Wednesday, May 16, 2012

America's foreign policy and Christian values

A protester questions whether Bush's policies reflect 'Christian values'

Preface: There is no way to do justice to a topic like this in 2000 words. Absolutely no way. Maybe 200,000 words. I have chosen to write critically as this is a university assignment. However, I do still hold to my conclusion - that the exegesis of Christian values which Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Wallis support, is closer to the law of Christ as it is written in the Gospels. I would love to hear your feedback, as always!

Critically discuss the relationship between America's foreign policy and the concept of 'Christian values'.

The Judeo-Christian narrative has historically been at the heart of the American story. The United States of America has often considered themselves to be a ‘redeemer nation’, a ‘city on a hill’, a ‘righteous empire’, and the ‘last hope.’[1] All of these terms have deeply religious connotations. This narrative which the USA so strongly feels a part of has helped raise leaders who view the world in ‘moralistic, highly dualistic, and frequently apocalyptical ways.’[2] Leaders of the Christian tradition from across the political spectrum, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to George W. Bush have all incorporated a Judeo-Christian narrative into their respective political ideologies.[3] What is of concern in this paper is how leaders and believers who claim to follow the same religion and teachings can reach radically different conclusions on how to respond to issues of international justice, especially those that are specifically related to America’s foreign policy. In this essay I will explore a selection of the diverse political ideologies held by Christians in America and consider how, if at all, they relate to the Christian narrative.

In recent years, a vast amount of research has taken place in regard to the influence that a person’s religious identity has on their political ideology. A great deal of this research separates Christian groups into Catholic and Protestant, Progressive and Conservative, Fundamental and Liberal, and the list goes on. Unfortunately some of the literature is quite circular in its approach and does not fully recognise the dynamic nature of religious identity. For example, an ‘evangelical’ may gain this label because they are politically conservative, and furthermore, a political conservative who is a Christian will sometimes be described as an ‘evangelical’. Naturally, all that one can derive from this logic is that ‘a’ is equal to ‘a’, and we arrive at no greater truth. For the purposes of this essay I will use the terms as the literature on the subject uses them, but with full recognition that all that is observable about particular political religious identities are patterns and trends, rather than categorical absolutes.

Christianity in the USA does have particular patterns and trends among its believers and leaders; there is a deep connection between religious identity and political ideologies. Such a deep connection between religion and politics in a quasi-secular democracy gives America a unique standing amongst world democracies. Lienesch suggests that the ‘Conservative Christian’ American citizen feels it to be her duty to ‘save other nations from religious backwardness and political corruption.’[4] While the view that America has a special role ‘to carry its values to other lands’ is widely held amongst her citizens, it appears that this view is held most strongly amongst those of the Christian tradition.[5] However, amongst the diverse Christian groups in America, there is a massive gulf between thoughts on what a special role entails and in particular, whether a special relationship gives America the privilege to use force to propagate its agenda.

Pat Robertson is a massively influential televangelist who sought nomination from the Republican party for President. Pilgrim argues that this indicated a ‘revamped relationship between the Christian Right and mainstream politics.’[6] In a speech two years prior to his 1988 presidential bid, Robertson described conservatism as ‘greater than the sum of the many rights we protect and defend.’[7] In 1996, a Pew Centre report found that nearly 47% of Republican voters identified themselves as ‘born again or evangelical Christians.’ The report suggests that Republican voters were most likely to be enterprisers, moralists, or libertarians who were predominately white, pro-business, anti-government, anti-social welfare and militaristic. The only strong divide between them was that the libertarians (which made up the smaller group of the three) were more likely to be tolerant and ‘very low on religious faith.’[8] Robertson sought to defend the ‘moralist’ version of evangelical Christianity.

In terms of foreign policy, Robertson is a committed Zionist, believing that ‘the technological marvels of Israeli industry, the military prowess, the bounty of Israeli agriculture, the fruits and flowers and abundance of the land are a testimony to God's watchful care over this new nation and the genius of this people.’[9] He gives uncritical support for Israel, linking the sovereignty of the state in with the Judeo-Christian narrative. Robertson, in a 2004 speech quoted the biblical prophet Ezekiel who wrote ‘for I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all countries and bring you back into your own land.’[10] However, it is not clear whether this is a geographical land or a spiritual land. Moreover, the prophet Ezekiel also writes that ‘since you did not hate bloodshed, bloodshed will pursue you’ and ‘you rely on your sword ... should you then possess the land?’[11] Whether or not believers of the Judeo-Christian narrative must support Israel as the chosen nation is debatable, however, it seems to be excruciatingly obvious that the narrative cannot be synthesised with support for oppressive and expansionist governments. Sacred texts which prophesy the beating of swords into ploughshares have been twisted into the most dangerous of political weapons.[12]

