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By Charles Sharpe


The Montréal Review, May 2017


How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest
Walter A. McDougall
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016


For two decades, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Walter McDougall, has challenged the way in which scholars have conceived and thought about American foreign relations. His latest book – The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest – is no exception. Indeed it marks a high point in the emergence of a new historiography in the field, a process McDougall precipitated in 1997 with the publication of his now classic text, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. His new book is best understood in the context of his earlier work.

In that pioneering opus, McDougall dispensed with the orthodox and revisionist narratives of American foreign policy, questioned longstanding dichotomies that had dominated the field, and elaborated a set of principles that would facilitate dialogue over America’s place in the immediate post-Cold War era. The book stood apart on account of its accessibility – it has become a standard for undergraduate students – but above all, because of its Biblical metaphor. The first half – entitled “Our Old Testament” – exhumed four 19th-century traditions critical for the establishment and preservation of the United States, or what its leaders imagined as the “Promised Land.” The second half – labeled “Our New Testament” – similarly identified four 20th century traditions, but these marked efforts to do and relate to the world. They were, as McDougall explains, “born of the image of the United States as a Crusader State.”

Back when McDougall first published Promised Land, Crusader State, the central question in his mind was whether the United States could be a Crusader State and remain a Promised Land? The answer to that question, he suggested, hinged on the country’s ability to find a foreign policy that was both moral and realistic. But the great danger, as he reiterates in his new book, resided in the temptation to overreach and expose the country to “imperial overstretch in pursuit of utopian goals.” In McDougall’s view, the United States has succumbed to the very temptation he warned against twenty years ago. Thus his latest contribution – The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy – seeks to explain why.

With this aim in mind, McDougall uses three “historical telescopes” to guide his reader. The first one focuses on the decisions that led to the “Global War on Terror.” The second one delves deeper in the past, analyzing the decisions that established the post-Cold War “pretense of U.S. hegemony.” These two telescopes, McDougall concludes, go far in explaining how the United States succumbed to the temptation to overreach, but not far enough in helping us understand why. For this reason, he introduces a third telescope, which seeks to explain the “perennial impulses that have always tempted Americans to meet discriminate challenges through indiscriminate crusades.” What follows is a tour d’horizon of 240 years of American diplomatic history, in what McDougall calls “the metaphysical mode.”

The book endeavors to relate the twists and turns of U.S. foreign policy to the evolution of what the Berkley sociologist Robert Bellah referred to in his landmark 1967 Daedalus article as the American Civil Religion (ACR). This concept, which McDougall defines by citing the work of political scientist Ellis West, informs his method. “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” distinguishes civil religion “from nationalism and ideologies of state worship.” McDougall’s book, in large part, constitutes a quest to discover that metaphysical quality.

The book therefore retains the religious motif of Promised Land, Crusader State, but is organized around the Church, not the Bible. In McDougall’s account, the American President wears the robes of the nation’s High Priest, while the people make up the Congregation. The “gospels” include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address; the “accumulating epistles” consist of the presidential inaugural addresses and state papers. The people, too, influence the religion. As McDougall points out, “each generation must reimagine the national God who blesses whatever foreign policy posture Americans, or at least their elites, believe the times demand” – hence the book’s manifold diversions into cultural, intellectual, and religious developments. Some of its most brilliant passages concern art, literature and song.

But the objective, in the end, is to build upon the work of Bellah: to “peer through the rood screen cloaking the national altar,” to look “behind all the tectonic shifts in rhetoric, economics, and strategy,” in order to discern, as he writes, the evolution of “a mystical, magical, shape-shifting civil religion whose orthodoxies turn into heresies and whose heresies can turn into new orthodoxies.” These orthodoxies constitute the epistemological systems from which the country’s foreign policy principles and traditions spring. They explain, moreover, why the old dichotomies that have for so long shaped the study of American foreign relations – idealism versus realism, and ideology versus economics – are misplaced. Civil religion, in McDougall’s catchy prose, “is omnivorous and digests any antimony.”

The book’s body has four major sections, each consisting of six to seven short chapters that cover a distinct era in the evolution of the American Civil Religion. They are named for the High Priests with the greatest metaphysical repute: George Washington, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. The original “orthodoxy” or “Classical ACR” emerged under Washington in the 1790s; its foreign policy tenants, which sought, above all, to protect and grow the “Promised Land,” survived the Civil War and guided American grand strategy through the Gilded Age. They included reciprocity with all nations, neutrality in all conflicts, the construction of an American system of states, and continental expansion. These principles, in McDougall’s estimations, proved wildly successful, in no small part, because every 19th century President avoided the forbidden fruit – the “utopian temptation.”

However, the strains of industrialization, massive immigration, and modernization at the end of the century gave birth to a new “Progressive ACR,” which in turn spawned the twentieth century foreign policy principles of the “Crusader State” – those of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy’s worlds. The crucial development, according to McDougall, was the rising “faith” in “new knowledge generated in science and engineering, modern languages, sociology, political science, and economics.” Americans increasingly came to “believe” that these tools permitted them to assume the role of God. The mainline Protestant churches played along, surrendering “their prophetic role to civil religion,” “their faith in an inerrant Bible to science,” and “their cultural authority” to a progressivism, which, McDougall contends, was not the least bit secular. Many American synagogues, in time, did the same. Consequently, the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven “passed from the clergy to the intelligentsia.”

