What is an ‘evangelical foreign policy?’

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Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Wheaton College explains what an evangelical foreign policy looks like. - Image courtesy of Mark Amstutz

Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Wheaton College explains what an evangelical foreign policy looks like. - Image courtesy of Mark Amstutz

Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Wheaton College explains what an evangelical foreign policy looks like. - Image courtesy of Mark Amstutz

Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Wheaton College, explains what an evangelical foreign policy looks like. – Image courtesy of Mark Amstutz

A lot of hot air is devoted to American evangelicals’ work on domestic issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But what is an ‘evangelical foreign policy?’ Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Wheaton College and author of “Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy,” is determined to answer that question. Here, we discuss the characteristics and shortcomings of evangelicals’ foreign policy.

RNS: When one thinks about American evangelicals and politics, their minds may rush to domestic issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But what are the common characteristics of an evangelical foreign policy?

MA: Evangelicals’ foreign policy concerns have been motivated by core moral values rooted in a Christian worldview. Such values include the inherent dignity of all human beings, the priority of social and political justice, the need for communal order, the demand for human freedom, the responsibility to care for the weak and the poor, the importance of personal responsibility, and the universality and transnational nature of God’s love.

Not surprisingly, evangelicals have been at the forefront of global humanitarianism through such initiatives as caring for refugees, promoting job creation through micro-enterprise loans, providing health care to the poor, and combating diseases such as HIV/AIDS.  Evangelicals have established some of the largest non-governmental relief and development organizations in the world and have played an important role in helping to pass legislation to combat human trafficking, facilitate a comprehensive peace in Sudan, highlight human rights abuses in North Korea, and even helped to bring about the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press

Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press

RNS: Many think of evangelicalism as a 20th century movement, but you say evangelicals were active in foreign affairs since, at least, the 19th century. How so?

MA: The evangelical movement that emerged in the l940s as a result of the split with fundamentalists did not lead to the emergence of evangelicalism. Rather, this development marked a return to classical orthodox Protestantism. This is why scholars call this movement neo-evangelicalism or the new evangelicalism, to differentiate it from the earlier 19th century evangelicalism.

RNS: One of the most curious trends in evangelical foreign policy is their uncritical support of what some might call “imperialistic wars.” In some cases, they’ve outright endorsed or called for war. How do evangelicals who claim to follow the “Prince of Peace” reconcile these things?

MA: Following St. Augustine, evangelicals believe that Christians are citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom where Christ’s peace reigns but are also citizens of temporal kingdoms where the use of force may be necessary to deter aggression and protect legitimate interests and values. To the extent that evangelicals assess the use of military force in international relations, it is largely through the tradition of just war. Although pacifism has become more influential in recent decades, its impact on evangelical foreign policy thought remains modest.

In general, evangelicals support coercive diplomacy and war when confronting aggression and egregious wrongs. Throughout the Cold War, evangelicals were staunchly opposed to Communism because the ideology was assumed to be inconsistent with the Christian faith.  As a result, they not only supported the strategy of containment but were staunch defenders of America’s overt and covert wars. During the 1980s revolutionary wars in Central America, for example, evangelicals supported the counter-insurgency strategies of the Reagan administration. And when Iraq intervened in Kuwait in 1990, evangelicals, like most Americans, supported the use of military force to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from that small country.

RNS: Evangelicals of late have a foreign policy that seems to overwhelmingly support Israel. Why is this and do you think this is changing?

MA: Evangelicals are strong supporters of Israel. But evangelicals’ support is, on average, only 5-7 percent stronger than that of the general American public. The conventional wisdom is that evangelicals support Israel because of the influence of premillennial dispensationalism and “left behind” theological perspectives. This view is not persuasive, however, since only a small portion of evangelicals accept prophetic theology.

A more convincing explanation for evangelicals’ support of Israel must include both religious and non-religious factors. At a minimum, four factors affect Evangelicals’ view of Israel: First, the belief that Jews are God’s chosen people; second, the belief that God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants remain valid; third, the common bond between Israelis and Americans arising from shared values rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition; and fourth, the common bond between the two nations arising from the shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

RNS: You have an entire chapter on the shortcomings of evangelical foreign policy advocacy. What are two or three of these that people might have never considered?

