The Role of Faith in Foreign Policy
By Alan Dowd

The editors of the journal Providence recently crafted “A Christian Declaration of American Foreign Policy.” Dozens of scholars, theologians, political scientists, historians, policy analysts, retired military officers and former policymakers have signed the declaration. The document not only raises important issues; it raises some important questions for people of faith: Is our country’s foreign policy of interest to Christians? Does it affect our witness and the way we live out our faith?

These issues and these questions are important because America’s role in the world affects all of us; because as Christians and Americans (in that order), we carry a special burden and a special responsibility in the world; because, to paraphrase a famous adage, whether or not we’re interested in death-wish dictators, radicalized regimes, murderous movements, failing states and rising powers, they’re interested in us.

As Christians and Americans (in that order), we carry a special burden and a special responsibility in the world

Keeping Order

Foreign policy is not off-limits to people of faith, and our faith should inform our views on foreign policy. Although they “do not presume to speak for all Christians,” the declaration’s authors contend that “Christians who take seriously the roles assigned by God to the church and the state, and who value the equal importance of justice and ordered liberty, should not be silent.”

Some believers may disagree, but the Lord encourages His people to enter the public square. There’s always a risk of distorting the ancient texts when viewing them through our modern sensibilities. Even so, it’s true that Joseph served as prime minister of Egypt. Moses publicly argued that God’s people had a right to assemble and worship. King David served as a political and military leader. Queen Esther used her political position to rescue God’s people from a holocaust. Paul was embroiled in the Roman legal system and spoke at government assemblies.

We must never put our nation ahead of our faith, and we should always seek Christ’s kingdom first. But as Philip Yancey reminds us in “The Jesus I Never Knew”, we are dual citizens. Christ followers “live in an external kingdom of family and cities and nationhood, while at the same time belonging to the kingdom of God.” Paul saw himself as a citizen of Rome’s earthly kingdom and Christ’s eternal kingdom, brandished his Roman citizenship, and called believers “Christ’s ambassadors.” Yes, that means “our citizenship is in heaven.” But to extend Paul’s metaphor, it also means that where we live right now matters enough that God has posted us here to represent His interests.

One of those interests is order. Genesis tells us God brought form and order out of chaos. Paul writes that God is not a God of disorder, and he urges us to pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” The implication is clear: Legitimate governments exist to promote order—within and between nation-states.

The natural order of the world is not orderly. At the international level, there are no police to enforce the rules, settle disputes or keep the peace. Those tasks fall to responsible powers like the United States.

The declaration’s writers suggest, “The routine work of foreign policy and maintenance of the international system might be considered a contemporary [outworking] of the creation mandate to cultivate the garden (Genesis 2:15). The ‘garden’ in this case, extending to the international social system—or, more concisely, world order. Cultivating the garden of world order means tending to the tasks that uphold public safety, execute justice and promote human flourishing…those of us who live in a powerful country have special stewardship responsibilities.”

Indeed, the United States plays a vital role in preserving and promoting a liberal international order characterized by self-government, the rule of law, individual freedom, open markets, human rights and human dignity, respect for borders, etc. Since the end of World War II, America and its allies have promoted these ideals around the world through “the regular management and implementation of policies to preserve order,” the declaration points out.

For example, the U.S. provides a security umbrella to more than 50 nations, keeps the sea lanes open, polices the world’s toughest neighborhoods and answers the world’s 9-1-1 calls. It usually does these things by invitation: Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics want America’s help today. The Iraqi government begged America to return in 2014. Libyans appealed to the U.S. for protection in 2011. Kosovo, Korea, Kuwait, Jordan and Japan, want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against Russia. And across the Asia-Pacific region, those who fear China’s rise are strengthening their ties with America.

In short, many in Europe and America take it for granted; Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang resent it; our jihadist enemies are actively trying to undo it. But America’s role as the world’s system administrator makes it possible for hundreds of millions to live in relative peace.

