Evangelicals should stop ignoring its volatile problems.

For the average North American trying to understand the events in Central America, frustration and confusion are the first fruits of any serious study. To begin with, Central America is not familiar territory. As James Reston noted, most North Americans will do anything for Central America except read about it.

One problem encountered when studying events in that part of the world is gaining a true understanding of what is actually happening there. This is complicated by a historical myopia that is especially evident on the political Right. Conservatives have a propensity to view the conflict in Central America without regard for the history that shaped the current crisis.

An example of this can be taken from the current debate over U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. The United States has a long and unfortunate history of military intervention in the internal affairs of this country. The U.S. landed marrines in Nicaragua in 1912, and they stayed there until 1933. In fact, of the 30 times since 1850 that the U.S. has intervened militarily in Central America, 11 of these interventions involved our troops in Nicaragua. Moreover, the government of Somoza, who is often referred to as the “last marine,” was a creation of the United States. And our government openly supported the Somoza family’s repressive dictatorship for 43 years.

How can we dismiss this history so easily in our public debates? Is there any wonder why the present government in Nicaragua is bracing for another U.S. invasion? In light of what we have done before, and in light of the events in Grenada last year, is this a surprise?

Still another problem causing confusion in the national debate over our Central American policy is the tendency of some to openly criticize authoritarian governments of the Right, while at the same time often embracing repressive socialist or Marxist governments on the Left.

The ruling junta in Nicaragua, for example, is not a gang of Marxist villians tied irrevocably to Cuba’s Castro, as the Right sometimes pictures them, but neither are they benevolent representatives of the people out to create a democracy where power truly resides with the people. There is no doubt that more people are better off now than they were before, and that the human rights situation in Nicaragua is better than that of its neighbors in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. But the country is still being run by a Marxist elite, and political dissension is severely curtailed.

The current conflict between the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church and the government in Managua is one illustration of this lack of freedom, both political and religious. Censorship of the press is another. And the role of approximately 2,000 Cubans, many in key leadership positions in the intelligence and defense areas, is still another. On this last point, all the members of the Kissinger Commission were agreed that Cuban involvement was a key factor in determining the orientation of the new government. Why are liberals unwilling to admit this? The evidence of significant Cuban involvement cannot be lightly dismissed.

Beyond these multiple complications, however, is perhaps a more fundamental problem at the very root of our current foreign policy debate. Both liberals and conservatives narrowly frame their views within the confines of what they term the “national interests” of the United States. What will further U.S. security? What will protect U.S. economic interests? What will prevent upheaval so that illegal immigrants do not stream across the borders of the United States?

As Jim Dekker pointed out in The Reformed Journal, the Kissinger Commission’s mandate was to study Central America as it relates to U.S. interests. That, in fact, is the usual limitation established in any public debate over U.S. policy. Liberals and conservatives may disagree over what our national interests are, but for both the bottom line remains self-interest.

It is here that evangelicals have an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the public debate by helping to widen the parameters of the discussion. The myth of “power politics” or so-called political realism has captivated both the liberal and conservative camps. Both have assumed that acting in our own national self-interest is the aim of any government. The “will to power,” which characterizes the ambition of the modern nation-state according to this view, is what foreign policy is all about. Therefore, in the hardball world of international affairs, “you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

When the Catholic bishops asked about the governing purpose of international politics in their much-publicized pastoral letter, they refused to accept the answer that the final measure of a policy was how it advanced the national security of the nation. The bishops recognized that national security has assumed the character of moral duty and has become the categorical imperative to which the foreign policy establishment is bound. They noted that Scripture reveals that the governing purpose of political authorities should be to ensure justice and peace for all. In traditional language, the purpose of politics is to enhance the “common good.”

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Until we are able to attack the illusion that national self-interest or self-preservation is the primary goal of foreign policy, we will never escape the crisis in which we are embroiled in Central America or anywhere else. Most evangelicals recognize that if they lived their lives in a selfish way and only cared about their own needs and desires as individuals, this would be disobedient to God’s commands and would lead to injustice.

What is true for the individual should be true for the nation as well.

Dr. Bembaum is vice-president of the 73-member Christian College Coalition, and director of the coalition’s American Studies Program.

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