During the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, Richard Nixon famously embraced the “madman strategy.” According to this strategy, in order to achieve one’s goals in a high stakes gambit, it is often beneficial to convince the opponent that you are irrational. If it appears that you are willing to sacrifice anything (including your own good) to defeat the opponent, the opponent is unable to calculate your next action, and is much more likely to fold in order to save whatever good is possible.
This was exactly the kind of stance that deeply concerned Christians during the Cold War. In order to maintain a doctrine of nuclear deterrence, the participants in deterrent strategy had to threaten, and possibly intend, acts of war that would produce more evils than the possible goods achieved. Thus, the participants were either lying in saying that they would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike, or they were actually intending to carry out immoral acts under some circumstances. In the most extreme versions, the success of deterrence depended on the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), wherein the whole civilized world would be destroyed by the nuclear exchange that would inevitably follow any nuclear attack. Participation in the Cold War thus required some level of irrationality (a willingness to commit to the destruction of one’s own good) and some level of immorality (either the appearance or the actuality of intending evil).
It is a sad statement about U.S. society that we have now achieved a parallel situation in our domestic politics. Given the resolution, it may be tempting to write off the recent fight over the debt ceiling as simply another act of political theater in Washington. In reality, it represents something much more sinister. For some time, political pundits have been throwing around the metaphor of a “nuclear option” in partisan clashes, but it has never fit as well as in this debate. The recent argument in congress was over whether or not the U.S. ought to be allowed to fulfill its economic obligations. Failure to raise the debt ceiling would result in a downgrade in America’s credit rating, an unpaid military personnel, a failure to provide social security payments, and so on. The American economy, and with it the global economy, would have faced collapse if the debt ceiling were not raised. It was in the context of this argument that a significant number of Republicans decided either (1) to embrace delusion and deny economic reality, or (2) to embrace the “madman strategy,” or (3) to actually intend the collapse of their own economy rather than accept compromise of their ideological priorities. Domestic politics had entered the realm of Cold War irrationality.
In such a situation, what is the Christian to do? Some Christians have traditionally opted out of politics at this point, and there certainly is a valid argument for this move. If participation in worldly politics entails evil, should not the Christian find some alternative? Other Christians, however, have found reason to maintain political participation, even under “Cold War” conditions. Ideally, they claim, it would be best to keep our hands clean of the evil required in politics, but, unlike Christ, we are not able to manifest absolute perfection and at the same time bring about the conditions for human fulfillment. In the interim between Christ’s incarnation and the general resurrection, we must act to defend the peace of Babylon, where we live in exile, even if this requires getting our hands dirty.
It was in this spirit that Paul Ramsey, in War and the Christian Conscience, proposed that Christian participation in nuclear deterrence during the Cold War ought to be understood as a matter of “deferred repentance.” Unlike individuals, he argued, political structures must be allowed time to turn away from evil. Living in full recognition of the wrongness of the deterrent strategy, the Christian should yet participate in politics, even participate in deterrent strategy itself, while working to change the situation to make rational inter-state conflict possible again.
If my diagnosis of the situation above is apt, it seems that Christian participation in domestic politics today may also be a matter for deferred repentance. As Reinhold Niebuhr often argued, relative justice in a sinful world often depends upon the balancing of powers amongst sinful human groups. Republican willingness to dive into the politics of irrationality in the debt ceiling debate has successfully undermined the ideological balance of power in Washington, and as such has come to threaten the common good of the nation. The best solution to the United States’ debt problems would come in the form of negotiations ending in a balanced agreement to raise revenues (taxes) and cut spending. Unfortunately, the Cold War climate seems to have made progress in such negotiations impossible. In order to restore the balance of power, and thus achieve some semblance of the common good, it will be necessary for Democrats to participate in the Cold War climate while they push to move back to a more rational and civil political process.
In the short term, this may mean embracing suggestions like that laid out by Ezra Klein, who contends that the Democrats should use the threat of a full expiration of the Bush tax cuts (including an expiration of those on the middle class) in order to bring about a meaningful reform of the tax code that includes significant increases in revenues. Like the Republican gambit on the debt ceiling, this strategy requires a certain amount of irrationality and or immorality. A full expiration of the tax cuts would probably lead to another major recession, and might cost democrats the presidency and a fair number of seats in Congress. Still, if Democrats are not willing to threaten such a possibility, and to threaten it convincingly, they have very little standing to defend the common good against the current Republican position.
As Ramsey noted, however, repentance cannot be deferred forever. As such, all Christians should work to return sanity to Washington. Like resolving the problem of nuclear deterrence, finding a route to success here is far from easy. Americans must figure out how to reclaim the nominations process from extremists in each party, and the culture of Washington needs to be changed to encourage legislators to see one another as people rather than simply as representatives of opposing ideologies. How to bring about such changes is far from clear. Ramsey never was successful in his attempts to rationalize deterrent strategy. Ultimately, it was the collapse of the Soviet empire that allowed the world to step away from the precipice. As Christians who believe that the United States still has some good to do in the world and in the lives of its own citizens, we do well to hope that the other superpower need not fall in order to restore the possibility of rationality to our own society.
Kevin Carnahan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri.