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

Although the third president of the Progressive era, William Howard
Taft, is rarely cited as an exemplar of anything other than girth,
his administration was marked by perhaps the most successful instance
of lobbying by a religious interest group in U.S. history. A
grassroots campaign, conceived by prominent Jews, forced the
abrogation of a commercial treaty with Imperial Russia in 1912. This
campaign capped a long series of protests against the tsarist regime
for discriminating against American Jews and persecuting Russian
Jews. For seven decades anti-Semites have cited this abrogation as
evidence of a powerful "international Zionist conspiracy." Yet in
fact Taft could be prodded into action only because the issue
intersected with broad American republican principles. Consequently,
Jewish protesters were able to win support from influential Christian
clergy, publishers, and politicians.

When the First World War began in 1914, both the American President,
Woodrow Wilson, and his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan,
were Presbyterians convinced that the United States had a special
mission in the world. Their divergent responses illustrate the
inadequacy of glib generalizations about the connection between
religious dispositions and specific foreign policies. Although
susceptible to intermittent military enthusiasms, Bryan regarded the
pursuit of international peace as his Christian duty. He negotiated
more than two dozen "cooling off" treaties, and commemorated some of
them by having swords melted down and recast as tiny plowshares.
Bryan resigned in 1915 because he thought Wilson was forsaking
neutrality. But he also placed his resignation in a broader context.
The United States had always "sought to aid the world by example", he
said. Participation in European power politics would represent
"descent" from this morally superior position. "Our mission is to
implant hope in the breast of humanity and substitute higher ideals
for the ideals which have led nations into armed conflicts."

Bryan supported the war effort after American entry but a substantial
minority of Americans did not. Among religious dissidents, Quakers
and Mennonites received better treatment than the more adamant and
less familiar Jehovah's Witnesses, who typically went to jail. On the
other hand, evangelist Billy Sunday hailed American soldiers as
"God's grenadiers." Amid a sordid debate about the bayonet's
legitimacy as a Christian weapon, Unitarian Albert Dieffenbach
affirmed that Jesus himself would use it against the Germans. Not
everyone spoke so zealously. Yet even prominent clergy who had
opposed intervention before 1917, including Rabbi Stephen Wise and
Rev. John R. Mott, rallied to the cause. The major denominations
organized to provide services for their men in uniform. Under the
leadership of James Cardinal Gibbons, an interfaith League of
National Unity promoted the war across denominational lines.

Even among supporters of the war, however, there was more
disagreement than ecumenicism. When Pope Benedict XV offered a peace
plan in mid-1917, Protestants thought the proposal too "Austrian";
though more favorably inclined, the Catholic hierarchy nonetheless
recognized the futility of urging the plan on President Wilson.
Ultimately religion influenced the war effort less than the war
affected the domestic religious scene. Adding denunciations of
German-American brewers to their stock arguments, Protestants secured
the enactment of Prohibition in the face of Catholic and Jewish
opposition. Some theological conservatives, attuned to a form of
Bible prophecy called premillennial dispensationalism, interpreted
the British promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as evidence of
Jesus' imminent return.

Between the Wars

Above all, the high emotions generated by the war turned the nation's
cultural splits into chasms. Accordingly, as the United States
entered the 1920s, not only were Protestants increasingly arrayed
against Catholics, but also Protestant theological liberals and
conservatives were increasingly arrayed against each other. Yet no
more than businessmen or bohemian intellectuals were religious
leaders "isolationist." Missionary agencies saw the rising tide of
Chinese nationalism and, partly as a means of self-defense, most
responded by urging the United States to surrender
extraterritoriality and special protection for Christians. Prominent
Catholics, and to a lesser extent Protestants, shared the widespread
enthusiasm for Benito Mussolini. While Catholics credited Il Duce
with Italy's "resurrection", Protestants appreciated his
anticlericalism. The Mussolini vogue simultaneously highlights both
the persistent belief in American exceptionalism and the restraints
this belief imposes on Wilsonian aspirations to reform the rest of
the world. Although inappropriate for the United States, "Mussolini
methods" suited Italians, Commonweal editorialized. Meanwhile,
fundamentalists studied Scripture and world affairs to determine
whether or not Mussolini was the Antichrist predicted in the Book of

The Soviet Union attracted at least as much attention as Mussolini's
Italy during the 1920s. The regime was denounced all along the
religious spectrum for promoting atheism and murdering believers.
Even so, a significant minority of Protestant theological liberals
expressed cautious interest in the "Soviet experiment." Interest grew
and caution diminished after the Crash. In the mid-1930s, some social
gospelers actively participated in the Popular Front.

