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date: 23 March 2023

U.S. Foreign Policy and Religionfree

U.S. Foreign Policy and Religionfree

  • Malcolm MageeMalcolm MageeMichigan State University


The United States has been uniquely God-centered among Western nations, and that includes its foreign policy. From George Washington to the present, all presidents and policymakers have had to consider God in varying degrees either for their domestic audience or because they believed in a version of Providential mission in the world. In the beginning, the new United States was filled with religious people whom the founders had to consider in crafting the founding documents. In time, the very idea of the United States became so entwined with the sense of the Divine that American civil religion dominated even the most secular acts of policymakers.


  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion in America

God and America

For Americans, religion has been woven into the relationship with the other nations with which it related from the beginning. Owing to accidents of history and geography, the British North American colonies were able to develop into a nation in which a populist, democratic version of Reformed Protestantism took root and created a nation that was itself a religious idea. As G. K. Chesterton famously wrote in What I Saw in America: it was “a nation with the soul of a church.” This has made the United States, in even its most pragmatic moments, religiously idealistic. Indeed, these religious threads in the American tapestry are so interwoven that they often cannot be separated from even the most outwardly secular versions of American policy. The major versions of foreign policy pursued by American policymakers, isolationism (unilateralism), realism, and idealism, all have religious undercurrents that affect even the most nonreligious of their proponents.

The Colonial Era to Independence

From the beginning of the settlement of British North America, religion played an important part in the new colonies’ relations with other countries such as France, Spain, and the Netherlands, and with England itself. Beginning with the Massachusetts Bay colony, which was the first British institution to have its seat of government in the New World rather than in London, continuing on to the War for Independence, religious concerns entwined themselves in all other concerns.

The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s did much to further mix religion with American political concerns. The preaching of people such as George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards broke the mold of Calvinist predetermination and put a person’s religious life into their own hands. American colonists were encouraged to choose the way they would serve God. Thus, if people had the right to choose which church they went to, or how they would worship God, they also had the right to choose their form of government. Many historians see the Great Awakening as a necessary precursor to the War for Independence. In the American experiment, this mixing of religion and political concern became part of the fabric of the new republic. Though established as a secular government by the First Amendment, this fabric blanketed the nation with a religious sense of identity. The idea of the United States as “God’s chosen nation” and the U.S. Constitution as divinely inspired took root, even as the original founders, steeped in the Enlightenment as much as in Christianity, died off. Historian Henry May in his classic book, The Enlightenment in America, argued that while the Enlightenment and Protestant Christianity struggled with each other at the founding, eventually an altered version of Protestant Christianity emerged supreme, altered by the Enlightenment and by American independence.1

Independence to the Civil War

Translating this religious impulse to foreign policy is easily traced, though few historians have chosen to do so. The major exception to this is Andrew Preston of Cambridge University, who traced the history of religion in U.S. foreign policy from the colonial period to the 21st century. Regarding the colonial origins of this religious connection, Preston argued:

Unlike all other Reformation societies, the American colonies never underwent a counterreformation. They never confronted a backlash, and thus never had to accommodate themselves to an alternative worldview in the name of domestic and international peace, . . . When they came together in 1776 to become an independent nation, they did so as a Reformation Protestant nation; they did not necessarily intend to establish a religious republic, but they could not escape the cultural trappings of their Protestant inheritance.2

This sense of religious purpose made the United States itself a religious idea in the minds of even the most secular Americans. The ease with which the idea of being God’s chosen people transferred from the Old Testament book of Joshua to the new nation was remarkable. This Old Testament idea emerged in Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was divinely ordained to spread across the continent, the “promised land” that God had given the settlers. That founding myth would subsequently reemerge, with New Testament additions, in the debates around imperialism, the Wilsonian argument for making the world safe for democracy, the idea of U.S. holiness in the face of godless Soviet communism in the Cold War, and the concept of America as the “light of the world” in the post-9/11 international order.3 The United States was the New Jerusalem, the new Athens, and the schoolmaster to the world, the covenantal chosen nation through which all the other nations of the world would be blessed. This self-image gave the new nation a confidence in its role and mission in the world that often baffled and otherwise bemused European leaders in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In what on the surface may seem to be a contradiction to this viewpoint, one of the first issues the new country had to address was the question of whether or not it was going to be called a “Christian nation.” While the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made it very clear that the federal government was not to establish any religion, nor forbid the free exercise of any, several of the individual states continued for a time with established state churches.4 In an early confrontation between American trading vessels and raiders from the Barbary State of Tripoli, American diplomats negotiated a treaty that seemed to spell a different trajectory for the future of the nation. Of particular interest is Article 11 of the treaty, which states: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,[Muslims]—and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”5 The treaty, unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by President John Adams, became the law of the land. It has sparked controversy ever since. Regardless of the reasons for this treaty, it indicates that from the very founding the issue of religion was a central point in U.S. relations with the rest of the world and had to be addressed early on.

