Religion and American Foreign Policy: The Story of a Complex Relationship

Religion and American Foreign Policy: The Story of a Complex Relationship

Mini Teaser: The historical connection between American religion and foreign relations may be explored on four levels.

by Author(s): Leo Ribuffo

Congressional consideration of the Freedom from Religious Persecution
bill introduced by Representative Frank Wolf and Senator Arlen
Specter has precipitated a small-scale debate about a little-studied
subject: the connection between American religion and foreign
relations. If passed, the Wolf-Specter bill will establish an office
in the State Department to monitor religious persecution and withdraw
"non-humanitarian" aid from countries that fail to meet our
standards. Even in the absence of such an office, many Americans have
always been concerned about religious freedom abroad and the State
Department has intermittently protested persecution since the early
days of the republic. The debate on the bill would be enhanced by a
historical perspective.

The historical connection between American religion and foreign
relations may be explored on four levels. First, to what extent and
in what ways have religious beliefs contributed to the widely shared
but amorphous assumption that the United States is an exceptional
nation with a unique role in the world? Second, to what extent have
religious "interest groups" at home and religious issues abroad
influenced government foreign policies? Third, to what extent and in
what ways have serious religious ideas--including esoteric
theological doctrines--affected those interest groups, as well as
important international relations theorists and policymakers?
Finally, to what extent have foreign involvements affected the
domestic religious scene?

Not the least of our conceptual problems is that everyone involved in
the contemporary "culture war" homogenizes this country's religious
history in one way or another. Whereas the Left tends to view white
Protestants as an undifferentiated mass, the center and Right
optimistically postulate an ecumenical "Judeo-Christian tradition."
That term itself only began to enter our lexicon in the 1940s, when
many citizens still routinely referred to "Christian Americanism" or
even "Protestant Americanism." Similarly, the label "fundamentalist",
now applied promiscuously to groups from Tulsa to Tehran, was coined
by a Baptist editor in 1920 to describe one branch of theologically
conservative Protestantism.

Although two recent presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, liked
to underscore American uniqueness by citing Puritan John Winthrop's
admonition to build a "city upon a hill", the relationship between
Reformation-era Protestantism and the American sense of mission has
never been simple. Almost all white residents of the thirteen
colonies on the eve of independence thought Protestantism superior to
Catholicism. Even so, Congregationalists and Quakers defined their
respective worldly missions very differently. The large German
pietist population paid slight attention to inspiring the wider
world. Instead of salvation, a small Enlightenment elite spoke of
"virtue" in an idiom both cosmopolitan and classical. Especially in
these circles, there were doubts as well as hopes concerning the
success of the American experiment in republican government. Perhaps
most important, from the outset some Americans defined their
country's international mission as that of leading the world by moral
example, while others favored direct intervention to spread virtuous
American ways.

The actions of what we now call religious interest groups can be
deemed legitimate by reason of longevity. They were involved in the
first and foremost foreign policy decision, whether or not to create
an independent country. The rebellious colonists seriously though
mistakenly believed that the British planned to reduce them to
"slavery", and one sure sign of this for Congregationalists and
Presbyterians was the lingering threat of a resident Anglican bishop.
From the Quebec Act of 1774, which granted special privileges to
French Canadian Catholics, the heirs to Puritanism and the first
Great Awakening inferred that the tyrannical Crown was consorting
with tyrannical popery. Quakers and Mennonites who refused to serve
in the army were subject to fines, confiscation of property, and
imprisonment. At the same time, most of the 25,000 Catholics in the
thir teen colonies supported independence because they thought, quite
rightly as things turned out, that the new republic would grant them
greater rights.

The victorious revolutionary coalition began to crack almost
immediately. Some of the fissures occurred along religious lines. An
incongruous alliance of deists and dissident Protestants ensured that
there would be no religious test for federal office and began the
process of disestablishing state churches (a process that continued
until the 1830s). By the 1790s, no more than 10 percent of the
population formally belonged to churches.

Disagreements about both religion and foreign affairs shaped the
first party system in the 1790s. The Jeffersonian Republicans, the
ancestors of the Democrats, were religiously more diverse, tolerant,
and (in terms of government policy) neutral than the Federalists.
These sins were compounded by the Jeffersonian tilt toward
revolutionary France and against Great Britain, a country the
Federalists admired for attempting to spread pure--that is,
Protestant--Christianity around the world. These issues came to a
head when the United States and Britain went to war in 1812.

The causes of the war, which are still hard to rank in order of
importance, were essentially secular and psychological: free trade in
wartime, British impressment of American sailors, and a craving for
territory in the West. Once the conflict began, however, rival
religious factions offered their own distinctive interpretations of
events. Federalist Congregationalists and Presbyterians reiterated
their admiration for British Protestantism, damned Napoleon as an
autocratic ally of Pope Pius VI, and characterized impressed sailors
as runaway Irish Catholics unworthy of sympathy. Even President James
Madison's proclamations of national fast days were deemed
theologically deficient because he recommended but did not require
participation. Pro-war Baptists and Methodists denounced the
autocratic Church of England, hailed Madison as a friend of religious
liberty, and noted that the Pope was allied with Britain and
imprisoned by Napoleon. Although no Protestant spoke well of the
Pope, there were few denunciations of American Catholics, in part
because they already served disproportionately in the armed forces.

These political and religious battles occurred within a larger
consensus of opinion that the United States should expand its
territory, trade, and power. In his patriotic American Geography,
published in 1789, Rev. Jedidiah Morse looked forward to the "largest
empire that ever existed [including] millions of souls . . . West of
the Mississippi." Even before that, Rev. Ezra Stiles said in 1783
that the example of the United States would spread the "empire of
reason" and thus hasten the establishment of God's kingdom on earth.
George Washington, less conventionally devout than these
Congregationalists, had the precedent of ancient Rome in mind when he
predicted that the American "infant empire" would soon grow and

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