Blind Faith, US Foreign Policy as Religion.

This article originated as a book review for Walter A. McDougall’s, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. Subsequently I decided to use that book as an outline for considering our current international policy, and what that might mean for the United States’ role in the world.

Since Robert Bellah wrote his first article, Civil Religion in America, historians have examined Civil Religion’s development from the founding through the present. In an introduction to a reprint of his article, Bellah says: I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not. Rather than simply denounce what seems in any case inevitable, it seems more responsible to seek within the civil religious tradition for those critical principles which undercut the everpresent danger of national self-idolization.[i]

In the past two decades historians have increasingly examined the ways in which this civil religion has affected the United States and the rest of the world. McDougall’s work deals with the negative consequences of civil religion as US foreign policy, how these religious patterns of thought have worked to undermine and betray American democratic values. We need to be reminded that this idea of civil religion in politics and foreign policy does not necessarily imply any sectarian faith, or even belief in God. When we discuss it, we are primarily examining the way policy makers and the American public approach political and international issues with a religious, faith like, view of America and the world. That said, for the United States, that has also often involved real connections to religion. This has at times inspired great ideals, it has also fueled destructive religious like attempts at international meddling and nation building.

Berkeley historian, Henry May, in his 1983 book Ideas, Faiths, and Feelings: Essays on American Intellectual and Religious History, 1952–1982, described American civil religion as “Progressive Patriotic Protestantism” and considered its demise to be the Wilsonian crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Events since 1983 have caused many historians who once agreed with May, to reconsider this. Not May’s description of what that religion is, but his argument that it declined at the beginning of the 20th century. Rather than decline, American Civil Religion (ACR), like a monster in the cellar, has built itself into a vibrant strong creature and seems to have burst again, into the American conscious with stunning effect. The evolution and various permutations of ACR highlight Bellah’s warning of the “danger of national self-idolization.” A constant reminder of this danger are assertions that America is the “greatest nation in the world,” based only upon a faith that the statement is true, rather than empirical, comparative, evidence. It has become the sola fides, the essential dogma, of American greatness and exceptionalism.

Though this faith has existed from the founding of the Republic, the modern version of this can be traced to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. These two are often shown in stark contrast to each other. A closer examination shows this to be unwarranted.

Roosevelt and Wilson both travelled abroad, and were thus aware of the greater world. Both won Nobel Peace Prizes for their international expansion of American power. Both acted on principles that they felt they understood better than the American people. Roosevelt was the first President to get the US involved in a pure balance of power squabble that had no American national interests involved, the first Moroccan Crisis. To do this, he sent US envoy, Henry White to represent the interests of Britain and France against Germany, while misleading the US Senate about the President’s actual intentions. In deciding that the United States must get involved in international balance of power politics, rather than continue in the separate unilateralism of the Monroe Doctrine and Washington’s Farewell Address, Roosevelt initiated the first great departure from traditional American international relations. In deceiving the Senate as to his true intentions, he showed that he believed he understood American interests better than Congress and the American people. Wilson took a different, more idealistic approach to this mission, and was more public in his mission to “make the world safe for democracy.” He laid out his vision in his Fourteen Points address to congress. But in the end, both felt that they understood the interests of the United States’ role in the world better than others. In a sense, both approached the world with the idea that God had a special mission for his chosen nation, America. And they were divinely appointed to make that mission work.

More recently, American Civil Religion can be seen in the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Policy makers such as Paul Wolfowitz and others, acted on emotional, extra rational political considerations. In doing this they acted on a religious faith in the pervasive, invisible, moral power of “America.” In considering this, one might conclude that the “United States” is one of the great rival religions of the world. American policy makers often hold an absolute conviction of their virtue, that they are doing good in the world. This conviction often becomes the source of the betrayal of our own national interest, leading us into long, expensive, endless wars. As G. K. Chesterton stated, “The virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.” The “virtue” of American Civil Religion has been loosed upon the earth and is wreaking carnage in the world in the Twenty-First Century.

Using presidents to represent this evolving civil religion we can trace the evolution of this directly from the founding to the current international situation in which we find ourselves.[ii] Beginning with “Washington’s World” we see ways in which early Americans, and policy makers, saw the United States as a chosen nation, different from all the other nations of the earth. This is the seedbed from which the flow of American exceptionalism would develop and mutate into the current global phenomena we are witnessing. Whatever this Religion is now, it was originally non-interventionist in regards to the world outside the America’s. Washington’s Farewell Address was an essential part of the founding orthodoxy of the nation. “The Farewell Address codified the precepts of the Classical American Civil Religion. In domestic policy the United States were defined by unity, sovereignty, and reciprocity. In foreign policy they were defined by peace, neutrality and reciprocity.”[iii] This seems to be a well-worn path. After all Ernest Tuveson wrote Redeemer Nation in 1968. But it is not the same old hash. Modern policy makers have morphed the redeemer nation message into a crusading missionary zeal. Intent on creating a world in the American image, even as the world has largely begun to reject that image in favor of either nationalist tribalism, or international utopianism.

The “Orthodoxy” had its temptations. They came in the form of Manifest Destiny, the seeds of later colonial and internationalist impulses, the Utopian threads in Thomas Jefferson’s thinking, and the challenge of staying neutral in an increasingly imperialist world. But, despite this, the United States for the most part maintained its adherence to the principles that were laid down in Washington’s Farewell.

The break with this Orthodoxy comes with “Wilson’s World” which is a fair assessment of the period. Woodrow Wilson did more to reshape the modern American approach to the world than any previous president, and did so on religious lines. But even McDougall is clear that this does not actually begin with Wilson, but the McKinley Administration, the war with Spain, the Social gospel and other forces that precede Woodrow Wilson. We can argue that it really begins with Teddy Roosevelt, the Moroccan Crisis, the Portsmouth Conference, and the “big stick.”

