Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Christians, the Election, and Foreign Policy

Steven E. Meyer


Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi once said: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi had lived through the worst of apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in India, and had witnessed the troubled and often violent end of European colonialism after World War II. He was troubled by what he saw as unchristian acts by professing Christians. Gandhi’s point is instructive: How do we, as Christians, approach the way we deal with the rest of the world? In this election season, how can we evaluate the candidates’ postures towards the global community in light of God’s call to uphold justice?

Method vs. Purpose in Foreign Policy

In a 1959 article in the Atlantic Monthly, George Kennan argued “that questions of method in foreign policy seem to me to be generally a much more fitting subject for Christian concern than questions of purpose.” It’s not that purpose is irrelevant, but we often have difficulty seeing whether an intended purpose is attained. In foreign and national security politics, as in the domestic political realm, we fall far short of the intended purpose of an action and often our purposes fail. Kennan noted that “the English historian Herbert Butterfield has shown us with great brilliance, and so has our own Reinhold Niebuhr, the irony that seems to rest on the relationship between intentions of statesmen and the results they achieve….The government cannot fully know what it is doing, but it can always know how it is doing it.”

Expectations are one thing, actual outcome is another. While it is difficult for Christians to know fully how actual policies are going to work out, it is possible for Christians to understand and support—or oppose—particular courses of action in foreign and security policy. This is not only a moral imperative. The way we approach foreign policy issues can have a profound effect on our national interest and well-being. Kennan provides a good rule of thumb for Christians: “A government can pursue its purpose in a patient and conciliatory and understanding way, respecting the interests of others and infusing its behavior with a high standard of decency and honesty and humanity, or it can show itself petty, exacting, devious and self-righteous.”

In this election, foreign policy and security issues are more salient and important than they have been probably since the end of the Cold War. Immigration and terrorism are now critical matters because they have a substantial impact on the homeland and the lives of ordinary citizens, and because they are very difficult to resolve. The complex, interrelated issue of collapsing states in the Middle East, while seemingly distant from us, actually impacts our daily lives. The concomitant tragedy of millions of refugees is overwhelming Europe, creating a new humanitarian disaster. A resurgent Russia and an expanding China present a new calculus on older concerns, but we are as much at a loss as to how to handle them as we are the new challenges. The neat world of symmetric warfare is being replaced quickly by asymmetric warfare, which ironically is becoming more symmetric. The reality of terrorism and the measured intervention by Russia are the new faces of war, and the current patterns of migration and immigration are the new faces of population change.

American election campaigns are unique events. Unlike campaigns in most other democratic countries, the American variety is much longer, much more expensive, and comes across much more as a blood sport than a series of reasoned arguments for voters’ support. This not a new phenomenon—the ferocity of American campaigns runs deep in American history. But the impact of modern communications technology and the enormous amounts of money spent do make the contemporary iterations of campaigning something different.

In this highly competitive environment where the objective is to gain support—and not to present refined, well-developed policy--what candidates say on the campaign trail often is not evidence of what they would do in office. However, that does not mean that what they say is irrelevant for future policy determinations. Campaign rhetoric can provide a valuable gauge of a candidate’s moral compass, ideological stance, attitude, and priorities. Consequently, we can get a good handle on the differences between how Senators Sanders, Cruz, and Rubio, Governor Kasich, Secretary Clinton, and Mr. Trump would lead the country.

If we take Kennan’s guidance seriously, what might a Christian perspective be on the foreign and security policies being debated by the campaigns?

Evaluating Campaign Rhetoric

As we listen to the candidates and consider their differing views and ideologies, I believe that we can establish some guidelines drawn from the direction Kennan discussed and use them to assess the rhetoric. Although we are a diverse lot, and no single, all-encompassing metric will appeal to Christians of all stripes, let me suggest four things we can do.

