Mark Tooley: Hello. This is Mark Tooley editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy with yet another episode of Marxism with fellow Mark/c, Marc LiVecche, and fellow editor of Providence. And today is a very special episode on New Year’s Day. As we review 2020 and possibly look into peer into distant future of 2021 I have a few rambling thoughts about Christian political witness and as it applies to America and its role in the world and Marc LiVecche will respond with his usual brilliance. My first is the continued relevance of American Christianity in American politics, even though we are purportedly more secular nation, Evangelicals remain a key element in the Republican Party, there has been arguably a resurgence of the religious left among progressives and among Democrats. So Christianity as a political force has not receded. If anything, it has amplified arguably. Secondly, is the continued influence and force of Christian Zionism, the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem which the Bible incoming administration has said they will not revert. And seemingly anti-Israel animus in American Christianity, no doubt, it’s still there, but it seems quiescent right now. The pro-Israel perspective seems to have become the default perspective, but we’ll see if that continues. Third, how the church has responded to issues of race and social unrest reveals a deficit in how the church addresses society. Lots of good intentions and efforts but still not hitting the mark, I don’t think. And then finally on a related point, the thinness of political theology for American Christians across the spectrum on religious right and religious left and that both sides are very, very tribalized, very ideological, and not very deeply connected to Christian tradition. For conservative Christians Christian social witness means I’m protecting the church in law and policy on religious liberty issues and being pro life. For those on the left it’s about immigration anti-racism, expanding the state to ever larger dimensions for social welfare purposes. That’s about as far as either side goes. So Marc LiVecche, as a political theologian yourself, what is your analysis in terms of what 2020 means for American Christianity and America’s role in the world?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah. Well, I like your analysis and it’s spot on. I think mine dovetails with it nicely and one sense, I was, I was looking back at my own writings for Providence and it wasn’t literally the first. But one of the first. I think it was the second article that I wrote in January of 2020. It was on the killing of the Republican Guard General Soleimani, the Iranian general but killed in Iraq. And I ended 2020 with an analysis of the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist. So in one sense, these bracket the year and emphasize in an indirect way, that nothing has changed, the world is still what it is and therefore Christian Realism as a temperament, or as a lens for which Christians can have a serious minded view of the intersection of theology and faith and public life, remains relevant. You know, the key tenets of Christian Realism, as we’ve emphasized over and over in these pages is that, you know, there is one reality. You have to get the facts on the ground as accurate as you can in order to respond to reality effectively. You have to take into account the human fall. We may want to live in peace, but those who mean us will have a vote. In some sense, you know, they make the bed in which we all have to sleep and we have to continually remember that and we have to respond to it. And if we have to respond to it, then that means we need a strong military, that means that we can’t indulge and sentimental idealistic thoughts that it’s some sort of a, you know, it’s bread or bombs, we can actually spend money on both. And we have a moral requirement to do so. You know, you take into account the fact that we won’t be able to eliminate evil in our time and that history is full of examples of the horrors that happened when we try to eliminate evil in our time this year marker last year. Now I can say last year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two and the West’s successful fight against totalitarian regimes that insisted they could collapse the eschatology, in fact, and create some sort of perfect world. We recognize that does not work, and that will not work. At the same time, Christian Realists recognize that while we cannot eliminate evil in our time, we can eliminate this evil and that evil and we can increase the common good. We can increase justice, order and peace. And so we have modest aspirations, but they’re still robust enough to give us marching orders and to guide our political life together. We also recognize that the government at the end of the day is not going to be the source of our salvation and we recognize that our salvation comes from somewhere else. And so that also keeps our eye on a very distant horizon and a future that is guaranteed that goodness wins. In the end, but that today matters and we still have a lot to do. You know that’s the year in general. I think Providence has responded well. To the questions of race and I think in the beginning, maybe we had a question. And I’ve been asked by friends, you know, why is Providence responding to the questions of race, you guys deal with foreign policy. I think national character affects foreign policy. So I think that we recognize that Providence has a role in trying to assess and critique the American character and what that looks like. You know, maybe there’s some sort of dovetailing with the idea that just wars will only be fought by just warriors and so therefore we need to create just warriors. And that’s a question of character like who are we as a nation, who can we be collectively and how do we take that character forth into the world. Is it our security only or does our security or the security of international neighbors matter? Those are all questions that hinge on character. And I think how we treat injustices or perceived injustices in our own communities is going to have a ramifications on that. So I think we have a role to play in questions about race. I had mentioned to you earlier that for me, one of the great revelations of Providence, I can call out a single writer, the Georgetown Professor Joshua Mitchell. He wrote an article about America in the aftermath of George Floyd, and I think his sort of meta analysis of American character right now is the best that I’ve seen. And I think the role that he has to play as a public intellectual is critically important. His newest book American Awakening is sensational. And I’m thrilled that we’re promoting the work that he does, because I think he has explanatory keys for all the different things that you’ve touched on, questions of race in America, questions of our political life. You know, it seems that for some of us as we get further from established religion we have to rely on something until we want to rely on government so government becomes the end all and it is a life or death game that is being played. And we want as much government as we can. And others are, you know, recognize that we’re not going to get our moral lessons from political leaders. We’re going to get it from the churches. We’re going to get it from, you know, fellow Christians, our co-religionists and other faiths that are aimed at the common good. And that’s where we’re going to get moral lessons that create as you say very different approaches to political life together. So those are some of my highlights of the year.
