Christianity and US Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective

Is American Foreign Policy driven by a religious agenda?

I recently gave a talk on ‘Christianity and US Foreign Policy’ to a group of city workers in Sydney. It was well attended – the level of interest reflecting what we see in bookstores and in documentaries around the world.

Had I been giving the talk on New Zealand or Danish foreign policy, I suspect the audience may have been considerably thinner. So what is it about the USA that generates such interest?

Perhaps it’s that in looking at the US we are looking at the largest concentration of wealth, might, and power of any state in the history of the world. Perhaps it’s because we see the USA and its relationship to the world in a moment of flux; a time in which the rules are being re-invented.

We are vaguely aware of the political power of a mobilized and evangelical middle-America, to whom the call to vote Republican seems like a tenet of faith.

But I suspect it has something to do, also, with Christianity. Religion is back in the public square with a vengeance. We sense there is some relationship there between Christianity and US foreign policy. We are familiar with seeing President Bush quote scripture in front of the Statue of Liberty, familiar with his talk of evildoers and lessons on light and darkness; and we are vaguely aware of the political power of a mobilized and evangelical middle-America, to whom the call to vote Republican seems like a tenet of faith (at least since Reagan).

So what makes American foreign policy interesting for us is perhaps the convergence of these two factors—the extraordinary military, economic, and strategic pre-eminence of the US, and the rise of an explicitly religious political discourse behind it. These have converged in such a way to produce what I think is a mixture of bemusement and fear on the part of Australians.

On one hand, we might find ourselves tempted to be a bit cynical toward the US. Australian political culture has little time for people claiming to be the light of mankind; we want our foreign policy justified in the name of ‘national interest,’ not some vague idea about the remaking of the world. It’s a little too convenient, we might say, to go and fight for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, just down the road from multi-billion dollar oilfields. We might find ourselves saying ‘this religion thing must just be a cover for something else: what they are really after is just more money, oil, and power.’

On the other hand, it is tempting to find ourselves at times, uncritically swallowing the American vision of the world: we hope for the gradual unfolding and progress of liberal democratic capitalism, for the protection of individual ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’; and hail the sacralization of consumer choice and individual taste. Moreover, we, children of the baby-boomer generation, have basically learnt to talk, walk, think, reason, and relate against the backdrop of a common repertoire of symbols, archetypes and stories. We learn the art of politics, the art of humor, the art of flirting, dating, divorce and marriage to a Hollywood soundtrack.

Yet it’s deeper than popular culture. Our own national security has been inextricably tied to that of the USA since the Second World War, and the subsequent formation of the ANZUS relationship. And it goes beyond mere military cooperation, in the way that we cooperate with say Japan, Germany, or Holland: no, there is a sense in which our own national story and moral identity has become bound up with America’s through conflict, through war, through an articulation, marked with blood, of common values, and common heritage.

So if on the one hand, our mistake can be to view the US too cynically; on the other hand, it can be that we engage in no critical reflection at all.

In offering an historical perspective, I’m not intending to offer you a story or a chronology, but rather an analysis of some of the main ways in which Christians have thought about foreign affairs in American history. A series of paradigms, if you will. There are three of them:

1)    American exceptionalism
2)    American Protestant fundamentalism
3)    Christian pacifism

And then fourthly, I will suggest the contours of a paradigm that doesn’t actually exist, but one that I wish did—a wish-list, if you like.

American Exceptionalism

If one were to begin exploring the history of ideas about America’s role in the world—it wouldn’t take long before one bumped into a conspicuous and enduring theme called ‘American exceptionalism.’

Some call it exceptionalism, some simply American nationalism, while others call it the ‘redeemer nation’ motif.

Writing in the middle of the Vietnam War, historian E.L. Tuveson, in his classic 1968 Redeemer Nation, summarized it succinctly. The ‘redeemer nation’ belief, in a capsule, was this: ‘Chosen race; chosen nation; millennial-utopian destiny for mankind; a continuing war between good (progress) and evil (reaction) in which the United States is to play a starring role as world redeemer.’

The notion of a special calling on America as a nation has had very concrete policy implications.

Sound familiar?

Yet the relationship of Christianity to this mentality is complex. On the one hand exceptionalism is a view that shapes many Americans, whether Christian or not. And on the other hand, it has come out of Christianity itself.

An American scholar named John B Judis wrote a paper in 2005 that sought to trace how this happened: how Americans went from Puritan expectations about the future in the 1740s to early nationalist expectations about the future at the turn of the nineteenth century.

In a space of fifty to eighty years, Judis argues, the founders of the United States ‘translated Protestant millennialism into the language of American nationalism and exceptionalism. The chosen people – whom 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards identified with the visible saints of new England’s Congregational Churches⎯became the citizens of the United States; the millennium became a thousand-year reign of religious and civil liberty; and the adversary became English tyranny and Old World Catholicism.’

