Rand Paul delivered a speech to the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C. last week in which he warned of a global “war on Christianity” that was being partly funded by U.S. aid to predominantly Muslim countries and facilitated by aggressive U.S. policies overseas. Senator Paul’s speech focused on the often ignored persecution of Christians around the world, which he combined with his standard criticisms of foreign aid to states where anti-American sentiment is widespread. He also went on to link the forcible displacement and devastation of ancient Christian communities in the Near East to U.S. policies of regime-change and supporting armed insurgents, which have had the effect of exposing Christian minorities to the attacks of jihadists and abuses at the hands of the majority. The decimation of Iraqi Christian communities was his prime example of this, but he also warned against aggressive measures in Syria that could lead to a similar fate for the Christians of that country.

Having presented his audience with the grave consequences for their co-religionists that have resulted from an aggressive foreign policy, Paul then suggested that Christ would not condone the waging of “pre-emptive” war. Paul said:

 I can recall no utterance of Jesus in favor of war or any acts of aggression. In fact, his message to his disciples was one of non-resistance. I do not believe that means that we don’t defend ourselves.

I believe individuals and countries can and should defend themselves. But I simply can’t imagine Jesus at the head of any army of soldiers and I think as Christians we need to be wary of the doctrine of pre-emptive war.

What Paul called pre-emptive war is better described as preventive war since pre-emption still implies that the war is being fought in some sort of self-defense, but the senator’s overall message was clear: the Prince of Peace would reject one nation initiating hostilities against other nations. This might seem so obvious as to be redundant, but the fact that Paul felt the need to say it reflects the degree to which Christian conservative thinking on war in America has been distorted by the last twelve years of our foreign conflicts.

The speech was no doubt intended partly to reassure evangelicals in Iowa that his foreign-policy views should not be a barrier to supporting him in the future. It also seems to have been written to emphasize that a less intrusive foreign policy is the one that does the most to protect American values. Senator Paul was demonstrating at this conference his knack for expressing criticism of an activist foreign policy in language that would resonate with conservative voters, but he was also doing something more important and more interesting than just trying to build a base of political support. He was confronting the audience members with the effects of an aggressive foreign policy that their own Republican leaders have been supporting for more than a decade, and he was challenging them to question basic assumptions about the wisdom and justice of recent U.S. wars from an explicitly Christian perspective.

Paul’s speech has predictably been misunderstood by some on the right as veering towards outright pacifism and likewise misrepresented as a rejection of just-war theory, but it was neither of these. It is strange for anyone to read the speech as being remotely close to pacifism, since Paul specifically endorsed wars fought in genuine self-defense. In so doing, he implicitly acknowledged that just-war theory requires that the use of force be a last resort, when all else has failed. Neither preventive nor pre-emptive warfare properly qualifies as using force as a last resort. Just-war theory sets such a high and difficult standard in order to limit and discourage war. Christianity’s just-war tradition does not exist to provide Christians with a ready-made pretext for waging or supporting war but rather to constrain and hold in check fallen humanity’s capacity for violence and cruelty. Christians who take this part of their tradition seriously should take this rationale to heart. That was the simple but powerful idea that Paul was trying to convey.

Sen. Paul isn’t a pacifist, nor did he claim that this is what Christians are required to be, but he did insist that Christians are called to be peacemakers. Paul’s speech was an attempt to remind a Christian audience that this calling is incompatible with support for unnecessary wars. His implied message throughout the speech was that it would be far better for them, as the Psalmist says, to “seek peace and pursue it.” It should go without saying that one cannot be serious about the pursuit of peace while contemplating preventive war, but unfortunately this is something that has been all too easily forgotten. Paul should be given credit for calling attention to this neglected truth.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative. Follow him on twitter, or at his blog.