A few years ago, at the height of the George W. Bush presidency, writers and pundits seemed ready to suffer apoplexy over the purported new role that religion was playing in U.S. foreign policy. All manner of things were being said about the impropriety of combining religion and official policy. Bush’s willingness to invoke God, and his profile as an evangelical who had turned to religion to help him deal with both personal and political problems, led many to see him as the standard-bearer of a new form of theocracy in American life. His doctrine of pre-emptive warfare combined with his invocation of faith increased the suspicion. Former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips decried the emerging bond between Texas oil, fundamentalist religion, and big money in his 2006 work entitled American Theocracy. That same year, journalist Chris Hedges published a warning to America in his book American Fascists that its democratic values were “being dismantled, often by stealth, by a radical Christian movement, known as dominionism, which seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of the Christian faith and American patriotism.” Patriotic jingoism, the Bush Doctrine, and the embrace of a divine calling for America gave many of these people cause for concern, though at times it bordered on hysteria (as in the case of Hedges’s warning about a theology that has always remained a rather fringe perspective, even in fundamentalist circles).
Six years later, it remains to be seen whether the peculiar Bush-era combination of neoconservative American unilateralism and faith-based boilerplate has a long-term future. The standard-bearers of the religious right have remained influential but ultimately have been unable to break into the mainstream. Watching the Republican primary contests for the 2012 presidential bid was a little like joining Samuel in measuring up the sons of Jesse—without a David to come in from the field. One by one, the likely candidates who might ratchet up the culture wars were either counted out or eliminated, from Sarah Palin to Michele Bachmann to Rick Santorum. None had the proper chemistry (or financing) to win over the whole of the Republican Party, let alone the general public. The eventual— if grudging—choice of Mitt Romney has puzzling implications for the future of social conservatism in America. Romney’s selling point is not his social conservatism (which is often questioned) or his religion (which is suspicious for most evangelicals), but his competence as a financial mind and business manager.
So today, the more acute problem of a faltering economy seems increasingly likely to top the list of voter’s concerns than support for America’s wars. Neither Barack Obama, a professing Christian who has nonetheless embraced the idea of gay marriage, nor Mitt Romney, a Mormon whose interest in raising faith issues is limited, seems likely to embrace the sort of theocracy that supposedly threatened just a few years ago. Neither seems likely to engage in any sort of religious bravado when it comes to foreign adventures abroad. So has religion disappeared from U.S. foreign policy as quickly as it appeared under George W. Bush?
The truth, of course, is that faith has been a consistent undertone in U.S. foreign relations, as in its domestic politics, ever since the country’s foundation. The nature of that faith is always a little squishy—presidents marshal a broad-based vision that America has a special mission in the world, blessed by God. The special mission is not really to spread a traditional Christian gospel as much as a gospel of liberty, democracy, and liberal cultural practices. That gospel serves to combine the images of American liberalism, nationalism, and divine agency, but it usually steers clear of the finer points of Christian faith. Even when Americans encounter significant disagreement in matters of faith, such as human origins education, civil rights, abortion policy, same-sex marriage, or the morality of going to war, the invocation “in God we Trust” remains.
Such is the argument presented in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, a history of religion in U.S. foreign policy written by Andrew Preston, a Cambridge scholar of American history. Preston’s title and thesis are somewhat clumsily taken from Ephesians 6:16-17. At times, he says, the U.S. has taken up the “sword of the Spirit” or engaged in a militaristic foreign policy rooted in faith. However, religious America has also pursued the “shield of faith” in seeking peaceful, anti-interventionist and internationalist foreign relations. The point is well made, even if the allusion is not: association of American religion with American expansionism has always been countered by religious conscience. The very faith that convinces Americans of their special place in the world also demands a moral conscience about how the nation leads it. Preston’s central point is that the diversity of religious convictions is reflected in the religious influences on American foreign policy.