George W. Bush is slightly more nuanced than Pat Robertson in regards to issues like the Israel and Palestine conflict. In a 2002 speech Bush suggested that he may be in support of a two state solution to the conflict, however, the conditions under which he would support such a solution are unrealistic and unfair. In essence, a ‘Bush solution’ to the Israeli-Palestine conflict would permit Israel to act as a sovereign state with military power yet it would not afford Palestine the same privileges. In his speech on the conflict he reaffirmed his deeply held conviction that you are either ‘with us or against us’, reinforcing a highly dualistic view of the world which sees only good or evil, and no shades of grey.

Bush’s view of America as a ‘redeemer nation’ is far less nuanced than his support for Israel. In a 2004 electoral campaign speech, Bush passionately stated ‘I have a clear vision to win the war on terror, and to extend peace and freedom throughout the world’, pitting himself against torture, violence, and weapons of mass destruction.[13] However, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that the America’s military spending accounted for 47 per cent of the world total in 2004.[14] It is clear from these figures that there is a strongly held view, particularly among ‘Christian conservatives’ who Bush claims to represent, that ideals can be spread in a less than ideal manner; that fire can put out fire.

Author, theologian, and CEO of Sojourners Jim Wallis provides a radically different understanding of the relationship between Christianity and politics in comparison to Pat Robertson and George W. Bush. In the synopsis for God’s Politics he questions: ‘in America why do moral values and a belief in God seem to make people pro-war, pro-rich and pro-republican?’[15] He maintains that ‘God is personal, but never private’, and wonders ‘where would America be if the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?’[16] Like Robertson and Bush, Wallis believes that faith-based political views should not be excluded from the public square, however, Wallis qualifies this by suggesting that faith-based political views that are brought into the public square must be ‘better for the common good.’[17]

Unlike Robertson and Bush, Wallis believes that there should be a ‘clear timetable’ for a genuine two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Recalling his visit to Israel and Palestine, he describes the Israeli settlements as ‘aggressive forays into Palestinian territory by people who believe that God has given them all the land.’[18] Wallis acknowledges that there has been violence from Palestinians against the Israeli settlements, describing some of the violence as ‘terrorism’ which ‘can never be morally justified.’ However, he also contends that the violence from the Israeli side of the conflict ‘must also be called terrorism’ as the Israelis react ‘in massive, disproportionate retaliation’ to Palestinian violence.[19]

Wallis publically moved against the narrow evangelical stereotype in a letter co-authored by over forty American evangelical Christians in 2002 which stated ‘Mr. President, the American evangelical community is not a monolithic bloc in full and firm support of present Israeli policy.’[20] This further confuses the relationship between the evangelical Christian community and conservative, right wing, and violent foreign policies. Throughout his work, Jim Wallis makes a strong case for active nonviolence which is part pragmatic and part theological. His pragmatism is akin to that of Stephen Zunes who through his extensive research on nonviolent movements found that ‘armed resistance often backfires by legitimating the state’s use of repressive tactics’, and that there is ‘an increasing realisation that the benefits of waging an armed insurrection may not be worth the costs’ by proponents of human rights and social change.[21] Theologically, Wallis’ views are similar to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s which will be explored in the next section.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most prominent Christian leaders of his time. King is best known for his involvement with the American civil rights movement. He embraced the biblical narrative throughout his campaigning claiming that ‘if we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong ... If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth.’[22] While King was known for his nonviolent leadership in the domestic realm through the civil rights movement, often his leadership on foreign policy matters went unnoticed. King only became vocal about nonviolence in the international sphere later in his career, most notably after being challenged about his beliefs by Malcolm X in Message to Grassroots. In the 1963 speech Malcolm X exclaimed, ‘if violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad.’[23] This led King to adopt an approach to nonviolence which would be consistent in the domestic and international sphere.

It was just a few years after Message to Grassroots when King publically expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War in a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City describing the war as ‘madness.’[24] He went on to say ‘we can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the alter of retaliation.’[25] Unfortunately King’s view on the Israel-Palestine conflict has been twisted and de-contextualised, as one writer described, the ‘quotes’ that are spread by Zionists are a ‘hoax.’ However it is clear that while he would ‘no doubt roundly condemn Palestinian violence against innocent civilians, he would also condemn the state of Israel.’[26] King’s view of Christian values and how they relate to foreign policy are radically different from the views of Robertson and Bush.

