How do, or how should, Christian Americans answer the question of the moment: “Does the welfare of non-Americans count in the creation of U.S. economic policy? Secondly, to what extent, if at all, should it count?”
Trade between nations increases the size of the economic pie for each nation. Yet despite overall gains, usually in the form of lower prices for everyone, losses concentrated in markets undercut by foreign competition can mean that workers in those markets lose more individually—in jobs or wages—than they gain from lower prices. This is the intra-national distributive problem with freer trade.
Many U.S. workers, particularly men, faced job losses and stagnating wages over the last generation, due in part to globalization; many workers overseas have gotten better jobs and realized increasing wages over the last generation, due in part to globalization. American men have seen median wages stagnate since the late 1960s. Worldwide, “extreme poverty,” defined as people living on less than one dollar a day, has decreased by hundreds of millions of persons over the generation.
Responding to the impact of globalization on U.S. workers by increasing tariffs and/or trade barriers involves making tradeoffs between the lives of Americans and the lives of workers overseas. We can’t pretend otherwise.
How should Christians respond to this tradeoff?
Occupying one end of the spectrum is an extreme version of “America First”: Only American lives should count for Americans; foreign lives count only when improving those lives impose no costs on Americans.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is an extreme version of global cosmopolitanism: Improving the lives of Americans should count for no more than improving the lives of non-Americans.
While Christian cosmopolitanism breathes a different spirit and unfolds along a different trajectory than the cosmopolitanism of today’s global elite, there is an inescapably cosmopolitan dimension to Christian identity (Phil. 3.20, Eph. 2.19, Col. 3.11, Rev. 7.9, 5.9, etc.). Further, common ownership of the earth and the universal destination of goods (which normally are distributively actualized through private property, not contrary to it), means that Christians, and Christian policymakers, cannot but hold some version of Christian cosmopolitanism.
But that does not mean that Christians must adopt the extreme version of cosmopolitanism. God permits, even requires, humans to have preferential commitments to sets of people smaller than humanity in general. These are the “especiallys” in the Scriptures. Paul writes to Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” And in his letter to the church at Galatia, “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Like private property, these commitments are a means of actualizing the universal destination of goods and the common ownership of the earth. Subsidiarity implies that we have a greater duty of care, an “especial” duty, for those closer to us relative to those farther away, for those who are our “own.”
The question Christian Americans face today is how Americanness marks people off as our “own” relative to our common humanity, and what are the policy implications of this distinction.
From Trump-supporting Christian leaders, we hear paeans to the natural good of national solidarity, and how President Trump promises to protect and revive the good of solidarity in the face of regnant globalization.
That’s not inappropriate. Nationhood constitutes one of those dimensions defining who is one’s “own” for Christians to provide for especially. It’s entirely appropriate to identify and support policy interventions that aim to benefit fellow Americans. But that cannot be the only dimension of policy evaluation for Christians; Christians do not have the luxury of ignoring the impact of those policies on peoples overseas (peoples who include a fair number of fellow Christians).
The policy question cannot be resolved on either side simply with a priori theologizing; empirical reality matters as well. One Christian leader told me that he opposes putting Americans out of work so that Brazilian families can have a second TV. I think that’s fair, but we can’t pretend that’s the only possibility. There is the tradeoff of one American worker facing stagnating wages with five Indian families living on five dollars a day instead of one dollar a day.
And there are policy options beyond raising tariffs or reimposing regulatory trade barriers. Recognizing that freer trade means bigger pies, rather than reimposing losses on other nations by tariffs and trade barriers, nations might consider win-win policies such as directing national gains to assist workers in markets disproportionately burdened by freer trade.
Beyond the practical issues, there is room for additional Christian thinking about national solidarity as a natural good. I’ve heard Trump-supporting Christians prooftext the argument, anachronistically identifying modern nation-states with “nations” in the Bible. This merits fuller discussion. But differences between “nations” (ethnos in the Greek) in redemptive history and modern nation-states are significant enough that Christians should avoid facile equivocation.
Further, the sheer scale of modern nation-states seems to go missing in Christian invocations of national solidarity. With over 300 million people today, the U.S. has a population equal to the population of the entire world in 1100 A.D. National solidarity ain’t what it used to be. And relative to the solidarity in intimate communities of church, family, neighborhood, and locale, is it possible to exaggerate moral or prudential distinctions between solidarity with 300 million heterogeneous souls relative to solidarity with seven billion souls?
Americans, as those of every nation, are responsible to attend first to their own. As with families, this decentralization normally helps with the provision of people’s needs, rather than hindering it. But America “first” cannot mean American “only,” at least not for Christians. Christian Americans cannot help but ask the question, just how steep a tradeoff between American lives and foreign lives, and at what point do we cross the line from appropriate preference to inappropriate neglect?
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.