In the weekly Marksism series, Mark Tooley, Mark Melton, and Marc LiVecche discuss the latest content from the week. First, they review Tooley’s interview with Elbridge Colby about US-China relations and whether a moral ideology should guide US foreign policy. Then they cover an article by Dale M. Coulter that explains how a Wesleyan political theology justifies religious and civil liberty. Finally, Mark Melton covers his podcast interview with Nadine Maneza, vice-chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and he discusses how this organization fits into US foreign policy and how it advocates for religious minorities globally.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with yet another episode of “Marksism” with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton, and today we are reviewing two, three topics from Providence over this past week. Firstly, an interview with the national security expert and scholar Elbridge Colby, who asserts that ideology should not play a major role in America’s strategic competition with China. Then, we’ll touch on an essay about Wesleyan political theology by Wesleyan scholar Dale Coulter, and finally we’ll talk about international religious freedom in terms of an interview Mark Melton conducted by Nadine Maenza, a member of the US International Freedom Commission. Firstly, regarding Elbridge Colby, he wrote a column for Foreign Affairs about which I interviewed him, in which he warned that ideology should not play a major role in our, no doubt years and that decades-long, future competition with China in the same sense that it did with the Soviet Union. He believes that centralizing ideological competition will amplify the struggle in unhealthy ways and makes a point that China, even if not governed by the communist party, would still by virtue of its size and interest be at odds with the United States, a fellow great nation. In numerous ways, he self-identifies as a realist and someone who believes that America doesn’t have a role in necessarily spreading its creed around the world, although America is in a sense, or can see itself, as a sort of “promised land” in that it can be a model for other nations, but the extent to which they choose to follow that model is up to them. I challenged him a bit, pointing out that Americans by nature tend to moralize America’s role in the world and to see our adversaries in black and white terms, so it seems almost inevitable that ideology will play a role. Plus, even in terms of realism, China is an authoritarian nation and its rulers and the members of the communist party see their struggle with the United States in ideological terms. They see democracy as intrinsically at odds with their perspective and indeed a threat to their own governance. So, Marc LiVecche, what are your thoughts on Elbridge Colby’s realist perspective regarding ideology in China?

LiVecche: Yeah, I think I’m happy to take the third view, right. I think you’re providing a necessary corrective to maybe some overstatements that he’s making; at the same time, I think he’s making a necessary corrective to this idea that moralism, you know, is maybe somehow sufficient. I think he’s right- communist China is not the Soviet Union. I think the Soviet Union fell largely under its own weight. You know, we pushed it, that had a role to play, but you’ve sometimes heard it called a “revolution by candlelight,” that’s spread across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire. Where our moralism played a role- Reagan calling it an “Evil Empire” played a role, missionary movements played a role, Pope John Paul II played a role- you don’t see maybe some of those same things necessarily playing similar roles in China. So different case, different response. Ideology, you’re right, is always going to play a role. I think Americans are hopeless ideologues in the sense that we do tend to see things black and white. Elbridge is right that we have to take interests seriously- we are going to be competitors with China almost no matter what, right. You know, the trap is that a rising power is always going to compete with the hegemon. We have to take that seriously. It’s not just, you know, the ideology is more than simply an economic system- it’s a cultural view- and that’s going to chasten the way that we go about them. But I don’t think you necessarily have to choose strictly between an interest-based foreign policy and one that recognizes that values and moral vision play a role. So, I think the Christian realist, you know, plays a mediating position.

Tooley: Mark Melton, anything to add to the Christian realist perspective regarding US competition with China?

