Review by Jacob Shatzer
Wheaton College’s Mark Amstutz provides a helpful angle for considering the interaction of evangelicals and politics. While there is no shortage of attention for evangelicals in relation to hot-button social issues such as abortion, less attention has been paid to how evangelicals have impacted American foreign policy. Amstutz focuses here in his largely positive treatment of evangelical influence.1
Amstutz’s book is meticulously researched and wide-ranging. He defines evangelicalism, connects the missionary movement to foreign policy, addresses particular foreign-policy issues, notes shortcomings of evangelicals, and proposes a way forward. Rather than attempting to summarize this vast amount of information, I am going to focus on a few theses drawn from Amstutz’s work.
1. Evangelicals, especially through the work and influence of missionaries, have provided a positive influence on American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century.
The heart of Amstutz’s argument about the positive contribution of evangelicals to foreign policy is tied to foreign missions. Basically, foreign missionaries provided expertise and vision for early foreign policy development in the United States. Evangelical concerns such as the dignity of human life, the need for education, the importance of humanitarianism, and the promotion of civil society were all missionary values that influenced foreign policy. Even today, many evangelicals remain concerned with issues of international justice rooted in such concerns.
2. Evangelical engagement in foreign policy issues, especially the issue of Israel, is not rooted in dispensational theological commitments but in a broader range of concerns.
Amstutz also does service to evangelicals in helping to counter misperceptions. For instance, he includes a helpful chapter on evangelicals and Israel, in which he complexifies the picture of evangelical support of Israel. While many assume evangelicals support Israel mainly out of a certain eschatological viewpoint or commitment, Amstutz shows that evangelicals base their support on other things, such as political ideals, humanitarian values, and security considerations (142). Evangelical support of Israel is not dependent on dispensational theology or the Left Behind series.
3. Because evangelicals often fail to understand the nuances involved in Westphalian international politics, they tend to provide unhelpful, underdeveloped proposals.
Most of Amstutz’s criticism of evangelical engagement with foreign policy is tied to a perceived “lack of competence in the affairs of the world” (94). Evangelicals do not understand that public policy requires trade-offs and negotiation between goals, means, and ends (169). He illustrates this problem by dealing with evangelical thought on climate change, immigration, torture, and nuclear weapons. In each case he argues that “the limitations of Evangelical foreign policy initiatives are rooted in the inadequate application of biblical ethics and moral reasoning to the issues…. Since no simple solutions exist, categorical moral judgments are unwarranted” (193).
4. Evangelicals must turn to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr to better understand how to influence foreign policy.
But where should evangelicals turn for a more effective engagement with foreign policy? Amstutz’s answer surprised me. In examining evangelicals of the past, he unveiled the significant contributions of missionaries, evangelicals sacrificing their lives to spread the gospel to the world, and bringing humanitarian aid along with that. I expected Amstutz to say, “Evangelical political ethics needs to be more formed by the missionary impulse and the missionary heart.” But he doesn’t. Instead, Amstutz points evangelicals to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. This suggestion troubled me on many levels. On the one hand, it seems that evangelicals have had plenty of time to process Niebuhr and let him influence our thought. On the other hand, taking Niebuhr more seriously does not seem to address the ways that Amstutz has marked evangelicals as “weak.” In some ways, it seems that Amstutz plays the Niebuhr card to advise evangelicals into a different sort of quietism, one supported not by some Fundamentalist view of the world, but one supported by the idea that foreign policy just requires too much knowledge and nuance for evangelicals to say much of use. This form of realism leads to quietism but for very different reasons. A quietism that is a result of never knowing enough of the nuance to say anything “competent.”
5. Evangelicals must first understand a situation from the perspective of accepted foreign policy perspectives before beginning to think about biblical issues.
Amstutz’s final chapter includes several “guidelines” to contribute to a more “effective” political witness, starting with “develop a thorough understanding of the problem or issue” (206). Only after this step is done can evangelicals begin to identify and explain biblical principles. The problem with these guidelines is that they assume that the Bible has little to do with developing an understanding of the problem or issue. It is as though one comes to a neutral, real-world, intellectual grasp of something and then hits a “pause” button to bring in the values. I am just not convinced that is how it works. I think that the biblical principles, when operating correctly, are going to shape people to such a degree that they understand and view the problems very differently. If evangelicals need to come to this neutral “understanding” in order to participate, I think we sacrifice the very perspective, the very ethics, the very moral vision that evangelical theology and ethics promotes. His vision of a neutral understanding of the problem followed by biblical considerations in fact boxes in and colors those biblical considerations by allowing the stage to be set, the possible actions determined, before “values” come into play. But really values are in play from the beginning; yet biblical, distinctively evangelical values are only invited to the party when they conform to this neutral “understanding of the problem” which is in fact informed by a set of values that is very different in many cases.
Amstutz focuses almost entirely on how evangelicals can contribute to “good” foreign policy, with the judgment of goodness relying on the nuances and considerations required by the world’s Westphalian order. He neglects, however, the idea that the way evangelicals are engaged in politics not only (or even primarily) ends up influencing specific policies, but that evangelicals themselves can be formed to be more or less like Christ in the process. While Amstutz makes convincing arguments about what is required for evangelicals to speak wisely into the Westphalian context of international politics, he does not consider much how that context itself shapes disciples. In addition to this neglected area, I am also curious as to where the church’s prophetic voice might play a role on the systems level. Amstutz certainly allows for evangelicals to speak against violations of human dignity as related to individual policies (once all complexities are understood), requiring an understanding of the world situation from a particular perspective seems to preclude the church’s and the Christian’s ability to speak out against that larger system’s perspective. Those that try to do so, in Amstutz’s approach, can quickly be labeled as “misunderstanding the complexities of the situation and the trade-offs required in politics.”
In the end, I think Amstutz gives us two ways forward for evangelical theopolitics. His explicity, preferred solution is a return to Niebuhrian realism. But I think his other, implicit solution proves more interesting and potentially fruitful. Instead of turning to Niebuhr, perhaps evangelicals should look more to missionaries for cues on how to live in and minister to a foreign society. Perhaps that will be a helpful example as our society seems to change so quickly.
1 I must note at the outset that I am intentionally deviating from one of Amstutz’s practices in this review. He capitalizes “Evangelical” throughout (even altering quotes) in order to put Evangelicalism on similar footing as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, since “Evangelicals are a distinct group of orthodox believers who share common beliefs and practices” (8). This decision, and my hesitancy to follow it, mark one of the major disagreements I have with the book. While Amstutz attempts to set “Evangelicalism” on a sure, definable foundation, I am not convinced that he does so. He capitalizes it to put it on similar footing with other ecclesiastical groups, but then he turns around and argues “Evangelicalism can be viewed as an ecumenical movement of different traditions and national groups in which shared beliefs are more important than ecclesiastical differences” (30). On one hand, Amstutz’s “Evangelicals” account for one-fourth of the electorate in America, but on the other hand they are so diverse that their influence is on the wane. Not even considering outside debates about the definability and borders of evangelicalism, Amstutz’s own treatment seems to use the term in different ways that can be slightly confusing.
Dr. Jacob Shatzer is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Sterling College. He is also Book Review Editor for Ethics here at Books At a Glance.
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Evangelicals And American Foreign Policy