not, as a U.S. official or someone representing the U.S., speak to those things. I could only articulate really the policy of the U.S. government. I was actually, in a way, less able to be helpful to them than the 25-year-old American volunteers who were there to provide medical care or there to provide counseling despite this platform and voice that I had. 

Um, you know, you can’t as a U.S. official I think… in your capacity, as a U.S. official, despite having the tremendous power of the U.S. government behind you… As President Biden said the other day, the most powerful nation in the history of the world… you can’t speak to the deeper needs, uh, in a person’s heart. So as a Christian, however, any of you, and you know, myself, can offer God’s gifts without reservation. And those gifts are life-changing. You don’t need authorization. You have it. You don’t need talking points, um, and that is a special position to be in. And this is something I think that individuals and even whole churches often fail to realize is that when you put aside God’s work for politics, or when you mix the two in a way that you are actually as a Church, let’s say, diminishing your power and becoming smaller. 

Because, if you’re a Church and you know, there are many churches that weigh in on political subjects all the time, you can have a voice but you’ll be one voice among many and maybe not a very influential voice, uh, in the world of diplomacy and war. Um, fine, but you have a special power that you’re in a way putting aside or… or… or choosing not to prioritize, um to speak to individuals, to speak to their deepest needs. Um, and that’s something that faith gives us, and that’s something which actually ultimately, uh, is powerful in the world of foreign policy and diplomacy. Because foreign policy is ultimately about the hearts of people. It’s about the… the goodness uh, or evil, in people’s hearts. Um, it’s about the fear, uh, or the bravery that people have, uh, and those are things that um, those are things that in my view… that really shape history, that really shape… shape world events. 

I’m going to stop there. Look forward to your questions. Sure, yeah. All right. As I said, you don’t have to ask questions about that. Ask questions about whatever foreign policy issue is on your mind if you like, or careers. Not baseball because I don’t know. 


Question: Hello. Uh, my name is Deon Bernett, and I’m from Liberty University. And my question is: has there been… were there… often times when you’re working for the government, where your faith was tested? [Yes] How deal with that? [Yes].  

Answer: So, uh, the question is, um, have there been times working for the government when my faith was tested? I think your faith is tested every day working for the government. I think your faith is probably tested every day in almost any job that you can pursue, but um, I think that you know when… When I think about this question, I think the most obvious answer is, well there was some policy I disagreed with, and that happens for sure. And there are particular situations where your… your morals and the policy issues… you have to grapple with are very difficult to reconcile, especially when you’re dealing with issues of state violence or war, which are necessary instruments of foreign policy, um, but are difficult to reconcile with Christian morality. 

You can reconcile them, and other I think, speakers have probably dwelt on that or will dwell on that: the idea that war and state violence can be just, um, but that’s bounded by lots of caveats, and there’s different approaches to just war. 

I actually found that for me, again, being completely transparent and, and hopefully um, more useful to you guys as you think about your careers, the real challenge uh, working in government, is the temptation of power, because we are individually tempted by all sorts of things in the world. I think you guys know that. Um, and in government, I think the chief temptation is power uh… to try to acquire it, to try to acquire the next title, the higher title, you know, for its own sake for a sort of self-glorification, right? And you have to remember why you’re in the job, because ultimately those things are in vain. I think that’s true, again, in any career. Any time you’re looking at, uh, you’re looking for extrinsic, um, affirmation: higher salary, year-end bonus, better title, more people working under you… you’ll never be satisfied, because a… someone will always have more, you know. You can have whatever sort of, you know, petty power you have, but then there’s the President of the United States, where there’s you know, Elon Musk, who have more power, right? 

You can have whatever wealth you have. You can make, you know, a couple million bucks a year as an investment banker, and there’s someone you know sitting a couple cubicles down who makes $5 million a year. So you’ll never be good enough in your own eyes. And you’ll always be dissatisfied uh, by comparison by these extrinsic things. And in government, you’re not going to aspire to making lots of money. That’s not possible, um, unless you really engage in some chicanery. Um, what you aspire to is power and titles, and I think that’s the… the hardest part about being someone who wants to be true to Christian faith while being in government is making sure that you are motivated rightly. That you have an intrinsic motivation, you’re doing it because it’s worth doing it. You’re doing it because you’re looking to be of service to people, um, and not for those uh, more sort of toddy reasons, I would say.  

