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

As the population became religiously more diverse, so too did
diplomatic personnel, foreign policy issues, and domestic political
pressures. Mordecai Noah, a Jew, began his long political career in
1813 as consul in Tunis, where he negotiated the release of several
Americans held captive. In 1840 the United States joined European
governments in protesting the imprisonment of Syrian Jews for
allegedly committing a ritual murder. Ten years later, a commercial
treaty with Switzerland conceded the right of individual cantons to
exclude Jews, and in at least one instance an American Jewish
merchant was expelled. After American Jews protested, with support
from such prominent gentiles as Henry Clay and Lewis Cass, the
Fillmore administration renegotiated the treaty. But the changes were
cosmetic, and both protests and quiet diplomacy continued until
Switzerland adopted a new constitution in 1874.

The imbroglio over the Swiss treaty provides an early illustration of
the complicated religious alliances and animosities that persisted
despite the widely shared belief that the United States was an
exceptional nation with a unique role in the world. Many Protestants
supported the Jewish protests not only because they valued the
republican principle of equal treatment for all white Americans, but
also because they wanted to set a precedent for receiving equal
treatment in Catholic countries. Conversely, Catholic Archbishop John
Hughes ridiculed the notion that sovereign states should change their
policies whenever a U.S. citizen arrived "with a full measure of
American atmosphere, American sunbeams, and American religion."

Catholics and Jews also clashed over the Mortara affair in the late
1850s. Edgaro Mortara, a Jewish child in Bologna, was secretly
baptized by a servant and then removed from his family by the Church
on the grounds that since Mortara was now a Catholic, he should not
be raised by Jews. Protests against the Church's action were
widespread in Europe and the United States, but President James
Buchanan, caught between Catholic and Jewish constituents, refused to
join them. It was "neither the right nor the duty" of the American
government, claimed Buchanan, to "express a moral censorship over the
conduct of other independent governments, and to rebuke them for acts
which we may deem arbitrary and unjust towards their own citizens or

The most significant intersection between religion and foreign
relations in the nineteenth century was the extraordinary burst of
Protestant missionary activity initially spurred by the second Great
Awakening. Indeed, some missionaries became what we would now call
lobbyists and their "interest group" often allied with less devout
expansionists. On this continent, they promoted the settlement of
Oregon and urged President James K. Polk to stand firm against
British claims. The most important missionary activities, however,
occurred across the Pacific, where conversion, commerce,
condescension, and promotion of Protestant American values usually
went hand in hand. Charles Denby, an American diplomat in China,
called them "pioneers of trade and commerce." Horace Allen, who
arrived in Korea as a Presbyterian medical missionary, later became
the U.S. government representative, actively promoted American
investment, and established himself as the most influential foreigner
in the country. In Hawaii, however, missionaries were criticized for
warning the king about sharp American business practices.

Unitarians questioned the propriety of converting any country from
its ancient religion. When a treaty signed in 1858, which had been
composed in part by missionaries, protected the religious activities
of Protestants and Catholics in China (including Chinese believers),
some Jewish leaders also protested that Christianity was being
written into the law of the land.

The religious disorder of the late nineteenth century was no less
consequential in its sphere than the better remembered social
upheaval. Sometimes social and religious issues were intimately
related, as in the case of a large "new immigration" of Catholics and
Jews from Eastern and Southern Europe. Protestants not only
confronted these immigrants, but they also faced the intellectual
challenges of Darwinism and biblical "higher criticism." Some
responded by becoming theological liberals; they accepted evolution,
denied original sin, doubted biblical miracles, and emphasized Jesus'
ethical teachings. A minority of these theological liberals also
became advocates of a politically liberal or radical social gospel.
New faiths emerged, notably Christian Science, several Pentecostal
Protestant groups, and the International Bible Students' Association
(known as Jehovah's Witnesses since the early 1930s).