Beliefs and Interests of the Strongest Powers

The world is fortunate the U.S. — even with its flaws — emerged from World War II and the Cold War as the dominant power. Had the Axis won in 1945, the world order would have been characterized by godless racialism and fascist totalitarianism. Had the USSR won in 1989, the world order would have been characterized by godless collectivism and Leninist totalitarianism. And if the jihadists have their way — ISIS and al Qaeda take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah’” — the world order would be characterized by ruthless conformity and theocratic totalitarianism. God’s crowning creation cannot flourish under these extremes.

As Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution observes, “Every international order in history has reflected the beliefs and interests of its strongest powers, and every international order has changed when powers shifted to others with different beliefs and interests.” He suggests that the United States is “essential to keeping the present world order together” and that the alternative is “not peace and harmony but chaos and catastrophe—which is what existed before the American world order came into being.”

This is why some foreign policy experts worry about America’s drift “from its historic post-World War II role as the guarantor of international peace and security” and growing political support for “withdrawal from world leadership.”

Fifty-seven percent of Americans “want the U.S. to deal with its own problems, while letting other countries get along as best they can” — up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964. Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama employed phrases like “nation-building here at home” to explain his stand-off foreign policy. President-elect Donald Trump embraced the historically-fraught “America First” label used by isolationists in the 1930s.

America rejected isolationism after World War II because of what happened after World War I, when the country withdrew from the world for a generation — then came Nanking and Munich, Poland and Pearl Harbor.

To be sure, there are costs to engagement. The Cold War cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. Post-9/11 wars have claimed more than 6,800 military personnel and consumed nearly $2 trillion. (The human and material costs of war serve as an argument for deterrence, discussed below.) But there are also costs to disengagement: Pearl Harbor in 1941; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which spawned the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al Qaeda; Iraq and Syria today, which spawned ISIS.

And we often overlook the benefits of engagement. During World War II, U.S. engagement prevented a return to the Dark Ages. During the Cold War, U.S. engagement preserved free government, elevated human rights, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, and transformed Europe from an incubator of war into a partnership of prosperity. For 70 years, U.S. engagement has prevented war between great powers, which was the norm from 1745 to 1945.

“It is a solemn moment for the American democracy,” Winston Churchill said after World War II. “For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future.” In the peace they made, the enemies they deterred and defeated, the international order they built, the American people lived up to Churchill’s charge. They did so not only for their own good — like other nations, the U.S. is motivated by self-interest — but also out of a sense of responsibility to others. According to the Providence declaration, “Uniquely among nations, Americans have been given unprecedented power, wealth, and political rights…Our Christian faith gives us a deep sense of responsibility to see such power used well.”

“Uniquely among nations, Americans have been given unprecedented power, wealth, and political rights…Our Christian faith gives us a deep sense of responsibility to see such power used well.”

This recalls something Christ said about responsibility: “From everyone who has been given much,” He explained, “much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” In light of how much we Americans have been given and entrusted with, why wouldn’t heaven expect more of us?

This is not a license to dominate the weak or remake the world in America’s image. We must always respect other cultures and be aware of the effects of our influence — economic, cultural, political, military — on them. However, it is a reminder that America has a responsibility to lead. A liberal international order doesn’t run on autopilot or grow by magic. As the declaration notes, nation-states (Russia in Syria and Ukraine, China in the South China Sea, Iran in Syria and Iraq) and non-state actors (ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Syria) “with scant regard for the responsible use of power have stepped into the vacuum created by American passivity.”

The Conscience of Our Government

It stands to reason that when the United States pulls back, other countries do the same. Recent history bears this out. “American involvement is often the catalyst for broader involvement in the community of nations,” President George H.W. Bush observed in 1992.

Indeed, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Washington dispatched an armada of ships, helicopters and planes to provide food, medicine, fresh water and shelter. When an Ebola outbreak threatened to mushroom into a pandemic, America’s military raced to West Africa to set up treatment facilities; deliver medicine, doctors, and aid; and smother the killer virus. When ISIS was on the verge of wiping out Iraq’s entire Yazidi minority, U.S. warplanes dropped pallets of food to help the Yazidis — and bombs to halt the ISIS blitzkrieg.

