An Unexpected Intersection

By Alan W. Dowd, 4.18.18

A project devoted to exploring the intersection of faith, liberty and national security may seem odd at first blush. After all, most of us place these subjects into separate boxes as we try to make sense of the chaotic world around us. It’s easy and reasonable to do so; however, the deeper and longer we think about each of these issues, the more obvious it is that they are too big to stay neatly confined inside their respective boxes. Whether we notice or not, each informs, impacts and is impacted by the others.

This is not a novel concept. In what came to be called the Four Freedoms Speech, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Americans to “look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world…freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world…freedom from want…freedom from fear.”

What’s forgotten or altogether overlooked about this speech—and relevant to our discussion—is that the  focus of the speech was FDR’s description of “unprecedented” threats to “American security.” He explained that the “democratic way of life” was under assault “in every part of the world” by “aggressor nations” and “dictator nations” that seek to impose “a new order of tyranny.” And he noted that “No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion.”

FDR was connecting faith, liberty and security. However, he wasn’t the first to identify the connective tissue between them.

In Democracy in America, perhaps the most insightful commentary on the people and government of the United States ever written, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.” He went on: “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

The Founders would have agreed. Historian Isaac Kramnick notes that most of the Founders believed “religion was a crucial support of government.” In his first inaugural address, President George Washington concluded, “The propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.” President John Adams explained, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” President Thomas Jefferson asked the Almighty to “lead our councils to what is best.”

In short, the Founding Fathers—even the Deists among them—recognized that religion supported personal virtue, which supported a kind of civic virtue, which together supported liberty and a healthy society of free people. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways to recognize this.

Faith and liberty also shaped America’s role in the world and understanding of security.

Arguably from the very beginning, Americans have believed they have a responsibility to spread liberty, as they understand it, around the world. Jefferson envisioned the United States maturing into “an empire of liberty” that would serve as the driving force for the “freedom of the globe.”

As America’s ability to project power grew, the American people increasingly felt a moral impetus to act on the international stage. By the end of the 19th century, Spain’s brutal treatment of Cuba sparked outrage from the American people and paved the way for America’s first war in “defense of moral principal,” as Robert Kagan observes.

When FDR and Churchill rendezvoused in the North Atlantic, they led their troops in singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers!”

At the height of the Cold War, President John Kennedy argued, “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

When 9/11 awoke America to a new kind of war, President George W. Bush declared, “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”

And from World War II through the Cold War and into the War on Terror, the American people have been reminded repeatedly that the enemies of religious liberty—whether those enemies prevent people from worship or force people to worship—are enemies of America. This helps explain the Trump administration’s commitment in its National Security Strategy to “advocate on behalf of religious freedom and threatened minorities,” “place a priority on protecting these groups” and “continue working with regional partners to protect minority communities from attacks.”

Organizations and thinkers across the ideological spectrum are, in a sense, gathering at this unexpected intersection of faith, liberty and security—exploring questions Augustine and Aquinas, Niebuhrand Walzer, and countless soldiers and statesmen have wrestled with for centuries. The list is long and diverse: think tanks and research groups such as AEI, the Acton Institute (see here and here), Pew and CFR; academic centers at Georgetown, Texas and the U.S. Army War College; advocacy groups such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Philos Project and 21Wilberforce; journals such as Providence and First Things. The list goes on.

The editors of Providence, for example, recently crafted and circulated “A Christian Declaration of American Foreign Policy” that deals largely with these issues of faith, security and liberty—and America’s role in defending them. Dozens of scholars, theologians, political scientists, historians, policy analysts, retired military officers and former policymakers have signed the declaration (myself included).

Even those who are uninterested in foreign policy, national defense and international security will find the document to be thoughtful, thought-provoking and perhaps most of all, important. These issues are important to all of us because America’s role in the world affects all of us; because as people of faith and Americans (in that order), we carry a special burden and a special responsibility in the world; because, to paraphrase a famous adage, whether or not we’re interested in death-wish dictators, radicalized regimes, murderous movements, failing states and rising powers, they’re interested in us.

The very title of the document serves as a statement: foreign policy is not off-limits to people of faith, and our faith should inform our views on foreign policy. We must never put our nation ahead of our faith; that would be idolatry. But as author-theologian Philip Yancey reminds us, in an echo of Augustine’s City of God, we “live in an external kingdom of family and cities and nationhood, while at the same time belonging to the kingdom of God.”

Put another way, we are dual citizens. As such, the Providence declaration argues that Americans have “special stewardship responsibilities…to encourage, grow, and defend the institutions and culture of ordered liberty among the community of responsible sovereign nations.”

Indeed, as Jefferson and FDR envisioned, the United States plays a vital role today in preserving and promoting a liberal international order characterized by free government, the rule of law, individual freedom, open markets, respect for borders, human rights and human dignity. Consider that the U.S. provides a security umbrella to more than 50 nations, keeps the sea lanes open for commerce and trade, polices the world’s toughest neighborhoods, and answers the world’s 9-1-1 calls. It does these things for its own good and the greater good—and largely by invitation: Libyans appealed to the U.S. for protection in 2011. The Iraqi government begged America to return in 2014. Today, Poland and the Baltics, Korea and Kuwait, Jordan and Japan, Kosovars and Kurds, want America’s help to maintain regional stability—and their own freedom. Scores of African governments have asked for U.S. assistance in the struggle against jihadism. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against Russia. And across the Asia-Pacific, those who fear China’s rise are strengthening their ties with America.

In short, many in the U.S. take it for granted; Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang resent it; and our jihadist enemies are actively trying to undo it. But America’s unique role as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense makes it possible for hundreds upon hundreds of millions to worship any god or no god at all (faith), to participate in free government and free markets (liberty), and to live in relative peace (security).

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.