Melton: One of the things that, you know, talking about this reminded me of an article we ran in the print edition a few years ago about moral triage and basically not talking about moral issues unless there’s a clear way of ensuring that the government will change. In other words, don’t talk about Turkey’s problems where, you know, international religious liberty issues there unless you actually have a chance of changing the facts on the ground there with your criticisms of the country. And it’s an interesting idea, but I think one of the big problems with this approach is government, a lot of administrations across Republicans and Democrats, have tried to do stuff like this, but their hands get tied. An example could be with the Magnitsky Act under the Obama Administration, where the Obama Administration opposed having this done. This basically would have, or it did, punish a lot of Russians, and the administration was worried about their hands being tied with negotiations with Russia over moral issues. And so, what happened is that Congress forced it on to the president and so they had to deal with it even though they didn’t want to. And I think we still deal with some of the same issues now. I think there’s a sense where, like with the Uyghurs, you know, talking to different people who care about international religious liberty, there’s a fear that the Trump Administration, some in the Trump Administration, care about the situation of the Uyghurs. But there’s a fear, I kind of hear from different people in the field, that maybe the Trump, people in the Trump Administration, don’t care that much about it and they basically used the issue as a pawn to try to get China to buy more soybeans or to buy more whatever. In fact, if they were buying the soybeans, and which it appears they’re not under the trade deal, or they agree to but they’re not doing it, that the issue would be dropped. So, there’s a fear that some of these issues get used as like moral pawns by the administration, but then you have the Congress who comes in and actually forces it upon the administration to do that. And one example is, like we’ll talk about the interview later, but the US Commission on International Religious Freedom forces the issue to come up even though the administration, depending on who’s in the White House and what not- Obama, Trump, whoever- may want that to be silenced a little bit so that they have more room to maneuver when they’re doing negotiations with other countries.

Tooley: And it should be pointed out that Elbridge Colby, in terms of morality, believes that advancing the nation’s interests in and of itself is a moral imperative. And on that point, I believe we are certainly agreed. Well, our next topic regarding Dale Coulter’s piece on Wesleyan political theology I thought was very important because Wesleyan spirituality has played such an important role in shaping America and is today shaping, or having a huge impact on, the world to the rise of global Pentecostalism, which is itself Wesleyan. And yet its political theology is rarely, if ever, articulated, unlike say Calvinism, from whom you’ll have a new book virtually every week, and of course Catholic teaching is well-known in political theology, and Lutheranism, etc. I think that Dale Coulter makes the point that Wesleyanism is especially prone to promote democracy and egalitarian beliefs and civil society because it was never an established church, although Wesley himself came out of an established church, and because Wesleyanism is rooted in belief in natural law. But his perspective on natural law is infused by divine grace and so it’s a little bit distinct from the reformed perspective. Certainly, much more work is needed on articulating a Wesleyan political theology. I encouraged Dale Coulter to write a book, but Marc LiVecche, in terms of how Wesleyanism contrasts with the reformed or the Catholic perspective on political theology, what are your thoughts?

LiVecche: Yeah, I loved the piece. I think it’s one of the most theologically in-depth pieces we have published in a while, so that warms the cockles of my own heart. Yeah, I think his push on Wesleyanism as producing a, promoting democracy, is crucial. This calls to mind a piece that we published a few weeks back, one of the old Christianity & Crisis pieces, I think called “A Christian View of Sovereignty,” in which Niebuhr, I think it was Niebuhr but somebody else might have written it, contrasts two different types of democracy: a democracy of the individual and a democracy of the person. And he said the individual is simply this distinct, you know, autonomous entity; whereas a person is defined as a human being shaped by all these lesser units within a larger cultural context. So, their church, their family, their community, you know, the associations which they are a part of, and that these things coalesce to form a person, and that a democracy is best fueled by persons and that democracy needs to promote, maintain, and protect a place for persons within its society because individuals are not enough. And according to Coulter, I think Wesley is capturing some of this in the sense that freedom is not simply the ability to choose between contrasting options, as you note he roots in a natural law. So, freedom from the Wesleyan point of view is the ability to choose what is right for human flourishing, which he kept grounding- Wesley- in Augustinianism which is fine, but I think this contrasting view of freedom is particularly domestic. So, Thomas Aquinas’ view of freedom is for excellence, you know, we are not simply free to choose arbitrarily, we’re not free to choose indifferently, instead our freedom is designed to promote excellence- and excellence here means to be that for which we were made. And so, if from a Wesleyan point of view democracy is rooted in a democracy of persons and that persons have a fiduciary role in representing these lesser units which make up human life, and if human freedom is designed toward excellence, toward being that for which we were made, then you’ve got in place I think all the bits for a real robust Christian realism that recognizes the importance of government for the promotion of civil and religious liberty, while at the same time recognizing that the government has a limited role- that it will never fully promote human flourishing- that you need the church, you need these civic associations, you need these lesser units. So, I think what he’s produced is really in line with this, the, you know, the political views that we’re trying to promote here at Providence. He created a nice contrast with Reinhold Niebuhr I think where he talks about justice, giving to each their due, and if that’s the case for justice or that’s the definition of justice, then justice is not in contrast to love, as Niebuhr would very often put it. But justice is rather the full expression of love, so that moves us beyond some of the limits of an Iberian view. So yeah, I thought it was a great essay; I look forward to his book and even the movie that should come out about it.