In each instance, other nations helped. But in each instance, the U.S. served as the catalyst for action.

The list of U.S. military interventions goes on. Some are launched to defend U.S. interests, some for humanitarian purposes, some to preserve order, some to defend freedom. Some have been heroic and selfless. Some have been well-intended but ill-thought. Some have been less than honorable. Some have been the result of bad deals with bad people. The U.S. government is an imperfect institution run by imperfect people. Thus, it has deployed the U.S. military in the wrong ways and in the wrong places at times, used the military when it shouldn’t have, and even not used the military when it should have.

This is why Christ followers need to care about America’s foreign policy and play a role in shaping it. We are called to be the conscience of our government. We can only do that if we are aware of what our government is doing.

“America’s leadership is imperfect,” as the declaration’s authors concede.  However, “We do not see a plausible alternative and are concerned about what kind of world would grow under different leadership.”

Ponder that. If America stops serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense, who will? The tyrants in Moscow and Beijing? The United Nations? The European Union? Wall Street? Wal-Mart?

To counter the temptations that come with being a great power, the declaration calls on American policymakers to “heed the counsel of voices outside government, especially in America’s religious communities…cultivate an awareness of history, replete with the folly of self-aggrandizing power…respect the checks and balances of our system of government…[and] expose American policy to the iron-sharpening-iron accountability of multilateralism.”

In other words, if at all possible, neither the president at home nor America abroad should go it alone.

Forcing the Issue

Whether to stop a bully on the playground or to turn back tyranny on the battleground, there are times when force serves a higher good, and there are even times when the absence of force, however unwittingly, serves the enemies of that higher good.

Some people of faith oppose all uses of military force. This is understandable in the abstract, but we should keep in mind two truths.

As the Providence declaration argues, “Christians have erred by holding the state to the same standard as the church or the individual, resulting in pacifism.” Governments are expected to do certain things individuals aren’t expected to do — and arguably shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do. A government that turned the other cheek when attacked would be conquered by its foes, exposing its people to harm. A government that put away the sword — that neglected its defenses — would invite aggression, thus leaving innocents defenseless.

The document also urges Christians to embrace “a biblical understanding of…the use of force.” The sheriff who uses force to apprehend a murderer is decidedly different than the murderer. The policeman posted outside a sporting event to deter bad guys is decidedly different than the bad guys. Surely, the same principle applies to nations.

The imperfect means we employ to protect innocents and preserve order — a judge banishing serial killers to super-max prisons, a president banishing mass-murderers to Guantanamo Bay, a SWAT team lobbing superheated flash-bang grenades into a drug house, an airman firing missiles into a terrorist hideout — are sometimes the only way innocents can be protected. “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization,” as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote.

As to deterring bad guys, too many people of faith forget that the purpose of deterrent military strength is, by definition, to prevent war. The lesson of history is that maintaining a military capable of deterring war is far less costly — in treasure and blood — than waging war. Yet the U.S. defense budget has fallen from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent today. These cuts might make sense if peace were breaking out, but we know the very opposite to be true. In addition to praying for our leaders, we should resist the temptation to avert our gaze from the world. As followers of Christ, we cannot keep our heads in the clouds and declare ourselves above the brokenness of the world.

Remaining Engaged

Leading a superpower with a conscience is no easy task. It is a thankless, endless exercise in searching for the least-bad option, which is why we need to offer “petitions, prayers and intercession” for the president, Congress and “all those in authority.”

Likewise, being a dual citizen is not easy. In addition to praying for our leaders, we should resist the temptation to avert our gaze from the world. As followers of Christ, we cannot keep our heads in the clouds and declare ourselves above the brokenness of the world. And as citizens of a democratic republic, we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend we know nothing about what our government does (or doesn’t do) to address that brokenness.

Just as America needs to remain engaged in the world, Christians need to remain engaged in the public square. God wants us to wrestle with these hard issues, to ponder them and pray on them, to reason together.


Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.

Scroll to Top