Not surprisingly amid this turmoil, the election of 1896 produced the
most devout pair of presidential nominees in American history,
William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley. Nor is it surprising
that the amalgam of ideas sanctioning the next phase of "manifest
destiny" (a phrase President McKinley still used) contained a larger
religious component than its pre-Civil War counterpart.
Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong became a major ideologist of
expansion with the publication of Our Country in 1886. Mixing
geographic determinism, missionary zeal, and a sense of "Anglo-Saxon"
superiority, Strong concluded that the United States would be the
"elect nation for the age to come"--but only if non-Protestant
immigrants were successfully Americanized. For most expansionists new
concerns seemed at least as pressing as the old sense of mission.
They sought foreign markets as a solution to the depression of the
1890s, cheered military adventure as an antidote to national
softness, and argued that the "closed" frontier would produce a
domestic social explosion unless energies were diverted abroad.

Onto a Larger Stage

The most dramatic foreign policy event of the late nineteenth
century, the Spanish-American War, was rooted in sympathy for Cuban
rebels fighting for independence. Attempting to achieve that goal
without war, McKinley half-heartedly pursued papal mediation and used
Archbishop John Ireland as an intermediary with the Vatican. Most
Catholic spokesmen favored this approach and criticized
"bloodthirsty" Protestants for demanding quick military action. No
Protestant denomination showed greater enthusiasm for war than
McKinley's own, the Methodist Episcopal Church. Intervention in Cuba,
McKinley finally told Congress in April 1898, would fulfill American
aspirations as a "Christian, peace-loving people." In subsequent
proclamations, he thanked the "Divine Master" for granting victory
with few casualties.

Debate about the peace treaty centered on the acquisition of the
Philippines. In a famous interview with Methodist leaders, McKinley
said that after prayer and reflection, he had concluded that the
United States must "uplift and civilize and Christianize [the
Filipinos], and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as
our fellow-men for whom Christ also died." The debate about
ratification turned on secular issues: the propriety of a republican
empire, the threat posed by a non-white colony, and the perennial
dream of the great China market. Most Quakers and Unitarians opposed
acquisition, but Catholic bishops and Protestant social gospelers,
like the country at large, were divided. The prospect of a new
missionary field influenced some proponents of the treaty.

An empire in Asia proved more troublesome than anticipated. The
squalid little war to suppress the Filipino independence movement
kept alive secular and religious opposition to annexation. Meanwhile,
religious groups carried their American conflicts to the Philippines.
While Protestants assailed "greedy friars" with large land holdings,
Catholics complained about desecration of Church property and pointed
out that most Filipinos were already Christians. Meanwhile, in the
face of rising nationalist opposition and grassroots assaults,
missionaries extended their enterprise into the Chinese interior and
became increasingly involved in Chinese affairs; the United States
ultimately joined in Western gunboat diplomacy to protect them. In
the worst confrontation, the Boxers highlighted their animosity to
foreign influence by killing almost two hundred missionaries and
thousands of Chinese Christians.

The foremost presidents of the Progressive era, Theodore Roosevelt
and Woodrow Wilson, were more complicated than can be inferred from
their place in international relations courses as exemplars,
respectively, of "realism" and "idealism." Roosevelt expounded often
on "righteousness", and his eagerness to enter World War I was hardly
based on a sober evaluation of reality. A pro forma member of the
Dutch Reformed Church, who may have doubted the existence of God and
an afterlife, T.R. showed that a strong sense of American mission
needed no theological underpinning. On the other hand--and H.L.
Mencken, President Victoriano Huerta of Mexico, and countless
scholars to the contrary--Wilson is not usefully interpreted as a
latter-day Puritan. A theologically liberal Presbyterian like his
minister father, he paid scant attention to doctrinal disputes,
easily accepted evolution and higher criticism, and almost never
discerned God acting directly in history (Wilson's explanation of his
own election was an exception to this generalization). Certainly
theology did not shape Wilson's version of the venerable belief that
the United States was an exceptional nation with a unique role in the

Although less enthusiastic than Roosevelt about the military ethic as
an antidote to national softness, Wilson proved no less willing to
use force abroad. Despite these similarities, however, their
successors in the White House are more aptly called Wilsonians than
Rooseveltians. From Washington's baptism of an "infant empire" to
T.R.'s celebration of the onward march of civilization, presidents
had often spoken candidly about pursuing American interests at the
cost of somebody else's. After Wilson, they were much more likely to
stress that what was good for the United States was also good for the
rest of the world.

Essay Types: Essay