MA: A common shortcoming of evangelical foreign policy advocacy is the effort to use the Bible to justify public policy prescriptions. Since the Bible is not a manual on international relations, Scripture should not be used for political ends.  Biblical principles should of course be used to structure the analysis of issues and to influence public policy debate, but Scripture should not be used to justify foreign policy positions. For example, some Evangelicals supporting Comprehensive Immigration Reform have unwisely used the biblical phrase  “welcoming the stranger” to imply that the regulation of international migration is inconsistent with Scripture. But the use of Scripture to justify amnesty for undocumented aliens is unpersuasive and is likely to undermine the moral authority of the church.

Another shortcoming of evangelical foreign policy advocacy is the tendency to oversimplify global issues. For example, when highly-indebted poor countries were facing difficulties in meeting debt obligations, some evangelical groups attributed the obstacles to debt repayment to the structural injustices of the international economic order. And when the National Association of Evangelicals took up the issue of nuclear arms in 2011 by adopting a resolution that called for a reduction in strategic weapons, it did so by viewing the problem as an excess of weapons, not the inherent conflictual relations of global politics.  Rather than integrating a Christian perspective with the problem posed by nuclear arms, the NAE oversimplified the issue.

If evangelicals are to contribute to worthy goals, they need to avoid shortcuts.

  • Amstutz misunderstands and mischaracterizes evangelical positions on two issues. No evangelical organization questions the right of nations to control their borders, or supports “amnesty”–unaccountable forgiveness–for undocumented immigrants, And no evangelical thinks the threat of nuclear weapons is simply a matter of the number of weapons various nations possess. The National Association of Evangelicals’ resolutions on both topics (www.nae.net/immigration2009 and http://www.nae.net/nuclearweapons2011) look at the broad sweep of Scripture, not a few proof texts, and articulate sound and relevant biblical principles that we pray will guide our nation’s leaders as they confront complex issues. One may disagree with our broadly supported conclusions, but dismissing them as “shortcuts” dishonors the many scholars and leaders who labored over them.

  • Bill

    Jonathan Merritt is a gay man who lies to the evangelical public about his sexual orientation.


  • Tim

    Ancient history, Bill. A 2009 experience does not define a 2014 person.

    How about you applaud Jonathan for being as strong as he is in Christ after a childhood where he suffered sexual abuse rather than level accusations?


  • Larry

    Actually various evangelical groups support immigration reform, including saner treatment of undocumented aliens. People who chose to love thy neighbor and help the helpless rather than engage in blind obedience of arbitrary and draconian laws they are ignorant of.

    The level of willful ignorance on the part of “nativists” on the subject of immigration law is astounding. People throw around terms like “amnesty” have no clue what they are talking about. They always engage in horrifically bad analogy between immigration law and criminal law and have no idea how the system actually works.

    That being said, the idea of “evangelical” foreign policy is a joke. A clumsy attempt to avoid rendering unto caesar and will always lead to hypocritical, contradictory and self-defeating actions.

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  • Excellent interview Jonathan! I loved Dr Amstutz’s class at Wheaton, and especially appreciated the attention he gives to the effects of evangelicalism on global affairs.

  • cken

    Christian religion has been involved in local and world politics since 325 AD. Islam and Judaism since their beginning.

  • M McL

    The Balfour Declaration operated enshrouded in secrecy, gave no reasons for the Declaration, outlined
    no conditions – other than those in the Declaration itself – and expected no
    accountability. The Declaration was not debated in either of the Houses of
    Parliament and like most foreign policy issues, was never approved by the
    British legislature.

    Many leading Christian Zionists were Jewish converts to evangelical
    Christianity who did much to shape the development of popular evangelical thinking in these matters. It was this Protestant religious discourse that
    marked the family backgrounds of many of the key members of the British
    political elite responsible for formulating the Balfour Declaration.


    And there remains no explanation of how Mitt Romney became radicalized:


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