America’s retreat from the global stage under the Trump administration is a startling departure from Washington’s traditional post-World War II foreign policy. Once a leading advocate for democracy, free trade, and international cooperation, the US now watches from the sidelines as our traditional allies rally behind the Paris Climate Accord, Iran Nuclear Deal, and Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Our increasingly isolated position on the world stage is rightly raising concerns within academic and professional circles. Walter Russell Mead, the renowned scholar of international affairs, noted that, “For the first time in 70 years, the American people have elected a president who disparages the policies, ideas, and institutions at the heart of postwar US foreign policy.”
With the Trump administration seemingly poised to upend the liberal order, can there be a Christian response? One cannot start to answer this question without first acknowledging that Christians—like countless other groups—are divided over the president’s foreign policy.
For many Christian believers, President Trump has spoken to the real concerns that they have over the direction of our nation’s international affairs. Academics, such as Jeff Colgan and Robert Keohane, recently pointed out that many Americans have suffered under the current international system. Globalization, hastened by free trade agreements, has disproportionately affected members of the working class. With the economic elite capturing most of the benefits, many blue-collar workers were left behind in our globalized, twenty-first century economy.
It is important to remember, that Christians have been divided over questions of foreign policy for a long time. Historically, passionate believers have fallen all across the ideological spectrum, with some gravitating towards interventionist policies and others towards pacifism and isolationism.
In 1941, with Nazi Germany sweeping through Europe, leading Christian voices remained bitterly divided over the question of intervention. Reinhold Niebuhr—a leading twentieth century theologian and intellectual—firmly advocated intervention, arguing that, “The task of defending the rich inheritance of our civilization to be an imperative one.” Isolationists, however, also counted Christians among their faction. Niebuhr’s contemporary and Christian pacifist Harry Fosdick declared, “A war for democracy is a contradiction in terms, that war itself is democracy’s chief enemy.”
This tension within the religious community once again emerged in the 2000’s over the invasion of Iraq. Some Christians called the Bush administration imperialists and Pope John Paul II sent senior Vatican diplomat Pio Laghi to urge President Bush not to invade. Other believers thought the conflict met all the requirements of just war theory and considered the looming clash to be justified.
It appears to me that this divide is both natural and healthy—each faction hopefully regulates the worst impulses of the other. The current administration’s actions are once again dividing Christians. Although President Trump’s foreign policy is not easily characterized, it is clear that the White House is abdicating America’s role as a global leader on a number of issues, including free trade, climate change, and collective security. Some believers applaud these actions; others consider them foolish. All Christians, however, should at least demand that this administration’s isolationist tendencies remain consistent with America’s historic desire to be a model to the rest of the world.
Sailing for America in 1630, Puritan leader John Winthrop famously envisioned their new settlement as a “city on a hill,” with the eyes of the entire world upon them. This vision of a model community has transcended centuries of American history and become foundational to our national identity and purpose. Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan rallied the nation behind this idea.
For believers wondering how this idea can be combined with an isolationist foreign policy, John Quincy Adams provides an excellent roadmap. Speaking before the House of Representatives on July 4, 1821, Adams championed an isolationist vision of America that “held forth the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity” and spoke the “language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights.” He goes on to say that, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
The Trump administration’s radical break with the foreign policy community was bound to produce disagreement among Christians. Thus, it is vital that we establish a framework for discussing the contentious issues that have and will arise. Winthrop’s vision appears to be an important piece of this framework. If believers can first determine whether a policy aligns with our country’s desire to be a model nation, perhaps we can achieve some consensus.