The Deeper Roots of Faith and Foreign Policy

Andrew Preston on the ever-present ideological and moral bases for U.S. foreign policy that springs from the country's religious tradition.
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March 10, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of International Journal

To the obvious relief of many, it appears that the wave that carried the religious right to power in the United States has crested. Though domestic issues such as health care or the environment threaten to enflame partisan and ideological tensions in US politics, the religious right does not seem to be playing a conspicuous role. Moreover, while the issues near and dear to Christian conservatives, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, continue to be relevant, they are not dominating the national agenda as they once did. In this sense, the end of the George W. Bush presidency, the failure of Mike Huckabee’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and the disastrous performance of the vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, have signalled a major shift in the American political landscape. Christian conservatives no longer seem to hold the balance of political power in America. In fact, for the first time in a generation, whether they even hold the balance of power within the Republican party is a matter of debate. And finally, of course, there is the election of Barack Obama, an ecumenical Protestant who is liberal on matters both political and theological.


Does this mean the end of the religious right’s influence on US foreign policy? Possibly—at least for now. But does this also portend the end of the religious influence on US foreign policy? Hardly. The presence of religion in American public life is too broad, deep, diffuse, and diverse to be reliant upon any single person or group. Indeed, the key to understanding the ever-present ideological and moral bases for US foreign policy—with which even realists have had to contend—lies mainly in a better understanding of an American religious tradition that cannot be reduced to simple stereotypes about evangelicals and fundamentalists. This is best illustrated by delving into the mindset of foreign policy figures, some of whom are not usually thought of as especially religious or pious. For those outside the United States trying to grapple with the often confusing path of US foreign policy, this is one of the least understood but most important lessons of history.

Backwards Christian Soldiers?

The story of the religious right’s political rise and fall is straightforward enough. Until fairly recently, evangelicals and fundamentalists had been the most rigorous adherents to the doctrine of separating church from state, for it protected them from government regulation. As society’s traditional economic and social outsiders, they felt they had much to fear from the state. This antistatism explains the religious right’s conservative stance on other matters of public policy, such as welfare and taxation. But it also helps to explain why many Christian conservatives deliberately separated themselves from worldly concerns, such as politics. They would focus on God and, as the Bible enjoins, “render unto Caesar” the more secular concerns of governing this world on earth.

This longstanding separation of conservative religion from conservative politics began to erode in the 1970s. Reacting to the liberalism and moral relativism of the 1960s—and especially to the sexual revolution in gender relations that led to relaxed attitudes towards homosexuality, abortion, sex, and birth control—and building on decades of grassroots growth, Christian conservatives felt they could no longer allow secular politicians to set the national agenda. Moreover, as the industrial base of the northeast and midwest rusted from within and its people fled for the suburbs, warmer temperatures, lower taxes, and more socially conservative values of the south and west, Christian conservatives discovered that they had moved from society’s margins to its very centre. Similarly repelled by what they saw as the anarchy of the 1960s, many Americans who had never before considered themselves especially religious began to gravitate to conservative Protestant churches. By the 1990s, no longer was it correct to speak of a Christian conservative “subculture”— evangelicals had become part of the mainstream.

But becoming part of the mainstream enticed evangelicals and fundamentalists away from their detachment from political affairs. As their numbers, economic status, and cultural confidence grew, so did their political power. And as political power grew, they abandoned the once-sacred principle of separating church from state and enthusiastically embraced politics—specifically, Republican party politics. This alliance has meant that the ideological purity of the religious right, for long its main source of attractiveness to others, is no longer allowed to flourish in isolation, protected from vagaries of a political process that is inherently based on compromise. Instead, they are on the hook for any problems the Republican party runs into, be it at home or abroad. Whatever one thinks of the Bush administration’s policies, it is indisputable that its policies tied conservative religious believers to controversial political decisions, and as the Bush administration lost support, so too did the political ambitions of Christian conservatives. Thus it would seem that the religious right’s influence on American politics has, for the moment, run its course.

This line of thinking appears to apply to foreign policy as well. While conservatives were becoming disenchanted with the liberals’ cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, they were also becoming deeply upset by the liberal foreign policy pursued by both Democrats and Republicans. The Vietnam War, based on intricate, academic theories of gradual escalation, signalling, and modernization, seemed to show the limits of liberal micromanaging on foreign and military policy. Détente alienated conservatives by dealing with the devils in Moscow and Beijing instead of rallying America to its anticommunist Cold War crusade. Thus the religious right’s surge to political power was partly a reaction to liberalism in foreign policy, as well.

