Is ‘America First’ Un-Christian?

Peter Leithart’s recent essay in First Things, ”On Trump and Trumpism,” is a reasonably good summary of what many practicing Christians—or at least practicing Catholics—think about President Trump. It’s an open-minded and basically fair read of the president’s virtues and vices, explaining why Leithart is wary of the man, but perhaps cautiously optimistic about his presidency.

I concur or partially concur with much that Leithart lays out, though I have some disagreements as well. But I want to object strenuously to this assertion:

“even in the best of circumstances ‘America First’ is not a Christian slogan or outlook. Whoever occupies the White House, it’s ‘kingdom first.’

I’d guess (and here the caution against anecdotes-as-data applies) that many if not most pious Catholics would agree wholeheartedly with those two sentences; and I think therein lies the reason pious Catholics are often foolishly supine in politics, a field where they are called to be wise as serpents in addition to harmless as doves. (In fairness to Leithart, when he says “kingdom first” he’s referring to his essay on the topic; I am addressing the term as I think most Christian readers who don’t click through to his essay will understand it.)

Properly understood, “America First” is the only attitude a president acting as president can have. If you are not capable of defending the good of American citizens and America as a whole first and foremost, you ought not to run for office, as that is the precise job description.

“America First” does not mean my country right or wrong; it does not mean my country in contradiction of the moral and natural law; it does not mean my country without due respect for the just claims of other nations and individuals. It does not mean jingoist inability to appreciate the gifts and goods of other nations or cultures, or inability to learn from them. It does not mean xenophobia. Observing the demands of justice, morality, the common good and constitutional order is in America’s (or any nation’s) long-term best interest.

Of course, as a person with a soul that will spend eternity in heaven or hell, any president would be both foolish and wicked to lose his soul for Wales. So yes, as an  individual, he must govern “for the kingdom”—meaning, he must follow the dictates of an upright conscience when the thorny decisions arise and not sell himself for power, prestige, popularity, praise, sweetheart deals, sex, or any other temptation. To do so is to endanger not only his own soul, but also the health of civic life.

However, the instant a president (or his followers) thinks his political acts are “for the kingdom,” he has moved beyond the political order and is asking politics to do what it by nature cannot do.

Politics by itself cannot make men moral, nor can it immanentize the eschaton, nor can it satisfy the higher longings of the human soul for love, beauty, spirituality and communion. (Which is why this much–discussed tweet about political action assuaging all human hurts is possibly the most pathetically sad and frighteningly flat-souled thing written lately.)

Politics can only provide the tranquility of order and the conditions of liberty that leave us free to use our freedom for moral ends and pursue those higher things. We must observe a space of “legitimate secularity” as Pope Benedict XVI often used to remind us.

A president who imagines he works “for the kingdom” would be guilty of colossal hubris. Who dares say he pursued a policy in the name of God? As Lincoln said when someone prayed that God would be on our side, “Let us pray rather that we are on God’s side.” 

Nor can any president try to govern with the generic interests of the entire world in mind. We would rightly criticize a father who fed the neighborhood at large before feeding his own children (the more so in time of famine). Not because his own children have more value in the eyes of God than anyone else’s, but because the father’s precise job is to love and look out for his own children—the presumption being that if he takes care of his family, they will not be burdensome to the rest of the community and will one day rise to take their parents’ place in contributing to the common good. The community can concentrate its charity and its emergency measures on the truly needy (to cite the reason most relevant to the common good, and leaving aside a discussion of concentric circles of relationship and duty and what parents owe their children). The president is not our national father, but he has an analogous duty to serve first those he was elected to serve.

I’m afraid far too many Christians mistake the “neither gentile nor Jew” demands of charity with the corrupt and cynical cosmopolitanism of progressivism, which teaches us to despise our own people; or the huge, trans-national corporate behemoths, which have no allegiance to anyone, only to their bottom lines.

But you can’t be a good citizen if you fancy yourself a citizen of the world. The fact that a Christian knows this world is not his ultimate home doesn’t relieve him of the duty to be fully engaged as a citizen of his country any more than the fact that his children are destined for eternity entitles him to be cavalier about their physical and intellectual well-being.

