What is it that Christians think the state is doing when it enters into international alliances and agreements?
Several different answers are possible here, but I would like to think about only two, which I’ll call a “social gospel” model and a “realist” model. Whichever way Christians think about bonds between nations, they should view them positively. And that means Christians should be very troubled by Donald Trump’s behavior.
When any nation enters into alliances (like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and agreements (like the Paris Climate Accord), it does at least two things. It limits its own sovereignty, meaning that it forfeits some part of its power of self-determination. But it also gains important reassurances from other nations who also limit their own sovereignty.
As a side note, concerns about American sovereignty have been advanced incoherently in recent weeks. For one thing, it is not clear why unabridged US sovereignty should be the ultimate political priority for American Christians, if Christianity is really determinative for their moral and political visions. For another thing, thinking of Donald Trump as a champion of U.S. sovereignty is absurd, given the agreement of all reputable intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the 2016 election for Trump’s advantage.
One way Christians might think about this trade-off resonates with the social gospel mindset that came into fullest expression in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the hands of a writer like Walter Rauschenbusch, political activity is the work of love and justice, and its purpose is eschatological. He, and others who followed in his footsteps, believed political activity could build the kingdom of God on earth. The assumptions in the political theology of the social gospel writers are that we are capable of virtues like love, justice, trust, and self-sacrifice, that we can act on these virtues in political life, and that such action will create harmonious, Godly society.
Early in his career, Reinhold Niebuhr was committed to a social gospel model of politics. He showed this sensibility in his responses to World War I and the creation of the League of Nations, which succeeded the conflict. The young Niebuhr happily embraced the argument that, in the League of Nations, sovereign states would join together in bonds of trust and justice and bring warfare to an end. He believed that the Allies were spurred by a “moral purpose to end war for all time,” and were “freer of imperialistic and nationalistic motives” than the Central Powers.(99) Early Niebuhr showed a Christian political theology that was infused with social gospel sensibilities prioritizing political virtue, hope, and progress.
Christians might also think about international agreements and alliances in a more realist way. According to realism, there is little expectation that such political activity will be purely motivated by virtues like justice, love, and trust. On the contrary, political action is primarily an expression of national self-interest. Far from bringing about the Kingdom of God, or ending war for all time, political alliances and agreements merely limit sin as best they can, hopefully without committing new sins and injustices in the process.
Niebuhr’s disillusionment in the inter-War period brought him to Christian realism, which was a defining feature of his political thought for the remainder of his career. Interestingly, though, realism did not bring Niebuhr to reverse course on the importance of international alliances and agreements (as long as they were actually effective in limiting sin). His reversal only changed the logic he used to support such international political agreements.
Consider Niebuhr’s reflections on NATO. In his mature estimation, Niebuhr did not think member nations were joining NATO because they were motivated by love, justice, and trust in relation to each other. He thought we did so because of our mutual fears of other nations. “This common fear,” he wrote in 1953, prompts [nations] into all kinds of ad hoc arrangements such as NATO…which do in effect erode unqualified national sovereignty.”(216)
But the motivation (which was not necessarily virtuous) and the effect (which limited American power) didn’t sour Niebuhr on NATO. He thought the alliance would serve necessary and productive ends, and even build tenuous bonds of trust between member nations. As a realist, Niebuhr believed those nations would need to draw on those relationships and bonds of trust in international emergencies. Sacrificing a small measure of sovereignty is a worthwhile tradeoff considering the benefits to national stability and security that would result.
Donald Trump’s disregard for international agreements and alliances are alarming by the standards of both social gospel and realist political theologies. In his short tenure, Trump has pulled out of the Paris Accords, alienated NATO allies, disrespected Angela Merkel, and used terrorist attacks in London to promote his travel ban. If you think politics can bring about genuine progress toward the Kingdom of God, this is not what such progress looks like. It is not even helpful at defending national interests. Merkel reflected on Trump’s visit to the spring’s NATO meeting, saying that the “times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over…We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
American Christians of all stripes should recognize this erosion of trust as an urgent crisis as we contemplate another troop surge in Afghanistan, face rising tensions with North Korea, and wonder about our vulnerability in relation to Russia.
Whether they imagine politics as furthering the Kingdom of God or belong to a more realist position, American Christians need to embrace and defend the international agreements and associations into which we have entered. Trump is destroying them with every passing day. When Trump says “America first,” he means “The United States alone.” And alone, the United States are vulnerable to the point of crisis.
Daniel A. Morris is a lecturer in the Religion Department at Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois). His research in Christian ethics and American religious history has appeared in The Journal of Religion, Soundings, and Journal of Religious Ethics. His book, entitled Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr, was recently published with Lexington Books.