Since then, mirroring their influence on the Republican party’s social and cultural positions, Christian conservatives have had a profound effect on both the way Republican presidents have formulated foreign policy and the style they use to explain it to the public. Republican politicians have embraced the moral clarity and urgency of Christian conservatives, even if they themselves have not adhered to evangelicalism. Tellingly, in 1983 Ronald Reagan chose the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals to repudiate the relativism of détente by declaring the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” This has meant not only support for ideological exceptionalism and a robust defence policy, but also for issues close to the evangelical heart, such as poverty and human rights in Africa or the sex trade in Asia.

Still, many commentators have picked up on the religious influence to portray the Republicans as being held captive to the irrational, moralistic impulses of evangelicals and fundamentalists. The Christian right has been accused of cheerleading for US intervention abroad, most notably in the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Much has also been made of the Christian zionists, Protestant fundamentalists who fervently support Israel not only because of it is seen as a bastion against Islam but also because of its integral role in the unfolding of the apocalyptic “end times” foretold in the Book of Revelation, including Christ’s return to earth, the defeat of the anti-Christ, and the ushering in of the millennium’s thousand years of peace. Yet these have been controversial political positions to adopt, and in the eyes of others such positions have compromised the integrity of the religious right. Dragged down by their waning political clout, then, Christian conservatives have seemed to lose sway over the Republican party platform on foreign policy, while increasing numbers of conservative evangelicals are prioritizing climate change and global poverty over the war on terror.

The story of the decline of the religious right’s voice on US foreign policy is true as far as it goes—but it only goes so far. Evangelicals and fundamentalists form a crucial part of the story of religion’s overall influence on American foreign policy, but—contrary to popular belief—it is but part of a much larger whole. The religious right’s influence might be on the wane, but the role of religion in general is not. American religion is much broader, deeper, and more enduring than the fortunes of one particular group, no matter how powerful or popular. The media’s distorted focus on the mostly Protestant religious right ignores millions of politically liberal Protestants, both evangelical and mainline, and neglects the diversity within conservative evangelical and fundamentalist politics. It also ignores even larger numbers of Catholics, both liberal and conservative, who have a long history of active participation in American public life. The same is true for American Jews. Moreover, religion’s role in American life today is no longer even solely Judeo-Christian. Millions of Muslims and Hindus, in addition to believers of many other faiths, regularly contribute to the political and popular debates that help shape the domestic context in which US foreign policy is framed. This is not to deny evangelicals’ tremendous political clout over the past three decades. But the religious influence is much more profound and diverse than one group could possibly represent.

And more subtle, too. While conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have indeed had a major political impact, they have also received a disproportionate share of the media’s attention because of their energetic activism on controversial issues, ostentatious forms of worship, and financial strength. They are, in other words, an easy group for the media to profile (and stereotype). Less clear is the role of other religious practices and beliefs, such as those practiced by pious mainline (and once mainstream) Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons, or Jews. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all fell into this category. It was Huckabee, the evolution-denying Baptist preacher, who was the outsider.

Moreover, the religious values that have indelibly shaped American foreign policy have not always been the moralistic, nationalistic ones frequently espoused by the religious right. In fact, it is often realism—and not exaggerated moralism, unfeasible idealism, or apocalyptic messianism—that has emerged from the religious beliefs of foreign policy theorists and practitioners. George F. Kennan, a devout, churchgoing Presbyterian, is only the prominent example among many. Most important, realist practice and religious belief share an important trait—the appreciation of history, both as a map of past behaviour and a predictor of future events—that has moulded the worldview of generations of American strategists. And contrary to the prevailing notion that religion and rationality cannot stably combine, faith has also acted as a guide to liberalism and multilateralism.

