Tragedy began as a genre of theatre that dramatized the epic lessons, problems, and cataclysms of Greek mythology, the national religion of a once-great civilization. Tragedy, as a genre, was rooted in national mythology, what we might even call “civil religion.” That is the premise of Walter McDougall’s latest book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, and he even opens with a revealing epigraph from Charles Péguy: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics. . . . Politics laughs at mysticism; nevertheless it is still mysticism which feeds these same politics.” Therein lies a fundamental part of his thesis.
McDougall’s research question is a near paraphrase of the once-sensational text of Bernard Lewis on the Islamic world: what went wrong? How, he asks, has “American power and prestige fallen so far and so fast?” Why these self-destructive overreactions on the part of US foreign policy, and what explains the pervasive sense of insecurity on the part of the richest, most powerful nation in the history of our planet?
McDougall argues that at least part of the answer to this question can be found in the evolution of an “American civil religion” (ACR) that has taken a circuitous and, he judges, ultimately pathological devolution into a kind of “Global Civil Religion.” To quote Adam Garfinkle along with McDougall, “At its core, the 9/11 decade has not been about what others have done to America; it has been about what we Americans have done to ourselves, here in our transcontinental, open-air church we call a country.”
Underneath, surrounding, permeating American politics, says McDougall, is a thing called civil religion. He relies on Ellis West’s definition of civil religion as “a set of beliefs and attitudes that explain the meaning and purpose of any given political society in terms of its relationship to the transcendent, spiritual reality, that are held by the people generally of that society, and that are expressed in public rituals, myths, and symbols.” Such civil religion is not new. It is not an invention of George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, or even the religious Right under Reagan. It has a long, storied history, one with marked points of evolution. In that respect, McDougall is convincing. His work is part of a renaissance in American religious and diplomatic history (among other disciplines) that is beginning to recognize the often undertheorized religious and political-theological substratum of everyday foreign policy. Americans, following Robert Bellah, tend to call this substratum “civil religion.”
McDougall is further evidence that something like a consensus is starting to emerge—led by the efforts of folks like Walter Russell Mead and Andrew Preston in his book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith—that this sort of civil religion really does exist and has a causal influence on actual politics. But the devil, as they say, is most certainly in the details. To slightly paraphrase Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, to say that societies have fundamental orientations, worldviews, beliefs, and commitments is not the end of the matter. It is at best the beginning. Given that McDougall appreciatively enlists both Oliver O’Donovan and Christopher Dawson in his concluding remarks, I get the sense he would agree that societies cannot escape such a thing. Civil religion might be inevitable. The problem, then, is not that America has one (or many), it’s that this civil religion has somehow gone very, very wrong.
This is the impression you get from McDougall’s language. One of his first three orienting chapters is titled “Why the American Heresies?” I find the use of “heresy” a bit vexing in the context of American civil religion, because heresy is really only an intelligible concept if it is part of larger magisterium, of common creeds and confessions, perhaps an ecumenical council or two, which rule certain beliefs and practices out of bounds. But what does heresy even mean in the context of ACR? Who, or what, decides that evolutions in ACR are either heretical or heterodox?
Taxonomy That Feels Like Taxidermy
The steep decline of ACR begins, for McDougall, around the 1898 SpanishAmerican War, and—especially—in the person of Woodrow Wilson. Here, he says, major transformations from classical and neoclassical ACR start to look more like progressive and eventually neoprogressive ACR. This analysis is revealing as far as it goes, but surely major, world-transformative events were also taking place in the early twentieth century, not least to the once-fledgling republic of America? Isn’t assigning so much blame to Wilson a bit like fatalist church historians who argue Constantine and everything after him was heretical Caesaropapism? Doesn’t that do disservice to the actual times, to the major historic transformations that took place (say, World War I?), while being a little too nostalgic for the founding fathers? (McDougall even titles the last chapter of the book, which looks back to the founding fathers’ classical ACR, “The Gilded Age: Last Years of Orthodoxy.”)
