"Evangelical" -- Here we go again

ow  08sSorry to bring this up again, but I have to. Did you see this headline in that Boston Globe essay by Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University?

Evangelical foreign policy is over

This wasn't a news story, but it's still worth mentioning.

So what, pray tell, would an "evangelical" foreign policy be? If the word is given it's traditional meaning, it would be a foreign policy that is pro-free speech and religious liberty, the kind of foreign policy that is, well, pro-evangelism or, to use the word Catholics prefer, evangelization. You wouldn't have to be an evangelical Protestant to back this policy, you'd only need to back the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But wait, that isn't what this article is all about. Here's the top of the essay:

WITH Barack Obama's election to the presidency, the evangelical moment in US foreign policy has come to an end. The United States remains a nation of believers, with Christianity the tradition to which most Americans adhere. Yet the religious sensibility informing American statecraft will no longer find expression in an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers.

Like our current president, Obama is a professed Christian. Yet whereas George W. Bush once identified Jesus Christ himself as his favorite philosopher, the president-elect is an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the renowned Protestant theologian.

Faced with difficult problems, conservative evangelicals ask WWJD: What would Jesus do? We are now entering an era in which the occupant of the Oval Office will consider a different question: What would Reinhold do?

So this foreign policy flows out of what this professor believes are the doctrines of evangelicalism? Would evangelicals in Africa, Asia or Latin America agree with that?

And while we are at it, there were many evangelicals (ditto for Catholics, like Peggy Noonan) who grew more and more disturbed that George W. Bush's foreign policy was based on the belief that the actions of America could somehow eliminate the presence of evil in our world. Say what? That's a conservative Christian view of what mankind can accomplish in this fallen, sinful world?

No way. In fact, the adjective that critics -- including many evangelicals -- began to attach to Bush's view was "Wilsonian."

What conservatives began to say was that Bush seemed to have an overly lofty view of his own mission, that he was pursuing the kind of logic that seemed rooted in a belief in relentless human progress, that the world was getting better and better and better. Might Bush say that there would be a "Christian Century" ahead? In other words, "Wilsonian" is not a conservative word.

Bacevich goes on to make a number of interesting and valid points, none of which require the use of the word "evangelical." There is even this:

At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, "cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest." Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness -- never an American strong suit -- poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself.

Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.

sin 01So an "evangelical" foreign policy is one that ignores the reality of "original sin" and its impact on the actions of people trying to do good in a fallen world?

Wait, there's more.

We've tried having a born-again president intent on eliminating evil. It didn't work. May our next president acknowledge the possibility that, as Niebuhr put it, "the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruits of illusions which are similar to our own." Facing our present predicament requires that we shed illusions about America that would have offended Jesus himself.

Up is down and down is up.

No evangelical or traditional Christian would argue that humanity can eliminate evil in the world. That's a viewpoint traditionally linked to philosophies advocating a very high view of man and human progress. It's the kind of philosophy that makes statements like: "We will heal our world." It's the kind of perspective attached to liberal, not conservative, Christianity -- like the progressive faith of President Woodrow Wilson.

By the way, I should stress that I am in near-total agreement with Bacevich's criticism of this aspect of foreign policy in the Bush era. So I say "amen" to much of what is in this essay.

But what in hellfire does any of this have to do with the word "evangelical"? Again. It's like the Globe wanted to say, "The Bush foreign policy was simplistic and dumb. Therefore, it was 'evangelical.'"

MAP: From Global Mapping International.

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