How America's Civil Religion Endangers Our Country and the World

Image via Shutterstock, violence in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans have long believed the United States is God’s chosen country, but many also see a unique American duty to spread freedom across the world. This view of America as the world’s Archangel Gabriel, ushering in a new era of globalization and peace, is actually a threat to America’s freedom and its standing in the world, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian argued.


At an event sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute, Walter A. McDougall, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, presented his new book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. He argued that the triumphalist vision of America is causing damage both at home and abroad, not just in foreign policy, but in weakening the founding principles of the United States.

McDougall quoted John Quincy Adams, who warned against American empire in 1821. “While America might become the dictatress of the world, she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit,” Adams declared. The historian argued that Adams’ warning was prescient, and revealed the foreign policy outlook of America’s founding generation.

Every country has a civil religion — “Governments that are civilized all try to tap into spiritual authority to enforce their secular political authority,” McDougall declared. America is no different, and the first American Civil Religion (or ACR) focused on religion and morality, peace and harmony with other nations, expansive commerce, but as little passionate attachments or antipathies as possible.

This original ACR formed the basis for American foreign policy until the 1890s, McDougall argued. It lasted so long because Americans wanted to separate themselves from the “Old World,” focus on the “Manifest Destiny” of western expansion rather than foreign entanglements, learned the lessons of history that republics fall when overpowered by a strong military/political leader like Julius Caesar, and had a limited Christian anthropology which emphasized the limits of human nature.


But in the 20th century, a heresy grew to replace the old limited civil religion — one which saw America less as an example of freedom for other countries to follow and more as an active, if not imperialist, crusader for justice in the world.

The modern world had hit America at full force, and issues like class conflict, anger at immigration, big city machine politics, alcoholism, crime, and prostitution gave birth to the Progressive movement. This movement emphasized “the administrative management of society,” McDougall explained, and viewed voters as a “nuisance,” to be replaced with “experts in government.”

At the same time, the Social Gospel movement had exploded in American Christianity. “Archaeology, geology, paleontology, and higher criticism of the Bible seemed to undermine the theology and history of the Bible,” McDougall summarized, so “liberal progressive clergy sought to reinvent Christianity to make it a doctrine of social uplift.” Emphasizing helping one’s neighbor more than faith and doctrine, these teachers enabled “the heretical notion that our purpose is to build heaven on earth.”

These two movements combined to launch a new ACR, one focused on America as a “Crusader State” rather than the mere example of a “Promised Land.”

McDougall pointed to the Spanish American War (1898) as the key moment of transition between the old and new civil religions. When the Cuban people rebelled against the Spanish empire, pressure built to intervene. The “CNN effect” pushed President William McKinley to “do something,” and while he resisted the urge originally, he eventually succumbed.


Between his first and second inaugural addresses, McKinley’s perspective on American foreign policy did a 180. He “turned the civil religion on its head,” McDougall argued, so that “all those ‘thou shalt not’s became ‘thou must’s.”

Image credit Tyler O'Neil, PJ Media. Author Walter A. McDougall speaks in Washington, D.C.

Image credit Tyler O’Neil, PJ Media. Author Walter A. McDougall speaks in Washington, D.C.

“The progressive ACR is the new orthodoxy of the 20th century,” the historian explained. “Instead of the humble and prudent foreign policy, now pride and assertion become the new virtues.” But this new civil religion failed to take hold. Famously, President Woodrow Wilson fell short of convincing the U.S. Senate to join the League of Nations, and even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despite his leadership to victory in World War II, was not able to convince the American people that America was on the side of peace and justice.

But President Harry Truman finally found the perfect cause for the new Progressive ACR — the Cold War against Communism. Finally, the new civil religion presented a role the American people could accept: “Communism is a wicked evil ideology and it’s trying to take over the world,” McDougall paraphrased. “God has put us in the position to stand up against it.”

Fighting Communism was no easy task. “What needed to be done was not only a mobilization of American power to contain Communism, it needed to get religious,” the historian declared. “The Cold War subverted the American Constitution and it’s subverted to this day.” For example, Congress has not declared a war since 1943.


It was under Truman, and his successor President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that the new American civil religion clicked into high gear. “In God We Trust” became the national motto. “Under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance. Eisenhower launched the prayer breakfasts in the White House.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, some might expect this civil religion to lose some of its power, but the opposite happened. As McDougall explained, the new ACR added a final component to the national theology — an End Times prophecy of sorts. After Communism fell, “freedom would win, and globalization would result.” This would bring “heaven on earth,” the “immanentized eschaton.”

The 1964 World’s Fair in New York City presented a perfect example, McDougall said. He described the event as a “paean” to “the infinite possibilities of science and technology,” quoting various leaders at the time who promised to “eliminate poverty on earth, eliminate war,” and that, by the next World’s Fair, the U.S. “will have abolished racism, will have abolished poverty.”

This “unbelievable utopian rhetoric” joined the idea of globalization, a new kind of peace and prosperity, with heaven on earth. The globalist consensus in Washington that prevailed through the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and even Barack Obama is the apotheosis of Cold War prophecy.


At the same time, the triumphalist image of America bringing peace and democracy to foreign countries — be they Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or others — is alive and well. While President Obama’s victory at first seemed like a rejection of America as “the world’s policeman,” the first black president (much like John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president), sought to assure Americans “that he was totally prepared to be their high priest” in the civil religion. Thus, the failed interventions in Libya and Syria. More American blood and treasure spent, and more war and loss of life in other parts of the globe.

President-elect Donald Trump represents some room for hope in curbing this interventionist/globalist enterprise, but not much.

“Trump has run a campaign that is almost devoid of ACR content,” McDougall said. “He rarely says ‘God Bless America’ at the end of his speeches,” and he campaigned against globalization. But the historian also expressed “doubts that he’s going to break free from” the new civil religion. “I don’t think Donald Trump is going to reverse globalization, but he’ll slow it down, and that’s probably needed.”

“He says he’s going to make America great again — he needs to show what America’s greatness looked like,” the historian explained. It is possible Trump could return to the first ACR, with its appreciation for human error, focus on America’s national interests, and setting an example for (as opposed to a forced revolution on) the world, but McDougall wouldn’t count on it.


“We’ve had religious revivals in this country, maybe we can have a constitutional revival,” the historian surmised. But “the only thing we can expect is the unexpected.”



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