“Of Farms, Faith, and Foreign Policy: Choosing Our Next President” by Fairmount Temple Stern Social Action Lecturer – Dr. Chris Seiple

Dr. Chris Seiple is the President of the Institute on Global Engagement in Washington, D.C. He will be presenting the annual Stern Social Action lecture during our Yom Kippur observances at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on September 26th. His title for his talk on Yom Kippur is: “Engaging the Other on the Global and Local Stage: America’s Challenge in Fostering Social Justice.” All are welcome.  This blog post is an excerpt from a larger article and context that can be found in his plenary remarks before the Council on Foreign Relations July 2012 workshop on religion and foreign policy at http://globalengage.org. We encourage you to respond to this blog post, or share it with others.


Someone asked me recently what I enjoyed most. I didn’t hesitate: driving our Ford truck somewhere, anywhere…with the windows down, our kids in the back, and Bluegrass Junction on Sirius XM. There’s just something resolutely restful about driving through rural Virginia.

What I love most this time of year, are the fresh hay bales that grace every pasture. There they sit, in silent serenity, speaking to the abundance of the land, and the farmer’s foresight. For me it’s a reminder that God provides, but we must meet Him halfway; leaving Him to do what only He can do, while we come alongside, doing what we can do.

Equally powerful is the number of fence boards that have been replaced. Seeing new board, not yet stained, is also a testimony. Someone intentionally built that fence, and will ensure that it maintains its integrity and purpose, for the good of all. In other words, it is good to see the whole landscape; but it is also comforting to witness these fresh reminders of boundaries, of roles and responsibilities clearly and purposefully kept.

As I take in the majesty of these fenced farms that prepare the present for the future, it is impossible not to hear King David, the Psalmist: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6).

As a Christian who happens to be American, that verse is exactly how I think of our country: “a delightful inheritance” to be stewarded into the future. That stewardship can only take place, at least to my mind, through a clear and moral sense of boundaries that anticipates and prepares for the future.

While I have my own opinions about such particularities, my purpose here is to provide a framework for informed discussion as we choose our next president.

Per the famous refrain of the 1992 presidential election, we are constantly told this year that “it’s the economy, stupid.” But it’s not the economy. The economy is not an end. It is merely a means.

Certainly, Americans need good policies that enable more and better jobs. But what is the moral framework and purpose through which we understand and apply those jobs?

To my mind, Americans want to know two things, that: 1) their president consistently believes in something greater than himself, and seeks to apply those principles practically in complicated contexts (what I’ll call the “faith” dimension of presidential leadership); and, 2) their country, as a result, has a positive role to play in this world (the foreign policy dimension of presidential leadership).

Americans want to believe that these tough economic times will give way to a better America, and a better world, through the moral leadership of our president. In other words, faith and foreign policy should be front and center in this election as a framework to understand the challenges we face.

The twofold irony of this election, however, is that we must choose between two men of faith who do not talk about their beliefs, nor about their singular legislative achievement—health care. Neither speaks of either.

Health care—like the economy and many other complex and pressing challenges that we face at home and abroad—begs some larger questions: How did the candidates’ beliefs and sense of right and wrong help them understand the big picture (including the past)? Frame the future? Create a context with clear boundaries that would enable mutual respect and practical policy decisions? And what did they learn along the way about the issue, their faith, and their leadership? What would they do different?

These are questions of leadership that largely remain unanswered.

Meanwhile, it is no surprise then that there is no meaningful discussion about America’s role in the world today. If we cannot have a domestic and mutually respectful conversation about our neighbor vis-à-vis such pressing issues as health care, how can we have a conversation about the critical issues of the world that impact our global neighbors, and us?

Sure, we hear candidate clichés. But we do not hear how these two men must wrestle daily with the practical application of faithful principles to the complex challenges that demand partnership at home and abroad.

The candidates’ trumpets do not yet testify to the true and practical essence of American exceptionalism: e pluribus unum—that we celebrate, not just tolerate, the integration of different ethnic, religious, and political identities into a common citizenship, equal under the rule of law, that we do not demonize those with whom we disagree, and that we can cooperate without compromise.

Such an understanding is not only our responsibility, it is our role in the world. Not because we are “chosen,” but because most Christians in this majority-Christian country choose to worship a God so great that He allows us to reject Him, and expects us to allow others the same choice. This freedom is so fundamental, so foundational, that we have made it the first freedom of our Constitution, the cornerstone of a society that is civil and a state that is stable.

But Christians who happen to be Americans must meet Him halfway, acknowledging and appreciating His abundance, among which is the gift of religious freedom. And we must steward that gift—as a natural and safe space with mutually respectful boundaries—in order to prepare for the future. Such a space allows for different motivations toward a common moral framework, informed by faith, through which our next president will build the unity necessary to tackle our common challenges, at home and abroad.

But it will first require some new fence board, as our next president re-establishes the boundaries required for these needed discussions of mutual respect across the deepest of political and theological differences.

Who will lead us back to our future?