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The Sermon on the Mount, and the City Upon a Hill

Many debates about policy debates are at their core debates about theology. Even people who would not consider themselves very religious often have an implicit set of assumptions about human nature, a divine will, and spiritual values that shape human rights and obligations, policy preferences, and convictions. This is especially true in the United States, ...

Photo by Wolfgang Moroder/Wikimedia Commons/Fresco by Franz Xaver Kirchebner in the parish church of Ortisei, Italy
Photo by Wolfgang Moroder/Wikimedia Commons/Fresco by Franz Xaver Kirchebner in the parish church of Ortisei, Italy

Many debates about policy debates are at their core debates about theology. Even people who would not consider themselves very religious often have an implicit set of assumptions about human nature, a divine will, and spiritual values that shape human rights and obligations, policy preferences, and convictions. This is especially true in the United States, as the nation has a long and rich history of public theology, exemplified by figures as diverse as the Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and most recently President Barack Obama.

In foreign policy, this policy-as-theology debate was on display at last week's Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in the speeches by Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio. The differences were especially notable given that Paul and Rubio both cited the same biblical passage (the Sermon on the Mount) and both focused on the issue of international religious freedom. Yet they used different interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount to advance contrasting visions of America's role in the world.

Paul spoke eloquently about the plight of persecuted Christians overseas, a woefully neglected issue. But his only suggested policy response was to cut off U.S. foreign aid to any country where Christians are targeted. This may have a certain emotive appeal, but it is completely ineffective in dealing with many nations where the persecution of Christians is severest, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea, Sudan, and Eritrea -- none of which receive development aid from the United States. He made no mention of any other policy measures or initiatives to combat religious persecution in nations where the United States doesn't have the (limited) leverage of foreign aid.

Many debates about policy debates are at their core debates about theology. Even people who would not consider themselves very religious often have an implicit set of assumptions about human nature, a divine will, and spiritual values that shape human rights and obligations, policy preferences, and convictions. This is especially true in the United States, as the nation has a long and rich history of public theology, exemplified by figures as diverse as the Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and most recently President Barack Obama.

In foreign policy, this policy-as-theology debate was on display at last week’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in the speeches by Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio. The differences were especially notable given that Paul and Rubio both cited the same biblical passage (the Sermon on the Mount) and both focused on the issue of international religious freedom. Yet they used different interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount to advance contrasting visions of America’s role in the world.

Paul spoke eloquently about the plight of persecuted Christians overseas, a woefully neglected issue. But his only suggested policy response was to cut off U.S. foreign aid to any country where Christians are targeted. This may have a certain emotive appeal, but it is completely ineffective in dealing with many nations where the persecution of Christians is severest, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea, Sudan, and Eritrea — none of which receive development aid from the United States. He made no mention of any other policy measures or initiatives to combat religious persecution in nations where the United States doesn’t have the (limited) leverage of foreign aid.

Paul’s invocation of Matthew 5:9 to oppose American involvement in war was also puzzling. In Paul’s words:

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 nonresistance. I do not believe that means that we don’t defend ourselves.… I simply can’t imagine Jesus at the head of any army of soldiers.… Jesus, himself, reminds us of this in the Sermon on the Mount, when he proclaims, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."

This no doubt reflects Paul’s policy convictions, but it is poor scriptural exegesis. First, it obscures the important distinction between Jesus’s exclusively messianic mission and the various roles of Christian citizens (e.g., Jesus didn’t run for political office either, but that doesn’t mean that Paul as a professing Christian is wrong to hold office). Second, it disregards the biblical distinction between individual conduct and the mandated role of government to "wield the sword" (see Romans 12:9-13:8) that is a cornerstone of the Christian just-war tradition. Politically, Paul’s speech was also curious, as it reflects the Social Gospel theological liberalism of the early 20th century that is historically anathema to the Christian conservatives of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. In short, with these hints of pacifism and isolation, Paul sounds in theological terms like a 21st-century Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Rubio also invoked the Sermon on the Mount in his call for American Christians to be involved in the world. Rubio’s chosen passage was Matthew 5: 13-16 (just four verses after the one Paul cited):

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

This passage embodies an enduring theme in American history. From its invocation in 1630 by Puritan leader John Winthrop in his famous sermon, the "city upon a hill" motif has been cited by American presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Reagan as a model for the nation’s role in the world. Rubio, however, concentrated his remarks on the less-cited passage about the salt of the earth and derived from it the imperative for Christians to play a "preservative" role in the world. He specifically applied it to the issue of religious persecution and urged American foreign policy to be more vigorous in promoting human rights and liberty abroad.

I am sure that both Paul and Rubio are equally sincere and equally fervent in their concern about religious persecution. But both as a matter of hermeneutics and of policy, I find Rubio’s remarks more compelling. Just in the case of persecuted religious minorities alone, effective policies to promote religious liberty will entail active American involvement and the full suite of diplomatic tools, as Rubio implies but Paul avoids. Although Rubio’s speech occasionally glossed over the distinction between biblical admonitions to individual Christians and conduct by the nation-state, overall he offered a more theologically coherent and convincing case for American leadership in a turbulent world. At a time when the nation suffers understandable fatigue and faces growing domestic pressures for retrenchment, this is a welcome reminder that many others in the world still look to the United States to play a distinctive role.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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