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Jamieson Spencer Interviews Rick Herrick on his new book “A Christian Foreign Policy”

A Christian Foreign Policy: New Ways to Think About a Problem reconsiders foreign policy from the perspective of Christianity. It considers all the issues concerned with foreign policy through a religious frame of reference.

“It is my passionate belief that will not realize ‘the best of times’ without the adoption of a Christian approach to foreign policy. This book lays out the principles of how to create such a policy.” ~ Rick Herrick

Interview with Rick Herrick and Jamieson Spencer

Jamie: You make some very good points about the dangers of a too-imperial foreign policy, and you show all the failures they have led to in the Middle East. What are some steps that we ought to consider now (given our responsibilities in the world) to correct those errors—short of withdrawal, which might be the worst step of all?
Rick: In my book, A Christian Foreign Policy, I argue that the foreign policy mistakes the United States has made in the last fifty years have occurred when we have acted unilaterally to recreate other countries in our image. Policies to effect such imperialistic goals have been expensive in terms of lives lost and money spent. Many Americans have come to this conclusion so the question becomes what should our role be in an endangered and yet very interdependent world.

A few months ago published my article “An American Fortress.” In that article I point out that America is protected by oceans on our east and west coasts. We have friendly neighbors to our north and south. We are rich in natural resources with an economy that is second to none. Our military is without equal, and we have 800 military bases around the world. We have 28 European allies in NATO and several allies in Asia. Taken together this adds up to the American Fortress. With the exception of Russian long-range missiles, there are no threats to our homeland.

An American Fortress is an important image because it tells us that we have little to fear; and, with respect to global problems, we can listen to and respond in terms of the better angels of our nature. This means working with Russia and China to control nuclear weapons with the eventual goal of total elimination. It means a massive commitment of funds to fight global warming. It means a large increase in foreign aid to less developed countries with a drastic reduction in the export of weapons to those countries. It means an increase in support for the United Nations and the rule of international law. When I think about these problems in quiet, meditative prayer, thoughts flood my awareness I believe come from God that push me to support such policies.
Jamie: I agree with your rejection of a hawkish foreign policy and I strongly applaud your recommended alternative—one that’s inclusive in spirit and attitude, and which puts “social and economic justice at its heart”. Why can’t we simply commend those wise proposals as humane, just, and considerate without claiming it as a divine injunction? Or God’s guidance?
Rick: You certainly can. There are many progressives with no religious affiliation who hold these views.

My book, however, is about how religion and politics intersect. My favorite example of how this works can be found by looking at the gay marriage debate. Unfortunately, the Bible is of no help. If you read the literature on gay marriage, you will find Christians who oppose it have their biblical passages which they use to make a convincing case. Christians who approve of gay marriage use different biblical passages to support their well-crafted position. My approach is quite simple. If you want to know what God thinks about gay marriage, befriend a gay couple and listen to your heart.

To address this more formally, humans are decision makers. From my experience, I have learned that God messages me when I have a decision to make. Thoughts of goodness and love float through my awareness which compete with more self-centered concerns. I center my religious life around, though not always successfully, trying to live those thoughts of goodness and love.

When I study military strategy advocating the battlefield use of nuclear weapons, my mind screams out “no.” The Trump administration recently ratcheted up economic sanctions on a Iran being decimated by the coronavirus. My mind said totally unfair. You can’t do this to a people who are really suffering from the effects of this disease. I am sure the same thoughts flood the awareness of progressives who do not consider themselves to be religious. The only difference I have with them is that I believe the thoughts of love, beauty, and goodness that float through my mind come from God. The wonderful thing is that despite this difference we can work together to try to push government policy in a more progressive direction.
Jamie: Your proposed, “God-whispered” policy for the world reminds me of the Jewish ideal of “Tikkun Olam”—habitual acts of kindness to repair the world. It also echoes ML King’s conviction that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Both Judaism and King are of course religious in spirit, but their focus—the arena they have in mind– is wholly secular. Both ideas are aimed at doing good in the real world without a specific dogmatic or doctrinal impulse. What’s your reaction to these thoughts?
Rick: If I understand your question correctly, you are asking me to reflect on the linkage between the secular and religious realms. Many Christians separate them. When thinking of Christian ethics, they focus on private charity. Private charity is important. It is helpful in improving the lives of our neighbors, and it certainly plays a prominent role in the teachings of Jesus. When it comes to politics, the secular world, these Christians stay away. That is the job for the President and the Congress. It’s a complicated, nasty world I know nothing about, they say.

It is interesting that Jesus did not make that separation. The central focus of the religion of Jesus is the coming of God’s kingdom. What does that mean in terms of implementation? The first thing to note is that it involves structures of power. When Jesus battles Satan in healing disease and exorcising demons, he is attacking evil structures of power. The kingdom of God would arrive once these evil structures of power were defeated.

As a result, bringing in the kingdom of God was about replacing the repressive system in first century Palestine under Roman colonialism. Note also the frequent attacks by Jesus on the scribes, the elite advisors to the corrupt Temple priests. During the last week of his life, he overturns the money tables and frees the animals used for Temple sacrifices. This was a direct attack on the ruling Jewish establishment. These attacks were about establishing a society centered around economic and social justice and a rule of law enforced with goodness and love. It’s all there in the Sermon on the Mount, and the wonderful parables about the kingdom that are found in the Synoptic gospels.

