Review of The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America's Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. By Walter A. McDougall. Harvard University Press. 408 pp. $30.
Nearly fifty years ago, the sociologist Robert Bellah coined the term "civil religion." A non-sectarian creed that makes use of sacred symbols, rituals, holidays, heroes, martyrs and myths, civil religion, Bellah indicated, helps secure and sustain national unity. But civil religion also had a dark side, especially when it encourages a messianic determination to impose the will and the ways of "the New Israel" on others.
In The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, Walter McDougall, a professor of history and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, examines the role of civil religion "on the motivation and justification" of foreign policy throughout American history. Civil religion, he acknowledges, can bind diverse groups together and stimulate sacrifices for the collective good in times of depression, disaster and war. McDougall maintains, however, that civil religion "turns toxic when twisted into a Jacobin creed peddled to people at home...and forced "down foreign throats at gunpoint." And, he concludes, "the deformation" of civil religion has ended by devouring America itself."
Drawing on the written and oral comments of U.S. presidents and political, religious, intellectual and corporate elites, McDougall demonstrates the pervasiveness of the discourse of civil religion. Although the New Deal was the first wholly secular reform movement in American history, he points out that, "as the high priest of the civil religion," Franklin D. Roosevelt had to persuade Americans "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed" (Romans 8:18) And, as the leader of the fight against atheistic communism, President Dwight Eisenhower, who had not attended church while he was at West Point, began his inaugural by "asking the privilege of uttering a private prayer of my own"; signed into law a bill inserting "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance; keynoted the American Legion's Back to God Convention; and signed resolutions to make "In God We Trust" the national motto.
Unfortunately, McDougall does not distinguish between the use of civil religion in the making and in the selling of American foreign policy. He understands that "no public policy, political system, ideology, or civil religion that is unsupported by an economic base is likely to last long." He indicates that President Eisenhower "never let civil religion interfere with his strategy, operations, and tactics." And yet, he asserts, rather simplistically, that during the Cold War civil religion "required" recalcitrant Republicans and Dixiecrats "to pretend (at least) to practice what it preached about racial equality and social uplift lest it make a mockery of its own propaganda throughout the decolonized world."
Most important, McDougall's book provides abundant evidence that civil religion has been used to justify policies across the political spectrum. "Empire obtained by force is un-republican," Senator Charles Sumner wrote in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, and offensive to the principle "according to which all just government stands only on the consent of the governed." And, according to McDougall, FDR used the rhetoric of civil religion to promote isolationist policies in the mid-1930s and intervention at the end of the decade.
At the roots of The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, it seems clear, is the claim that the Spanish American War was the moment at which constraints against all overseas crusades eroded, "devolved Protestant fanaticism burst its chains," the Constitution became a dead letter, war powers no longer resided in Congress, and "Washington's World turned into Wilson's World."
That world is anathema to McDougall, whose assault on the interventionist presidents of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is unrelenting and, at times, over the top. Wilson, McDougall writes, "imagined the way to serve God was by sacrificing U.S. national interest on the altar of humanity." Although he should have known that "most of his principles, not least national self-determination could not be applied to most of the human race" and that war "would oblige him to sacrifice his domestic agenda, violate civil liberties and invite Americans to indulge violent and bigoted instincts," Wilson "chose to flip the last civil religious 'thou shall nots' into commandments." Although Germany wasn't all that bad - Wilson "yielded nothing" to the Kaiser in terms of executive power - the American president hurled his nation into war "in order to prove, like a pagan priest-king, that his tribal gods were mightier than theirs."
McDougall claims as well that FDR deferred to isolationists in the 1930s because their arguments "were many and mighty," whereas those in favor of rearmament and intervention "were few and flaccid." And that the president pretended World War II was "a civil religious crusade for human rights and fundamental freedoms," while setting up concentration camps for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, ignoring evidence of genocide against Jews, persisting in racial segregation in the armed forces and abandoning "even the pretense of humanitarianism" by authorizing the carpet bombing of German and Japanese cities.
The decision of President George W. Bush to initiate "two protracted conflicts whose carnage and ruin dwarfed that of 9/11 itself," McDougall writes, "almost lends credence to the theory that messianic republics must engage in periodic blood sacrifice as a sort of totem worship."
In 2016, McDougall suggests, Americans are nowhere near a consensus about the role Providence may play in the future. They might coalesce around the first global civil religion, which will "pose as friendly fascism, compassionate conservatism, socialism with a human face," he speculates. But McDougall can not imagine a civil religion that did not unite around "a Market State," a regime intent on suppressing popular insurgencies "with the postmodern equivalent of bread and circuses." And run by "proud, petulant, and at times paranoid" high priests who keep attempting to escape history and then regenerate it.