Over the next few decades of U.S. foreign policy, there was no more, or less, religious influence in foreign policy than there had been in the initial period of the nation. Nevertheless, with a number of religious awakenings and frontier revivals taking place in the early 19th century affecting domestic politics, the United States increasingly became an evangelical Protestant country from the top of the government to the lowest rungs of society. This social movement created a domestic political landscape that added a layer of complication for policymakers tasked with negotiations between the United States and predominantly Catholic countries. Policymakers had to keep their eyes on how their negotiations would be viewed domestically as well as internationally. It also created a challenging dynamic when it came to immigration, particularly from Ireland and Roman Catholic Europe.

Evangelicalism became what historian Randall Balmer called “America’s folk religion.”6 This uniquely American version of Protestant Christianity, following the roots it had from the First Great Awakening, remained highly political and indeed, often on the progressive side of American politics. This set the stage for the next great internal struggle for the country’s religious soul, the American Civil War. Beneath all the political conflicts, the war was an intensely theologically charged event.7

Woven through this version of American Evangelical Protestantism was a Calvinist thread that allowed apparently nondemocratic and nonequal institutions to exist alongside the principle that all men were created equal. Race-based slavery and treatment of native populations are but two of the examples. And while both abolition to slavery and opposition to treatment of Native Americans was espoused by a few religious leaders, the general idea that Providence had created people for different stations in life, based on race, translated itself into the fabric of both domestic and international relations. European nations were on the top of the heap, with the whiter and more northern Europeans first on the European race ladder. The “American Jesus” was white.8 American leaders accepted the “white man’s burden” of participating in bringing civilization to the world. This posture became increasingly hard to maintain as the United States became more active in the world, espousing its vision of “equal rights” while acting in unequal ways on the international stage.

The American Civil War settled some of the divisive issues that the founders in the Constitution had not settled and left a united country that would be capable of conducting a stronger foreign policy. While the period of the war was an inward-looking one, it shaped the religious notion of America’s place in the world. To begin with, the abolitionist movement was undergirded by northern evangelical activism. The Second Great Awakening from the early to mid-19th century was simultaneously a conservative theological movement and a progressive political one. The abolition of slavery was one of the principal issues arising from such revival leaders as Charles Finney and such new evangelical institutions as Oberlin College. The antislavery terrorist, John Brown, was inspired to take up arms in his attack on the institution of slavery by taking a pledge to God at a memorial for Presbyterian minister and abolitionist martyr, Elijah Lovejoy.

In a larger sense, however, the Civil War left Americans with a sense that they had paid a redemptive sacrifice in blood that must hold some divine purpose. The very fact that the nation had survived seemed to be a sign of some divine purpose. Ironically, it was President Abraham Lincoln, who did not affiliate with any religious institution and who was personally skeptical of revivalist movements, who did much to create the image of the United States as God’s chosen. In his Second Inaugural Address, he proposed the idea that God was distinctly involved in the nation’s life. In what is likely the most religious inaugural address in presidential history, Lincoln wrote:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?9

With Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday a little more than a month later, the religious connection became fixed in the public mind. Preachers in pulpits across the North connected the martyred president of God’s chosen country, dying on the day celebrating the death of Christ, and further solidified the religious image in the imagination of the American people. This theme would continue throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century. The spiritual awakenings that followed the Civil War continued this blending of patriotism with conversion.

From Reconstruction to the Spanish American War

An early manifestation of this new religious attitude toward foreign policy played out in the late 19th century battle over imperialism, the idea that the United States should compete with Europe in holding colonies. This was the first big test of whether this new international religious outlook would dominate U.S. foreign policy. The opportunity to validate this outlook was the American War with Spain, the “splendid little war” as Secretary of State John Hay called it. Those who wanted to acquire colonies often spoke of an “empire of righteousness.” Among those who believed that the United States was called by God to hold colonies was Senator Albert Beveridge who stated upon winning the war with Spain that “[God] . . . has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace. The judgment of the Master is upon us: ‘Ye have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many things.’”10 President William McKinley famously said that he had prayed and asked God, who indicated that since the Philippines had fallen into American hands the United States had little choice. “[T]here was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”11

However, the anti-imperialists, led by the intensely devout William Jennings Bryan, were just as sure of America’s divine purpose and equally sure that it was to oppose imperialism and bring about a godly world democracy that allowed nations to choose for themselves what their government should be. Bryan famously opposed the taking of colonies in his speech on “Imperialism,” delivered on August 8, 1900: “If true Christianity consists in carrying out in our daily lives the teachings of Christ, who will say that we are commanded to civilize with dynamite and proselyte with the sword?” and “Love, not force, was the weapon of the Nazarene; sacrifice for others, not the exploitation of them, was His method of reaching the human heart.”12 Thus, in contrast to the traditional pattern of American isolationism, these two approaches to the world established a contrasting idea of American involvement based on idealistic, religious (Protestant Christian) values. While the ideas themselves were contradictory in that they were both for and against imperialism, they united in that they were both international in outlook and based in an idealistic Christian framework.