McDougall’s nostalgic taxonomy takes the shape of classical ACR, for example, and neoclassical ACR versus (neo)pro-gressive ACR, millennial ACR, or (God forbid) global civil religion. This is his second set of arguments, which I find highly original, if a bit prejudicial. This taxonomy is, as Andrew Preston says, a deft blend of diplomatic, religious, intellectual, and political history. It is very original for that reason; McDougall shows real command of a wide array of sources, and the uncommon skill of constructing a coherent, often witty, and highly readable narrative of American civil religion. But despite this ingenuity, the argument also feels like more tired, declinist bluster, now both spiritual (the heretical devolution of ACR) and material (how that heresy betrays its own material self-interest).
It is also hard to shake the style of citation as a major problem. This is more than a mere academic’s complaint. The book has no footnotes or endnotes, but simply useful, though hardly sufficient “bibliographic essays” for each chapter. McDougall’s use of historical evidence is fundamental to his argument. The failure to offer the reader any substantiated way to refer to his exact sources on each claim undercuts the argument profoundly. The reader must simply take it on faith in the author, the peer reviewers, and the “bibliographic essays” that these incredibly important, seemingly persuasive claims can all be cited and substantiated. I would guess they can be, but then, I don’t know.
Failing the St. Francis Test
I think the primary danger of McDougall’s book, however, is that it does not pass what Charles Taylor calls the St. Francis of Assisi test: the need for any social or political theory to understand and explain why St. Francis behaved and acted the way he did—in other words, to make sense of religion as a powerful, and plausible, causal factor.
In one sense, of course, McDougall’s book is entirely addressed to that problem: he renders us a picture of ACR that helps make sense of why a nation like America would ever engage in such obviously self-destructive behaviour. But, in another sense, the St. Francis test is thornier for McDougall: what is America even for? National interest, after all, may seem like a neat term that foreign policy pundits lob around, but when tethered to something civil-religious like national identity, or national history, and how those things come to shape and define a national interest, maybe words like “betrayal” in McDougall’s subtitle are overstated. McDougall makes the case that ACR has transformed national interest, but betrayal is a normative judgment that presumes what America is actually meant for. Progressives or global civil-religious advocates could make the opposite argument, with an equal measure of data, as, for instance, the opening lines of Aaron Sorkin’s show The Newsroom. Is pouring out the blood and treasure of America on behalf of the world, even by crippling its own economic and social capacity in international adventures in nation-building and “making the world safe for democracy,” a truer purpose of the nation than survival or growth? Is that heresy? Maybe. But by whose standard?
This, finally, is part of the challenge that McDougall drives the reader toward. When he concludes that the “deformation of American Civil Religion has ended up devouring America itself,” conservatives and classicists will undoubtedly nod along. An “Amen!” may even be heard from a supporting cast of evangelicals. But couldn’t progressives and globalists simply say that what he calls “toxic” and “twisted” is in fact an enlightened evolution, beyond material self-interest, toward a new definition of “national interest,” one that may coincide with a more globalist project? McDougall says that this new global civil religion, itself a kind of heretical corruption of American civil religion, has its dystopian roots in the prophetic accounts of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, even C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. It is a “decadent civilization addicted to selfindulgence.”But surely this fatalist declinism is still only part of the story of ACR. Hasn’t the evolution of ACR also helped redefine and enfranchise persons, by gender, by race? Hasn’t its grandeur and nobility propelled America to the frontiers of space and medicine? Is everything worse, or are some things actually better, and can ACR help us understand that too? Not on McDougall’s reading. A battle is joined, and it moves in both (maybe many) directions. McDougall tells us one story; it is useful, witty, even ingenious at points, but I do not think it will convert the unconverted back to the ACR of yore. The decline and death of the old American Gods may be a tragedy, the new gods no less capricious or voracious, but in the game of which heresies are worse, the Christian must surely bow to neither.