Mark Tooley: In terms of Christian Realism, it would seem the increased tribalization of religious factions left and right, neither seems very Christian Realist and both essentially are sacralizing their respective causes and demonizing the other. But it could also be argued that Christian Realism is not really too intrinsic to America itself. America tends to be idealistic and sweeping in its ambitions and to assume that we can build the kingdom here in our sacred land. But what do you think?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that there’s a certain probably room temperature, moral theological perspectives on politics, and one can either be too cold or one can either be too warm, and they need to move back toward room temperature. So I think for some Christian Realism is a constraint. It sobers our aspirations, I think. For others, it can be a goal and it sparks you to action. So in this sense, I guess there’s this Aristotelian golden mean. And then there’re the perversions of that golden center on either side. And in my own life, I think I’m a red-blooded American and I aspire to fixing all the world’s problems, right. So I want a very adventurous foreign policy by temperament. I want to go abroad and find those monsters and slay them by temperament. Christian Realism reminds me of the limits of the dangers of that. So I think that’s right. I think Christian Realism is not an American ideology alone. It’s built into the human condition, and it either acts as a constraint or a goal or both at once at different times.
Mark Tooley: My interview with the Lutheran thinker, Robert Benne, last week, mostly coming from the Two Kingdoms theology perspective of Lutheranism, but also the Niebuhrian, and he argues that Niebuhr essentially emerges from the Two Kingdoms perspective, but he noted that America as a Calvinist project tends to believe in sanctifying all of society and I added that the Methodist revivalist experience also added a perfectionism to that project. And Christian Realism is pretty much coming from the opposite direction to both of those initiatives, would you agree?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think Christian Realism, one of the advantages it has is that it’s incredibly morally nuanced. I don’t think it indulges in sweeping absolutes. I think it recognizes that heritage of Lutheran theology. There’s a theological nuance in the Christian Realist understanding of the cost of political responsibility in the world that I think is often missed. You know, I think Niebuhr probably a lot of his time was unnecessarily beating his own chest over advocating for political responsibility because it stains your hands and stains your soul and it incurs moral guilt. The Augustinian moral realist doesn’t believe this, it’s more nuanced than that, It’s impossible probably not to be complicit with evil in the world. Any military action from the Augustinian perspective results in evil. But there are distinctions that can be made in evil that I think the Niebuhrian doesn’t make. There’s moral evil. There’s non-moral evil. Non-moral evil doesn’t result in moral stain. It’s the loss of certain goods in the world anytime a life is lost. So we hit Soleimani, there is a loss of good in the world. The loss of life. But it is in the sense that is morally right to do and if there are such things as morally right assassinations, that means that there are such things as assassinations that are not morally wrong, and the Christian Realist makes those kinds of distinctions.