First, this is turning out to be an especially “angry,” even hysterical campaign, complete with rude, crude, and uncivilized attacks by the candidates on each other. Their anger reflects an electorate angered by the “shenanigans of traditional Washington politicians.” The fascinating thing is that all the current candidates are politicians, no matter how much they rail against politicians. Once in office, they will have to work within the system, which means being subject to checks, balances, and opposition in a highly partisan environment. It behooves us, then, to work to bypass the anger and hysteria and pay attention when candidates try to present reasoned approaches for the resolution of very serious issues.

Second, are the policies being recommended humane? Do they consider the interests of others? Do they conform to the way the Lord has instructed us to live our lives and has taught us to treat each other? This is especially relevant when we consider the plight of immigrants and refugees. While it would be best for immigrants and refugees to come to the United States legally, this is clearly not going to happen in the current environment. So what are the humane alternatives to harsh rhetoric and threatening action? What is the responsibility of the Church in helping to resolve the issue of immigration? Is Pope Francis correct when he argues that building a wall between the United States and Mexico is not a Christian act? Since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, only about 2200 Syrian refugees have entered the United States. Is that enough, or should we as Christians argue for more?

Third, to what extent do we demand honesty from the candidates? All of the candidates in this campaign season have openly lied about facts or distorted the truth to fit their own purposes. They are seldom challenged by their supporters, who, in the heat of the moment, tend to accept at face value what their favorite candidate has said. We should resist the tendency to do this ourselves and make it a priority to check the facts and arguments put forward and to hold the candidates to account when they lie or distort the truth. As Christians, we need to be well-educated on the issues, not only to keep the candidates honest, but so that each of us enters the polling booth well-armed with pertinent information and clear-eyed about our values.

Finally, we need to distinguish between the cross and the flag. One of the most disturbing tendencies in American politics is to conflate Christianity and nationalism. There is nothing wrong with being a good American citizen who wants to protect the homeland. But there is something wrong when candidates flaunt the faith and either explicitly or implicitly preach that the United States is God’s chosen nation, that somehow we have replaced ancient Israel as the existential embodiment of His will.

This is not new in American politics, and it is an especially tantalizing line for evangelicals and even more so for fundamentalists. This prescription partly underlies the idea of American exceptionalism and has led us into some very nasty situations that not only have backfired, but have caused untold misery. While we would hope for faith to guide our leaders, this by no means should allow them to assume that they ultimately know what God wants and that they are His holy instruments.

The Opportunity for Global Christian Witness

Visions of dying children in Syria, catastrophic drought in Ethiopia and repeated, deadly terrorist attacks are serious and demanding enough, but one of the most critical decisions for us to consider in our foreign policy approach is the decision to go to war.

For Christian pacifists, that decision is straightforward. But many other Christians support the use of arms for a just cause. However, determining what is a just cause and what is not is troubling and difficult. For centuries, Christians have relied on Just War doctrine to determine whether force is warranted. Biblically grounded and honed over the centuries by Christian scholars and practitioners, Just War doctrine is a valuable standard, but it is hardly ever used in contemporary politics. For example, we rashly went to war in Iraq without just cause, resulting in a deadly, no-win situation, and we have now precipitously pulled out of Iraq, precipitating another deadly situation. But where do we go from here? Do we support US military intervention in Syria and Iraq (again) and, if so, under what circumstances? How should we respond to catastrophic instances of human suffering, particularly ones brought on by our country’s actions? We must hold our candidates and leaders accountable to pursue concrete, just actions in matters of war and peace.

The world beyond our shores is full of danger, but it is also full of opportunity for Christian witness and action. We are called to live the life so simply and eloquently laid out by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Lewis reminds us that there is common ground among Christians of different expressions, that our ancient faith is a bulwark against prejudice, inhumanity, and cruelty. He sees a God-given "law of human nature" that is a guide to a safe, productive and happy society.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What do you consider our most pressing foreign policy issues?
  2. How can Christians have an impact on how those issues are handled?
  3. What should be the guiding principles for US foreign and security policy?


- Steven E. Meyer is a former intelligence professional and is currently the Director of National Security Studies at the Daniel Morgan Academy, a new graduate school in Washington, DC. He is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”