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America Isn’t the Church and Shouldn’t Act Like It

The U.S. cannot dictate moral truth and refashion the world in her own image.

The Christian religion aims to conform the entire world, in all of its complexity, to the person of Christ. After the resurrection, so the Gospel of Matthew tells us, Jesus commended his apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Prior to his ascension into heaven, He similarly tells His disciples to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Inasmuch as Christians obey these directives and remake the world in the image of Christ, they fulfill their God-given mandate. Inasmuch as America attempts to assume the role of the Church and remake the world in her own image, she not only fails to fulfill her original mission, she falters.

Examples of that latter tendency are not hard to find. Our interventionist policies in Afghanistan and Iraq were aimed at making other nations—with far different cultures, histories, and political traditions—into liberal democracies mirroring ours. Before that, in the 1990s, we sought to impose our values upon the Balkans. Or consider the symbolic gesture of flying rainbow LGBTQ pride flags at our embassies, a tradition that became routine in 2011 (until this year), when then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton proclaimed that “gay rights are human rights” and encouraged U.S. diplomats to push countries with different conceptions of sexual ethics to adopt America’s own. Moreover, the American government has often partnered with international organizations that seek to radically transform traditional societies in Africa and elsewhere, often for the worse. 

Samuel P. Huntington claimed that American primacy was central “to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world,” while journalist Michael Hirsh argued that America’s global dominance is “the greatest gift the world has received in many, many centuries, possibly all of recorded history.” Yet as Stephen M. Walt has observed, the ideal of American exceptionalism has often blinded us to the egregiously detrimental effects of our efforts to make the world into a carbon copy of America. Among other humiliating episodes from our past, the United States bears blame for our violent colonialist efforts in the Philippines and our support for the Contras in Nicaragua. Though Washington “talks a good game on human rights and international law, it has refused to sign most human rights treaties, [and] is not a party to the International Criminal Court,” notes Walt.

It’s true that John Winthrop in 1630 urged his fellow Puritans to establish a community that would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” Leading American politicians, including Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, have all cited Winthrop’s application of Scripture to the American ideal. Yet it should be remembered that the image of a “city upon a hill” is one not of aggressive interventionism, but of bearing humble witness to a certain political vision. The goal is to persuade other nations to follow our example by virtue of our domestic activity, rather than forcibly foisting our ideals upon our neighbors.

The early inheritors of Winthrop understood what this “city upon a hill” vision entailed. John Quincy Adams, whose ancestors emigrated to America only eight years after Winthrop’s famous speech, warned America not to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” This followed the precedent set by George Washington in his 1796 farewell address, in which he pressed his countrymen toward a uniquely conservative foreign policy. “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?” he asked. A contemporary America in crisis—with failing infrastructure, rampant opioid addiction, and suicidally high entitlement spending, among other problems—requires us to focus our efforts not on “foreign ground,” but on preserving and fostering an “America the Beautiful” of which all Americans can be proud.

The Roman Catholic Catechism asserts: “Henceforward the Church, endowed with the gifts of her founder and faithfully observing his precepts of charity, humility and self-denial, receives the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God, and she is on earth the seed and the beginning of that kingdom.” Unfortunately, many American foreign policy wonks and interventionists believe it is Washington that should serve as the model and impetus for global change. The Church—whether understood as Catholic or a broader, more ecumenical organism—has a moral imperative to draw all peoples, nations, and languages to itself and communicate divine truth to the world. This, however, is not the mission of the United States. The more America seeks to dictate moral truth and refashion the world in her image, the greater damage she does to the global order—and ultimately to herself.

More than two years ago, Theresa May, speaking before Republican politicians in Philadelphia, declared that Britain and America would never again invade foreign countries “in an attempt to make the world in their own image,” and pledged not to repeat the “failed policies of the past.” This is the kind of conservative, restrained policy that should guide our decisions on the world stage. America is not a secular version of the Catholic Church, but one nation among many. She, like many other nations, has a great calling to manifest, most completely and beautifully, the unique traits of her national identity as a witness to the world. She, a la Winthrop, is to be a humble city upon a hill, not a universal spiritual kingdom.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.