Mark Tooley: One more point I’ll add, which seems to be despite all of the current against it, American Exceptionalism seems to have survived. We have, of course, the 1619 project, the tearing down of statues, the demonization of American history, but many if not most of these zealots who supposedly are anti-American themselves seem to be American exceptionalists with these extraordinary almost supernatural expectations of what America is supposed to be and what it is supposed to do, with these extraordinary judgments that are being levied on America as if we are almost the chosen people who have higher standards than any other nation. So we oddly have that going on and then also we have this I think unusual shift in terms of the outgoing administration was not exceptionalist in terms of wanting to export American democracy. So in that sense, the parties have shifted from where they had been in previous decades. The incoming administration seems more rhetorically committed to the export of American democracy and the promotion of human rights, at least rhetorically, we’ll see where they go in terms of policy. But otherwise, I think American Exceptionalism seems to be a rumbling forward just with a different manifestation. But what think you, Marc?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think your comments about it, remind me, I suppose decades ago. At this point, I was living in Slovakia during the U.S. air campaign over Kosovo. And I had a friend who had at one point been a refugee from Yugoslavia, she had seen an awful lot of horror. But at this point, you know, we’re contending against her people. And she was very chagrined to discover that the American air force could be stopped from blowing up key bridges simply by Serbian civilians having rock concerts on those bridges and they would hold up these signs you might remember that said shoot me. And of course, the American military planes would just pass overhead without dropping the ordinance and she laughed, and she said that they could defeat the American air force with signs and rock concerts. And so I thanked her for the compliment and she asked me, you know, what are you talking about and I simply asked, well, would you have done that with the Soviets? And she said, well, of course not. Well, why would you have not done this with the Soviets? Well, they would have blown up the bridges. Anyway, so right so you are identifying something about the American character that is precious and and you recognize that Americans, by and large, are in various ways exceptional. And so I think the backhanded compliment that a lot of these zealots are paying is that they have very high expectations of something that they appear to loathe in every other way, which would be silly and counterproductive if they didn’t recognize something about the American character which is strong and resilient and remains in many ways a beacon to the West and hopefully to the rest of the world. History is full of correctives. You know, there’s a lot that Trump did that was correct. I hope the Biden administration doesn’t overcorrect because as they they say he who does not learn from the lessons of history is bound to repeat the mistakes. An awful lot of what Trump did, especially in the Middle East, is eminently worthy of being built upon and not retracted. So it will be interesting to see where we go from here.
Mark Tooley: In conclusion, expectations hopes or predictions for 2021? I’ll just note that there will be accelerated bifurcation in American religion. The Methodist denomination will ratify a schism. The Southern Baptists won’t schism but they seem to be increasingly scattered and at odds with each other. There’s a continued postdenominationalism and lack of organized structure lacking connection to Christian tradition in American Christianity which is going to play out ideologically. And there’s also the interesting ongoing severe critique of American Evangelicals who had been very pro Trump, of course, in part because they are being self-protective and want to protect the church and religious liberty issues which critics find to be completely unacceptable. And there seems to be a unique expectation that Evangelicals, unlike any other interest group, are supposed to ignore their own interests and be purely altruistic. So I think they’re expecting Evangelicals to be like the Mainline Protestants of old. But the Mainline Protestants were on top of the pyramid for a couple of centuries and could afford that kind of noblesse oblige, whereas Evangelicals don’t have that kind of influence. So Marc, what do you see happening in 2021?
Marc LiVecche: Yeah, a couple of things and I’m probably thinking more darkly that I need to be or than I have to be right now. Early in 2021 I expect the administration’s approach to China is going to be at least made somewhat clear. I think China is going to compel it. They’re going to want to know what American policy is going to be toward it. You know, and over the last week I’ve had numerous conversations with with several people one whom said we already should have provoked a major war with China because it has to happen and we should fight it now while we can win it rather than later when we might not. That’s grim. I don’t suspect the Biden Administration will go in that direction, but they need to be dealt with strongly, and it will divide the administration over how strongly, and what will that look like. So I think a major, clearer understanding of how Biden Administration is going to approach China is going to be made early. I suspect also in the racial questions. I think presumably a verdict in the George Floyd case is going to have to come down within 2021. I suspect that verdict based on body cam evidence based on what seems to me, maybe overcharging the officers. I think that verdict is going to not be well received. I won’t predict what that will be. I’m not quite sure they’re going to walk, but I think it’s going to be significantly different than many people hope and I think a lot of the injustices that we’re seeing are going to be missed because of overzealous charges. So I think that’s going to be reckoned with. And it’ll be interesting to see how America responds to that under a liberal administration, rather than a conservative one. And then presumably, just like with China, I think the Biden Administration is going to have to confront and handle Iran. And I think that will be fascinating. So those are some things that will be looking for. And I’m not necessarily looking forward to it.
Mark Tooley: Grim but not necessarily despairing. So Marc LiVecche, wishing you a very Christian Realist 2021. And meet you again next week. Hopefully with our third Mark of our triad.
Marc LiVecche: Very good. Happy New Year.
Mark Tooley: Happy New Year