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

War and Revival

After Pearl Harbor, FDR continued to ask God's blessings on the war effort. Most denominations rallied to the cause, though less zealously than during the First World War. Despite their wariness of internationalism, Catholics again served disproportionately in the armed services. In addition, they remained aloof from the widespread but evanescent enthusiasm for the Soviet Union. The pro-Soviet vogue owed less to agitation by radical social gospelers than to a popular inclination to think well of an ally, as well as to continuing doubts about the likelihood of perfecting foreigners. According to a wartime poll, 46 percent of Americans thought the Soviet Union had a government "as good as she could have for her people." In portrayals of the enemy, the Japanese seemed less human than the Germans, not only because they were Asians but also because Shintoism and emperor worship looked pagan.

Probably no foreign policy issue associated with religion has produced greater controversy than the question of whether more European Jews could have been saved from the Holocaust. American Jews denounced the Nazi regime immediately after Hitler came to power, and then sought government action as reports of genocide reached the United States in 1942 and 1943. As on many previous occasions, they enlisted non-Jewish allies and appealed to generic American values. These appeals fell flat during the 1930s, however, when anti-Semitism was widespread and even tolerant Americans feared losing their jobs to refugees. U.S. entry into the war focused attention on the threat to American lives. The Roosevelt administration took no effective action to aid European Jewry until the War Refugee Board was created in January 1944.

The retrospective judgment that little more could have been done is simply wrong, and those who make it often rest their case on a narrow strategic determinism. Supposedly, policymakers subordinated all such "secondary" issues to the greater good of beating the Axis as quickly as possible. In fact, the United States engaged in numerous actions of dubious military merit in order to achieve non-military ends. For example, the Doolittle bombing raid on Japan was carried out to raise American morale, the invasion of North Africa conciliated the British, and the Philippines-centered strategy in the Pacific fulfilled a popular general's pledge to return. If the fate of European Jewry had elicited comparable concern, more denunciations of the "final solution" would have been forthcoming from officials, more ransom would have been paid in wavering German satellites, and more military ingenuity would have been devoted to disrupting the Holocaust.

Among the many extraordinary changes brought by the war, two stand out for any consideration of religion and foreign relations. First, with "isolationism" thoroughly discredited, debate about the postwar world centered on the kind of internationalism the United States should pursue. Prominent internationalists ranged from publisher Henry Luce - the son of missionaries in China, who envisioned an "American century" - to former Vice President Henry A.Wallace - an unconventional social gospeler and early Cold War dove, who promoted a "century of the common man."

Second, the war sparked a religious revival that was to affect significantly the style of the Cold War at home and abroad. Among theologically conservative Protestants, there was renewed interest in foreign missions. Christian Cold War realist Niebuhr became, in the judgment of historian Walter LaFeber, the most influential American theologian since Jonathan Edwards. George F. Kennan, the conceptualizer of containment, saw himself as a Niebuhrian. Dwight Eisenhower echoed millions of Americans in his repudiation of "Godless Communism." Eisenhower's dour Presbyterian secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, seemed to personify the Cold War as an unambiguous struggle between good and evil.

Interests, not Ideas

Nevertheless, the "fifth great awakening" barely affected the substance of the Cold War. This generalization certainly holds true for the impact of Christian realist theology. The sense of tragedy and irony intrinsic to Protestant neo-orthodoxy is compatible with a wide variety of positions on specific diplomatic issues. During their long careers, Niebuhr and Kennan seem to have taken most of them. By the early 1950s, Kennan was complaining that his theory of containment had been misconstrued, and Niebuhr was denying that the Cold War could be reduced to a conflict "between a god-fearing and a godless civilization." Dulles, like the President he had served at the Versailles conference and his own minister father, was a theological liberal. After regaining his faith in the late 1930s, he seems to have felt a heightened sense of American mission. But his definition of that mission changed significantly during the next two decades. Dulles was in turn a noninterventionist, bipartisan internationalist, partisan proponent of "liberation", and more flexible secretary of state in private than he appeared in public.

