The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, by Walter McDougall. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. 424 pages.
“The deformation of American Civil Religion [ACR] has ended by devouring America itself,” pessimistically concludes The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. This latest book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter A. McDougall insightfully critiques recurring gaps between America’s spiritually-infused ideals and foreign policy realities but ignores America’s unique contribution to global order.
Cynicism perhaps understates McDougall’s writing tone that befits America’s national mood following the post-September 11, 2001, years. “In just over a decade—without even engaging some new peer competitor—the United States nearly exhausted its armed forces, good faith and credit, bipartisanship and patience at home, and prestige among friends and foes abroad.” Accordingly, for President George W. Bush’s supporters to “speak of draining the swamps of Islamo-fascism through democratization of the whole Muslim crescent was mad.”
America’s current superpower status starkly contrasts with humble origins as a newly independent nation whose constitutional order had finally emerged by 1790. Thereafter, while stronger foreign powers and conflicts surrounded America, for “sixty years the largest federal agency—and the only one most citizens encountered—was the post office.” America’s shining city upon a hill had “to adjust to the reality of Republicanism in One Country. That made the American calling in foreign affairs a civil religious equivalent of the biblical exhortation to the church to be in the world but not of it.
Yet the Social Gospel’s late nineteenth century emergence altered America’s foreign policy creed. “The Social Gospel dismissed the Augustinian distinction between a fallen physical City of Man that exists in time and a perfect spiritual City of God beyond time.” In politics the “new theology devalorized virtue, prudence, humility, and small government in favor of power, glory, pride, and big government at home and, when possible, abroad.”
Accordingly, the “United States began to play God in 1898” by defeating Spain and winning dominion over its Cuban and Philippine colonies. Here “foreign adventures played out as calamities” and for the first time “demonstrated how ill-suited American institutions, politics, and temperaments were to the task of nation-building overseas.” Suppressing Filipino insurgents who rejected replacing Spanish with American rule “cost the United States $600 million, versus $250 million for the war against Spain, and 4,165 dead versus 2,910.”
McDougall then analogizes between the progressive zealot Woodrow Wilson and World War I’s contending European divine-right nationalisms. President Wilson in 1917 “hurled the nation into a war among European civil religions in order to prove, like a pagan priest-king, that his tribal gods were mightier than theirs.” Yet when he announced on January 8, 1918, the Fourteen Points, “Wilson had no clue how his principles might play out in practice, and they were worse than a blank slate as a blueprint for peace.”
Subsequently President Franklin D. Roosevelt “meant to create, through his optimistic, non-sectarian, Bible-drenched rhetoric” a “truly national civil church.” After Wilson’s failed crusade, public and private interests under Roosevelt in World War II “took for granted that this time the war must end in the Americanization of the world” with “freedom in abundance and abundance in freedom.” Yet the anti-Axis “so-called Grand Alliance was really the strange Alliance…comprising an imperial monarchy (Britain), a liberal democracy (United States), and a Communist dictatorship (Soviet Union).”
Nonetheless, such realpolitik left America’s baby boomers unaffected under the glow of American postwar dominance. American society taught them that the “United States was one nation under an ecumenical God who blessed a republic with liberty and justice for all.” Baby boomers “believed the future must inevitably be shaped by the three things they assumed all people wanted—freedom, science, and stuff…God had bestowed upon them the resources, knowledge, power, and right to deliver.”
“By 1950 Truman had fashioned what historian Jonathan Herzog described as a ‘spiritual-industrial complex’” and American institutions “cooperated to stir up religiosity and direct it against communism.” “The neo-Progressive ACR emerged as a fighting faith based on a new dispensation that positively required the United States to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Reality upended President John F. Kennedy’s Camelot dreams in his disastrous 1961 attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s new Cuban dictatorship. The Bay of Pigs “proved how hyper-rational men in power could manufacture their own irrationality” in miniature before the Vietnam War’s larger, bloodier anticommunist debacle. “[I]f the smartest among us can so misunderstand Cuba—a country with whom Americans have had intimate, unhappy relations since 1898—how can we presume to manipulate post-colonial peoples much further afield and far more alien?”
Following South Vietnam’s 1975 fall, America’s 1976 “Bicentennial year arrived with the civil religion in tatters.” Meanwhile in the preceding Cold War years numerous “constitutional amputations” had expanded America’s burgeoning “national security state.” Now an “American citizen’s rights to life, liberty, property, and privacy were subject to sequester whenever the president deemed necessary.”
McDougall provides an appropriate tonic against Christian heresies of bringing heaven to earth in a fallen world where foreign faiths and ideologies do not share America’s biblical anthropology. Yet his vale of tears obscures the notable fruit of enduring American expenditures in blood and treasure in places like Asia and Europe. Here freedom’s gospel has resulted in societies made in the image of America’s founding commercial republic, including bitter enemies converted into friends.
The resulting Pax Americana has supplanted Pax Britannica’s past liberal hegemony with post-9/11 annual American GDP defense expenditures of about four percent and an American military that enlists less than .5 percent of Americans. While McDougall fears an American warfare state Leviathan, modern American security measures show continuity with the past, like America’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War, under the “dictator” President Abraham Lincoln. America’s greater big government threat today comes not so much from foreign entanglements abroad, but from the welfare state at home. America’s Christian soldiers and others should go forth cautiously in liberty’s name, remembering the Christian doctrine of sanctification as a long-term process requiring personal rebirth, but go forth they should.