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

After more than a decade of domestic turmoil, the major political parties in 1976 nominated Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the most devout pair of presidential candidates since McKinley and Bryan eighty years earlier. In their efforts to preserve detente, promote human rights abroad, and mediate a Middle East peace, there was considerable continuity between the Ford and Carter administrations. Yet Carter was distinctive in his calls for American humility, emphasis on world leadership through moral example, wariness of military intervention, and respect for poor and non-white nations. In his own mind, he was applying to world politics Niebuhr's admonitions against national egotism (much to the distress of Cold War Niebuhrians, who thought he missed the larger point, and of many of his fellow southern evangelicals, who celebrated a more interventionist version of American mission). Carter was a Wilsonian, but a Wilsonian with large doses of Bryanism.

Religious interest groups continued to influence foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era. The most important development - again, virtually inconceivable fifteen years earlier - was the move rightward by a significant minority of Jews. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment was an important landmark along the road. This amendment to a trade treaty was introduced by Senator Henry Jackson to pressure the Soviets into increasing Jewish emigration - or to punish them if they failed to do so. At first, Jewish leaders approached the measure cautiously, but most ultimately came around. As was the case with abrogation of the commercial treaty in 1912, a "Jewish" concern attracted widespread support from non-Jews appalled by Russian autocracy. Indeed, the emigration issue provided ample ammunition for critics of detente during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Carter himself received the smallest percentage of the Jewish vote of any Democratic presidential nominee since the 1920s.

For members of Ronald Reagan's coalition, Carter's diplomatic and military humility was part of the international problem rather than of the solution. As Jeane Kirkpatrick argued, Carter's soft Christianity led him to repudiate friendly authoritarian regimes whose virtues included acceptance of "traditional gods and . . . traditional taboos." In his first substantive meeting with the Soviet ambassador, Reagan himself raised the issue of Russian Pentecostals who, denied permission to emigrate, had been granted asylum at the American embassy in Moscow; they were subsequently allowed to emigrate. Most important, following almost two decades of detente in fact if not in name, Reagan himself resumed the presidential practice of bluntly denouncing the Soviet Union as the source of atheistic evil. Presidential aides raised in the pre-Vatican II world of Catholic anti-communism worked with Pope John Paul II to crack open the East bloc. In 1984 Reagan sent an ambassador to the Vatican and encountered only minimal grumbling from his allies on the new Christian right. In addition to evangelicals and fundamentalists, Reagan's remarkable religious coalition included working class Catholics, neoconservative Jews, and even a few apostate CALCAV doves.

Opposition to Reagan's foreign policy was also eclectic. With varying fervor and acuity, members of the historic peace churches, a small band of radical evangelicals, Billy Graham, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the nuclear buildup that lay at the center of the administration's military strategy. The army chief of chaplains resigned to protest both that buildup and American intervention in Central America. Although odd alliances sometimes flourished, Protestant theological liberals tended to be doves and theological conservatives tended to be hawks. Thus foreign policy issues joined with doctrinal and domestic cultural differences to drive these two groups further apart.

The rituals of civil religion as they relate to foreign policy remained intact after the Cold War. President George Bush invited Billy Graham to spend the night at the White House on the eve of the Gulf War in 1991. Yet these rituals became increasingly complicated as immigration altered the American religious scene. In the midst of his confrontation with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, President Carter took pains to commemorate Islamic holidays and distinguish Muslim friends from Muslim foes. Nor were complications confined to the home front. President Bush's invocations of God prompted some Muslims to complain that he was leading a religious war against Islam itself, rather than a limited effort to roll back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Meanwhile, military personnel deployed to Saudi Arabia were barred from wearing religious insignia, discouraged from receiving Christmas cards, and obliged to camouflage New Testaments.

Avid Wilsonians who wanted the United States to organize and lead international posses faced an especially difficult problem following the Cold War. After winning the great ideological conflict of this century, Americans across the political and religious spectrums began reverting to their visceral Bryanism. If they were to lead the world at all, they preferred to do so by example.

