Essay

Why is American Foreign Policy so Religious?

By | May 7, 2012

(AP Photo)

On September 11, with the nation stunned by surprise al Qaeda terrorist attacks, the president mounted the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington. From there, in a speech that had the cadences of a sermon, he quoted from the Book of Isaiah to rally Americans to the long and difficult struggle with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that lay before them. “Whom shall I send,” God asked Isaiah; “who will go for us?” And Isaiah answered, “Here am I, Lord; send me.”

It was a stirring setting, highly charged with emotion, that fused religion and patriotism and set the tone for the president’s response to fundamentalist terrorism. “All of us must stand together,” he declared, “in common commitment to carry on the cause of peace and freedom, to find those responsible and bring them to justice, not to rest as long as terrorists plot to take more innocent lives, and in the end, to convince people the world over that there is a better way of living than killing others for what you cannot have today. For our larger struggle, for hope over hatred and unity over division, is a just one. And with God’s help, it will prevail.”

9/11 will scar the collective American consciousness for years to come. But on this occasion, the president speaking from the pulpit of the National Cathedral wasn’t George W. Bush, but Bill Clinton. And the year wasn’t 2001, but 1998. Clinton’s address marked his effort to respond to the al Qaeda bombing against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks that killed 223 people. Three years later, of course, Bush would use strikingly similar rhetoric to make sense of the far more horrific attacks of 9/11.

It was entirely fitting that two presidents of such different outlooks—one a liberal Democrat, the other a conservative Republican—should respond to terrorism and foreign crisis by using religious imagery, rhetoric, and values in an almost identical manner. Contrary to conventional wisdom, religion has consistently been a major component of America’s foreign relations. From liberals like Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman to conservatives like Bush, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, religion has been central to the conduct of America’s relations with the wider world.

The religious influence in American war and diplomacy does not belong to liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. It never has. Religion is instead a shared value, a bipartisan outlook common to most Americans throughout their history, and it has been at the heart of U.S. foreign policy for centuries. George Washington began the tradition of promoting peace and democracy through religious liberty, and even impious presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison continued it. In modern times, it was FDR—a liberal Democrat and mainline Episcopalian ecumenist who detested theological rigidities and doctrinal niceties—who enshrined religion at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.

But religion’s influence hasn’t relied on pious presidents in the Oval Office. In fact, the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy has mostly been the result of religion’s prevalence in American politics, culture, and society. It has been a product of the American people as much as their presidents.

 

WHY IS U.S. FOREIGN POLICY so moralistic? Why, unusually among the diplomats of the world, do American foreign policymakers appeal to ideals and values, such as the promotion of human rights and democracy, when the leaders of other nations do not? U.S. presidents have been known for their moralism for a long time—Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first to be scolded by European leaders for it. But where does it come from?

In large part, the answer has to do with religion, particularly the pressure from below applied by ordinary religious Americans who did not wield policymaking influence or political power. The reason they were able to do so is two-fold. First, for most of its history—indeed, until the nuclear age—the United States was free from attack or invasion and thus enjoyed what national security analysts call “free security.” This afforded Americans a foreign policy of almost total choice, and with it the freedom to envision the world as they wanted it to be. It also meant that foreign policymakers in Washington couldn’t suppress popular causes on the grounds of national security. To be sure the advent of air power and nuclear weapons during World War II brought the age of free security to an end, but not before foreign policy habits and cultures had formed indelibly. Second, in a democracy, American officials couldn’t ignore popular pressures from below, especially if they couldn’t dismiss them on national security grounds. The combination of free security and republican democracy, in other words, gave religion an opening it might not otherwise have had to influence the making of U.S. foreign policy.

Conducting foreign policy is about serving the national interest, which often leads nations into morally questionable behavior. Religion, on the other hand, is about doing what’s right. People of faith are inherently idealistic. Others may disagree with those ideals, but at its core religion is about believing in a set of principles that imagines the world as it should really be. When motivated by an issue they believe to be important, religious communities are indefatigable, determined, averse to compromise, highly activist, politically connected, and deeply concerned with the wider world. They relentlessly press their elected officials to protect and promote ideals that are often universal rather than national.

From antebellum evangelical and Unitarian abolitionists who opposed territorial expansion to missionaries who dragged the U.S. government into the Chinese interior, ordinary religious Americans have advanced their own foreign policy agendas that officials in Washington have found impossible to resist. And history is littered with examples of presidents who failed to handle religious controversies adeptly, and either suffered for it at the ballot box or lost control of their foreign policy. It is, however, a relatively recent case study—the rise, fall, and reemergence of détente, from the early 1970s to the end of the Cold War in 1989—that provides perhaps the best illustration.

 

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