Modern progressives who hail the anti-imperialists are often unaware of the racial overtones that many anti-imperialists projected. Indeed, race continued to dominate both sides of the debate. On the imperialist side were those who embraced the paternalistic “white man’s burden” and wanted to “uplift and civilize” those lesser races. On the anti-imperialist side were those who wished to preserve the racial purity of the United States and were concerned about adding citizens of other races. On the subject of race, American religion was as divided as the public.

With the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt became president and a new era was born, one in which these two approaches to foreign policy would be heightened. While many who have studied Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy consider him a “realist,” historian Andrew Preston noted that Roosevelt’s view of involvement in the world was based in the same social gospel that fueled his domestic policies.13 Thus, an involvement in the balance of power, where no U.S. interests were involved, such as he did in the first Moroccan Crisis, was seen by Roosevelt as a way in which the righteous might of the United States would help determine the greater good of the world. While he didn’t normally use specific biblical language or concepts in his discussion of policy, Roosevelt had little trouble using religious concepts in his campaign speeches, such as his famous line from the 1912 election, “We Stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!”

Religion and Wilsonian Internationalism

Teddy Roosevelt’s diplomatic involvement in the world, outside of American interests, set a precedent that was used quite differently by Roosevelt’s successor, Woodrow Wilson. While Roosevelt and Wilson were political rivals and had little respect for each other, Roosevelt had created the precedent on which Wilson built an even more idealistic, Christian view of America’s role in the world. McKinley, Roosevelt, and Wilson were building on the set of spiritual awakenings that took place in the country following the Civil War, associated with the revivalist Dwight L. Moody. These men recognized that the country would be willing to take international action because of their Christian beliefs, beliefs that they shared.

In addition to bolstering the mix of Christianity with the idea of America as God’s chosen nation, the light of the world, and teacher of the nations, the Moody era revivals, and those that followed, provided a domestic framework on which a president could build an interventionist foreign policy. As William McKinley did when he justified keeping the Philippines, Woodrow Wilson tapped into this same sense of divine mission to enlist support for his crusade to remake the world into a liberal democratic world order. He spoke of a new world built on Christian principles, ending war by entering the war on the allied side to ensure “peace without victory.” While Wilson’s argument about going to war to defeat one side in the conflict in order to achieve “peace without victory” seems contradictory to most, it was not for Wilson. For Wilson, the contradiction was rooted and resolved in his understanding of his Presbyterianism, as well as his willingness to think and act in Calvinist patterns, which submitted apparent contradiction to the Divine will. Wilson acted in these religious patterns even while taking purely secular actions.

The United States’ entry into the First World War was a case study in the way an American leader used religious patterns of American thought to further a foreign policy agenda that was not primarily in the self-interest of the United States. The United States could have sat out the war and let the Europeans slug it out. Indeed, it would have profited in the end by doing so. Wilson, however, privately grew ever more convinced that he was president at this specific time by divine plan to create a new world order from the tragedy of the Great War in Europe.

By exercising his moral opinion, which tended to penalize Germany more than Britain or France, he steadily, though unwittingly, pushed the Germans into acting in belligerent ways toward the United States. The note sent to Germany following the sinking of the Lusitania, on which American passengers were killed, was much harsher than the note sent to Britain, which had carelessly put military equipment on passenger liners for transport. Indeed, the note was so “unneutral” that it precipitated the resignation of William Jennings Bryan, who was then Wilson’s secretary of state.14 Yet, when war was finally declared, the United States did not join the alliance, but instead joined as an “associated power” so as to keep its superior distinction from the dark powers of Europe. The United States was on a mission to save the world.

Wilson’s address to Congress asking for a declaration of war was given on Good Friday and closed with a statement reminiscent of the German Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther’s closing lines at the Diet of Worms: “God helping her [the U.S.] she can do no other.”15 As the war progressed, this sense of divine mission became more pronounced in Wilson’s thinking and rhetoric until it was a full-blown “redemption of the world” that he spoke of at Pueblo, Colorado, just prior to his physical breakdown: “I wish that they could feel the moral obligation that rests upon us not to go back on those boys, but to see the thing through, to see it through to the end and make good their redemption of the world. For nothing-less depends upon this decision, nothing less than liberation and salvation of the world.”16

While Wilsonian religious idealism faded into the background following the war, with Warren G. Harding’s “return to normalcy,” it has remained a strain in U.S. foreign relations ever since.

Religious Normalcy between the Wars

The break between the world wars gave both American policymakers and the American public time to re-sort and solidify the religious underpinnings that would influence the United States as it faced the world. Three strands in the religious views of the American public connected the various foreign policy initiatives. The three strands can be identified (simplistically) as conservative religion, progressive religion, and missionary religion. Each of these strands holds its own corresponding perspective on domestic and international politics.