Yes, young lady here. 

Question: Thank you very much. My name is Elizabeth. I’m from Taylor University in Indiana. Have you ever been in a situation uh, where you faced a moral dilemma or were asked to do something that was against your Christian conviction? 

Answer: It’s a good question. Um, so, I think in terms of myself being asked to do something, no. Um, not directly. I think in my case because my jobs have had a lot more to do with, um, formulating policy I, I think it’s more a question of policy I agreed with or disagreed with, and frankly, you know, what I have found is that rarely have I, and really I can’t think of any… Rarely have I encountered a policy that the U.S. government has devised where I’ve said “no, I think that is, um, wrong morally for us to do.” There are of course many things that the U.S. government has to do which again don’t fit with a sense of individual morality.  

So spying, for example, is one. Spying is inherently deception. But as a government, we… we must do it in order to secure the country. And that’s where I say the imperatives of the state and the… in the sort of, um, uh, you know, requirements of individuals are different. And it’s important to accept that if you go into government. I… I think that there are, though, times where we have pursued policies which I have found unwise and of course, the wrong policies can bring with them all sorts of human costs. And I think that as Americans as well as… as Christians, but as Americans first and foremost, I think that there should be a desire to achieve the best policy outcomes at the lowest sort of cost, including human costs. 

I think that’s our responsibility, in a sense, as policy makers. And so I worked in government through the period, you know, essentially from 9/11 to the beginning of the Obama Administration. Those of you who were sort of paying attention to policy in that period know this was a time of tremendous uh, war, and violence, terrorism, and so forth. And, um I disagree with some of those approaches we took. I didn’t agree with the decision to go into Iraq, for example. And that’s where I kind of get back to this question. Well, what do you do in that circumstance? 

My approach always – and there’s other people who have taken different approaches – had been to make my case to the extent I could. And sometimes, you’re very junior and you don’t really have much of a… a position to make my case. So when we, in 2003, when we were going into Iraq, um I was working in a place called the State Department Operations Center, um, which was great fun, but it is essentially a junior position and nobody was asking my opinion about what our policy should be in the Middle East. 

Um, but then as I sort of rose up through the ranks, I became responsible for policy in the Middle East, actually, with the exception of Iraq which was a separate group of people, uh, because of the war. And I was then in a position to try to make the policy better, and in a sense I think it’s a… it’s… it’s… there’s a comparison or an analogy with how we have to deal with the world as Christians, right? My view has always been whatever you may think um, should be done in the world, you start with the world as you find it and you start with policy as you find it, you know? 

If you learn about foreign policy or international relations in school and you go through exercises and they say, come up with a policy towards this or that towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, towards Iran, towards China. You’re starting with a blank sheet of paper, but in government you never are. You’re starting with whatever the previous folks decided and you inherit it and you have to think “okay, how do I adjust this” and usually incrementally to make it better or more successful. Only on very rare occasions uh, do you have a chance to really break it and start again.  

So that was my approach. And I think that you can be successful in that approach, and I think that you can accept that while you… you… you don’t necessarily embrace or endorse everything that the government is doing, that you’re in a sort of privileged position to make it better, to have an impact. You could leave in protest, and sometimes that’s necessary. I’ve never found myself in that position but others have. You could leave in protest, but your… your departure, your leaving is… that’s your chance to make an impact, and after that, your chance to make an impact has disappeared.  

And so that’s why it’s such a tough decision to make. There’s a question right back there. Yep. 

Question: Thank you very much. My name is Daniel, and I’m not really in a foreign policy space yet, but I think one of the trickiest things for me would be when something that’s good for say, Christians in Syria, Iraq, or Armenia isn’t necessarily good for democracy or for U.S. interests. And just, um, as someone working in that space, how do you kind of balance your priorities and your personal, like personal… personal opinions towards the community when you’re… you’re thinking about larger implications as well?  

Answer: Well, look I… I think that it’s… you have to be very clear with yourself. If you go into government, your priority is U.S. interests and nothing else. Not the interests of any other group, including groups that you’re a member of, and that’s one of the hard parts about going into government, um, because you have of course your own personal beliefs and your own personal affiliations and sympathies that have to be laid aside for the benefit of the national interest.  