What is usually mischaracterized as interwar isolationism was the
pervasive belief that the United States must remain aloof from any
European war. With varying degrees of sophistication, scholars,
pundits, and public figures attributed entry into World War I to
economic entanglement with the Allies, machinations by arms
manufacturers, and British propaganda. The diverse peace movement
that developed in this context contained a large religious element,
including many clergy. Some of these activists were full-fledged
pacifists, such as the members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation
(FOR), War Resisters League, and Catholic Worker group. Yet many more
simply regretted "presenting arms" in 1917-18.

From the outset, foreign policy issues related to religion
threatened Franklin D. Roosevelt's eclectic coalition. In 1933,
Roosevelt tried to minimize opposition to recognition of the Soviet
Union by charming prominent anti-communists (including the legendary
Father Edmund Walsh of the Georgetown University School of Foreign
Service) and extracting a Soviet promise to respect the religious
freedom of resident Americans. The next year, Catholic criticism
precipitated the first major test of the Good Neighbor Policy. The
Mexican government's insistence on breaking the political and
economic power of the Church sometimes went beyond anticlericalism to
outright persecution. In 1934, when Ambassador Josephus Daniels
praised the creation of secular schools, American bishops charged the
Roosevelt administration with indifference to the plight of Mexican
Catholics, 10,000 letters to the State Department echoed the same
theme, and 250 members of Congress requested an investigation. While
FDR quietly urged the Mexicans to moderate their anticlericalism, the
Democratic Party pointedly urged Ambassador Daniels to stay out of
the United States during the 1936 campaign.

When the Spanish Civil War erupted that same year, Congress passed
(with one dissenting vote) a ban on arms sales to the Republic. The
action was unusual in that recognized governments were traditionally
allowed to buy weapons in the midst of insurrections. Roosevelt
signed the bill primarily because he wanted to coordinate policy with
the British and French, feared the spread of war beyond Spain, and at
this point shared the anti-interventionist sentiments of his fellow
citizens. Nevertheless, the administration derailed efforts to lift
the arms embargo even after FDR edged toward a policy of quarantining
international aggressors. The President's perception of Catholic
opinion was an important though not necessarily decisive factor.
According to a Gallup poll in late 1938, 42 percent of Catholics favored
the Republic while 58 percent supported General Francisco Franco's
rebels. Yet Catholic clergy at all levels were virtually unanimous in
hailing Franco as the savior of a Spain that had been Sovietized,
and, frequently, as the Spanish George Washington. Most Protestants
disagreed, and the resulting conflicts were sometimes vehement. When
150 prominent Protestants signed an open letter criticizing the
Spanish Church for supporting Franco, Catholic leaders accused them
of fostering a "species of religious war" in the United States.

The acrimonious debate in 1939-41 about aiding the nations fighting
Germany centered on three questions. Noninterventionists doubted the
ability of these countries to hold out, expected UN-neutral acts to
draw the United States into the conflict, and warned that any war to
save or spread freedom abroad would destroy freedom at home.
Roosevelt had faith in the military capacity of the British and the
Soviets, believed that an Axis victory would threaten freedom
everywhere, and was willing to risk war. These divergent analyses
were rarely discussed dispassionately. Indeed, the whole debate was
wrapped up in ideological, ethnic, and religious loyalties and

In Roosevelt's view, religious freedom was one aspect of civilization
under threat. In January 1939 he declared, "The defense of religion,
of democracy, and of good faith among nations is all the same fight."
He also understood the political potency of religious references. In
October 1941, justifying further expansion of the undeclared naval
war against German submarines, Roosevelt denounced the alleged Nazi
plan "to abolish all existing religions--Catholic, Protestant,
Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish alike."

As in previous crises, the relationship between faith and foreign policy remained complicated in the country at large. Catholics were less interventionist than Protestants. Many Irish- and German-American Catholics viewed Britain skeptically, some Italian-Americans still admired Mussolini, and all Catholics loathed the prospect of a de facto alliance with the Soviets. At the same time, few Catholics were pacifists in principle. Episcopalians tended to rally behind Great Britain but there were numerous exceptions, including young Gerald Ford, an early supporter of the America First Committee. The anti-interventionist camp included both social gospelers at Christian Century and the anti-Semitic fundamentalists of the old Christian right. The clearest trend was the reduction of pacifist ranks to a devout remnant. Among the defectors, "Christian realist" theologian Reinhold Niebuhr moved from the chairmanship of FOR in the early 1930s to advocacy of war against Nazi Germany in 1941.

Essay Types: Essay