The kind of conservative religion that developed between the wars in the 20th century was a response to the conflicts with modernity in the previous century. The reaction to the teaching on evolution and the population shift from a rural to an urban majority produced Christian fundamentalism in rural America that was prone to avoid the secular world. Fundamentalism was a highly individualistic version of evangelicalism, and its avoidance of the world made it compatible with an older version of American isolationism. Fundamentalists retreated from the world, and what little political involvement they had was prone to be in opposition to secular trends in the world around them. Focusing on the end of the world, the great tribulation, the second coming of Christ, and the idea that globalization was paving the way for the Antichrist to come, they were uninterested in engaging in international affairs. Politicians elected from areas where fundamentalism was strong tended to carry variations of these views with them to Washington. While fundamentalism tended to be isolationist, it retained a sense of America as a Christian nation (though in decline) and during the Cold War tended to support the buildup of defense spending against godless communism.

Fundamentalism was largely a reaction to the increasingly adaptable and progressive version of American Christianity that fueled much of the 19th-century reform movements. This version of Christianity, often evangelical itself, was open to science and evolution, interested in seeing the gospel affect society, and prone to want to work in communities, including international communities, to create a peaceful and just world. Typified by people like E. Stanley Jones working in India and John R. Mott working in China, this movement was detached from ultra-Americanism and devoted to the idea of world peace. Mott, as leader of the YMCA and Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, used his influence to promote a more liberal version of Christianity not merely in China but elsewhere around the world. This version was far more communitarian, less individualistic, and more international. Woodrow Wilson tried unsuccessfully to get Mott to be ambassador to China but did convince him to participate in the Special Diplomatic Mission to Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution. Jones, a close friend of Mohandas Gandhi and confidant of Franklin Roosevelt, was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 and 1963, and was awarded the Gandhi Peace Award in 1963. Mott won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.17 This version of Christianity undergirded more progressive versions of Christian internationalism. It was supportive of the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations. It sprang from the optimistic versions of American Christianity in the 19th century. Many educated religious and political leaders embraced this version of American religion. Its internationalist strain resisted the idea of the Americanization of the world.18 Mott’s people, for instance, were often interested in making Christianity in China Chinese rather than simply exporting American Christianity to China. Reinhold Niebuhr’s, Irony of American History, though far less optimistic, can be associated with this stream of religion. Niebuhr’s book influenced several presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

However, between these two versions of Christianity was another, more populist version of American evangelicalism, which was the missionary strand of conservative Christianity. This brand of religion was American, believing that the United States was the hope for the world; it was individualistic and interested in making the world into the image of the United States. This became the largest group of evangelicals, thanks in large part to 20th-century revivalists such as Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, and a host of others. These evangelists were primarily interested in saving individuals for Christ, but they were comfortable with the modern changing world. They were also deeply patriotic and pressed Americans to see their Christian commitment as connected to their patriotism. They were international in the sense that they wanted to see the world “won to Christ,” but they were American in the sense that they considered America a Christian nation and thus the model for the rest of the world. Billy Graham was perhaps the most adaptable politically of these, having a relationship with every president from Harry Truman (which went badly) to Barack Obama. These presidents even included the Roman Catholic John Kennedy, though Graham’s Protestant prejudice prevented them from forming a close relationship. It was this version of Christianity that the political right enlisted later, in the late 1970s, to help them further their domestic and foreign policy agenda.

World War Redux and the Battle against Godless Communism

The Second World War created a new sense of flux in American attitudes toward religion. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not as intellectually devoted to ideas as were the two previous internationalists, Woodrow Wilson (whose administration he served in) or Theodore Roosevelt (his distant cousin), but he was nonetheless a complex international thinker. What Roosevelt contributed to the religious aspect of American foreign policy was an even greater sense of the United States as itself a religious idea. With his “Four Freedoms” enshrined in Norman Rockwell paintings, FDR was an embodiment of the national religiosity. His speeches gave Americans a sense of their importance in saving the nation and later saving the world. The coming of the Second World War became the catalyst for sweeping realignments and rethinking of American religion in the international sphere. The combination of the domestic effect of the Great Depression and the collective sacrifice required to prosecute the war against Germany and Japan made Americans willing to reevaluate their prejudices somewhat. While racial and gender issues persisted, the fight against an enemy that made racial purity its centerpiece created a conflict in the minds of many Americans. The revelation of the attempted Nazi extermination of European Jews began to open the minds of some Americans to their own anti-Semitism. After creating the Western international order following the Second World War, Americans elected no more “isolationist” presidents. All subsequent policymakers approached the world with variations of the international policies represented by either Woodrow Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt.

Following the war, a new confrontation was set up. That conflict was between the increasingly religious “God-fearing” United States and its only military rival in the world, the “godless” Soviet Union. The postwar period saw the United States reach the highest point of religiosity in its history, with Christianity enjoying a popular deeply patriotic boom.19 The religious affiliation of presidents, always important during elections, now became an essential part of governing the nation. With Christianity and patriotism intertwined, patriotism became suspect for those who deviated from American religious norms. When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, he was an unaffiliated former member of an offshoot American Christian group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, considered outside the mainstream by most evangelicals. Eisenhower, deciding he needed to fix this problem, was baptized and joined the Presbyterian Church, a mainstream Protestant church that was the denomination of seven other presidents. During these Cold War years, “In God We Trust” became the official motto of the United States, and “Under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance.