The problem is not whether America’s foreign policy aligns with ‘Christian values’, but rather, whose ‘Christian values’ the policies are aligned with. Unfortunately throughout recent history many leaders in the United States of America have seen the world in a similar way to George W. Bush and Pat Robertson: black and white; good and evil. It seems as though those Christian leaders with a black and white world view have had the louder voice and greater say over America’s foreign policy. This is peculiar in one sense, since there are a considerable number of people from diverse faith backgrounds, including evangelical Christianity, who actively disagreed with the war in Iraq, who protested against torture, and who desire nonviolent conflict transformation as an alternative to violence.[27] However, it is the case that the media will continually give greater attention to people on political and religious extremes, and ignore the countless people of faith and no faith who, in less attention-seeking ways, strive to create a more peaceful planet.

In conclusion, ‘Christian values’ provide a problem for American foreign policy, but they may also provide a solution. In 2006 Barack Obama described Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount as ‘so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defence Department would survive its application.’[28] Perhaps it is this kind of applied literal interpretation of the Christian ethic that is needed for America’s foreign policy to truly reflect ‘Christian values’. There will inevitably be broad interpretations of the comprehensive doctrine of Christianity which will provide challenges for democracy. These challenges are worth confronting rather than ignoring.


Burke, Daniel. “Obama Uses Sermon on the Mount to Elevate Speeches.” Christianity Today, 2009.
Bush, George W. “Defending the War.” Presidential Rhetoric, 2004.
———. “September 11 Anniversary Address.” Presidential Rhetoric, 2002.
“Fraud Fit for a King: Israel, Zionism, and the Misuse of MLK.” The Electronic Intifada, n.d.
Lienesch, Michael. Redeeming America : Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right. Chapel Hill [u.a.]: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. August 27, 2011. American Rhetoric, 1968.
———. “Address to First Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Mass Meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church.” A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1955.
———. “Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence”, 1967.
Pew Research Center. Energized Democrats Backing Clinton. Washington: Pew Research Center, 1995.
Pilgrim, David. “Pat Robertson and the Oval Office.” Journal of American Studies 22, no. 2 (1988): 258–262.
Robertson, Pat. “Conservatism Will Triumph.” The Official Site of Pat Robertson, 1986.
———. “Pat Robertson Receives Zionist Award.” The Official Site of Pat Robertson, 1986.
———. “Why Evangelical Christians Support Israel.” The Official Site of Pat Robertson, 2004.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “Military Expenditure.” Yearbook, 2005.
Sullivan, Julie. “From Protesting Abortion Clinics to Protesting the War.” Christianity Today, 2007.
Wallis, Jim. God’s Politics : Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Oxford: Lion, 2006.
X, Malcolm. “Message to Grassroots.” Teaching American History, 1963.
Zondervan Publishing House. The Holy Bible : New International Version Containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010.
Zunes, Stephen. “Nonviolent Action and Human Rights.” PS: Political Science and Politics 33, no. 2 (June 1, 2000): 181–187.

[1] Lienesch, Redeeming America, 196.
[2] Ibid., 195–196.
[3] See for examples: Martin Luther King, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop; Bush, “September 11 Anniversary Address.”
[4] Lienesch, Redeeming America, 195.
[5] Ibid., 196.
[6] Pilgrim, “Pat Robertson and the Oval Office,” 258.
[7] Robertson, “Conservatism Will Triumph.”
[8] Pew Research Center, Energized Democrats Backing Clinton.
[9] Robertson, “Why Evangelical Christians Support Israel”; Robertson, “Pat Robertson Receives Zionist Award.”
[10] Robertson, “Why Evangelical Christians Support Israel”; Translation quoted: Zondervan Publishing House, The Holy Bible, v.  Ez 36:24.
[11] Zondervan Publishing House, The Holy Bible, v. Ez 35:5; 33:26; see also Ez 22:13; Ez 22:6; and Ez 18.
[12] See ibid., v. Isaiah 2:4.
[13] Bush, “Defending the War.”
[14] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Military Expenditure.”
[15] Wallis, God’s Politics, 386.
[16] Ibid., 31, 57.
[17] Ibid., 71.
[18] Ibid., 173.
[19] Ibid., 175.
[20] Ibid., 186.
[21] Zunes, “Nonviolent Action and Human Rights,” 183–184.
[22] Martin Luther King, “Address to First Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Mass Meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church.”
[23] X, “Message to Grassroots.”
[24] Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence.”
[25] Ibid.
[26] “Fraud Fit for a King.”
[27] Sullivan, “From Protesting Abortion Clinics to Protesting the War.”
[28] Burke, “Obama Uses Sermon on the Mount to Elevate Speeches.”

No comments:

Post a Comment