There is a wonderful image in the gospel of John of Jesus as the light of the world. John defines that light as the shining of goodness and love into human society. Imagine a world in which two billion Christians took that image seriously. Imagine a world in which these two billion Christians made a focus on bringing in the kingdom of God the center of their religion. Imagine a world in which Christians took seriously the words they pray each Sunday: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jamie: In an article in the latest Church and State Rob Boston reviews a new book by Diane Ravitch. I’d be interested in your take of her analysis, in light of your criticism of those who instinctively cite the Bible. She criticizes the voucher movement, noting as Rob says, “voucher students often end up attending religious schools that … elevate the propagation of dogma over legitimate education…. Many [such] schools … use textbooks based on a narrow, fundamentalist reading of the Bible, excluding modern science and history.” Seems to me educating young minds to think that way creates an entire new generation of misguided, thoughtless, Scripture-quoting “thinkers”.
Rick: I feel a little disadvantaged answering this question because I have not read Diane Ravitch’s book, and because I am not an expert on education policy. However, I do have a strong opinion on education vouchers that I would be happy to share. I see four problems with the voucher movement as it relates to public funding of the private schools that such vouchers support.

First, it has been shown that the voucher movement has taken away both funding and support from public schools. Public education is a bedrock pillar of democratic government. Public schools socialize children on key themes in American history and the workings of democratic government. For democratic government to have a long future, all of our children need to hear the same story. Exclusive schools with an ideological focus often distort that story. Taxpayer money should not be used to support such schools.

Second, Christian schools with a fundamentalist focus have become tools for resegregating education. Desegregated schools provide minority students with a better education, and they are also important socializing tools. Desegregated schools tell children that America as a nation is organized around certain foundational ideas like all humans are created equally with important individual rights. In contrast to many countries around the world, ethnicity is not an important part of our national identity which has contributed greatly to our political stability.

Third, many if not most Conservative Christians are at war with modern science because it contradicts the first three chapters of Genesis as well as the biblical worldview generally. This war has important policy consequences. These Christians deny the science of climate change; and, more recently, some have been skeptical of the science directing the fight against the covid-19 pandemic. These conservative Christians acquire this anti-science bias from attending private Christian academies where creation science is taught in place of scientific theories explaining the origins of the universe and life on the planet. If they want to handicap their children’s education in this way, fine; but there is no way public funding through vouchers should contribute to the narrowing of the minds of their children.

Finally, we have become a deeply partisan nation, making compromise between the two parties difficult. Conservative Christians make up an important part of the base of the Republican party. Because these Christians are at war with science and American secular culture generally, they are ideologically driven with no interest in compromise. These conservative Christians acquire their ideological stance in Christian private schools. Because excessive partisanship makes democratic governance more difficult, public funding should not be used to support the schools that are an important cause of the problem. Maybe a silver lining from the current coronavirus pandemic is that it will break the vicious cycle of this partisanship. That would certainly be a welcome change that most Americans would welcome.
Jamie: A central theme in your book is that passage picking from the Bible is not an appropriate guide for Christians in making political decisions. If that is true, how then should Christians use the Bible? Has it become irrelevant for our lives?
Rick: In answering the second interview question, I explained why passage picking didn’t work. The bottom line is that you can find a passage in the Bible to support any political position one wants to take. The reason for this is because the Bible was written by human beings with differing positions on many New Testament issues.

Now to your question. Thirty-five years ago I learned an important lesson about how to read the Bible. I wanted to discover what others thought about scripture so I joined a Bible study class with eight very conservative Christians. I attended every Wednesday night for four years. At one point in the class the leader gently reprimanded me. “Rick, you approach the Bible like a lawyer. You look for every inconsistency, textual problem, any apparent contradiction. Your goal seems to discredit the main message. Go home and read the New Testament like a novel. Don’t stop to puzzle over a passage. Read straight through. If you do that, you will discover the big picture. Allow these wonderful stories to speak to you.”

When I read the New Testament as a novel, the religion of Jesus leaps off the pages. He defines the most important characteristic of God as compassion. For us humans, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Religion is about changing the orientation of your heart. He was passionate about the importance of economic and social justice. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He was inclusive. Everyone was invited to eat at his table. And I could go on. The big picture of the Christian Bible defines my religion and inspires me to live the love of God which is a constant in my life.

I want to thank Deb and Jamie for making this interview possible. It’s not often that an author has the opportunity to defend his book in depth as the five questions in this interview have provided. Many, many thanks.
Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of three published novels: An Uncommon Woman, A Week in October, and Choosing Love, and A Man Called Jesus. He has also published a work of nonfiction entitled The Case Against Evangelical Christianity. His musical play, “Lighthouse Point,” was performed as a fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in May 2013.  He is married with three children and seven grandchildren.

Jamie Spencer, a St. Louis native, is a retired high-school English teacher and community college professor. He has written book and music reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and serves as a book reviewer for the Missouri Historical Society’s Gateway Magazine and Washington University’s A Common Reader. Modified Raptures is his first romantic novel. An earlier non-fiction book, Fictional Religion, is a set of essays that identify important religious themes to be found in great literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Larkin and Faulkner. He lives in Missouri with his wife Anna Ahrens.

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