The Cold War battle against communism carried with it the full feeling of a religious crusade. Armies were raised to fight the foe in foreign lands, and a domestic inquisition was created at home, in the form of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), to maintain American doctrinal purity. Americans truly believed that God was on their side.

During this period, American attitudes toward racial equality were deeply challenged. On the one hand, a war had just been fought against a nation that had attempted to dominate the world with a philosophy of racial purity. The Nazi leaders had even borrowed, to the embarrassment of American progressives, ideas of eugenics cultivated in the United States. Now as the United States battled communism in insurgencies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the Soviet Union was able to point to southern “Jim Crow” laws in the United States as evidence of the hypocrisy of American ideas of freedom. The civil rights movement in the South, carried on largely in southern black churches, became an international embarrassment to foreign policymakers and gave domestic calls for equal rights greater urgency.

Jews and American Foreign Policy

Anti-Semitism, though less virulent in the United States than in Europe, was nevertheless present. It came out in diverse settings such as populist, racist, Klan rallies and in the smug jokes of upper-class New Englanders.20 The Jewish Holocaust in Europe during the war began to chip away at this prejudice. That erosion of prejudice was further aided by two forces, one international, and one domestic. Internationally, the prejudice was mitigated by the creation of the state of Israel, as a homeland for Jews, on the other side of the world. For some Americans, this fixed the problem. They could hold a mild prejudice while sympathetically helping the “other” be some “other” place.

The primary reason Americans shifted their position on the Jewish issue, however, was the rise within American fundamentalism, spreading to the broader evangelical community, of a theological view called Dispensational Premillennialism. This view, initially rooted in conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals, countered the progressive views of more optimistic American “liberal” Protestantism. Dispensational Premillennialism posed the ideas that you needed to find personal salvation or you would die in the final judgment, and that the world itself was soon to be destroyed at the literal return of Christ. The true Christian church (those who had found personal salvation) would be “raptured” (taken to heaven) by Christ himself, and there would be a great battle led by the anti-Christ (and possibly Russia and/or China) to destroy the Jews and drive them from their homeland. God would intervene on behalf of the Jews, and they would win at great cost. After winning this great cosmic conflict, the Jews would then inherit the earth, and Christ would reign over them on earth and over Christians in heaven. The dispensationalism outlined here is only one version of this theological idea; there are hundreds of other variations on this theme. Revival preachers and “prophecy experts” wrote books and spent money on radio and television to promote their own personal variations on this theology. All of these views consider the Jews to be God’s chosen people and the land of Palestine to belong to the Jews as their homeland. The existence of the state of Israel on the land of Palestine was essential to these prophecies predicting the end of the world. And dispensationalists looked forward to the world ending, justice being done to those they considered evil and themselves going to heaven to reign with Christ.

This arcane theological view is important to U.S. foreign policy because it expanded outside the small conservative fundamentalist circles in which it began. This spread occurred because of the publication of the popular Scofield Study Bible, and the result of the late 19th- and 20th-century revivals that promoted both that bible and the idea of the impending end of the world. Eventually, dispensationalism became the most prominent evangelical view in America. It permeated popular culture to the point that even nonreligious people were aware of the imagery of this theological idea. By some estimates, 48% of American Christians espoused this view. A 2004 Newsweek poll, however, revealed that 55% of Americans believed this myth.21 This popular myth tied policymakers, who needed to get reelected at home, to a strong pro-Israel stance on foreign policy issues. Thus, U.S. policy in the Middle East was religious from the beginning. It would later become far more complicated as Americans got increasingly involved in nation building in Islamic nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as ongoing confrontations with Iran and Syria.

The Catholic Question

The United States developed a civil religion based on Protestant cultural norms. It was not just Protestant, but an aggressive evangelical Protestantism that was very worried about heaven and hell for those who believed differently. While American patriotism became interwoven with this religion and American flags were placed in many churches alongside the Christian flag, one group of Christians remained outsiders in Christian America. Roman Catholics were under suspicion from the very beginning. First, they were distrusted because America was Protestant and held to its Protestant prejudices. However, after the establishment of the Republic, Roman Catholics came under suspicion because their allegiance to the Pope was seen as an allegiance to a foreign government.

When in 1928 Democrat Al Smith ran for president as the first Catholic to run on a major party ticket, his Catholicism was one of the issues credited with keeping him from winning the election. While it was not the only issue, the fact that it was publicly raised indicated the degree of anti-Catholic prejudice that still existed in the United States in 1928. The disruption of the Second World War was a turning point on this issue, as it was with women, race, and many other parts of American culture. Having pulled together as Americans and having fought side by side in Europe and the Pacific, many returning soldiers were willing to put aside some of their home-grown prejudices. In the election of 1960, when John Kennedy ran for president, he assured the electorate that he was first and foremost an American. Kennedy’s election at the beginning of the turbulent 1960s and the subsequent social upheaval left the lesser prejudice of being Catholic on the back shelf of history. In the coming decades, socially conservative evangelicals and socially conservative Roman Catholics would find common cause in politics. By the mid-1970s, political views became the predictor of which religious views Americans identified with.