The religious faith of presidents, of course, often receives detailed attention from historians. But without contesting the sincerity of their faith, it is often impossible to separate presidential rhetoric from partisan politics or to distinguish sincere belief from electoral posturing. The difficulty, in other words, lies in accurately evaluating the true motivators of a president’s decision—be it religious or otherwise—in the midst of several, often intangible and thus unknowable, political variables. Fewer such problems exist for strategists and diplomats. As a brief tour of some of the nation’s most important foreign policy thinkers over the last century illustrates, it is actually they who best represent the long and diverse American diplomatic tradition of combining faith and foreign policy. The cases of Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Foster Dulles, and Henry Kissinger prove the point well.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that he is now largely forgotten, few Americans today realize just how influential the naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan actually was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His books on maritime history and its contemporary relevance were bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic, and his large body of work deeply influenced the naval strategy of all the great powers, not least the United States. As the Yale historian Paul Kennedy puts it, Mahan’s “contribution to the subject was unique and his influence has been unparalleled.”

Mahan’s doctrine of “the influence of sea power upon history” argued that great power status depended heavily, if not exclusively, upon the ability to command the seas. Large standing armies engaged in territorial conquest and defence were unwieldy, their gains too vulnerable and costly to hold for any great length of time. On the other hand, sea power—and not just naval power, but the combined military and economic might of a nation’s navy and merchant marine—provided nations with a cheaper, more reliable form of projecting power, whether it be defensive or offensive. Sea power also buttressed a nation’s strength overall by providing it easy access to colonies and trade. If a nation wanted to sustain its sea power, it had to be able to refuel and protect its ships far from home—thus the importance Mahan attached to the acquisition of “coaling stations” that would act as imperial stepping stones across the seas. At the same time Mahan was writing, American leaders were beginning to look to Asia, particularly China, as a new centre of strategic and economic gravity. If the United States was, in the apt phrase of Secretary of State John Hay, intent on maintaining an open door to China, it had better have the means to keep it open—ultimately by force—if its rivals moved to slam it shut. At the close of the 19th century, then, Mahan’s theories offered an elegant formula for a United States that now held ambitions to be a great power on a global scale.

In addition to more tangible attributes, such as the possession of suitable ports, harbours, and canals, one of Mahan’s prerequisites for national greatness was the character of a people and their government. If a people were not industrious, independent, and above all moral, they would never become a truly great power that would endure for decades, perhaps centuries. Instead, they would fall prey to the sort of despotism that could dominate other nations for a short time but eventually collapse under the weight of its own tyranny and inefficiency. People basically deserved the government they had, Mahan believed, and if they allowed themselves to become dominated by a dictator, they would not only surrender their freedom but would also forfeit their potential to become an enduring great power. Above all, Mahan thought religion—in fact Christianity, and specifically Protestantism—was indispensable to the moral grounding that was required for national greatness. He was certain that Britain’s rise to global hegemony in the 19th century was directly related to the Christian devotion of the Victorians. He was just as convinced that the fervent Christian faith of his fellow Americans would enable them one day to complement—and perhaps even supplant—British power. Fittingly, Mahan believed that people of a suitably devout Christian character could rely upon the guiding hand of a watchful God to steer them towards glory. Just as God’s “Personal Will, acting through all time,” had assured Britain’s rise to naval dominance, it was “the hand of Providence” that had enabled America to acquire the Philippines, with its natural harbours and secure access to the Asian continent, in an easy war with Spain.

Mahan’s career path was essential to the development of his thinking. He had, after all, been an officer in the US navy—with active service with the Union during the civil war—and head of the Naval War College. But just as important to his worldview was his deeply held religious faith. A devout Episcopalian, Mahan was as close a student of theology as he was of history—he even published a book, The Harvest Within: Thoughts on the Life of the Christian, about the centrality of religion in his life—and for him the two were inseparable.2 Indeed, his appreciation of the lessons of history stemmed in large part from the historical legacies of his faith. Without these formative religious views, then, it is doubtful that Mahan would have possessed the historical and geopolitical imagination to devise such a bold, broad, and ambitious theory as that of sea power.

John Foster Dulles

In any roster of religious diplomats, John Foster Dulles is a rather more obvious candidate. Unlike his fellow Presbyterian Kennan, Dulles, a Wall Street lawyer who served as Eisenhower’s influential, long-serving secretary of state, was ostentatious about his faith. Indeed, for much of his life he was as active in church activities as he was in legal practice or diplomatic affairs. As secretary of state, Dulles is most (in)famous for the stridency of his views. He was the author—or at least Eisenhower’s public advocate—of two nuclear weapons doctrines, massive retaliation and brinkmanship, that horrified many with their tacit acceptance that nuclear arms were as legitimate as other, more conventional weapons. He was also the author of another aggressive-sounding policy, rollback, which seemed to promise war with the Soviet Union over its control of eastern Europe. Unsurprisingly, then, Dulles was in the vanguard of the anticommunists who charged that Kennan’s strategy of containment was a cautious, complacent, and immoral acknowledgement of communist rule so long as it did not try to expand into areas deemed vital to US national security.