By the eve of the Frist World War, the circumstances of the world had changed. The size of the American population had grown, and the frontier had closed. This was most famously stated by Frederick Jackson Turner in his, Frontier Thesis. These events would all have an impact on the United States and its interaction with the world. For McKinley, however, this change was forced upon him by a restless American public, ambitious policy makers, and the fact that Spain needed to find an honorable way out of the colonial morass, short of losing to the rebels. With Spain refusing to take “yes” from McKinley in answer to the many overtures of peaceful resolution that he put forth, and the public, pushed by the Yellow Press into a “humanitarian” frenzy in favor of war, the President reluctantly took the country into its “splendid little war.”

What is apparent regarding this period, is just how often American policy makers and the public began to use the principles of faith to justify expanding actions in the larger world. Faith that often trumped the reality on the ground as it existed. The annexation of the Philippines became an act of self-deluded faith in American goodness. McKinley saw Providence in this situation, not an accident of history that needed to be corrected. After prayer he said it came to him that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”[iv] The American action prompted Philippine nationalist leader Manuel Quezón to state, “I would prefer a government run like hell by Filipinos to one run like heaven by Americans.”[v] This sentiment would be echoed again and again by leaders of nations on the receiving end of American reforming impulses, throughout the Twentieth and into the Twenty-First Century.

Continuing with this categorization of eras by presidents, in “Roosevelt’s World” (FDR not TR) we see the way the continued rise of American power, the destruction of rivals, and the way in which the rise of the atheist Soviet International influenced American Civil Religion. It came to seem more self-evident, more “common sense,” to Americans and their leaders. America was on God’s side; the Soviets were on the side of evil. All evidence that might contradict this was brushed aside. American righteousness was simply accepted as a fact. The Second World War left only two powers with nuclear weapons, and only one of them “on God’s Side” as American’s saw it. Even Reinhold Niebuhr, who would later come to cast some doubt on the innate goodness of the American cause, was initially a strong supporter of American dominance in the Cold War.[vi] It was not until late in the second Truman administration that Niebuhr would write his cautionary, Irony of American History, which would raise questions about the absolute rightness of both the United States and its civil religion.

When we get to “Kennedy’s World” this civil religion gets a revival, after mellowing in the more pragmatic years of the late Eisenhower administration. McDougall gives us this description of the baby boomers, “They learned from their parents, teachers, coaches, and clergy that the United States was one nation under an ecumenical God who blessed a republic with liberty and justice for all.”[vii] This idea would drive the next decades of policy makers into various acts of attempted nation building. Creating a world in the American image. This “Americanization of the world” (to borrow from William T. Stead) became the goal, stated or unstated, for all administrations after Roosevelt. It was present in the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Japan. It was behind much of what became justification of the continued war in Vietnam. It was the thread that undergirded the policies of nation building (under various other names) in the Middle East following 9/11. American policy makers had an absolute faith in the idea that a democratic republic in the American model would work in variations anywhere in the world. And, that a good nation should make sure that this happens.

But even as this faith was at its strongest among policy makers, it was increasingly failing. Failure of the policies occurring in; Vietnam, in Iran, in Central America, in the Middle East, American Civil Religion was not creating a better world, it was wearing down the United States and creating distrust and hatred around the world. At the very time the US had the complete upper hand, the ideas that drove the US to try to create a better world were undoing that upper hand. And at home Americans were coming to doubt the sustainability of America’s role in the world, even as they felt trapped into continuing it. But Religion is an act of faith, not realpolitik so it persists despite the doubts raised.

McDougall’s book has become dated by forces of destruction that no one could have foreseen at the time of publication. The epilogue is titled “Obama’s World?” The question mark is fitting. The nuclear explosion of the election of Donald Trump broke all continuity in US foreign relations. American religion has, since the Great Awakening, been prone to populist uprisings. So too has been its civil religion. The same populist forces that drove the creation of Evangelicalism, “America’s folk religion” as historian Randall Balmer calls it, often drives a restive public in voting for its next high priest. In a similar manner in which the fundamentalist movement was a reaction to educated theologians, and rejected those who approached the scriptures with critical thought, the American right rejected the professional political class, and put faith in a populist political revivalist. Donald Trump’s administration has pursued a foreign policy that is personal, contradictory to the point of incoherence, and completely lacking in curiosity about the forces and decisions that created the modern international system. Instead of principles and ideas, all international relations are redefined in monetary, personal, and power relationships. Rejecting historic Western liberal norms and traditions, the administration has embraced the illiberal authoritarianism of Russia, China, and North Korea. But this does not mean that American Civil Religion is dead. It has simply undergone a virulent restructuring. The flag, loyalty, patriotism, are all more on display than ever. But, and this is crucial, it is on display for an aging, shrinking, white America. What this means is that, at its heart, it is simply reactionary. And, this reaction is leading to a powerful opposite reaction. In both civil and actual religion, the reaction is one of horror and apostasy at the direction of the administration. Short of a civil war, this reaction will most likely resolve itself in the next two decades. With the formerly American sponsored international institutions in disarray, trust broken, and the American citizenry disillusioned, something new will surely be born. What that will be is yet to be seen. Will it be more violence and tribalism? Or will there be a kinder, gentler, more internationally accommodating, version of American Civil Religion?

[i] Robert Bellah, Civil Religion in America,

[ii] This idea is borrowed from McDougall’s work.

[iii] McDougall, page 52.

[iv] General James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate 22 January 1903.

[v] McDougall, 129.

[vi] Ibid, 249–251.

[vii] Ibid, 237.

Some people think Malcolm may have done nearly everything in his life. It is not true, he is just interested in everything and knows how to tell a good story.

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