Human Rights, Defeat of Communism, War on Terror

The 1976 presidential election marked a change in the way American foreign policy and religion would be mixed. After decades of attempted realpolitik and military adventures overseas, Americans elected a Baptist Sunday school teacher and former governor president of the United States. Running against the accidental president, Gerald Ford (Ford had succeeded to the presidency upon Richard Nixon’s resignation as president), Democrat Jimmy Carter was put over the top by, among other things, his evangelical Baptist credentials. Upon taking office, he immediately set out to make U.S. foreign policy conform to his ideas of Christian values. Carter was very open about his “born again” faith and believed strongly that the United States should pursue a foreign policy that was based on an unchanging moral foundation. “Our policy is based on an historical vision of America’s role. Our policy is derived from a larger view of global change. Our policy is rooted in our moral values, which never change. Our policy is reinforced by our material wealth and by our military power. Our policy is designed to serve mankind.”22 Carter’s presidency was the most overtly evangelical administration since Woodrow Wilson’s. Further clarifying how Carter saw himself was an interview with the publication Christianity Today in January 2012, in which he said:

I’ve always been fully committed to separation of church and state. I didn’t permit worship services in the White House as had been done earlier. I was careful not ever to promote my own Christianity as superior in America to other religions, because I feel all religious believers should be treated carefully. At the same time, there’s no way I could ever separate my Christian belief from my obligations as a naval officer, as a governor or as President, or from my work now. I can’t say my commitments as President were free of my beliefs. We worship the Prince of Peace, and one of the key elements of my life as President in challenging times was to keep our country peaceful. I was able to deal with challenges without launching a missile or dropping a bomb. My commitment to peace was an aspect of my Christian faith. Also, basic human rights are obviously compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and I made human rights a foundation of foreign policy.23

The margin of success in getting Jimmy Carter elected in 1976 came from the evangelicals, who voted for one of their own. Republican strategists, who held a more confrontational view of the world and America’s role in the world, as well as different domestic issues, were forced to deal with this. They immediately came up with a series of initiatives to harness evangelicals to their cause. Finding key domestic issues that resonated with socially conservative evangelicals and Catholics and harnessing a new group of evangelical converts, “Jesus people,” coming in from the hippie counter culture of the 1960s–1970s, they built a new coalition that elected a traditional Cold Warrior, Ronald Reagan, in 1980.24

Reagan, the first divorced president, a man who seldom attended church, and whose wife was reported to consult with astrologers, nevertheless spent a lot of time courting conservative Christians. Reagan famously said to a crowd of evangelicals: “I know you can’t endorse me. But I endorse you, and what you are doing.” What the Reagan years did was to increasingly make the political issues of greater importance to many American Christians than the Christian values in which they were rooted. This gave men like Reagan and later George W. Bush a lot of leeway in foreign policy.

The administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were in some ways similar to those in the period between Woodrow Wilson and FDR. Both eras were a time when the political views of Americans realigned and transformed. George H. W. Bush, though making his fortune in Texas oil, was culturally a New Englander. He was uncomfortable with public shows of religiosity or emotion. He never inspired the religious base, and his foreign policy was that of a professional diplomat, which he had been. Bill Clinton, beset by a personal moral scandal, was quite open about his Christian faith but succeeded in polarizing the electorate. By 2000, evangelicals had again found their president in the person of a “born again” George W. Bush, son of the elder Bush.

George W. was not shy about sharing his faith. Nor was he shy about connecting the United States to a Christian mission to the world. Following the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, he made that connection very clear. In a speech on Ellis Island on the first anniversary of the attacks, he made a reference that sounded like Woodrow Wilson arguing for the redemption of the world:

And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

A growing group of Christian theologians, some from conservative and some from more liberal-leaning groups, began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with this close blending of America with the scriptures. For many the equation made in the anniversary speech between the United States and Jesus Christ—the “light shining in the darkness” quoted by the president—was blasphemy. Equating Christ with the United States, they, argued, was fundamentally non-Christian, and Christians should distance themselves from this kind of politics. Younger evangelicals began to question the relationship their parents had formed with the political right. In addition, and most of all, these new evangelicals questioned what kind of foreign policy they could support as Christians. The view of progressive theologian Jim Wallis was perhaps the most pointed when he responded to the anniversary speech.