Religious movements, narrowly defined, have shaped American public life in rather unique ways, and Preston acknowledges some of these. The first and second Great Awakenings rallied Christian faith so strongly that “classical and liberal ideas about republicanism could not have been as effective or broadly accepted” without it. The Social Gospel tradition helped to create the basis of an American interventionist tradition from the 1890s through to the 1930s. American patriotism has long been associated with a “civil religion” championed by its leaders in which a vaguely Judeo-Christian deity or deist force of Providence oversees the politics of the state, a phenomenon that Preston references at numerous points. Christian pacifism, championed by Quakers, Mennonites, and various others throughout U.S. history, has deep roots in American public life and an influence unparalleled in the places where such churches originated. And religious traditions that stood outside the Protestant establishment, like Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Mormonism, have all had a role to play in a country where religious pluralism has been allowed to thrive.
Preston’s story focuses on the work of specific presidents in American history, and naturally zooms in on their religious journeys and the religious influences on their policy choices. Presiding over the syncretistic civil religion of America, “the president has acted as its de facto pope,” he notes. He therefore spends a great deal of time exploring the religious views of the presidents. But the proof of a president’s religiosity has less to do with his own personal piety than the extent to which he championed the amorphous combination of moralism with U.S. foreign policy. For Abraham Lincoln, Christian faith “often resembled deism, Unitarianism, possibly even Universalism, but never evangelicalism.” Nevertheless, the “apotheosis of Lincoln’s public faith came in one of his most famous speeches, the Second Inaugural Address of March 1865” in which he characterized the civil war as a divine punishment for the sin of slavery and called for reconciliation through national repentance. The 1896 campaign that pitted “Presbyterian [William Jennings] Bryan and the Methodist [William] McKinley, both evangelicals and both fluent in the language of Protestant benevolence, represented perhaps the most religious presidential rivalry ever.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt is lauded as a man whose own religious beliefs most naturally embodied U.S. civil religion while Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “faith was neither sophisticated nor profound,” holding merely that “religious faith was the source of democratic politics.” John F. Kennedy was uneasy with giving religion a high public profile (especially since his own Roman Catholicism was not popular in Protestant America), but Lyndon B. Johnson courted religious groups—even if the more liberal ones spurned him by vocally opposing the Vietnam War.
Preston’s story does not solely involve presidents: Reinhold Niebuhr features as a man who combined a thorough-going dedication to the shield of faith combined with the sword of the Spirit, in Preston’s terms. Niebuhr was a socialist and pacifist who came to the conclusion in the 1930s that even Christian societies must make use of coercive means to uphold general order. A similar pattern holds for John Foster Dulles, who eventually became the Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dulles spent the 1940s working with the Federal Council of Churches Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, which positioned him as an ardent internationalist seeking a more liberal international order. However, after he assumed the role of Secretary of State, Dulles became an equally ardent Cold Warrior. His anti-communism, rooted in religious zeal, led him to become one of the authors of the policy of massive retaliation. In Preston’s eyes, Dulles’s divided loyalties—to a more liberal world, but one buttressed by American power—were emblematic of America’s religious sensibility about its place in the world.
Personalities loom large in this assessment of U.S. foreign policy, but Preston’s emphasis on the work of particular presidents, intellectuals, and members of the executive obscures the work of American civil society in action. Presidents are products of their societies. They themselves participate in religious life and speak for groups in civil society. Civil religion in the United States is marshalled by presidents, but religion itself is promoted and given its strength through the civic engagement of churches, mosques, temples, missions, and other religious agencies. American religion is widely lauded for its unique emphasis on personal commitment in small groups, networks, and community organizations. This tendency to self-organize was noted famously by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. More recently, some (such as Robert Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone) have noted the decline of America’s community organizations with some concern. But when it comes to the story of America’s global influence, the work of everyday Christian groups in small networks, the “little platoons” described by Edmund Burke and more recently championed by the late Charles Colson, are still the headlining story. American financing of international development assistance or the financial support that Americans give to initiatives abroad is delivered in many cases by religious organizations. Today these range from the largest development organizations like World Vision with budgets the size of multinational corporations to small groups of individuals from churches who go abroad on self-funded short-term mission trips. It is here that the Christian embrace of globalism is felt most keenly today, even among those evangelicals who view global institutions like the United Nations with high suspicion or derision.
