Why You Can't Ignore Religion If You Want to Understand Foreign Policy

tags: foreign policy, religion



Leo P. Ribuffo teaches history at George Washington University and is writing a book on the Carter presidency in broad social and cultural perspective.


At the June 2014 meeting of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the six sessions dealing primarily and with religion outnumbered those dealing primarily with the Korean War (one), World War II (one) and World War I (none despite the centenary). Clearly this topic is coming into vogue. Because I have been interested in the connections between foreign affairs and religion for a long time, I was asked to join a roundtable on the "state of the study." The other participants were Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina), Cara Burnidge (Florida State), William Inboden (University of Texas), Emily Conroy-Krutz (Michigan State), and Edward Blum (San Diego State).

In keeping with the friendly spirit of our session, William Inboden called me the John the Baptist of this topic While denying any prophetic gifts, I see what he means. I am at least a generation older than the other participants. The panel discussion and audience response prompted this expansion of my remarks.

Historians cannot understand the behavior of the American people past and present without paying serious attention to nationalism and religion--or, more precisely, religions, since religion is a weak category. The relationship between religions and foreign relations is more problematic. Thus my text for this sermon is an old American adage, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: For someone with a hammer everything looks like a nail.

I have been interested in the connection between religions on the one hand and politics and foreign policy on the other since a Red Scare disrupted my suburban Fair Lawn, N. J. high school in 1961. A few students who refused to salute the flag and/or protested against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were accused of being Communists by conservative activists who ranged in age from teenagers at the high school to grownups on the school board. As in most of the local Cold War red scares, the right spent less time worrying about the throw weight of Nikita Khrushchev's missiles than about the size of school budgets and the behavior of potentially rebellious teenagers who might encounter the f-word if J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye remained in the high school library.

It was apparent even to me, a 15 year old with an Roman Catholic father and Protestant mother, that our local Red Scare had a religious dimension. Fair Lawn was roughly one-third Protestant, one-third Catholic, and one-third Jewish. Jews and liberal Protestants, generally Cold War liberals or moderates in national politics, put up with Salinger or even liked him, but above all they wanted advanced science courses in the high school both to beat the Soviets in the post-Sputnik space race and to get their children into elite colleges. Conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics (the only kind in Fair Lawn at the time) viewed Salinger and short skirts along with anti-HUAC protests as slippery slopes downward to a broader rebellion against "fifties" mores and politics. This premonition was accurate despite their hyperbole.

Although Catholics also wanted to beat Khrushchev in missile throw weight, those who sent their children to parochial schools rejected higher taxes for advanced science courses in the public schools as a way of doing so. Thus, as a 15 year old I began to formulate what as an adult historian I call my Prime Directive for these matters: Avoid theological determinism. Little did I know as a teenager that Max Weber, R. H. Tawney, and H. Richard Niebuhr had already made this point.

When I began my career as an adult historian as a Rutgers undergraduate, Warren Susman, who first taught me intellectual history, and Lloyd Gardner, who first taught me diplomatic history (as the field was then called) considered my combined interests in religions and foreign policy unremarkable. Under their influence, I lost my enthusiasm for John F. Kennedy and became a William Appleman Williamsite--and I remain one to this day. Non-academic actions by Lyndon Johnson and Ho Chi Minh sped the process along.

Williams himself thought my dual interests compatible when I met him in 1969. After all, though often caricatured as an economic determinist, Williams is better understood as a kind of intellectual historian and one with a strong interest in religion as well as economics. His mentor, Fred Harvey Harrington, the founding grandfather of the so-called Wisconsin School, wrote a biography of Horace Allen, a medical missionary who became the first American minister to Korea. A theology of William Appleman Williams, evident in his odd great book, The Contours of American History, celebrates the Protestant stewardship tradition--a tradition different from the many varieties of Protestant theological modernism and theological conservatism--and just what we might expect from a idiosyncratic Marxist Episcopalian.

While a Yale graduate student In the 1970s, I befriended fellow historians who shared my combined interests, notably Justus Doenecke, whose expertise included John Calvin as well as the America First Committee, and Bruce Kuklick, whose research ranged from Jonathan Edwards to the Potsdam conference.

Despite this respectable intellectual lineage, the combined study of religions and foreign policy did not become a hammer in diplomatic history circles. For a quarter century, it barely ranked as a pair of tweezers. The biggest hammer since the mid 1990s has been the New International History of the Cold War, which struck me from the start as Ernest May's old international history of World War I and the Spanish-American War applied to different countries in a later era. It has the same strengths and weaknesses. Important questions will remain unanswered even if every memorandum from one Communist clerk to another is released from Soviet and East Bloc archives.