Those last two sentences are straight out of John’s gospel. But in the gospel the light shining in the darkness is the Word of God, and the light is the light of Christ. It’s not about America and its values. Even his favorite hymn, “A Charge to Keep,” speaks of that charge as “a God to glorify”—not to “do everything we can to protect the American homeland,” as Bush has named our charge to keep.25

A growing number of younger Christians were listening, and as polls began to show, shifts were again underway in American religion. While it is and will remain a large part of U.S. foreign policy, the flux of pluralism, the interaction with nations of predominantly Muslim population, the issues related to the long-standing connection of the United States to the nation of Israel, all promise to create a new alignment in the future.

Connecting the foreign policies of Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush is not easy. They were three very different presidents, and with the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney in the administration of George W. Bush, some of Bush’s particularities seem obscured. Upon closer examination, however, one can see the same religious patterns of wanting to make the world into a kinder, gentler place through spreading democracy, supporting human rights, and ending corrupt dictatorships. The comparison of these three presidents was made in an article published in 2006 in Presidential Studies Quarterly. In that article, the authors, D. Jason Berggren and Nicol C. Rae, lay out the similarities between these three administrations and explain why they are both unique to U.S. foreign policy and utterly American at the same time.26 They make the comparison themselves and also cite other scholars, noting that historians point out that Carter was the most theologically literate president since Wilson; that he tried to actively reform repressive regimes in other nations; and that he saw the United States as a beacon for democracy and human rights.27 Berggren and Rae continue the comparison to George W. Bush who, after September 11, appeared to embrace the Wilsonian tradition of making the United States the driving force for democratization of the world.28 These foreign policies represent two very different approaches to the world: one is based on idealism and human rights, and the other on interventionism and the idea that nations can be rebuilt to conform to the American ideal. Both were at heart Wilsonian, and both were rooted in an American version of Christianity, one progressive and international, one missionary and nationalist.

American Religion and the 21st-Century World

At the beginning of the 21st century, how American foreign policy will unfold remains to be seen. Historians will no doubt find that the policies of Barack Obama fall somewhere between those of Carter and Bush. However, Obama himself was very aware of the religious nature of American foreign policy. While being wrongly accused of being a Muslim (he was raised by a Christian turned secular mother but asserted a personal affirmation of the Christian faith being baptized in the early 1990s at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago29), he was sensitive to the idea that the wars in the Middle East could look like religious wars to Muslims. The presidential election of 2016 ushered in something completely new in modern US foreign relations. With the election of New York billionaire Donald Trump a modern version of “Dollar Diplomacy” went into effect. The new President was intent on defying past norms and deeply incurious about historic precedents. Intent on applying business principles to international relations he monetized American alliance systems, while also operating with the competing philosophies of American first isolationism and aggressive internationalist business interests. This was a radical departure from traditional U.S. foreign policy.

Significantly, the Trump presidency has coincided with a major shift in American religious views. Politically conservative Evangelicalism, and Protestantism in general, a dominant force since the Cold War and the 1976 election, began a precipitous decline. From a high of seventy percent in 1964, Protestantism declined to a mere thirty five percent in 2018 ( Evangelicalism, the activist engine of American Protestantism was for the first time matched, and perhaps surpassed, by Americans who stated they had no religion( The Trump Administration, however, has been more beholden to Evangelicals than perhaps any previous President, and has given them the legislation and foreign policy that they wanted, particularly when it comes to Israel.

With the rise of those with no religion particularly among younger Americans, and the growth of an activist religious left, the more traditional place for Evangelicals in U.S. history, the days of a dominant conservative Protestantism might be numbered.( Conservative Catholics, also a large block, are more theologically and socially complex and add a different calculation to the religious right. Considering the history of the United States there is no certain prediction for the future. The death of religion in American society has been predicted before, but America has had a tremendous ability to embrace awakenings of religion. Despite the growth of unaffiliated, atheist, agnostic, and nothing in particular, Americans are still far more religious than their European counterparts( The end result is that in 2019 the United States is at a turning point, but predicting where it will turn is not within the skill set of historians.

Review of the Literature

Several new scholarly works have addressed the issue of religion in the foreign policy of the United States. First and foremost of these works for the reader wanting to know the scope of this subject is Cambridge Professor Andrew Preston’s work, Sword of the Spirit Shield of Faith, Religion in American War and Diplomacy, which covers the history of this subject from the Colonial period to the early Obama years.30 Some of the many works on religion from the Progressive Era through the First World War look at the rise of Wilsonian internationalism, but others examine earlier periods. The Spanish American War and religion are discussed in Matthew McCullough’s book, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and the U.S. Expansion in the Spanish American War.31 With regard to Wilson and religion, there are a number of books, most building on John Mulder’s work from 1978, Woodrow Wilson: The Years of Preparation, which was a supplemental volume to the Woodrow Wilson presidential papers edited by Arthur Link, for which Mulder was associate editor. Among these books are Mark Benbow’s, Leading Them to the Promised Land: Woodrow Wilson, Covenant Theology, and the Mexican Revolution, 1913–1915 and Malcolm Magee’s What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith Based Foreign Policy.32 For a more theoretical look at religion and this period of foreign policy, see Milan Babik, Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology.33 One of the best overall sources on Wilson is the elegantly written, A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order, by Cara Burnidge.34 Burnidge contextualizes this period in the larger context of American religious history.

