Speaking with USA Today in an interview published Thursday, Laura Bush was asked if she would ever consider voting for Donald Trump if he’s the Republican nominee.
While her immediate answer—”Don’t ask that”—made headlines, some remarks she made a few moments later strike me as more important. Here’s what she had to say in a response to a question about Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States:
This is what I want Americans to remember—what our real values are. And one of the very first things, one of the reasons we’re a country is because we believe in freedom of religion. We believe that people could be religious. They could choose any religion they wanted to, or they could not worship, if they didn’t want to. We don’t have any religious test in the United States. And that’s what we need to remember. We need to remember what our own values are.
We have a tendency in the United States, and it’s happened other times in our history, to become sort of isolationist and xenophobic and, you know, we’re just going to stay here together and not pay attention to the rest of the world. And it’s something that we have to pay attention to now because our world is so small. And it’s important for us—even though we’ve gone through these stages many other times in our history—to pay attention to the rest of the world.
In that first paragraph, the former first lady is exactly right: Freedom of religion is enshrined in our Constitution, and it should be protected.
But in the latter half of her comments, Bush goes dangerously off course, presenting a false dichotomy between isolationism and the sort of aggressive, irresponsible foreign policy her husband’s administration (and his successor’s) is known for.
Mrs. Bush implies than there are just two options for America: 1) Being isolationist, xenophobic, and abusive toward religious liberty, or 2) “paying attention to the rest of the world,” which given her personal connections and recent history seems to involve policing the globe with frequent, lengthy military entanglements.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, minding our own business while being peacefully engaged with the world through trade, cultural exchange, diplomacy, and travel is exactly what was supposed to make America exceptional.
As I’ve written before on Rare, while many of the Founders spoke of the necessity of a restrained and strictly defensive foreign policy, perhaps John Quincy Adams’ foreign policy speech on Independence Day, 1821 is the single best expression of this view.
After reading the full text of the Declaration of Independence, Adams—then serving as secretary of state—posed a question: what has America done for the good of humanity?
“Let our answer be this,” he said, “America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.”
Yet proclaiming and living by those values (like freedom of religion, for instance) does not, he added, mean it is our job to police them worldwide: America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings.”
And though always the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” Adams continued, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” for she “is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
What made the United States special—what the early republic gave to humanity—was a model of what it looks like live free and mind one’s own business. That was what Adams and America’s other Founders believed was remarkable about our country.
Laura Bush’s false dichotomy between isolationism and world policing leaves no room for the Founders’ view of the glory of America as “not dominion, but liberty;” not empire, but commerce; not conquest, but peace.
And ironically, the aggressive approach she advocates is itself a danger to the very American values she claims to defend.