Civil Religion and Foreign Policy: 7 Questions for Walter McDougall

In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Walter A. McDougall, author of The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy (Yale Press, 2016) . 

1) What sparked the idea for writing this book?

Readers today and certainly in the future may think I imagined this book a swan song: the somber reflection of an aging historian on how the United States achieved peerless dominion only to squander its power through hubris and nemesis.  In other words, a sort of 21st century reprise of Thucydides, who recounted the decline and fall of Athens in the History of the Peloponnesian War.  But nothing could be further from the truth because I never intended to write this book at all.  Following publication in 2004 and 2007 of two lengthy narratives on the American Founding and the Civil War era – Freedom Just Around the Corner and Throes of Democracy – I expected to complete a trilogy with a volume on the Progressive Era.  Instead, my publisher HarperCollins terminated the project on the grounds that my previous books – including a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Cold War space race – were merely “critical successes,” meaning they got good reviews, but didn’t make money.

So I decided to lie fallow for a few years, then perhaps do a sequel or update to my 1997 book Promised Land, Crusader State, the American Encounter with the World since 1776.  Not that it needed correction.  On the contrary, it proved prophetic, even marked by Cassandra’s curse.  For in it I urged Americans to return to the foreign policy principles of their once modest republic lest its half-century (1941-91) of emergency mobilization as a Crusader State destroy forever its identity as a Promised Land.  “For instance,” I wrote, “everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein is bad for his country.  But can Americans be better Iraqis than Iraqis themselves, or presume to tell the Chinese how to be better Chinese?  If we try, we can only be poorer Americans.”  No wonder I felt compelled to revisit those themes following the catastrophic U.S. overreaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

But Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of that book, likewise had no interest in a follow-up to a book that had not been a bestseller to begin with.  That left me in a quandary, because I had already procured a year’s sabbatical and a grant.  I had to produce something, but what?  At length, a friend and mentor – my personal owl of Minerva – came to the rescue.  The brilliant political scientist James Kurth, with whom I lunched frequently, listened patiently while I agonized for months about my dilemma before making a quiet suggestion: “Tell the story you know, the one you care most about, the one that truly expresses Walter McDougall.” 

            “You mean,” I haltingly answered, “American Civil Religion?”

            “Exactly!” said he.

Kurth had heard me speculate about the prospect of interpreting U.S. foreign policy through the lens of civil religion, or “diplomatic history in the metaphysical mode.”  Put simply, I meant the tendency of Americans to imagine themselves a new Chosen People in a new Promised Land endowed with a messianic destiny to the whole world the blessings of liberty.  But by the dawn of the 20th century the now continental nation’s stupendous demographic and economic growth, together with powerful cultural movements called Social Gospel and Social Darwinism, combined to persuade a critical mass of Americans that to be merely an exemplar of virtue was tantamount to hiding one’s lamp under a bushel.  So, beginning with the crusade to liberate Cuba in 1898, a coalition of Progressive elites and liberal Protestant pastors began to advocate export of American values and institutions, by force if necessary.  Kurth knew I longed to meditate on the mystery of how it was that Americans turned their original civil religion on its head while (in heretical fashion) still calling it by the same name.  And he timed his suggestion perfectly.  Yes, I realized, such a book would be important, timely, and (I foolishly thought) easy to write.  So for reasons both professional and personal I set out to discover the influence of civil religion on the substance and rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy.

(By the way, my original edgy title was American Heresies: Civil Religion and Foreign Affairs Since 1776, but the marketing mavens at Yale balked at “heresies” and “civil religion” because they said readers would not even know what those words meant.  A war of attrition ensued until we finally settled on a banal title The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy and clunky subtitle “How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest,” which has the added misfortune of containing the pathetic fallacy in which the historian attributes human agency to an inanimate object.  Such as the torments we authors endure.)

2) How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?

 Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced the concept of civil religion in his 1762 classic The Social Contract.  He meant to describe a faith that can bind together citizens of a republic who have thrown off their age-old thralldom to throne and altar.  But in reality, throne and altar have been two sides of the same coin, because nearly every regime throughout history has claimed some sort of spiritual legitimacy. Think of the god-kings of the ancient Middle East, the East Asian dynasties’ Mandate of Heaven, the Sultans of the Islamic world, the patron saints of Renaissance city-states, and early modern Europe’s divine right of kings. Indeed, the most obvious example of the union of church and state is post-Reformation England, for what is the Anglican Church if not a civil religion?

Here is a neat and neutral definition coined by sociologist Ellis West: “A civil religion is a set of beliefs and attitudes that explain the meaning and purpose of any given political society in terms of its relationship to a transcendent, spiritual reality, that are held by the people generally of that society, and that are expressed in public rituals, myths, and symbols.”

That transcendent, spiritual reality is what distinguishes civil religion from idolatrous ideologies like fascism and communism.  Americans did not worship their government because they recognized, as James Madison wrote, that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  What Americans really worshiped was a deity whose theology was a rich amalgam of Protestantism and Enlightenment Reason, the deity who had made them one out of many (e pluribus unum), a new order for the ages (novus ordo seclorum), and blessed their undertakings (annuit coeptis), to quote the phrases inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States.

Americans embraced and practiced that “divine-right republicanism” for nearly two hundred years without ever noticing their civil faith … until 1967, when Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah published his seminal article on American Civil Religion (ACR) in the journal Daedalus.  Over the subsequent two decades a rash of books exploring the meaning and history of ACR.

My own consciousness of it began with the realization that the War of Independence truly was a holy war because colonial Patriots risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in the belief they were actors in a play scripted by the Author of History.  Who was that Author?  Most churched Americans assumed it was the same Biblical God they worshiped on Sunday.  But the American God really had no name, or a hundred vaguely Unitarian names.  From George Washington to Andrew Jackson, presidents referred to Him as the Father of Lights, Supreme Architect; Almighty Being, Invisible Hand, Patron of Order, Fountain of Justice, Infinite Power; or just Providence. For a surprising percentage of Founders, he was also the Freemasons’ G, the god whose name is Geometry and whose watchful Eye oversees the Unfinished Pyramid on the Great Seal of the United States – and the reverse of our one-dollar bills even today.  If Americans had quarreled over the identity of the national God their Union might not have survived.  So, the Constitution was silent about religion, not because the Revolution was secular, but because it was civil religious.  In fact, the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment really “established” a civil religion whose gospels included the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and whose epistles included the presidents’ inaugural addresses and state papers.

3) Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?

Ha!  My wife quipped that I should answer this question with my favorite complaints: (1) “it’s a disaster; (2) “it’s all a bunch of bulls–t”; and (3) “it will all end in tears.”  For the story I tell is tragedy in which the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  It chronicles the declension of the healthy civil religion of the Founders, which justified the modest U.S. foreign policies of the 19th century, into serial heresies, which that justified the belligerent U.S. foreign policies of the 20th and 21st centuries.  If obliged to distill the story to bulletpoints, however, I might suggest these:

  1. American exceptionalism is a self-serving myth born in the Progressive era and popularized in the early Cold War.
  2. The prevalence of the civil religion means that separation of “church and state” is a contradiction and that America is sort of a gnostic cult.
  3. However, our mystical, magical civil religion is highly malleable because its root theological principle is vox populi vox Dei.  Hence the American public tends to assume that whatever their leaders choose to do (or not do) in foreign affairs must be God’s will until, that is, the public changes its mind.  No wonder we seem perverse to foreign observers.  The United States is just too strong to be ignored, too noble to be mocked, too arrogant to be loved, too fickle to be trusted, and too contradictory to be understood.

4) Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?

