Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Christian Thinker Critiques Obama and McCain on Foreign Policy vs. "American Exceptionalism"

(Is the poster at left a Republican or Democratic advertisement? It is... Republican, or at least from a Republican blog, but could just as well have been Democratic. The real question: is it deeply Christian, or Christian at all?)

have used Uncommon Sense, a book by Charles Strohmer and his co-author John Peck, in our Project 12 Discipleship School. Charles has a refreshingly third-way voice in many issues, and in a recent article "The Upstart or the Maverick: Who Will Make the Wiser Foreign Policy President" he offers some interesting reflections.

This fairly long swath is particularly to the point:

Although both candidates profess Christianity, the world is unlikely to see much from either candidate that resembles what, in Jesus and Politics, political theorist Alan Storkey in his Jesus and Politics calls the power of resurrection politics, with its shocking redemptivity. We might hope to feel confident that either president’s foreign policies will at least arise from wisdom-based norms – norms rooted not in political ideologies but in the common ground interests and values shared by the human family as a whole before any distinctions are made about religion or about who is religious and who is not. If there is anything like an ideal described in the Bible for the practice of international relations in this world, this would be the one. It is unlikely, however, that either a McCain or an Obama foreign policy will be organized around it.

The reason? Either man as president will be strongly “encouraged” at home to adhere to foreign policy choices rooted in American exceptionalism – the two-hundred-year-old belief of Americans that their country was specially founded by God to be a city on a hill, a light shining in the darkness. This ultimate religious belief has both religious and secular outlets. The former, in the perennial debate about whether America is a Christian nation, albeit with a mission to the world like that of ancient Israel. The latter, in what critics call civil religion, in which even people who don’t believe in God, or who don’t want a religious state, nevertheless have a “faith” for believing in, and for expressing the political interests of, American “exceptionalism.” There is much ongoing, often heated, public debate in these areas from both Christians and others.

But whatever the competing arguments, it will be geopolitically impossible for either president to ignore the interests of this demanding ideological orientation without committing political suicide at home. Of course, some of those interests are good for the world, and are so recognized and welcomed. A problem arises, however, when absolutized interests of American exceptionalism drive Washington’s foreign policy decision making. You will see this played out, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, whenever America’s national interests become the alpha and omega of Washington’s engagement with any other capital.

So what does Strohmer think about each contender in light of both candidates' vulnerability to this thread of American exceptionalism (what I on this blog have referred to simply as Nationalism, American-style -- an idea rooted in the theology of "British Israelism" among other things)?

Strohmer's critique examines advisors to each candidate and notes that McCain's campaign is laced with the very neo-cons who've advised President Bush in his disastrous (my word, not Strohmer's) two terms. Obama fares better, as his advisors seem more open to truly new avenues of discourse. In addition, creating a "League of Democracies," which McCain mentioned again in the first Presidential Debate (well after Strohmer's article was published), is touched on at length by Strohmer:

Another revealing clue comes from McCain’s strong support for a League of Democracies. This proposed new international body, to be created and led by the United States, is the brainchild of leading Americans across the political spectrum who have learned many hard lessons about democracy promotion via Bush unilateralism and militarism, but who nevertheless believe that democracy promotion around the world by the United States must continue. The idea first received serious public airing in a May 2004 Washington Post op-ed piece by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, who called it an Alliance of Democracies.

Strohmer goes on to note that this idea basically negates the participation of non-western, non-democratic nations and leaves America with itself as the center of the governmental universe. His language, of course, is far less loaded than mine. Yet he does note that even the most gentle voices in favor of the League of Democracies are laced with the same American exceptionalism (in BlueChristian speak, "Rabid American Nationalism") as those of a more militaristic nature. Perhaps unsuprisingly then, he notes that few allies of America -- even those most traditional -- are excited by the League concept. But John McCain remains so, provoking this from Strohmer:

Question. If the league is a non-starter for America’s biggest allies, why has McCain said that one of the first things he will do if elected is call for a summit of the world’s democracies to start the process of creating it? And what kind of message would “sorry, but you’re not included” send to countries such as Russia, China, and most of the Middle East, from whom America needs a huge amount of international cooperation?

Which brings Barack Obama into the mix. While giving what I at least sense is a more positive review of Obama's advisors, positions, and attitude toward multinational communication and respect -- positions which I, perhaps surpisingly to some, have chosen for the most part not to include here (go read his article!) -- Strohmer doesn't let Obama completely off the hook, as we saw in his longer quote above. He suspects, and I would reluctantly agree, the limitations of being an American President itself on the candidate may cause Obama to behave within the American exceptionalism framework, at least to some degree. (After all -- I ask this sadly -- who could be elected without holding such a position?) But there's hope:

The heated public quarrel between McCain and Obama on Iran may provide the best forensics about their divergent approaches. Obama has taken to heart Moshe Dayan’s advice: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to you friends. You talk to your enemies.” If McCain could get this piece of wisdom worked into his bloodstream, he could find any number of seasoned, high-level advisors to assist him in articulating and developing a foreign policy sans neoconservatism. If he remains a fan of the League of Democracies, however, don’t bet on it.

Obama, at least to the time of this writing, has been curiously silent about the league; but Anthony Lake [an Obama advisor] was honorary co-chair of the Ikenberry and Slaughter report and co-author of its Foreword. If Obama eventually signs off on the league, then his administration, like McCain’s and perhaps many administrations to come, would by default largely run its foreign policy agenda through that paradigm. This would be the start of an international polarization between “democracies” and “the rest.” It would have potential to make the bipolar Cold War era seem sane by comparison. It would, I believe, inflame, rather than wisely seek to undo, conditions for what international relations theorist Samuel Huntington has provocatively called a looming “clash of civilizations.”