Recently, however, the combined study of religions and foreign relations has risen from tweezers status to at least a good-sized wrench. In 2012, for example, Andrew Preston published Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, an interpretation of the whole story from the Puritans to the present. This vogue has two main sources. Scholars of foreign relations have relabeled and to some extent reconceptualized their field as the "United States in the World," and American historians generally have begun to pay increased attention to religions. The American Historical Association (AHA) and American Society for Church History (ASCH) now convene in tandem every January.

Needless to say I am pleased by these developments. Yet I am always suspicious of vogues and exaggerated claims on behalf of the next new thing (often, as in this case, a rediscovered or refurbished old thing). Indeed, we might infer from the 2014 SHAFR conference program that Americans spend more time praying than doing business or consuming stuff. This is not the case. Hence my secondary directive: Recognize the limits as well as the strengths of any explanatory scheme.

8 Cautionary Admonitions

Within the context of my two directives, here are eight cautionary admonitions and broad generalizations about the relationship between religions and the history of American foreign relations (still my preferred label).
Let us begin with something that many historians and even some journalists know. During the past 70 years Protestant theological conservatives, most of whom called themselves fundamentalists and evangelicals, generally moved from an anti-Semitic to a philo-Semitic interpretation of the Last Days according to their favorite version of Bible prophecy, premillennial dispensationalism. That is, the Antichrist will still appear to wreak havoc and test many of the faithful before Jesus' return but Jews will not ally with this monster as was widely inferred from Scripture in the 1920s and 1930s. Nor will the Pope.

The shift in biblical interpretation did not occur because someone exploring a Mideast cave discovered ancient scrolls updating the Bible. Rather, theological conservatives increasingly engaged with modern America and this engagement required giving up certain sorts of bigotry. The shift was not as mechanical as it sounds in summary but, making allowances for the complexity of human experience, that is the basic story.

Second, anyone discussing the relationship between religions and foreign policy needs to study both subspecialties. The effort required for the religions side is no more daunting than figuring out international economics, geopolitical theories, or domestic politics. For example, it is not hard to learn that George W. Bush is a moderate evangelical, Jimmy Carter is a theological liberal with a southern "born again" style, and Ronald Reagan was an eclectic Protestant befitting the son of a Catholic father and Disciples of Christ mother. Beware of some specialists in religion alone who, wielding their own field's large hammer, exaggerate the influence of personal faith on policy-makers. However devout presidents and secretaries of state may be, they discuss tariffs at meetings of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), not biblical inerrancy at conferences of the World Council of Churches.

Third, not everyone in the United States is a Protestant, let alone a theologically conservative Protestant. Religion has been brought into the mainstream of the AHA partly because a "Christian scholars" lobby--moderate evangelicals including such distinguished historians as George Marsden and Mark Noll--have campaigned on behalf of the topic's intellectual legitimacy since the mid-1990s. For reasons that remain unclear, historians who identify with Catholicism, Judaism, and other faiths have been less active or less effective in the internal politics of the historical profession. Thus the relationship between religions on the one hand and domestic and foreign relations on the other looks excessively Protestant at AHA and SHAFR conventions. The intermittently strong presence of irreligion is almost entirely ignored.

Nevertheless, aspects of the Enlightenment survived the Second Great Awakening and in some respects persisted into the so-called Progressive Era. Catholics wielded significant influence from at least the 1840s. Historians are more likely to know that during the Mexican-American War nativism moved some Irish-American soldiers to change sides--their execution is memorialized in a Mexico City monument--than to know that United States forces included at least one immigrant Irish Catholic brigadier general, James Shields. As early as 1911, the effective activism of Jewish organizations allied with gentiles outraged by Russian pogroms forced abrogation of a Russian-American trade treaty.

Nor is everyone white. By such criteria as financial contributions and church attendance, African-Americans may be the most religious population group in any big rich country. In the 1970s and 1980s the campaign against investment in South Africa led by Leon Sullivan, a black Baptist minister, publicized the oppressive effects of Apartheid. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sermon against the Vietnam War, delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, is one of the great American speeches.

Fourth, the centrality of religious faith to national identity ebbs and flows over time--in Poland, Russia, Ireland, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and, yes, the United States. Nowadays secularists hope and theists fear that the recent popular slide down the slope from denominationalism to "spirituality" in this big rich country will end in a European style secular humanism. This prediction seems plausible--as it did in 1790.