These developments plowed a pathway straight from the Spanish-American War to Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Yet neither of the resulting foreign policy traditions – progressive imperialism or liberal internationalism – succeeded. Thus the Republican administrations of the 1920s reaffirmed neo-classical Orthodoxy. But even that creed fell into disrepute with the Great Depression. “If faith in Providence” had lost its “power to hold thrall the American mind,” Roosevelt’s “World of Tomorrow” would be built on “Faith in Progress.” “Walt Disney would promote [it].” “Superman would personify [it].” His world, in McDougall’s sarcastic voice, “was to be a friendly fascism securing truth, justice, and the American way, freedom in abundance and abundance in freedom, ultimately for the whole human race.” The new Gods would be “corporate technology” and “mass production.”

Yet Roosevelt’s “New Deal for the world,” as Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau called it, came up short. With Moscow refusing to cooperate at the end of WWII, he “failed to establish Progressive ACR as the new orthodoxy in foreign affairs.” The Truman Administration therefore sought refuge in “Cold War theology,” blessed the “strategy of containment,” and made vast “military and economic commitments” out of “faith and fear.” In time, a neo-Progressive ACR emerged. Faith in progress surged, reaching “romantic” heights in “Kennedy’s world.” The “best and the brightest,” or “unelected wizards,” to use McDougall’s humorous phrase, preached abstract theories carefully crafted by experts in foundations, think tanks and universities to suit the purposes of their benefactors. Vietnam, above all, became the testing ground.

But then the baby boomers protested. This development allows McDougall to further demonstrate how the American people have shaped the country’s political theology. Anti-war protests rocked the country, though in McDougall’s opinion, the youngsters actually aspired to something more than mere peace. They desired the “Millennial ACR” first envisioned by Roosevelt, and “promised by the neo-Progressives when and if the Cold War was won.” Their behavior, in his colorful prose, was ironically serene and ceremonial. The “mix of politics, music, pathos, religion, and sex was as thorough and sensual as the bells and smells of a Catholic High Mass. Hairy, naked children breathing sweet marijuana while grooving on psychedelic music amid black lights and lava lamps experienced mystical highs and communal bonds they had never imagined possible while growing up absurd in postwar suburbs. That sixties liturgy, moreover, was ostensibly devoted to the most sublime passion aspiration of all, which is love.”

Walter McDougall may have written the most creative and eccentric book ever published on the history of American diplomacy. It is filled with wit, vivid imagery, and blistering sarcasm. “Nuclear fear was like a Chinese finger trap: the more people tried to pull out, the tighter it gripped.” The diversity of his characters defies anything in this genre. The usual cast is there – John Quincy Adams, Dean Acheson and Henry Kissinger – as well as the preachers and theologians one would expect – Jonathan Edwards, Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham. But McDougall’s telescope doesn’t stop there. Readers will hear satirist P.J. O’Rourke lament the “awful power of make-belief”, watch outlaws like Willy Nelson “give eloquent voice to redneck anger,” and even explore surrealism in Salvador Dalí’s “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man.”

McDougall’s book is also polemical and contrarian, which will annoy some readers, especially those who must bear the brunt of his wrath, but his objectives are not ignoble: to refute historians who, in his assessment, manipulate or skew the past to support present agendas. A master of the historian’s craft, he exposes their sins with aplomb: anachronism, false analogies, and teleological arguments. His work, to some, will come across as conservative, especially his revealing use of the 19th century political theorist, Orestes Brownson, but if that is so, his sort of conservatism will seem foreign to the political class today. While Roosevelt’s New Deal was a “conservative” effort to save capitalism, Reagan was a utopian millenarian whose grand strategy built on that of his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

Whatever one makes of these judgments, McDougall’s disciplined use of his method, and ability to situate his argument in the history of Western Civilization, culminate with a remarkable conclusion. The Tragedy of U.S. Diplomacy resides in the fact that the concept of the nation state is incompatible with the only pillar of Christianity that the American Civil Religion has retained – its universality. For this reason, the Global Millennial ACR, which remained dormant from Roosevelt’s tenure until the collapse of the Soviet Union –– seeks to devour the United States. This development, along with other problematic trends that McDougall abhors, such as the rise of the surveillance state and the hedonistic “come-and-get-it” culture of Pax Americana, drive him to conclude his opus with dystopian predictions of his own.


Charles Sharpe is a former Mellon Postdoctoral fellow at McGill University, where he is currently an affiliate and visiting scholar in the Department of History and Classics. He holds the BA in Political Science from Furman University in South Carolina, an MA in International Relations from Yale, and an MA and PhD in History from the University of Pennsylvania. He has received numerous awards, including grants from the Fulbright Foundation and Rotary International.


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