Preston does deal with the mission endeavour in his assessment of U.S. foreign policy. However, he sees them inevitably as an arm of the American state or as a vehicle of cultural imperialism abroad. While he acknowledges that missionaries were “brokers of cultural exchange,” he also argues that they practiced a “kind of informal imperialism, based as much on the power of ideas and human rights as on armed force, that the United States would practice in the twentieth century, especially following World War II.” No doubt the sort of evangelism and education that American missionaries engaged in supported the mission of American civil religion abroad. However, it also helped to create the transnational politics that define the world today.
Today Christian groups provide transportation in Afghanistan, deliver food aid in Sudan, gather the faithful in open-air meetings in cities throughout the world, and provide first-rate education in virtually every country. To describe these organizations as missions is a euphemism— propagation of a Christian gospel may be a central part of their work, but it extends much, much further. In some cases, the direction of these organizations goes from east to west and from south to north, in a reversal of the pattern that missions took throughout the early centuries of American history. Conservatives in the Anglican Communion seek to find renewal through subordination to African bishops. The number of Korean missionaries rivals the number of western ones in many countries throughout Asia. American religion has spread via civil society activity, and to that extent so have American values. But they do so increasingly in partnership with others. The global consciousness reflected in American religious life today was illustrated poignantly a few years ago in Allen Hertzke’s book Freeing God’s Children. Hertzke profiled the religious social activists of the twentieth century—human rights advocates from a wide range of religious backgrounds, propounding a gospel of freedom from coercion, from sex trafficking and sexual slavery, and (one might add) in favour of environmental activism. Today’s Christian seems as likely to give to child-development projects or foreign advocacy groups overseas as to traditional Christian missions. This might be alarming for those involved in Christian ministry, but it shows the ultimate power of religion to shape global society. It also makes me wonder if the value of these organizations in extending foreign policy is fully appreciated, be it in the United States or in Canada.
What is more, pluralism in religious civil society helps to ensure the very thing that stands at the heart of Preston’s point about American foreign policy. A diverse set of religious voices helps to provide a diverse set of policy options—even for ardently religious leaders. When religion has an influence on policy it does not translate into the monolithic and theocratic policy predicted in dystopian fiction or alarmist journalism. Instead, it helps to refresh debate and force policy makers to answer hard—even existential—questions.
Recently, Cardus (Comment’s publisher) and others have voiced the need for Western states to reinvest and renew their social architecture through civic engagement. The cynicism of some in government and scholarly circles about the charitable, non-profit, and voluntary sector threatens such a program. And religious groups are likely to suffer the first blows. The U.S. government’s flirtation with funding faith-based programs has given way in recent times to criticisms of pluralist funding of those same organizations. Revenue agencies show increasing tetchiness about the nature of the charitable and voluntary sector. This is an ominous development—because when we invest in the social architecture of the United States (or Canada), we are making investments that have spillover effects, that engage foreign policy goals that we as a society have for the world at large. And religious organizations are the pioneers and standard-bearers of this phenomenon, as Preston and others detect. They influence presidents and foreign ministers, to be sure, but they also mobilize people on the street to care about sexual predators in Cambodia or fundamental human rights in Egypt.
Preston concludes that religion will always be “an integral part of foreign relations,” motivating elites and mobilizing the faithful. The question then is not whether religion will have an influence, but how. Encouraging the greater freedom of religious civil society is a promising way to ensure that the influence of religion on U.S. foreign policy is not consigned to presidential theocracy but to a faith lived out by the American people.