Tooley: I should also point out that Coulter makes a point that Wesleyanism tends to be perhaps more hopeful than other traditions are in terms of social and political reforms, but culture stresses this because of a confidence in constant ongoing divine intervention as apart from a progressive perspective that obviously omits that part about divine intervention in terms of human improvement.

LiVecche: So, it’s an optimism but it’s not a satanic optimism.

Tooley: No, definitely not satanic.

LiVecche: Correct.

Tooley: Finally, with Mark Melton, tell us just a little bit about your talk with Nadine Maenza about international religious freedom.

Melton: Right, so I did a podcast interview that came out yesterday morning with Nadine Maenza about international religious freedom issues, like you said, and she is the vice chairman I believe of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. And so, what’s interesting is, because you also did an interview with Samah, what was her last name?

Tooley: Samah Norquist at USAID about their growing focus on helping persecuted religious minorities.

Melton: Right, so what’s interesting is to contrast these two different organizations. They have different purposes and they serve different organizations. So, of course, USAID, like in the Norquist position, that is, you know, appointed by the president and serves at the will of the president; whereas the US Commission on International Religious Freedom is a bipartisan, you have congressional and presidential appointees, I’m not sure who appoints who and when, but the idea is that unlike the State Department or someone else in the administration, they have, they will basically expose what’s going on in different countries, even if it’s inconvenient for our negotiations and are, like say, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is doing something bad, then USCIRF will kind of bring that up. And so, it’s interesting kind of contrasting those two different organizations. And you can go and listen to those interviews and see the differences there, but the, and I think that kind of ties into what I was mentioning earlier where the Congress, which set up USCIRF, will force the US government to at least recognize that different countries are doing things, unsavory actions. But another thing that I thought was really interesting with this interview with Nadine is that some of the successes they had- she talked about Uzbekistan and how the country was trying to actually implement different laws to make it easier to register as different religious groups, which before it was very difficult. And so, we talked about how there’s, it seemed to me, like there’s a spectrum where on the one hand you have countries like China which are very nefarious, and they’re reasons why they are oppressing religious minorities, and for them it’s a matter of, you know, state stability and the party’s control over the country, and allowing these religious groups threatens them. Whereas in other places it seemed after talking to her that there are other countries that, I use the word I think “incompetent” but I think another word could just be “inexperienced” with trying to implement laws. Like in America, we have centuries of laws and constitutional rulings to kind of set up our religious freedom; whereas these other countries are sometimes starting from scratch, or they’re starting from like a Soviet model, trying to allow religious freedom. And so, this organization kind of helped some of these countries understand like what is it that they can do if they actually want to implement religious freedom. And if they don’t, then they’ll call them out on it. And they have different lists to call out different countries for, you know, their misdeeds.

Tooley: Mark Melton, Marc LiVecche, thank you for another intense “Marksism” conversation. Until next week, bye-bye.

Melton: Thank you.