Fifty States and Ninety-Five Theses

Many on the American Right often point to the ‘Christian’ roots of American political culture, usually arguing that the present decadent state of American society requires nothing less than a recommitment to the Ten Commandments and a national re-reading of the Holy Bible – interpreted, of course, through the lens of Evangelical Protestantism. A look at the actualities of American ideology reveals that the claim ‘America is a Christian nation’ is not wrong, but rather is correct in ways that would surprise and offend most social conservatives who would make that claim, and their liberal opponents who deny it.

Flag of Jesusland

The Protestant culture subliminally influences American political culture far more than most Americans would readily admit. January 19, 2008 (Oren Neu Dag/Wikimedia Commons)

First off, a look at American political ideology as it informs foreign policy is in order. Beyond the classic calls for liberty, equality, and republicanism (more on those later) three important historical concepts stand out. These are Manifest Destiny, the ‘City on a Hill,’ and American Exceptionalism. In one sense, these three ideas represent three separate iterations of the same idea, balanced for different historical epochs. But in another sense, they are three unique concepts that have combined to formulate America’s instinctual handbook for ordering its relations with the world.

Manifest Destiny, so often taught as little more than white patriotism justifying expansionism, is less about racial superiority (though historically that held significant appeal) and more about the superior ‘civilizing’ morality of the American nation justifying its preeminence among nations and thereby justifying its vigorous expansion. It held American hearts and minds from the turn of the 19th Century to the dawn of the 20th.


“Westward Ho!” Emanuel Leutze’s painting is one of the most famous depictions of America’s ideal of Manifest Destiny. 1860 (Photograph by Ed Maskens/Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘City on a Hill’ – a term coined by John Winthrop, but native to Colonial American political culture – is the notion that the United States holds the keys to the truth about human political happiness, and need only exist in order to be a model for the world to observe and emulate. During isolationist periods, or contrarily, when America has engaged in global ideological struggles, this has been an appealing mode of thought.

Finally, American Exceptionalism has been something of a synthesis between the previous two ideas. It teaches that, because America is the golden nation depicted by the City on a Hill, it uniquely reserves the right to spread its ideals to the oppressed peoples of the world.

Taken together, these ideas start to resemble the attitudes of crusading nations throughout history. That is because in its insistence on the justness of its own ways of thought, the United States has constructed for itself a civil religion. When looking at various case studies throughout recent American history – from the widely maligned arguments for the democratization of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the humanitarian rationales for intervention in Bosnia and Libya, to federal support for democratic regimes and movements across the Post-Soviet arc – the sheer irrational faith American policymakers have had in the rightness of their own ways is literally almost religious. Belief in the infallibility of democracy and zeal for its global dissemination quite simply depicts one of Christianity’s most important influences on American politics: the missionary tradition. Bear in mind that the United States has always been a majority Protestant nation, and thus Protestantism energizes its worldview.

But the correlation extends into the very substance of American ideals. As James Kurth brilliantly depicts in his article, “The Protestant Deformation,” Americans have shaped their political ideals with their religious ones. The 16th Century Protestant rejections of hierarchy, tradition and preeminent community, replaced with egalitarianism, reason and individualism, define the American creed about as well as any secular understanding. Protestantism, in particular, emphasizes the dignity and equality of all individuals, which are concepts enshrined in the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Oftentimes, these ideas are attributed to Enlightenment ideology and secular rationality. While this is directly the case, it is rarely mentioned that the Enlightenment and the faithful ‘secularism’ it engendered were the intellectual heirs of the Protestant Reformation. Had most early Americans practiced a religion other than Protestantism, it is extremely dubious whether the ideals that took root would ever have been developed, much less embraced, on American soil.

Yet, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, some might argue, the ideology has changed so much that it can hardly be called inspired by Protestantism.

However, I believe it still can. No matter how different one species is from its ancient ancestor, the linkage is still there, and in the case of American ideals the temporal space is really not that wide. The high regard for individual rights and privileges ubiquitous throughout American political rhetoric today – so deep-seated, in fact, that those who speak out against specific individual rights of any kind, be they rights of expression, property, political participation, or cultural issues such as abortion or marriage, are often derided as bigots and, in some extreme cases, even as fascists – is held not only due to a natural love of freedom or power, but also to a religious conviction that individuals are autonomous and should be treated by the state as such.

The implication of this is that those of all political stripes in the United States – if they subscribe to American ideals as justification for their ideologies – are living the classic American civil religion of faith in republican ideals, with a rooting in Protestant Christianity. And more often than not, these ideals translate into foreign policy attitudes and decisions.