Obviously, Bellah and the scholars who followed his lead were my primary inspirations.  But interest in civil religion has been rekindled since the 1990s through the “culture wars,” debates over American exceptionalism and empire, and the clash of civilizations following 9/11.  Indeed, my row could not have been hoed if the soil had not been prepared by, for instance, Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (2003); Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001); Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002); Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (2006); William Inboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment (2008); Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008); David C. Hendrickson, Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations, 1789-1941 (2009); Jason W. Stevens, God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America’s Cold War (2010); Raymond Haberski, Jr., God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (2012); and Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (2012).

5) What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?

As weeks turned to months turned to five anxious years I learned this was not easy, but a very difficult book to get right.  How to define civil religion, especially the American variety?  How to distinguish our prophetic republicanism from nationalism, capitalism, individualism, and democracy?  How to understand the function of civil religion as a motivator and/or justifier of given foreign policies?  Not least, how to periodize the civil religious doctrines advanced by the presidents over two centuries?  At length I gained insight, not because I somehow “figured it out,” but because the historical truth imposed itself on me.

For instance, scholars have long debated whether U.S. foreign policy is driven by ideology or economic interest, but I realized that is a false dichotomy because the same American Dream that reveres life and liberty also reveres opportunity and prosperity.  To freedom-loving Americans God’s material blessings are simply a birthright.  I also realized that Americans have developed, not one, but three varieties of civil religion since 1789.  Classical ACR, the original orthodoxy, was conceived in the 1790s and codified in Washington’s Farewell Address.  Progressive ACR was conceived in the 1890s and codified in William McKinley’s second inaugural address.  Millennial ACR was conceived in the 1990s and codified in Bush’s second inaugural.  Classical ACR underwent wrenching revision during the Civil War, but its foreign policy tenets survived intact and under that post-1865 neo-Classical ACR the United States became a world power.  Progressive ACR suffered wrenching setbacks throughout its formative half-century, most obviously during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, but after World War II it captured the nation and under that post-1945 neo-Progressive ACR the United States became the world’s hegemon. Likewise, Millennial ACR has suffered wrenching false starts that have cost the nation dearly and left Americans confused and frightened.  What’s next?  Will the dialectic someday inspire a neo-Millenial ACR that may double as the first global civil religion?

6) What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?

The most unexpected response is that the book got noticed at all.  Given that it’s a fierce critique (Yale press calls it a “coruscating polemic”) of the establishments in both political parties, plus the global business elites and progressive cultural elites, I expected the book would be “spiked” (ignored) or else savaged.  But the Wall Street Journal published a positive (if gloomy) review, the New York Times a prominent (if ignorant) review, and H-Net, First Things, and a few other journals several outstanding reviews.  Curiously — or perhaps not curiously — the most erudite and sympathetic commentators have been specialists in religious or military history.

A serendipity of the book’s appearance has been the chance to discover some other scholars working on ACR.  For instance, the Yale sociologist Philip Gorski recently published American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.  I was delighted to find that our books complement each other since his examines civil religion in the domestic culture whereas mine deals exclusively with foreign affairs.  See my review at:

Faithfully Civil

7) With this book done, what’s up next for you?

In a simile approved by my wife, I liken the process of authoring a book to being pregnant for five years.  One emerges utterly spent, especially at my age.  So I have been telling people who ask “what’s next?” that this was my final book.  Yet I also know from long experience that one forgets the pain of book-birth after a few years and curious urge to create wells up anew.  In the meantime, I urge the readers of Sacred Matters to sample my previous books (all but the first are good reads) and check out my articles at this web site.

I promise you won’t be bored.

Walter A. McDougall is Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations and History at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is the author of eight books including … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, which won a Pulitzer Prize.  He graduated from New Trier (Illinois) High School and Amherst College, then served with the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War before completing a PhD at the University of Chicago.  An unabashed generalist, he has researched books covering Great Power politics over a span of centuries and ranging from Europe to the Asia-Pacific to the Cold War to the diplomatic and domestic history of the United States.  He is also a senior fellow at  Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute where he edited its journal Orbis and co-directs its history institute for secondary school teachers.  His personal interests include literature, both non-fiction and fiction, geography, Chicago sports teams, and all manner of music from Bach to Bob Dylan.