In explaining all of these positions, historians have not been remiss in pointing to the moralism of Dulles’s religious faith. He detested the lack of individual freedom in communist ideology, especially its explicit attack on the principle of religious liberty. Dulles believed that liberty was indivisible: if the state abridged one freedom, it would automatically abridge them all. Religious liberty was therefore essential to the health of any democracy, and its absence would only guarantee the emergence of tyranny. Like Mahan, Dulles also valued the moral instruction that religion—especially Christianity—provided. Although he respected other cultures, Dulles believed that religion, and Christianity in particular, enabled people to form a properly just and moral society. With their attacks on religion, their embrace of atheism, and their emphasis of the material over the spiritual, the Soviet Union and communist China represented the antithesis of Dulles’s moral vision. And with their large militaries and supposed plans for world domination, they also seemed to present as clear and present a danger as there could possibly be.

Yet while this conventional portrayal is accurate, it is also incomplete. Dulles was, for example, a prominent supporter of multilateral organizations to promote international harmony and conflict resolution. He had been a US delegate to the Paris peace conference after the First World War that set up the League of Nations, supported the 1929 Kellogg-Briand pact to end war as an instrument of state policy, and urged the United States to join the World Court. In 1945, he was a high-level delegate to the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations; four years later, he acted in a similar capacity to help construct the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Dulles’s anti-isolationist, multilateral worldview stemmed partly from his personal background as the grandson and nephew of past secretaries of state, and partly from his professional experience as an international lawyer. But much of it was also due to his active participation in the Protestant churches’ ecumenical movement, which sought to bridge Protestantism’s internal divisions by bringing its churches together under the auspices of a single umbrella organization. The idea was to get squabbling Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and other denominations together so they could communicate civilly, in an atmosphere of shared concern, instead of bickering over narrow points of doctrine. The umbrella group, organized in 1908 as the Federal Council of Churches (the forerunner to today’s National Council of Churches), also proved to be an inspiration for world politics. As proponents of ecumenicalism such as Dulles pointed out, if bringing together denominations could bring about religious peace, bring together nations could bring about international peace. This vision, which also influenced the liberal internationalism of yet another Presbyterian, Woodrow Wilson, was Dulles’s spur to action.

Henry Kissinger

The inclusion of Kissinger, a supreme devotee of realpolitik who is not known for piety or spiritual reflection, in a roster of religiously motivated statesmen might seem anomalous, certainly counterintuitive, and perhaps even mistaken. Kissinger dominated US diplomacy as nobody had before—or has since. As the architect of détente with the Soviet Union and the stunning opening to Mao’s communist China, and as the dashing, jet-setting inventor of “shuttle diplomacy,” Kissinger himself, as an unlikely intellectual celebrity, personally defined America’s role in the world.

Like Kennan, Kissinger was a realist who recognized the limits of American power. Kissinger used this notion to emphasize another basic tenet of realism: the national interest. In an age defined by stalemate in Vietnam, Soviet nuclear parity, economic turbulence, and social unrest worldwide, Kissinger argued that the United States could no longer act alone on the world stage in order to promote its national ideals. In fact, it was the pursuit of policies that were ideologically compelling but strategically dubious—such as nation-building in a place like South Vietnam—that had got America into such an awful mess in the first place. Thus Kissinger agreed with Kennan that American leaders had to learn how to distinguish central concerns from peripheral issues. Yet Kissinger went far beyond Kennan in his pursuit of the national interest at the expense of national ideals. Kissinger instead spoke the language of power and stability, which he assumed was the common language of geopolitics. His foreign policy, in other words, was aimed at convincing minds but not winning hearts.

If Kissinger’s vision was not idealistic or moralistic, neither was the way he put it in action. In implementing his realist foreign policy, he demonstrated a willingness to use military force as a tool of diplomacy rather than a means to win wars. In Indochina, for example, his strategy of expanding the war geographically (to Cambodia and Laos) and aerially (with unprecedented concentrations of bombing against North Vietnam) was intended to send signals to Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi rather than defeat the North Vietnamese and their insurgent Vietcong allies in the south. After an eventual and inevitable US military withdrawal, Kissinger did not expect Saigon to remain noncommunist for long—but he did want everything to unfold in the manner of his choosing. Under Kissinger’s guidance, the United States also used force, or tolerated others in their use of force, in Indonesia, Chile, and south Asia.