Over time the adversaries changed into the ‘savages and barbarians’ of the nineteenth century, into Autocracy and imperialism around the First World War, into Communism during the Cold War, and today into ‘enemies of freedom’.

Importantly Judis notes that it is therefore not Christian religion per se, but a secularized cultural derivative of religion—a translation—which has produced the ‘chosen-people’ idea in foreign policy.

The notion of a special calling on America as a nation has had very concrete policy implications. The belief that God has acted through American history gave rise to what Columbia University historian Anders Stephanson called ‘Destinarianism’.  Destinarianism is a sense of historical destiny: that some divine being or ideal manifests its plan in time and space, in an historical moment. Destinarianism, argues Stephanson was the cultural and intellectual undergirding of the ‘Manifest Destiny’ movements of the nineteenth century, from which came the westward expansion of the 1840s.

If you think this is dusty old history: have a look at a map of the USA in 1800, and then a look at the USA in 1860. And then calculate how many battles, deaths, and displacements took place in one of the most radical continental expansions in modern history. You’ll be blown away.

Stephanson goes on to show how this Destinarianism heavily shaped the rationale for the US’s war with the Spanish in the 1890s, in which they invaded Cuba and the Philippines and solidified their dominance in the Americas.

Stephanson showed how it was American Destinarianism that animated President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘making the world safe for democracy’ in 1917, and even the foreign policy of the later Reagan administration.

We could go on. And there are plenty of historians and scholars to draw upon.

When we look at the relatively recent rise of neoconservative foreign policy we see a fusing of two historical traditions. Firstly, we have this exceptionalism and nationalism discussed above, an insistence that US national interest is in the world’s best interest. And secondly, we have an offshoot of the realist tradition: a relishing of the so-called ‘realities’ of power politics, an acceptance that violence, warfare, and whatever other means necessary are inevitable in the prosecution of national interest.  Inherent in this is a spurning of high moral approaches to foreign policy because of the risk of unintended consequences. We have then a curious mixture of power-political realism and exceptionalist idealism: and this is by no means a placid mixture.

So are the crazy Christians to blame?

Well at no point does neoconservatism purport to be Christian. Yet in the post 9/11 years, we have seen an all too easy alliance between Christians and this neoconservative and ultra-nationalist foreign policy agenda.

In order to address this, we need to take account of one more layer in the equation. That is, the worldview of so-called ‘fundamentalist’ evangelicalism, which has its own separate and colorful history.

American Protestant Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism properly construed doesn’t just mean someone who holds to something dogmatically. Its particular historical meaning comes from rifts within American Protestantism in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fundamentalism sought to fight religious and intellectual modernism and all it represented. It insisted on the literal truth of scripture, but as historian Mark Noll shows, this wasn’t scripture as reformed evangelicalism would hold it. No, this was about what he called the ‘versification’ of scripture (carving it up into verses)—the taking of little pieces of scripture out of context, and insisting upon their self-interpreting authority. Sadly, and ironically, the result over the years has often been to undermine the authority of the Bible, by using it badly.

And these improper uses of the Bible have had a direct bearing on foreign policy. Bad theology has produced bad politics. That is, American fundamentalism over the last 120 years gave birth to a whole new, now mainstream, genre of what they call ‘prophecy’ teachings. The Bible is full of predictions about ‘end-time’ events, they argue. They say Christians today need to decode the Bible’s prophecies on the one hand, and decode the real meaning of world events on other hand—and then match them up to see what is going to happen next.

Fundamentalist-evangelicals have a sense of war in terms of domestic US culture wars: there are forces threatening to undermine the Christian-American way of life everywhere.

What this amounts to is the ability to view foreign policy in terms of an apocalyptic battle. Nations are read almost allegorically, representing the forces of good and evil. Currently in the US, you can see TV shows on cable about how American policy toward Iran is the next step in the apocalyptic equation. And it feeds into what George Marsden has called a paradox of paranoia. Fundamentalist-evangelicals have a sense of war in terms of domestic US culture wars: there are forces threatening to undermine the Christian-American way of life everywhere. Yet, paradoxically, the same people, the most vocal critics of government domestically, are the least critical of American government in terms of foreign policy: the evildoer shifts from being an internal domestic force (like pro-choice secular humanists) to non-American enemies of the State. That is, we move from fear of the State to dying and killing for the State—an odd paradox.

