By David Gushee
One of the great weaknesses of contemporary Christian public engagement is in the area of U.S. foreign policy.
We live in what for now remains the most powerful nation on earth, and there are a goodly number of us Christians here — perhaps a majority of the population, depending on how we make the count. And yet we have done little to hone our reflections about how this nation conducts its foreign policy.
This weakness became apparent to me when working on my book on faith and politics. I discovered that the evangelical/Christian right had two problems in this regard. One was a narrow focus on what have been called “moral values” issues such as abortion, stem cells and homosexuality.
The other was that, amid this supposedly narrow focus, these groups had in most cases essentially adopted neoconservative or Bush administration foreign policy as “the Christian position.” Just review the history or look at their websites and it will be apparent.
The evangelical left has tended to give much more attention to foreign-policy concerns, but their stance has often lacked nuance. They have generally been dovish, multilateralist, and aid/trade oriented. They have historically opposed every U.S. military action, emphasized globalized rather than unilateral solutions to foreign-policy challenges, and attacked the current U.S.-dominated international economic/political apparatus such as the World Bank and trade agreements.
Meanwhile, in Christian academia, in the world of textbooks and classes, it often seems that the only issue ever discussed is the ethics of war. Many who have been to a Christian college or seminary can now run through the criteria of just-war theory and contrast it with pacifism. Some even know about just-peacemaking theory. But even this laudable breakthrough often fails the concreteness test. Most presentations of the ethics of war are theoretical and abstract and fail to think about the particular challenges facing Christians in the most military-powerful and military-engaged nation in the world.
While I am no foreign-policy expert, I am convinced that Christians who seek to be thoughtful and engaged citizens need to be thinking about at least these issues:
— The power of the United States in the world
Many have argued or now assume that the U.S. is the world’s sole superpower, or “hyperpower.” Sometimes our nation is described as the new Roman Empire, and this is not usually meant as a compliment. On the other hand, the staggering costs — in blood, treasure and prestige — of the Iraq War and to some extent of Afghanistan, together with the inexorable rise of powers like China, have others arguing that the United States is now clearly in decline.
There are factual and moral questions to consider here. The factual questions involve how one evaluates the power of a nation and how the United States is actually doing in relation to other nations or its own prior power.
The more interesting question is moral. It involves considering whether we, as Christians, should care about how much power the United States might have. Should we want our nation to have the power of an empire? Should we care if our nation is in decline? To what extent is loyalty to the self-interest of one nation — our nation — in a world of 190 nations, appropriate for Christians? Are we to be entirely internationalist, entirely nationalist or something in between?
— Unilateralism vs. international cooperation
The world both is and is not one entity — the world community. At times it does function as a kind of mega-polity, as one global community. We see this in international treaties (that work), in global market capitalism, in global emergency-relief efforts, to some extent in a disputed thing called international law, and sometimes in the meetings and acts of the United Nations. On the other hand, the world also gives evidence of functioning as an unsupervised, disunited collection of individual nations and alliances in which those with the most power win.
Most Christian ethicists believe that international cooperation and the strengthening of a strong global community are the right goals. They (we) believe that the United States is actually better off as a cooperating member of this international community, even if our actions are sometimes constrained by that involvement. Of course, after 9/11 the Bush administration emphasized U.S. unilateralism and embarked on the Iraq War with little international support.
Question: Can it be shown that multilateralism and international cooperation, rather than unilateralism and the rule of the most powerful, is the preferred Christian position?
— Military intervention
Setbacks in Iraq and limited success in Afghanistan have shown that the U.S. military is not omnipotent. Nor is the U.S. budget omnicompetent to handle every stress we might load on it. With over 4,000 deaths in Iraq, many times that number seriously wounded, and a long-term commitment to care for survivors through a variety of expensive programs, our nation may be reaching the limit of how much military force we can hope to apply in the world.
Isolationists, libertarians, peacemakers and many others who are simply weary of war are calling for an end to our involvement in Iraq and a reconsideration of our military involvements in general. And yet some of the same people continue to press for involvement of our military to prevent genocide, as in Sudan. Christians must think through both the practicalities and the ethics of the use of the United States military in the world.
It is past time that Christians turn our attention to serious consideration of these and other moral issues relevant to U.S. foreign policy.