Not religious ideas but religious interest groups helped to shape the early Cold War. As communists advanced in China, some missionaries advocated assistance to Chiang Kaishek in the vain hope of winning a military victory, while others edged away from Chiang in the vain hope of establishing decent relations with Mao Tse-tung. Among missionaries who became major public figures, Representative Walter Judd, a leader of the congressional China bloc, held the former position, while J. Leighton Stuart, the U.S. ambassador to the last nationalist government on the mainland, held the latter. As Eastern Europe fell under Soviet control, Catholics took the lead in highlighting the suppression of religion and abuse of priests. During the late 1950s, the American hierarchy depicted President Ngo Dinh Diem of the Republic of Vietnam as a Catholic hero. Truth mixed with hyperbole in Clark Clifford's advice to Harry. Truman that anti-communism was the decisive factor in the Catholic vote.

The quick de facto recognition accorded to Israel in 1948 represented a victory for one of the great grassroots lobbying efforts in American history. President Truman took this action in the face of opposition from his senior diplomatic and military advisers - as well as from oil companies and some prominent Reform Jews. Certainly he would not have moved so quickly if few Jews had been registered to vote. Yet Truman also acted to minimize Soviet influence in Israel. Moreover, in this instance, Zionists were able to find powerful Christian allies. Not only was there widespread sympathy for victims of Nazism, but also nativists sometimes supported Zionism because they feared that, in the absence of the creation of a state, these victims might come to the United States. To many fundamentalists, the "regathering" of Jews in the Holy Land fulfilled dispensationalist Bible prophecy. Although no group worked harder to infer God's will from the Bible itself, fundamentalists were not immune to world events. In the wake of the Holocaust, they began to reinterpret Scripture in philo-Semitic fashion and concluded that the regathering of Jews did not advance the interests of the Antichrist.

The consensus on foreign policy and the level of religious comity during the 1950s should not be exaggerated. Although anti-Semitism steadily declined, tensions rose between Catholics and Protestants, and the Cold War was one of the reasons. Unlike Protestant social gospelers, virtually no practicing Catholics had drifted into the Popular Front or avidly celebrated the Soviet Union. According to a joke often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, during this period Fordham graduates in the FBI investigated Harvard graduates in the State Department. Many Catholics, including the formidable Francis Cardinal Spellman, pointedly asked why their patriotism went unappreciated by the Protestant elite. The answer, some members of the Protestant elite responded, was that Catholic patriotism was too crude, and they cited Senator Joseph McCarthy as a case in point. In the long run, however, both World War Il and the Cold War served Catholic interests well. Without PT 109 and the post-Sputnik fear of falling behind the Soviets, John F. Kennedy would have lost to Richard Nixon in 1960.

Opposition to the Vietnam War contained a large religious component. Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), an interdenominational network of doves, was founded in late 1965. Protestant theological conservatives were typically more hawkish than theological liberals. Some evangelical hawks pointed to Indochina as a fertile field for missionaries. Pacifists working in obscurity since Pearl Harbor re-emerged as national figures. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator George McGovern found sanction for antiwar activism in their own versions of the social gospel. Making his latest foreign policy turn within the framework of neo-orthodoxy, Niebuhr praised the "heroic" divinity students who burned their draft cards. None of this was surprising.

What was surprising - indeed, what would have been virtually inconceivable fifteen years earlier - was significant Catholic opposition to a war against communism. From 1966 onward, the bishops grew steadily more critical of the Vietnam conflict, and in 1972 they endorsed amnesty for draft evaders. Clerical and lay participants in nonviolent resistance attracted national attention and some served prison terms. As Garry Wills noted, the Church now produced both FBI agents and radical priests - occasionally in the same families. Polls in the late 1960s revealed that Catholics were less likely than Protestants to favor military escalation. Ironically, after loyal service in the Cold War and five hot wars since the 1840s had incrementally legitimated Catholics, opposition to the Vietnam War now brought them further into the American mainstream. When Senator Eugene McCarthy ran for president in 1968, almost no one worried about his religion even though he himself discerned a connection between his Catholic faith and his opposition to the war.

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