Iranian authorities prepare to quell pro-Egyptian demonstrations. Bahraini police break up protests. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas reshuffles his cabinet, in preparation for the possibility of new elections. And for his Fox News viewers (a highly anxious group), Glenn Beck diagrams how the pan-Arab Muslim Caliphate soon will be knocking on Europe’s doorstep.
Precisely what kind of pressure we should place on the Iranian regime; or precisely what level of support we should give the Egyptian military– these and other specific policy questions are not illuminated by thoughtful theology. However, particular attitudes and perspectives– attitudes and perspectives that increase the likelihood of forming successful policies– are the result of thoughtful theology. For example:
1. We should be suspicious of the notion that democracy is the perfect answer for every people, everywhere and at every time. Some of the rhetoric about democracy elevates it to the status of a quasi-religion, as though everyone can, and will, be saved once democracy is established in their land. While freedom and democracy are compelling ideas that share common ground with a theological/moral understanding of the intrinsic worth of each and every person qua person, democracy is not an unambiguous good in all times and in all contexts. Wise American leadership in support of democratic reform movements needs to be discerning, timely, crafty.
2. We– especially we “can-do” Americans– should be suspicious of the temptation to mistake being powerful, with having the ability to control outcomes. The first does not mean the second. We can bring power to bear– say, in Iran– but we cannot dictate that the reformers will overthrow the Iranian theocracy, or that, if they do, some unintended consequence then becomes even more threatening. Recognizing this kind of limit is the virtuous outcome of thoughtful theology, and is also hopefully the lesson of our hubris in Iraq. The world is not plastic, yielding to how we mold and shape.
Grasping at the perfect answer, and attempting to control outcomes, are stock responses to anxiety. Thoughtful theology– thoughtful grounding in the Transcendent One– guards us from over-reliance on our own frail human capabilities, guards us from over-reaction to events, and gives us patience for issues to ripen– so that our policies actually have a chance to fulfill their intent.