Other works explore this issue more broadly, with some of them clarifying Emily Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion 1890–1945, which deals with the issue of American missionaries in the world, but fails to clarify the difference between the John R. Mott, E. Stanley Jones variety, and the missionary strand of conservative Christianity.35 Two other works are Anna Su, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power, and Walter A. McDougall’s broad look at American religion and foreign policy, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest.36 These books, like Rosenberg’s, tend to be critical of the American religious mission but add clarity to the missionary portion of the earlier work by Rosenberg.

Regarding American Catholics and foreign policy, John T. McGreevy has written American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global.37

Books that provide helpful background to the entire subject of American religion in the 18th and 19th centuries are Mark Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. A final book for background that examines the twentieth century is Mark Noll and Luke Harlow’s, Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present.38

Further Reading

  • Bacevich, Andrew j. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Holt Paperbacks, American Empire Project, 2009.
  • Burnidge, Cara. A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • McDougall, Walter A. The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.
  • Noll, Mark. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Preston, Andrew. Sword of the Spirit Shield of Faith, Religion in American War and Diplomacy. New York: Anchor Books, 2012.


  • 1. Henry May, The Enlightenment in America, First Thus edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

  • 2. Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit Shield of Faith, Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 11.

  • 3. George W. Bush, President Bush’s Remarks on September 11, 2002, Ellis Island, New York.

  • 4. Connecticut was the last state to disestablish in 1818, but Massachusetts continued to fund churches until 1833.

  • 5. Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796.

  • 6. Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

  • 7. Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era), 1st ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

  • 8. See Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004).

  • 9. Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

  • 10. Albert J. Beveridge, In Support of an American Empire, Source: Record, 56 Cong., I Sess., pp. 704–712.

  • 11. William McKinley. Source: General James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate, January 22, 1903.

  • 12. William Jennings Bryan, Imperialism, August 8, 1900.

  • 13. Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 210–211.

  • 14. For the best overview of how the United States ceased to be neutral, even as Wilson insisted it was, the best scholarly work is by John W. Coogan, The End of Neutrality: The United States, Britain and Maritime Rights, 1899–1915 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981). For a more recent look at the issue, consult Robert Tucker, Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

  • 15. Woodrow Wilson, War Message to Congress, April 2, 1917.

  • 16. Woodrow Wilson, Final Address in Support of the League of Nations, September 25, 1919, Pueblo, CO.

  • 17. E. Stanley Jones’s first major work was The Christ of the Indian Road (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1925), influenced by his encounters with Gandhi, and was an attempt to “Indianize” Christianity. In 1915, John R. Mott wrote The Present World Situation: with Special Reference to the Demands Made upon the Christian Church in Relation to Non-Christian Lands, published by his own organization in which he criticized “The Unchristian Aspects of the Impact of Our Western Civilization”

  • 18. Proposed by another progressive internationalist, and a truly eccentric person, William T. Stead.

  • 19. Frank Newport, "In U.S., Four in 10 Report Attending Church in Last Week," Gallup News, December 24, 2013.

  • 20. For instance, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Wilson’s arch opponent on the League of Nations who tried to slip in immigration restrictions aimed directly at Jews. See Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 180–181.

  • 21. Newsweek, May 24, 2004.

  • 22. Carter’s Foreign Policy, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State.

  • 23. Jimmy Carter, Interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey, January 9, 2012, Christianity Today.

  • 24. This has been well documented by a number of historians. Among them are Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right: From the Countercultures of Jerry Garcia to the Subculture of Jerry Falwell (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007); and David W. Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

  • 25. Jim Wallis, “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s Theology of Empire,” Mississippi Review 32, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 60–72.

  • 26. D. Jason Berggren and Nicol C. Rae, “Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush: Faith, Foreign Policy, and an Evangelical Presidential Style,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 36, no. 4 (December 2006): 606–632.

  • 27. Berggren and Rae, quoting other historians.

  • 28. Berggren and Rae.

  • 29. Lisa Miller, "Barack Obama’s Christian Journey," Newsweek, July 11, 2008.

  • 30. Preston, Sword of the Spirit.

  • 31. Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and the U.S. Expansion in the Spanish American War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).

  • 32. John Mulder, Woodrow Wilson: The Years of Preparation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978); Mark Benbow, Leading Them to the Promised Land: Woodrow Wilson, Covenant Theology, and the Mexican Revolution, 1913–1915 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2010); Malcolm Magee, What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith Based Foreign Policy (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008).

  • 33. Milan Babik, Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013).

  • 34. Burnidge, A Peaceful Conquest.

  • 35. Emily Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion 1890–1945 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).

  • 36. Anna Su, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Walter A. McDougall, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

  • 37. John T. McGreevy, American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

  • 38. Noll, America’s God; Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Mark Noll and Luke Harlow, Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).