Even if Obama rejects creation of the league, a negative choice has no power to prevent his White House from making foolish decisions about U.S. international relations, and the fact remains, as it does for any U.S. president, that he will be forced time and again to conform his overseas policies to the absolutized ideological interests of American exceptionalism. How either man as president will control, or be controlled by, this controlling principle will help determine how wise or foolish his international agenda will be.

There's far more to this article than what is discussed here. But for me, seeing my own main worry about the candidate I support so wholeheartedly touched on so adeptly by Charles Strohmer requires me noting his words, and my general agreement with them.

So while I support Barack Obama, I will remain an annoyance even when he is elected President. American nationalism is a virus within Evangelical Christianity, quite likely feeding off Christianity as a parasite does its host. In turn, Evangelical leaders are content to allow their access to the halls of power blunt what should be their repudiation of American exceptionalism. One can love her nation without hating or disdaining other nations, or failing to take into account the reality that our way of seeing and thinking is merely one way of doing it, and possibly not even the best way.


bob brown said...


There is so much in the section of the article you quoted. I think you are absolutely right that American Exceptionalism (AE)is a defining issue between Liberals and Conservatives. As a libertarian/conservative (or conservative/liberatarian - I am not sure which) I am almost diametrically opposed to your view about AE. I don't think I can get anywhere on that subject.

The United Nations is the place I will make a point. I am old enough (though just a kid then) that I remember the John Birch Society in the late 1950s and early 60s with their slogan "Get the US out of the UN, and get the UN out of the US"

At the time, I didn't get it. I do now. We have been in a position now for 60 years of hosting and largely financing the sorriest gaggle of dictators, loonies, and anti-Semites on planet earth. From a Christian standpoint, I feel we have more than turned the cheek and carried the load the extra mile. It is pointless to go on.

I would prefer that we give everybody 60 days to get their stuff, go home, and then turn the building to some useful purpose after we fumigate and cast out the demons. Perhaps JPUSA could turn that building and property for good.

Barring what I prefer, maybe we could maintain our membership in the UN for War and Peace issues(although cut our financial support to some reasonable level) get them to move to Brussels or the Hague, and move forward with something like the League. We could still do UN type humanitarian projects in the League, but maybe with a little less graft and corruption. And who knows, maybe we could eliminate the child rape during some of these efforts.


Jon Trott said...

Brrr! I also remember the John Birch Society, and not fondly. But we'll leave that topic aside for the moment. I think my beef with Liberals in this nation is that they share American Exceptionalism as a value with conservatives. I have heard my own candidate speak that way, and I am fully persuaded he means it. For me, I sense some deeply unbiblical ideals in the concept of "America as moral leader," or "America as the defeater of Evil" (as Dubya more than once has suggested).

Re the UN, you are correct that few if any liberals would go with you on that tangent. It taps into the same ultra-conservative mythology as the Birchers, all right. And at the heart of the myth is an idea that white middle class America is equivalent to Christianity, while non-white and esp. non-English speaking nations are out to subvert "the American way of life." This is a myth.

We have to stay focused on Christ's Kingdom as Christians. No earthly nation is "Christian" in that deepest redemptive sense. But various nations, I believe including America, reflect aspects of God's greatness as well as aspects of humanity's brokenness. I'm glad to be an American, and also find it terribly painful and frustrating. Both. And at the same time in most cases...


bob brown said...


It stupifies me that anyone would bring up skin color, se habla ingles, or white bread middle class "Sister Bertha better 'n you" (to recall Ray Stevens' Mississippi Squirrel Revival)

For the record I believe most people who cut it my way look at the UN as a collection of people Red and Yellow, Black and White who hate us just for spite. It is the fact that many of them are terrorists and thug dictators who treat their own people like dog squeeze.

Yeah, I guess I'm a culturalist. I think our ideals, if not our practices (i.e abortion and other things), are a notch above cultures who routinely mutilate little girls' private parts as a central rite of passage in their culture.

Oh, and if you are unfortunate enough to get raped, well maybe your daddy and your baby bro will slit your throat.

How about the one where if I am not pleased with you as a wife (or maybe the dowry was too modest) I just torch your butt.

We have our besetting sins as a culture, but we don't enshrine them in our holy book.

As sharp as your are Jon, I am sure you can catalog a raft of sins from our culture that counter these, but this is just the flavor of how many of us feel.

It has nothing to do w/ xenophobia or racism, and it is a pity that I even have to mention that.


The Stymied Man said...

actually, I know someone that works at the John Birch Society in Appleton... The JBS is still around; kind of like FOTF without the religious dogma. Thankfully, it is an organization that is merely a shadow of its former self.

David Ledford said...


Yesterday, my church had two visiting speakers who are from the Washington, D.C. area. Both men are well-respected by our congregation for their wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. Our pastor asked one of the speakers to lead a brief prayer for the election. Prior to the gentleman praying, he told us of a recent word that God gave him while at the National Cathedral in D.C. In the cathedral is a certain chapel known as the "Holy Spirit Chapel." A large altar is in this chapel and on the wall behind it is written the words "The Way, the Truth, and the Life. As the speaker entered the chapel, he was unable to see the word "Truth" because of a flower arrangement and a cross hiding that word. It was at that point that God informed the man that this was prophetic of our election because "The Truth" is being hidden by religion. After telling us this word, the speaker then led us in a prayer that "The Truth" would be revealed in this election season.

I'm aware of how prophetic words can be interpreted differently by us because, as the Scriptures say, we only see in part. I am also certain that my brothers and sisters in our congregation had their own take on it. For me, it made me think of this blog about American Exceptionalism and how my Evangelical brothers and sisters wittingly or unwittingly wrap Jesus in the American flag. Such a direction of thought truly does hide "The Truth." I desire to hear your thoughts on this.

Thank you,