The Author of Liberty: Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy (John B. Judis, Fall 2005, Dissent)

Since the country’s founding, Americans have invoked the Bible and Christian, often specifically Protestant, beliefs to explain their role in the world. Presidents from John Adams and Andrew Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan attributed America’s role to “Providence” or “Destiny.” In his inaugural address, Adams thanked an “overruling Providence which has so signally protected this country from the first.” During the Second World War, Roosevelt told Congress, “We on our side are striving to be true to [our] divine heritage.”

Many high officials have invoked an American “mission” or “calling” to “further freedom’s triumph.” Woodrow Wilson saw America’s leadership in the new League of Nations as leading to the “liberation and salvation of the world.” During the 1960 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon said that America had come “into the world 180 years ago not just to have freedom for ourselves, but to carry it to the whole world . . . ” And in his second inaugural, Reagan described Americans as “one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world.”

In short, many presidents before Bush have invoked religious concepts or quoted the Bible to justify or explain a foreign policy dedicated, they claimed, to the spread of freedom and democracy. […]

Religion has entered into Americans’ thinking about foreign policy primarily by framing how Americans understand their role and responsibilities in the world. There are three key components of this framework.
The first is the idea of America as God’s “chosen nation”—from Abraham Lincoln’s “the last, best hope of earth” to Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation,” to George W. Bush’s claim that the United States has “a unique role in human events.” The second is the idea that America has a “mission” or a “calling” to transform the world. God, Senator Albert Beveridge declared during the debate over the annexation of the Philippines, had “marked the American people as His chosen nation to . . . lead in the redemption of the world.”

The third component of the framework is the idea that the United States, in carrying out its mission, represents the forces of good against those of evil. William McKinley’s secretary of state, John Hay, described the Indian wars as “the righteous victory of light over darkness . . . the fight of civilization against barbarism.” In 1942, Roosevelt warned that in the war with Germany and Japan, “There never has been—there never can be—successful compromise between good and evil.” Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” And George W. Bush declared at West Point in May 2003, “We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.”

The specific terms of this framework—exactly what kind of world Americans want to create and exactly who stands in the way—have changed over the last two and a quarter centuries. The first generation of Americans, for instance, saw themselves creating what Thomas Jefferson called an “empire of liberty” against the opposition of Old World tyranny; Jacksonian Democrats wanted to build a continental Christian civilization against the opposition of “red demons”; Theodore Roosevelt’s generation envisioned the spread of Anglo-Saxon civilization against the opposition of barbarians and savages; and Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and their successors wanted to create a global democratic order against the opposition, first, of imperial Germany, then of fascism, and then of communism. […]

In addition to its formulation in explicitly religious terms, the framework is religious in two other important ways. First, it is specifically rooted in the Protestant millennialism that was brought to America from England in the seventeenth century. The English Puritans originally believed that England was to be the “new Israel”— the site of the millennium and of the climactic battle of Armageddon predicted in the Book of Revelation. After the collapse of Oliver Cromwell’s revolution in 1658, they transferred their hopes to the New World. New England, Cotton Mather wrote in 1702, is “the spot of Earth, which the God of Heaven spied out as the center of the future kingdom.” Jonathan Edwards, the leading figure of the Great Awakening of the 1740s, predicted that “the dawning, or at least the prelude, of that glorious work of God . . . shall begin in America.”

In the late eighteenth century, America’s founders transformed this biblical millennialism into what historian Nathan Hatch has called America’s “civil millennialism.” They translated Protestant millennialist doctrine into the language of American nationalism and exceptionalism. The chosen people—whom Edwards and Mather had identified with the Visible Saints of New England’s Congregational churches—became the citizens of the United States; and the hopes for New England were transferred to the new United States, which, Thomas Barnard declared, “are now His vineyard.” The millennium became a thousand-year-reign of religious and civil liberty where, in Timothy Dwight’s words, “Peace and right and freedom greet the skies.” And the adversary became English tyranny and an Old World Catholicism that was trying to destroy “the church in the wilderness.”

Second, Americans approached these grand objectives, and the obstacles that seemed to stand in their way, with a religious mentality, characterized by an apocalyptic outlook characteristic of seventeenth-century Protestant millennialism.

Indeed, America’s wars fit on a simple continuum, from the wars against aboriginals and the Brits to establish our own republic of liberty to the wars against imperialists, Nazis, Communists and now Islamicists to help preserve or establish such republics for others. It is the argument of

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