The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest

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Release Date: 
November 21, 2016
Yale University Press
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In 2012, the historian Andrew Preston in his Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith concluded that religion, especially Christianity, has played a central role in U.S. foreign policy throughout the nation’s history. Now Pulitzer Prize winning historian Walter McDougall in his new book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy argues that America’s approach to the world for better or worse—mostly for worse—has been shaped by three successive versions of a “civil religion” that have given “meaning” and “purpose” to U.S. policies.

What McDougall calls the Classical American Civil Religion (ACR) influenced the American founding and the subsequent foreign policies of George Washington and most of his 19th century successors. It eschewed sentimentalism and missionary idealism, recognized the flaws and imperfections of human nature (original sin), and promoted narrow national interests.

Washington’s farewell address was the bible of the Classical ACR. Its principal message, to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, was that the United States had no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

Sentimental attachments to foreign nations and permanent alliances were foolhardy and dangerous. America should seek friendly relations with all nations, husband its resources and build-up its own strength and, in the immortal words of John Quincy Adams, “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Throughout most of the 19th century, America followed Washington’s advice, maintaining neutrality in European Wars (with the exception of the War of 1812) and announcing the Monroe Doctrine to deter further European conquests in the Americas. This allowed the U.S. to pursue and fulfill its Manifest Destiny—at the expense of Native Americans and Mexicans of the American southwest, and at the cost of a bloody Civil War.

McDougall notes that the farewell address was referenced in the inaugural addresses of most of Washington’s 19th century successors. America, its leaders proclaimed, was a shining example of liberty and freedom (the last best hope on earth, said Lincoln), but it was not America’s duty or mission to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world.

That all changed after the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States acquired overseas possessions in Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America. That war coincided with the rise of the Progressive Movement and its preaching of the social gospel and the notion that human betterment and perfection could be attained here on earth instead of in Heaven. McDougall calls this the Progressive ACR and shows how it eventually replaced the more modest Classical ACR.

Mainline Protestant churches, McDougall writes, aligned with political progressives with their belief in reason and science “to beget a heretical version of the original ACR.” The new civil religion sought salvation in America and abroad, preaching a social gospel of imperialism. McDougall asserts that the Progressive ACR was used to justify U.S. expansion overseas. The world, in other words, must be remade in America’s image.

The Progressive ACR’s champion during this time period was Woodrow Wilson, a rabid interventionist as president (in Mexico and Europe) but only in the name of a crusade to make the world better. Wilson, writes McDougall, “drained whatever Christian humility was left in American Civil Religion.” He sought to right all the world’s wrongs, at least rhetorically.  Those who opposed him in time of war were hounded, persecuted, and sometimes prosecuted for their heresy.

McDougall has interesting chapters that discuss the evolution of Franklin Roosevelt from isolationist to interventionist. Dr. New Deal became Dr. Win-the-War not just to narrowly preserve U.S. security but also to promote the “Four Freedoms” and the ideals of the Atlantic Charter, the latter launched with the singing of “Onward Christian Soldiers” even before the U.S. was a declared belligerent.

Like Wilson, FDR placed his hopes in international institutions led by the great powers. But the aftermath of World War II brought not eternal peace and progress throughout the world, but the 45-year geopolitical struggle known as the Cold War.  

McDougall accepts that the Soviet Union posed a serious geopolitical challenge to the West during the Cold War that had to be resisted. But, like George Kennan, the intellectual “father” of Containment, and Walter Lippmann, who authored a series of brilliant essays on the limits of U.S. power, he decries the universal commitments extended by the Truman Doctrine and the misapplication of the “lessons of Munich” as manifested in the Domino Theory.

McDougall blames U.S. setbacks and defeats during the Cold War on a Neo-Progressive American Civil Religion that “made the United States responsible for minding every other nation’s business as well as its own.”

The author is sharply critical of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. Kennedy’s policies, he writes, were “wasteful and risky.” Kennedy’s administration “undertook social engineering on a global scale,” fortified by “ideological hubris.” Like historian Michael Beschloss, McDougall views the Kennedy foreign policy as amateurish, sometimes creating international crises unintentionally.

President Johnson, writes McDougall, “embodied the ecumenical faith in faith that lay at the heart of the civil religion.” He Americanized the war in Vietnam without thinking through a strategy for victory. Johnson’s policies resulted in defeat abroad and fueled the flames of domestic rebellion here at home.

President Jimmy Carter’s appeal to the civil religion was most evident in his human rights campaign that was primarily directed at America’s authoritarian allies. In the wake of Watergate, Vietnam, and revelations of CIA misconduct, Carter promised a more moral foreign policy. But Carter’s moralism, writes McDougall, “inevitably collided with geopolitical realities.” The fall of the Shah in Iran and Somoza in Nicaragua, the hostage crisis in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan finally shattered Carter’s illusions.

McDougall is highly critical of the foreign policy missteps of the George W. Bush administration, and he attributes this to a Millennial American Civil Religion that arose in the wake of the Cold War. Its first manifestation was the elder Bush’s declaration in 1991 of a “new world order” with the United States as the sole superpower. This was followed by the Clinton administration’s unnecessary expansion of NATO and repeated humanitarian military interventions.

George W. Bush’s post 9/11 rhetoric, writes McDougall, was “fanatical,” and his notion of democratizing the whole Muslim world was “mad.” It was the Millennial American Civil Religion manifested in “the terrible power of wandering virtues.”

President Obama, although he pulled back somewhat from Bush’s overseas commitments, also adhered the Millennial ACR by his preference for multilateralism and globalization and his promotion of the misnamed Arab Spring.

Of the nine Cold War U.S. presidents, only Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan, in McDougall’s view, resisted the civil religious urge to right the wrongs of the world, despite their frequent use of religious rhetoric.

What McDougall calls the American Civil Religion, at least in its post-Spanish-American War manifestations, is in reality a secular progressive ideology that has filled the vacuum created by the decline of the Judeo-Christian traditional religion, a phenomenon brilliantly analyzed by British historian Paul Johnson in Modern Times. It was described by Whittaker Chambers as a rival faith that envisions “man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world.”

McDougall pessimistically predicts a future dominated by a Global Civil Religion that federalizes governments and replaces sovereign nations—a form of world government that causes nation-states to wither away. “The deformation of American Civil Religion,” he concludes, will end “by devouring America itself.”