Now of course, the national interest is, uh, is contested. What’s in the national interest, and so you can go in and you can make your case that something is in the national interest. But what’s important, I think, is two things. Number one: to do it honestly. I think you have to really have the national interest in mind and not some other agenda. I think that that will… will ultimately be disastrous for American government, American policy, if everyone is pursuing their own personal agendas, because if you have permission to do it, then so does everybody else, right?  

Um, number two: um, you have to… having made your argument, then salute and go along with the policy, whatever it may be. And again, if you’re not comfortable doing that, it brings me back to the previous question. You have to leave, right? But again, I think that the benefit you have over the long run, as frustrating… frustrating as it may be in individual cases, is that if you’re working for the U.S. government, by and large, you’re working for a government that believes in, for example, religious liberty. That believes in the spread of democracy and universal rights. And these are highly compatible with protecting Christians or Jews or Muslims around the world. Um, these views are highly compatible with human flourishing and so hopefully you don’t find yourself too often in this particular dilemma, um. 

If you find yourself in that dilemma and you really can’t uh, tolerate, the sort of clash of your professional and personal imperatives then you have to leave. 

Question: I hope it’s okay if I piggyback on that just really quickly. Um, one… one thing I think that is a huge value added is for Christians to be in, uh, diplomacy is that there are huge blind spots, especially when you’re dealing with secular Europeans or just actually the average Washingtonian. And so just bringing in the faith perspective, I mean, especially because I think a lot of times people act as if everybody just is acting on economic motives, and so when you can be like, well actually faith is a real motive in this place, in Africa or for Muslims or something like that it’s, it’s just a huge blind spot. And you… you actually take these things seriously. Um, my question for you, though, is with the dissent channel. Um, how… how effective have you seen that be? Because my one time using it was not particularly uh, over well. 

Answer: Splendid… so let me… let me address the first point first because I think you’re exactly spot-on, right? So I think Mark mentioned… he… he outed me as an Anglican, which is true, um, and um, the… the fact is that the Anglican Church in the world um, is growing most you know, sort of, energetically in Asia, in Africa, in South America, and not in North America and Europe. There’s interesting things happening in North America and Europe. Um, but the real vibrancy of the Anglican Church is in the rest of the world.  

And if you look at big Anglican conferences around the world, like there’s something called Gafcon. It’s really the Asian and African churches especially that are the prime movers behind this, and you know, in a sense, this is a little bit of a… flipping the script for uh, anyone coming from the U.S. or Europe, right? Because we’re used to this kind of, I think actually erroneous notion of the Global South, you know? 

Global North… Global North is not really a term, but it’s sort of, you know, it’s sprung up because of the term Global South, but here we have again the countries of Asia and Africa in the lead and North America, Europe following. I think if you’re someone who is a person of faith, and again I don’t think this is limited to Christians, if you’re a person of faith, you have a way to understand and connect with people and other parts of the world that maybe some of your colleagues don’t have and you read what people like Mine Albright have written, she stresses the importance of this… the importance of understanding the role that faith plays in the lives of people around the world, because ultimately it’s going to impact our relations with them, their foreign policies, their strategies, and so fourth. 

And of course there’s any number of examples of this, right? So, so look. If you don’t understand religion and faith uh, whether you practice or not, then you don’t understand the motivations of a lot of people in the world.  

The dissent channel… Look. I don’t think there’s a way… so, that… so just everyone know what we’re talking about, the dissent channel is a mechanism at the State Department, um, to formally express dissent either as an individual or as a group. You can send a formal memo or telegram which basically says I disagree with this policy. You send it to the dissent channel, and it goes to theoretically at least the Secretary of State as well as some other senior policy makers at the State Department.  

I think the answer is that it depends. I have seen the dissent channel be effective, um, I think it’s effective when the arguments are good. I mean, maybe that’s sort of an idealistic way of putting it, um, but I think when the arguments are good, when you can say from a point of view of “I care a lot about U.S. interests and U.S. policy and I care a lot about the United States being successful in the world, and I think this policy ain’t cutting it, or we’re actually working against our interests, or maybe you and Washington don’t even know that this is happening. I think it can be effective. 