It is important to note that every American who subscribes to the general American ideology, therefore, takes part in the Protestant tradition regardless of his or her own faith. I suspect the individuals most likely to object to this characterization are rational atheists who consider themselves secular. For my part, as a (poorly) devout Catholic and a proud American, I was originally somewhat disconcerted to discover the Protestant, and, at times, anti-Catholic roots of the political tradition to which I subscribe. But a realization of the fallibility and historical contingency of American political ideology, as well as of its general benevolence and, indeed, its tolerance and accepting attitude towards those of all religious traditions, have allayed my fears and allowed me to practice my political faith in a more nuanced light. I only hope that other thinkers bothered – or overjoyed, for that matter – at America’s fundamentally Christian nature can allow themselves to be sobered by that acceptance.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

The IR Implications of the South Carolina Graduation Speech

There has been a slight stir in the headlines in the wake of a South Carolina High School graduation incident. Defying his school district’s newly-instituted policy of replacing the traditional prayer at graduation with a moment of silence, valedictorian Roy Costner IV tore his graduation speech to shreds and recited the Lord’s Prayer, proceeding to detail his passion for his religion and justify his opposition to the school district’s ruling.

The incident, perhaps worthy of immortalization by Hollywood (or at least the cast of Saturday Night Live), is indicative of one of the most salient features of American domestic politics in the Information Age: the so-called “Culture War” which pits the knights of tradition against the crusaders of progress. More practically, this ideological conflict is part of the latest in the all-American debate over national identity. At the moment, the most vocal factions seem to be those on the Far Left and the Far Right: the traditionalists versus the progressives, the religious versus the secular, the Tea Party versus the Occupy Movement, Fox News versus MSNBC, etc. Though it is tempting for individuals who identify with these factions to characterize the state of affairs to be an apocalyptic battle of Right and Wrong over the “Soul of America” (and indeed both movements have heritages deeply critical to the general American heritage) it is likely that historians in the future- perhaps a mere couple of decades from now- will describe them as general movements in a pluralist mosaic of interest groups and identities whose interactions drive the general historical development of the Republic.

Given that these movements are integral to the fractious fabric of contemporary American society, it would be prudent for the student of American foreign policy to understand them, if they would understand the relation of American domestic politics to American foreign policy. The movement which the South Carolina graduation speech case represents, generally, is the populist, conservative, religious, and traditionalist faction of American society which, in the present day, tends to vote Republican, support family values and small government, and support strong-armed (though not necessarily neoconservative) foreign policy measures.

The graduation speech case is a demonstration of the power of this faction in certain geographic areas of the United States. After the requests and complaints of church-and-state groups caused the Pickens County School Board to replace graduation prayers with moments of silence, the deeply religious valedictorian at Liberty High School chose to protest the policy by quite literally bringing prayer back into the ceremony. Many in the crowd cheered as he did so; and the school pursued no disciplinary action against him. Though there has been much secular criticism of the valedictorian’s action, equal numbers of the faithful congratulate and support him. Regardless of the moral or legal implications or consequences of the event, and whatever the moral judgment ought to be upon the student or the school district, the incident clearly shows that religious factions in South Carolina- and indeed, in the United States in general- are strong and numerous enough to wield great domestic political power. Given that elected politicians in the United States must respond to their constituents, this power must exert some effect upon American foreign policy.

In his excellent piece The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy, Walter Russell Mead explores how populist movements have affected foreign policy throughout American history. While he ultimately concludes that systemic constraints and strategic priorities have been more considerably important than domestic demands, Mead explores certain tendencies which populist movements- the Jacksonians, the Populist Party, etc.- have exerted upon foreign policy. Expansionism and protectionism (and isolationism) have been among these, and they have typically accompanied critical structural changes in American politics.

In the modern iteration, it is common to see the present generation of populist conservatives advocate strong, moralistic foreign policy and a general skepticism towards international institutions. Indeed, their great hero, Ronald Reagan, seemed to exemplify this approach to foreign policy, and many followed the neoconservative Bush regime into supporting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (though, again, those involved more war fever, and it is dangerous to characterize conservatives in general as neoconservative.) The policy-making power of this faction, however, is checked by the existence of that large faction which tends to be more pluralistic, secular, and supportive of international institutions, which often votes along Democrat lines. This faction shall be examined in a later post; for now it will suffice to say that however powerful it is, it exists alongside that faction which is generally supportive of Roy Costner IV in that bipolar balance which has defined American politics, and affected American foreign policy, since the nation was born.