There have been numerous studies tracking the rise of the religious right. They went underground; avoiding the public square after the famous Scopes Monkey trial of the mid-1920s, and only began to resurface at a grassroots level in the 1950s. But it was in the 1970s and 1980s that they started to get politically organized into lobby groups and think-tanks: in short, to gain political apparatus and political weight. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were among the pioneers of this movement. And then they followed a similar track to the neocons politically – supporting Reagan over the avowedly Christian Jimmy Carter; being critical of Clinton, and as we all know, supporting George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

While they were mainly interested in a socially conservative, and perhaps fiscally conservative agenda, hawkishness in defense policy was part of the package. And it suited the evangelicals’ sense of patriotism, and sense of cosmic warfare. Hence the resonance of Reagan’s description of the USSR as the ‘evil empire.’

So to sum up, looking at the situation of post 9/11 US, we have to take into account these historical layers: American exceptionalism; the peculiar neoconservative mix of realism and idealism; and the rise of fundamentalism to political (and cultural) influence.

I should say at this point, that in terms of non-military foreign policy, such as aid, evangelicals including President Bush, have done an enormous amount of good, and have lifted spending significantly. This is most notable in Africa, for instance. (Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2006 gives a good account of evangelical influence on these less recognized aspects of foreign policy.)

So what can we do or say about all this?

Christian Pacifism

I want to present to you a third paradigm. We’ve had the American exceptionalist paradigm, the fundamentalist paradigm, and now I want to draw attention to the Christian pacifist paradigm. The most devastating critique of the above conglomeration of Christianity, politics and empire has come from the re-emergence of Christian pacifists. The one figure who best exemplifies this position today is American theologian Stanley Hauerwas. In 2001 TIME magazine named him America’s ‘best theologian,’ to which he replied, “‘best’” is not a theological category.’

Christian pacifists aim to apply Jesus teaching from the Sermon on the Mount  – to ‘turn the other cheek,’ to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’ – to every area of life.

Unlike the liberal pacifists of the 1920s and 1930s, Hauerwas’s pacifism is not about reforming the world, nor about maintaining the national purity of the United States. Rather, it emphasizes the separation of the church from the world. Not that Christians should withdraw from the world, but that they should actively refuse to participate in the ways of the world where those ways conflict with the example and message of Jesus Christ. The title of one of Hauerwas’s books, Resident Aliens, I think best sums it up. Resident Aliens ought not to seek power through controlling government, but rather ought to seek the kingship of Christ. ‘Separationists’ like Hauerwas see Christ’s narrative—the narrative of sacrificial death—as the constitutive narrative of the church. And this narrative, they say, is at odds with the narrative of the nation-state, which is all about will-to-power. Let the church be the church, they say, and call Caesar to repentance, not join his State Dept or staff his Pentagon.

For those who hold to a Christian understanding of the world, this position is a challenging one. The Christian pacifists aim to apply Jesus teaching from the Sermon on the Mount  – to ‘turn the other cheek,’ to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’ – to every area of life. They seek to recover the church’s historical identity as a community of martyrs. Whether or not you agree with it entirely, their position must at least shift the burden-of-proof from the pacifist back to the non-pacifist. Unless you read the gospels through the most pietistic of lenses, you’ll be hard-pressed not to concede that the default position of the church ought to be pacifism, and those who wish to argue otherwise have some explaining to do.

I for one don’t agree entirely with the radical-separationist-pacifists, but I think their argument requires an answer. Their effort to forge a politics that takes Jesus’ death and resurrection seriously, and that seeks to answer the call for the church to be a public community of peace, and not merely a collection of individuals exercising a private religion, is timely.


We’ve briefly reflected on three paradigms that have actually existed and influenced US history: exceptionalism, fundamentalism, and pacifism. But to conclude, I’d like to move away from historical analysis to offer a paradigm that doesn’t exist as such—a ‘wish-list’ that draws on other, more forgotten, elements of historical Christianity. I outline it below.

If Christians were to approach international relations, I would hope their approach would have the following contours:

  • It would recognize the God-given capacity of states to exercise judgment. Yet it would resist the pretensions of nationalism, resist the identity-conferring capacity of the nation-state, and resist false claims to universal validity: it would say ‘God’s big story stands in contrast to the story the world wants to tell.’
  • It would seek to promote relationships between nations by respecting positive international law, but more importantly, natural and divine law out of reverence for Christ. As such, the just war tradition is the furthest you could go, in terms of military action.
  • It would seek to realize the theological truth of the truly global body of Christ, in which national barriers are defeated, and allow the church to foster an internationalism that ‘spills out’ into true unity across ethnic and cultural divides.
  • It would preach humility to itself and the nations based on recognition of universal sin, and the transcendence of God.

Whether my wish-list will come true, or even ought to come true is another question.

Mike Thompson is currently completing his PhD in History at the University of Sydney, where he is researching and teaching US History.