Fifth, over the long haul of U. S. history, the main influences on foreign policy have been perceived economic needs and geopolitical notions, which were sometimes at cross purposes and usually viewed through the lenses of domestic politics and emotional nationalism. Thus religion alone has not been decisive in any first rank development--conquest of a continent, creation of an informal empire overseas, and frequent wars. Even in the absence of the ecumenical civil religion imperialism known as Manifest Destiny, which also included large economic, geopolitical, and racial components, a strong sense of republican virtue would have powered the "first new nation's" rise to world power, perhaps with an ideological justification akin to the French "mission to civilize."i

The decades-long transition from mere diplomatic history to the "United States in the World" has brought losses as well as gains. As a William Jamesian as well as a William Appleman Williamsite, I think that the topics we choose to study often reflect our temperaments. No one with a speculative turn of mind should be forced to become a number cruncher. No one fascinated by nineteenth century missionaries or contemporary NGOs should be forced to pore over the complete speeches of Secretaries of State Lewis Cass or Warren Christopher. Even so, grad students are socialized into academic orthodoxies and the historical profession is currently dominated by social and to some extent cultural historians. If scholars of foreign relations do not study what used to be called high policy, who will? The most important consequences of World War II were not that Rosie riveted or that the civil rights movement was revitalized or that a religious revival began in the United States. The most important consequences were the deaths of tens of millions of people and the resulting Cold War that cost the lives of millions more.

Sixth, over the long haul of U. S. history, religion has been an important secondary influence, perhaps a bit below race in importance, tied with its cousin ethnicity, and a bit above gender--so far. Even at this level, serious religious ideas have had at most an indirect impact on policy-makers. With the possible exception of Reinhold Niebuhr--I go back and forth on him--no important religious thinker has also been an original and insightful analyst of foreign policy. At minimum Niebuhr deserves credit for stressing during the Cold War that U. S. foreign relations were never without sin.

What has counted most on this secondary level is the direct and indirect influence of religious interest groups. American policy toward Mexico and perhaps toward the Spanish Republic would have been different during the 1930s if there had been no Catholics in the United States. U. S. policy toward Israel would have been different if all of our Jewish immigrants had gone to Canada, Argentina, or Brazil.

Since World War II, probably the greatest single religious influence was the role of conservative Protestants and Catholics, organized in their churches and parachurch groups, in the enforcement of Cold War orthodoxy in its various aspects including politics, race, sex, and popular culture. The latest historiographical rediscovery of American conservatism has coincided with--and to some extent intersected with--the religious history vogue. Yet, in contrast to the small body of scholarship about conservatism produced from the 1950s to the 1990s, little attention is now paid to the intimate connection between the post-World War II right and the twentieth-century's second Red Scare (usually labeled too narrowly as McCarthyism). As even the little Fair Lawn Red Scare suggests, religion was part of the story.

Similarly, scholars should beware of the claim, first popularized by Jerry Falwell in the late 1970s, that fundamentalists and evangelicals shunned politics after World War II until liberal and radical excesses in the "sixties" made them do it. Probably most of these theological conservatives did believe in the "fifties" that fierce anti-Communism, denunciations of short skirts, and acquiescence in or enthusiasm for white supremacy were moral rather than political positions. There is no good reason for scholars to accept this dichotomy in retrospect.

Seventh, historians should not slight religious interest groups that wound up on the losing side of foreign policy controversies; a few even won in the medium run. These interest groups included pacifists and some ethical opponents of the frequent wars. Andrew Preston and Raymond Haberski have almost convinced me that there was a Catholic left beyond Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement before the "sixties." Above all, greater attention to such "sixties" groups as Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV) would correct the prevailing folkloric image of the anti-war movement as an addendum to youthful sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Eighth, foreign relations have affected the U. S. religious scene as well as the other way around. Over two centuries, disproportionate Catholic military service not only served as an antidote to anti-Catholic nativism, but also fostered Catholic upward mobility. The fight against against Nazism helped to diminish American anti-Semitism (though not before effective mobilizations by Jewish organizations and their gentile allies began in the late 1940s).

In sum, understanding the connection between religions and foreign relations requires the same sort of reflection and empirical investigation needed to understand other influences. Keep reading Christian Century, Christianity Today, Commonweal, andTikkun, but don't cancel your subscriptions to Politico, Foreign Affairs, and theFinancial Times.

i Since my views expressed in the remainder of this article have not changed much in the past decade, anyone interested in a longer, footnoted version of the argument can consult Leo P. Ribuffo, "Religion in the History of U. S. Foreign Policy," in Elliott Abrams, ed. The Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U. S. Foreign Policy (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 2001), 1-27. I now place greater emphasis on the influence of geopolitical notions which, though often unconnected to a sensible view of the world, have a powerful life of their own via the domino theory, Munich analogy, and figures of speech like "balance of power," "spheres of influence," and "leverage." Perhaps I have been affected too much by reading recent books on the origins of World War I and current globalist assertions that U. S. interests are at stake in the Japan-China disagreement about the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.


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