When it comes from other motivations, when it’s poorly argued, when it isn’t clearly, uh, sort of roote din what is the American strategy, I think it tends to fall on deaf ears because too often, you know, the dissent channel can be a sort of um, post-talk rehashing of a fight that’s already been lost, right? You know, we have a national security strategy. You can agree with it or disagree with it, but if your message back to Washington is “I don’t like that strategy,” you’re probably not going to get much of a hearing. If your message back to Washington is “hey, you have this strategy and here, this policy is actually cutting against it,” well, you’re likely to get a much better hearing. 

And so you know, again this kind of goes back to some of the other answers, you know. If you’re working in government when the policy debate is over, for the… for the most part, you have to salute and you have to carry out the policy. When evidence comes in that the policy isn’t working, then that debate often is rekindled. Adjustments need to be made, and that’s… that’s when you can really make a difference. But you also have… you have to recognize those moments and choose those moments. And then you have to marshal effective arguments in those moments. Defense, defense… weapons, Ukraine, a policy which was eventually adopted, you…  

Yes the microphone’s coming around here. You guys should save your really hard questions for Rebecca. She’s… she’s on next and she’s standing back there.  

Question: My name is… my name is Isaac Gritz. I’m from Patrick Henry College. You’ve mentioned a couple of times, uh, this idea that, uh, individual Christian mandates, that we’re supposed to follow in our everyday lives um, are not always that which the government is supposed to follow. Uh, could you offer just like a two-minute defense of that and then also extend, or give us sort of the, your idea of the extent and the limit of that? 

Answer: So a two-minute defense. Um, look I… I would say that, um, there’s… I don’t know if I can give a two-minute defense in the sense that this is something whole books have been written about, right? I think when you look at the, uh, mandates that were given in say, the New Testament, these are… these are individual mandates, and again, when you look at Jesus’s interactions with authority figures, um, it’s… there’s a different sort of conversation. It’s clear that authority comes from God. He says this to Pilate. But it’s also clear that the actions of States, what’s expected of States is not the same as what’s expected of individuals.  

And I think this is common sense. In our own lives, right? We need the government to act as a provider of justice. That means punishing people who commit crimes. We as Christians are called to forgive, uh, to turn the other cheek, even. But that’s not what our justice system is called to do. It’s not what States are called to do, because if States acted that way, we would have a breakdown of order. Uh, if you didn’t in foreign policy terms deter violent actors, terrorists, State sponsors of terrorism, then they would have a free field to do as they wished and that would be a world in which religious liberty couldn’t flourish, in which individuals couldn’t flourish and all those things that we are called to do would be impeded. 

And so we need the State, we need governments to provide those things. Those common… those public goods, as it were, of justice, law and order, security, and so forth, so that we can carry out those individual mandates that were given. And we rely on the state to do that. 

Um, your second question was the limits. Look I… I think the limits um, are difficult to define, right? But I would go back to the polling, right? I think we as Americans understand what we expect of our country, right? We are a democracy, um, we are a place that believes… believes that we should be a force for good in the world. That’s balanced, though, against people who are also thinking that, you know, we should sort of mind our own business and take care of our own interests, um, so we have these notions which kind of coexist, sometimes seem contradictory, because while Americans want us to be a force for good in the world, we also sometimes are skeptical about the idea of, say, going out and spreading democracy. That also comes through very clearly in polls. So there is no answer to this very clearly. It’s sort of a, you know, when you see it and sometimes, you know it more in hindsight than you do at the time, right?  

And that’s why you have to bring good judgement into government and that’s all I can really say about it is, you know, I think later on Mark Levi will talk to you guys about proportionality in war. It’s a concept that many people misunderstand because, according to the laws of armed conflict, what proportionality means is that the military gain has to be, uh, in proportion to whatever expected civilian loss, collateral damage, as it were, um. So you can’t… you can’t sort of lawfully cause enormous civilian damage for small military gain. That would be disproportional, right? 

And I think we have to have a sense of proportionality in all of our policy, right? As we’re pursuing it, sometimes, you know, again the imperatives of government requires us to do things which, you know have regrettable consequences, but if the overall aim is a just one and that sort of… and if there’s a right proportion between the good that you’re accomplishing and the negative consequences, then I think you can feel as though you’re on solid ground. 

But that’s a matter of judgement. And so all of us have to bring our good judgement. I have to bring our sort of, um, the values we have acquired and the knowledge we have acquired through our education into these roles. Government. Which is why I hope you guys will all go in. Thank you. Thanks.