What, then, does religion have to do with the foreign policy of Henry Kissinger? Well, everything. As a Jew who had been born in 1923 and lived the first 15 years of his life in Germany, Kissinger witnessed the rise and fall of the feeble Weimar Republic and its destruction at the hands of the democratically elected Nazis. As Jeremi Suri has illustrated in his fascinating biography, Henry Kissinger and the American Century, as a result Kissinger came to distrust the will of the majority, which to a German Jewish refugee in the 1930s could easily be mistaken for the tyranny of the majority, or even mob rule.3 To be sure, Kissinger’s religion provided a cultural instead of a spiritual identity, but it was Jewish all the same, shaped by the values, beliefs, and traditions of Judaism.

Kissinger’s realism thus had its roots in his experience as a Jewish émigré whose family had fled war-torn Europe just as much as it did in careful study of Metternich and Bismarck. Realists value stability over almost anything else; they pursue order, even at the expense of justice. The ferocious radicalism of the Nazi seizure of power and destruction of European Judaism fed—perhaps even created—Kissinger’s desire to maintain order. Later on, as Suri recounts, this led to both a deep distrust of the antiwar and student protest movements in the United States and an effort to maintain global stability even if it meant America acquiescing in the dictates of brutal governments around the world. The spectre of Nazism and the Holocaust also led Kissinger’s realism to distrust ideological crusades. “Though not practicing my religion,” he recalled, “I could never forget that thirteen members of my family had died in Nazi concentration camps. I had no stomach for encouraging another Holocaust by well-intentioned policies that might get out of control.”4 Little wonder, then, that Kissinger strove to keep nationalism and idealism in US foreign policy at bay.

It is true that not all American Jews had the same reaction. Many became liberals who were fervent advocates of democracy and social justice as the only sure antidotes to fascism. Others, such as the neoconservatives, loathed Kissinger’s penchant for negotiations because it seemed to legitimize brutal dictators who made a mockery of human rights in the same way the Nazis had. Expressing the very core of American ideals, they sought to pursue justice even at the expense of order. To neoconservatives, then, the Holocaust was a cautionary tale no less than it was for Kissinger—albeit a very different one. Indeed, the idealistic worldview of Paul Wolfowitz, so influential in the first George W. Bush administration, was just as indelibly shaped by his Judaism as was Kissinger’s. But the religious influence is not a mathematical equation, where opposites simply cancel each other out. The presence of diversity of thought and values does not mean that such thoughts and values have no relevance. Instead, it simply proves the point that the role of religion in US foreign policy is much more diverse, nuanced, and complicated than simple caricatures would have us believe.

The Enduring Influence of Religion

Though they all differ in significant respects, several things connect Mahan, Dulles, and Kissinger: their realism, their appreciation of power, and their awareness of a relationship between morality and foreign policy. But perhaps most important is the importance of their religious backgrounds, ranging from actively devout to cultural identifier. However, in today’s atmosphere of shrill religious extremes, from religious fundamentalism to the equally unbending activist atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, none of these foreign policy thinkers would be thought of as having been particularly shaped by their faith. And yet any understanding of their worldviews is at best incomplete, and at worst mistaken, without considering the religious influence.

Perhaps the most important connection is that between history and religion. The historical trajectories of Christianity and Judaism—both in how they have evolved over actual time and how they conceive of sacred time in the past, present, and future—instil in their adherents an inherently historical way of thinking. By emphasizing links between ends and means, and present requirements for future success, they also foster a pattern of thought that is ideally suited to the principles of grand strategy. This does not mean that being faithful is a prerequisite for being a successful grand strategist—but it seems to help, and at the very least it does not hinder. It is, then, premature to see the decline of the religious influence of American war and diplomacy in the decline of the Christian right’s political influence. Religion, in other words, is not the same as the religious right. This is not to say that the religious influence is determining or binding. Nor is it to say that its influence is always benign. But instead of obsessing over the antics of the religious right, observers might be able to gain a greater insight into US foreign policy by paying attention to the subtler forms of its members’ faith and religious background.