That Old-Time Civil Religion

Faith, dogma, and the constant reinvention of U.S. foreign policy


The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America's Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, by Walter A. McDougall, Yale University Press, 408 pages, $30

Yale University Press

Never mind the First Amendment; the United States has an official religion after all. It's a civil religion, and the deity's role is to bestow blessings on the state. The "Supreme Architect," "the Almighty Being," "the Infinite Power," and "the Being Who Regulates the Destiny of Nations" are just a few of the sobriquets that Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison gave to the nation's nondenominational guardian spirit.

For some the civil religion might be mere symbolism; others might conflate it with Christianity. Either way, it helps give the nation a sense of purpose, or so historian Walter McDougall contends.

In The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, McDougall traces how changes in the American civil religion (or "ACR") have shaped the country's attitudes toward war and peace. From the founding until the Spanish-American War of 1898, what McDougall calls the "Classical ACR" (or "Neo-Classical ACR" after the Civil War) prevailed. It was a faith of national expansion on the North American continent, but it did not, in the words of John Quincy Adams, "go forth in search of monsters to destroy" overseas. A new faith took hold in the last decade of the 19th century: the "Progressive American Civil Religion," which became an even more firmly entrenched "Neo-Progressive ACR" during the Cold War. This was a militant faith that conceived of the nation's mission as being, in George W. Bush's words, to "end tyranny in our world." Today a third faith, the "Millennial ACR," aspires to unite the world through a global economy and regime of universal rights. It too has roots in the Cold War, though McDougall identifies it primarily with presidents Clinton and Obama.

You'll notice a pattern. Each civil religion has a "neo" phase that emerges when its original formulation runs into trouble. The basic impulse—toward staying at home, asserting American primacy in international affairs, or uniting the world—stays the same, but the rhetoric gets updated. And the progression from one civil religion to the next is not strictly linear: After World War I, for example, the Progressive ACR was partly discredited and the broadly non-interventionist Classical ACR enjoyed a slight return. Similarly, the globalist Millennial ACR was knocked back by the 9/11 attacks and the wars of the George W. Bush years, which brought the Cold War–style "Neo-Progressive ACR" back into fashion.

McDougall, who teaches history and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, is a zestful writer as well as a meticulous scholar. He sometimes writes like a prophet—not in the sense of foretelling the future, but in relying on compact insight rather than step-by-step logical argument. He covers the sweep of U.S. foreign policy over some 200 years in a little more than 350 pages. Hang tight and enjoy the ride.

McDougall is at his best when zooming in on the details of history and revealing the truth to be rather different from what other writers have led us to believe. The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy is, among other things, a rejoinder to Robert Kagan's 2006 book Dangerous Nation, which argues that America has always aspired to remake the world in the image of its own values. McDougall shows that Abraham Lincoln, for one, never supported wars to promote revolution or to spread liberalism through empire building. Lincoln's son Robert made a rare public statement to denounce an attempt by then–President Theodore Roosevelt to link his father's name to an imperialist foreign policy.

Peopling the continent—even when it already had quite a few other people—was the great mission that America's first civil religion endorsed. God wanted America to grow. But projecting power into Europe or Asia, acquiring bases or imperial possessions overseas, was not part of the divine plan. "Manifest Destiny remained a blessing (or curse) exclusive to North America," writes McDougall.

Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe did not try to tip the balance of power between France and England or join in the wars of national liberation that broke out in the early 19th century. The Edinburgh Review in 1820 called for the U.S. to team up with the British empire to promote liberalism and oppose reactionary monarchism in Europe. In response to that call, John Quincy Adams gave a famous address insisting that America "is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

But by the 1890s, two movements had arisen that would drive America into the business of overseas empire. One was "advocates of the 'large policy,'" who, as McDougall writes, "wanted a network of strategic naval bases to command the approaches to Central America (where they hoped a canal would be dug); they wanted to enforce the Monroe Doctrine against European and Japanese interlopers and perhaps plant Old Glory somewhere in the western Pacific." The other force was "the advocates of ¡Cuba Libre!" who "wanted the United States to undertake a selfless humanitarian mission that involved little risk to itself, just ninety miles from its shores, against contemptible Spanish Catholic colonialists."

President McKinley "hesitated, delayed, agonized, even wept and prayed over what to do. It seemed even the religious lobby was calling on him to transgress" against the spirit of the old foreign policy. This was the beginning of the Progressive ACR, which would depend on church support in the century to come.

The year the U.S. entered World War I, the evangelist Billy Sunday declared: "Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous." After the Second World War, McDougall writes, "Capitol Hill was buried with letters denouncing any postwar return to isolationism as un-Christian." During the Cold War, the Knights of Columbus campaigned to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, to heighten the contrast between God-blessed America and godless Communism. The U.S. government itself framed the Cold War in such terms. NSC-68—the national security document that outlined America's strategy against the Communists—described the enemy as "a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own."

Churches were far from alone in pushing American civil religion in a more interventionist direction. McDougall points as well to the importance of figures like Henry Luce and Walt Disney in developing the Neo-Progressive and Millennial varieties of America's civil religion. Presidents became high priests—reluctantly in the case of Dwight Eisenhower, who told Luce in 1952, "I would have nothing but contempt for myself if I were to join a church in order to be nominated President of the United States" but who got baptized anyway once he became president. In 1955, he told the American Legion's "Back to God" convention, "Without God there could be no American form of government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first—the most basic—expression of Americanism."

Other Cold War presidents followed suit, endorsing the national, nondenominational civil religion whether they were sincere churchgoers or not. The more visionary they became in looking beyond the Cold War, the more the Millennial ACR rose into view, an image of the world united in prosperity and freedom under one nondescript, universal deity. By the time Barack Obama came to office, 18 years after the liquidation of the Soviet Union, the Millennial ACR seemed to be on course to becoming a Global Civil Religion, despite the setbacks under George W. Bush. Certainly something like blind faith has to be invoked to explain how Obama came to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before he had ended either of the wars Bush had started. (He never did end the war in Afghanistan.)

It's too soon to say what Donald Trump might mean for America's civil religion. Does his America First rhetoric promise a return to the Classical ACR? Or, like the last Republican president, will he turn out to be Neo-Progressive after all? Whatever the case, if we follow the pattern McDougall sets out, the third civil religion will eventually be reborn as a "Neo-Millennial ACR."

That worries McDougall. "What American Civil Religion retained from Christianity," he writes, "is universality, which in secular form can only mean world government." That in turn "can only reinforce the Machiavellian, Hobbesian, and Rousseauian manifestations of the will to power." McDougall recognizes the utility of having a civil religion, which "can provide the emotional glue binding diverse groups to each other and to shared institutions and national interests." But he's a political skeptic, not a true believer. "Civil religion turns toxic," he concludes, "when twisted into a Jacobin creed and peddled to people at home through mythical history and forced down foreign throats at gunpoint."

Yet his book provides at least one ray of hope: American leaders before 1898 had the opportunity to meddle in the world, but they chose not to. Americans still have a choice, and they might yet rediscover that old-time civil religion.