This problem was particularly acute for Wilsonian Republicans. Theologically conservative Protestants joined the Reagan coalition primarily because they considered the Democrats too liberal on such issues as abortion, gay rights, and school prayer. Aside from a theologically based commitment to Israel, rank-and-file fundamentalists and Pentecostals showed only a routine patriotic interest in foreign affairs even during the Cold War. Both Wilsonian Republicans and Pat Buchanan, who finds his usable diplomatic past in the America First Committee, consider this constituency up for grabs. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses as a matter of diplomatic policy, the proposed Freedom from Religious Persecution Act seems intended to keep theologically conservative Protestants in the Republican and internationalist fold.

A Limited Impact

Amidst rising interest in the relationship between religion and foreign policy, what, in general terms, can we conclude about the American experience? First, a strong republican sense of mission thrived apart from the legacies of Reformation-era Protestantism. In the absence of these Protestant influences, the United States still would have risen to world power and probably would have justified the rise with ideological claims akin to the French "mission to civilize." Moreover, the American sense of mission has been complicated by the Catholic and Jewish presence, by divisions and shifts within Protestantism itself, and above all by secular concerns about economic advantage, national security, and race. Rigorous fundamentalists aside, even the Protestant theological conservatives who still regard the United States as a "city upon a hill" are less likely than their forebears who lived in less affluent times to expect much retribution for personal or national sins. Instead of trembling before divine judgment, they are more inclined to expect God to bless the United States as a matter of course.

Second, although religious interest groups at home and religious issues abroad have affected foreign policy, no major diplomatic decision has turned on religious issues alone. For example, Eisenhower would have aided Diem in the 1950s without the Catholic Church's urging. On the other hand, religious interest groups have significantly affected subsidiary foreign policies. FDR hesitated to help the Spanish Republic partly because most American Catholics supported Franco; Truman recognized Israel partly to woo Jewish voters. In such instances, however, religious interest groups have been most effective when they have found allies outside their own communities and invoked widely shared American values.

Third, serious religious ideas have had at most an indirect impact on policymakers - far less, for example, than strategic, economic, or political considerations, perceptions of public opinion, and the constraints of office. Kennan's Niebuhrian doubts about human perfectibility rendered him more prudent than many of his fellow cold warriors, yet he expressed more caution in retirement than he had shown as a State Department employee. Similarly, Carter was able to advocate international human rights with greater consistency as an ex-president than as president. Equally important, not only can divergent policy prescriptions be inferred from the Bible and other sacred texts, but also even the theories of interpretation have multiplied as the religious scene has become increasingly complex. Carter joked in 1980 that, unlike his critic, dispensationalist Jerry Falwell, he found no passage in Scripture determining whether "you should have a B-1 bomber or the air-launched cruise missile."

Fourth, major foreign policies have significantly affected the domestic religious scene - sometimes in ways that no one anticipated. A war for independence won during the Enlightenment brought about the separation of church and state which, in turn, facilitated a vigorous competition among legally equal denominations. American expansion on this continent fueled Protestant nativist fears that the West might be conquered again - by Catholics and Mormons. The First World War ushered in a decade of religious conflict unparalleled in this century. The war against Nazism helped to banish anti-Semitism from public life. Vigorous Catholic patriotism both legitimated Catholicism and distressed some of the Protestant elite. From the mid-1960s until the end of the Cold War, fundamentalists and social gospelers clashed over Vietnam and detente as well as Darwinism and biblical criticism.

These general trends will probably persist for the foreseeable future. In the near term, passage of the Wolf-Specter bill would complicate foreign - and perhaps domestic - policy in ways that no one has thought through. Although proponents focus on the persecution of Christians, no government agency can protect one faith and survive constitutional challenge. Accordingly, the president or State Department would have to decide what constitutes legitimate religious practices. This has been no easy matter in the domestic arena. In addition, the president or State Department would have to decide what constitutes persecution. Murder, torture, rape, abduction, forced relocation, and arbitrary arrest or imprisonment obviously qualify. Yet, as critics of the bill suggest, these actions deserve denunciation regardless of whether there is an anti-religious motive.

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