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.