Without saying more about it, in this regard I like to think about how unreservedly Polish St. John Paul II was, and whether that strengthened or limited his ability to love universally. And similarly, I think of the example of Pope Benedict XVI, who could not have been more German, or more specifically, Bavarian, and his very love of his own home town and people is what enabled him, by extrapolation, to understand and love other peoples.  It does not detract from the wholesome diversity of the world for Americans to be fully and wholeheartedly American. On the contrary, it helps others rise and find their own wholesome identities.

I think this is what President Trump had in mind in his excellent speech in Warsaw in the moving passage about Polish heroism that was really a call to every decent person in the world to quit apologizing for existing, and learn to be who you are:

Together, with Pope John Paul II, the Poles reasserted their identity as a nation devoted to God.  And with that powerful declaration of who you are, you came to understand what to do and how to live. 

Democracy requires a demos, as Sir Roger Scruton has said. And the role of the American president is to serve and protect the American demos,* properly understood.

*For the benefit of some who need reassurance: this includes American citizens of any color and creed, natural born or naturalized. 

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19 responses to “Is ‘America First’ Un-Christian?

  • This is an excellent defense of the virtues of nationalism and patriotism (rightly understood as a healthy love of country, wrongly maligned as narrow xenophobia), personal charity (as opposed to state mandated redistribution) and our personal responsibility as citizens to care first for ourselves, our families and our immediate communities.

    • People forget that before there was nationalism, people were serfs.

      Nationalism was the movement that brought us self-government – the notion that a nation is understood as a people, not a king or duke’s possessions.

      • Not really. Nationalism has generally been a cause of warfare and carnage. Pride of country lead to hate of other when people like Trump start to use it.

      • In the Old World, yes. Germany is the prime example of the tragedy and horrors of Old World nationalism. In this, as in so many things, America and its New World has always been the exception. Trump supporters don’t hate other people, we just have a healthy love for our country. We willingly extend that love to any who love us back (although respect on both sides is probably a better word).

      • Almost hilarious. “Trump supporters don’t hate other people” The people receiving hate and disrespect are the true judges; they know. So ask any LGBT, black, hispanic, islamic, asian, central americans if they feel loved and respected by Trump and his followers. Just listen carefully.

  • The strange thing is considering all the sanctions, drones, bombing, etc. we ae responsible for when it wasn’t “America First”, they can’t say it is bigotry or jingoism. The America as a globalist cog is responsible for Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and other failed stated. And apparently to them American Exceptionalism is that we can get away with monstrous deeds of evil and will not face either temporal or divine justice.

    • For too many ‘all the sanctions, drones, bombing, etc is simply ‘doing the Lord’s work’.

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      • Those drones and bombs are being used against the wrong people, it would appear.

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  • The local proprietors of the Temple of Mammon can go pound sand. There is no Christ in that house. They want Caesar’s gold or sins of the flesh, but God’s word is so watered down it has the taste and flavor of colored water. We are all God’s children? Gee what a pathetic excuse. I suppose you could say the same for Satan, but I’ll kick that ass all the way out of my hometown just the same Vicar. This is just heresy. The Tower of Babel all over again. They want another Tower of Babel where all the humans are under one heretic king. Tammuz, the Anti-Christ. The one who calls himself your “New God”. Just like Nimrod.

  • America First is an old nasty theme that recurs throughout American history. Deep down, America is socially, culturally, and intellectually isolated from the rest of the world. Our backwoods provincial nativism is a pathetic failure to comprehend the world. Sadly, we are the world’s hillbillies.

    • That isolation gives us a rational perspective on the rest of the world. It’s a strength, not a failure. The social, cultural and intellectual “isolation” you critcize has allowed us to develop the most free, dynamic and vibrant society the world has ever known. If we are indeed a nation of nativist, backwoods provincial hillbillies, why do educated, ambitious people from the developed world immigrate here to live, work educate themselves and raise families and millions of others crash our borders to get in?

      And by the way, I’ve seen something of the world, having traveled in Europe and the South Pacific and lived and attended school in Ausralia, so my observations weren’t formed in a vacuum.

    • Yeah, you should definitely move to the EU, how’s your German or Swedish?

      • Not happening. Too much family and assets here. But, in reality, American need to see other countries. They always come home more humble and less arrogant. We trail in so many areas.

  • BCML (below) is a sad self-parody of the contentless pseudo-cosmopolitanism of our Ruling Elite, and can’t be read any other way.

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