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The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy by Walter A. McDougall: A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed National Interest, by Walter A. McDougall. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016, x + 408 pages, $30.00.

No matter where you come down on the Christian origins of the United States, rare are the American believers who think the nation’s foreign policy should conform to Christian norms. Should the United States, for instance, establish diplomatic ties with nations of like faith and practice? That is the way that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) conducts its foreign policy—better known as ecumenical relations. But if nation-states conducted their affairs based on religious identity, would Christian nations only establish treaties or enter alliances with other Christian nations? Such a question was thinkable during the early modern era of confessionalization—the time when a European nation’s religion was synonymous with its national identity: the Dutch were Calvinist, the English were Anglican, the French were Roman Catholic, and the Scots were Presbyterian. That early modern pattern prevailed until the late eighteenth century when the United States was founded to be a new order for the ages (novos ordo seclorum), a nation without an established church and no religious tests for holding federal office. At that point, religious questions receded to the background of foreign policy. Instead, order, stability, and prosperity became decisive.

Or not.

Although the United States was not officially a Christian nation, it did have a civil religion, equally unofficial, but far more decisive for the way its officials conducted foreign policy. Walter McDougall traces the effects of American civil religion (ACR) on the nation’s foreign affairs in a book that is as sobering as it is riveting. ACR came to the attention of scholars during the 1960s when the sociologist Robert Bellah detected in a “hip, young, liberal, rich, Harvard-trained Catholic” president, John F. Kennedy, a manner of describing national purpose that invoked divine will.

For instance, in his 1961 inaugural, Kennedy asserted “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” He added that “here on earth God’s work must be truly our own” (25). McDougall argues that Bellah should not have been surprised to discover such affirmations. He observes that most nations in the West (at least) have “required some transcendental glue to cement their citizens together and give their polity purpose” (26). Americans were no different and the founding generation employed English understandings of divine favor to give Americans confidence that God was on the side of the new nation. This “classical” ACR, as McDougall calls it, lasted until the wrenching challenges of the Civil War and morphed subsequently into a Progressive version in which the “march of the American flag” around the world was part of the nation’s fulfillment of God’s promises to the United States (122). The Progressive ACR underwent revisions over the course of the twentieth century but sustained US foreign policy and shared understandings of national purpose through two world wars and the Cold War. It yielded finally to a post-Cold War Millennial ACR during the 1990s that styled itself “a global civil religion for all humankind.” As McDougall sees it, President Obama “exploited his high priestly office to invite all Americans—not just Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—to join the human pilgrimage toward ‘community, prosperity, mutual care, stewardship of the Earth, peacemaking, and human rights’ ” (351).

Readers will likely recoil from ACR’s rhetoric depending on their political party affiliation and the president responsible for invoking divine blessing, but McDougall’s book is a powerful reminder of how central civil religion has been to rationales for American wars and additional interventions around the world. In 1900, after the Spanish-American War when the United States started to throw around its global muscle, Senator Albert Beveridge, a Republican from Indiana, defended William McKinley’s colonial acquisitions of Cuba and the Philippines by attributing to America a “divine mission.” The nation “holds all profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace” (124). Most Americans remember Woodrow Wilson’s iteration of the Progressive ACR when he described the First World War as a conflict “to make the world safe for democracy.” Less familiar is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s depiction of the Second World War as a contest between those “guided by brutal cynicism, by unholy contempt for the human race,” and the Allies who were “inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: God created man in His own image” (215). ACR only picked up momentum during the Cold War when the United States could contrast its affirmation of “in God we trust” to the Soviet Union’s avowed atheism.

If these presidents’ confidence in reading providence troubles the theologically minded, the churches’ role in underwriting the appeal and authority of ACR is even more disconcerting. Throughout the book McDougall follows the reaction of church leaders and theologians to American foreign policy and finds “never was heard a discouraging word.” In the run-up to World War I, Protestant clergy separated into three camps—militarists, pacifists, and moderates—but few challenged the idea that the United States had a redemptive role to play on the stage of world affairs. Protestants as diverse as the Yale Divinity School dean, Charles Reynolds Brown, and the evangelist Billy Sunday, equated the United States and divine purpose: Brown believed the country was “called of God to be in its own way a Messianic nation,” while Sunday boasted that “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms” (154). By the time that the United States had fought in another world war and used atomic weapons to end it, McDougall writes, Protestants “tacked and fell into line behind the flagship of state” (249). The National Association of Evangelicals worried less about the bomb itself than who “controlled” it. The Federal Council of Churches called on Americans to be “deeply penitent” about the taking of innocent life but would not abandon its support for US foreign policy in its fight against Soviet Communism. Some Protestants did express reservations about the implications of US engagement of world affairs. Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned officials and citizens about the dangers of pride and self-righteousness as a “God-blessed” America combated the godless Soviets. But McDougall also wonders if Niebuhr merely encouraged a “stealth hubris” in which a concerned American Christian could “take on a Niebuhrian pose of being troubled by the implications of power—only without remorse or charity” (266).

One other Protestant who dissented from the churches’ endorsement of American exceptionalism and the nation’s civil religion was J. Gresham Machen. McDougall notices that at the end of World War I Machen condemned Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy as a “terrible crime against the truth” (164). In fact, Machen, who served in the YMCA during the war, returned to Princeton Seminary and delivered a chapel talk in which he worried that American success in defeating Germany had twisted the churches’ ability to proclaim the gospel. The rhetoric of war and victory had produced a “profound satisfaction with human goodness” on the part of those who had served on the winning side because they had defeated “a convenient scapegoat”—Germany. “In attending to the sins of others,” Machen warned, “men have sometimes lost sight of their own sins” (379). The real remedy for national pride, he argued, was to remember that the returning soldiers were still sinners despite their heroic self-sacrifice. The only source of goodness for fallen men was in “the goodness and greatness of Christ” (380).

Whether McDougall’s book will trouble Christian or non-Christian Americans more is hard to predict if only because the entire country, irrespective of party affiliation or church membership, has drunk so deeply at the trough of ACR. The foreign policy lesson of his argument is to find a way to calculate national interest in distinction from messianic dreams of national greatness. White House and State Department officials may be poorly equipped to make that distinction since the United States’ redemptive status in world affairs is hard wired into the nation’s self-conception. But for the nation’s Christians, who should know a thing or two about the differences between redemption through Christ and improvement by foreign policy, McDougall’s book should not be necessary reading. That it is essential for reminding believers of the limits of American exceptionalism is an indication of American Christianity’s uncritical identification with a nation that, however remarkable by earthly standards, is hardly in the league of God’s accomplishments to save his people.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, January 2017.