Religion has always been a major force in U.S. politics, policy, identity, and culture. Religion shapes the nation’s character, helps form Americans’ ideas about the world, and influences the ways Americans respond to events beyond their borders. Religion explains both Americans’ sense of themselves as a chosen people and their belief that they have a duty to spread their values throughout the world. Of course, not all Americans believe such things — and those who do often bitterly disagree over exactly what they mean. But enough believe them that the ideas exercise profound influence over the country’s behavior abroad and at home.
In one sense, religion is so important to life in the United States that it disappears into the mix. Partisans on all sides of important questions regularly appeal to religious principles to support their views, and the country is so religiously diverse that support for almost any conceivable foreign policy can be found somewhere.
Yet the balance of power among the different religious strands shifts over time; in the last generation, this balance has shifted significantly, and with dramatic consequences. The more conservative strains within American Protestantism have gained adherents, and the liberal Protestantism that dominated the country during the middle years of the twentieth century has weakened. This shift has already changed U.S. foreign policy in profound ways.
These changes have yet to be widely understood, however, in part because most students of foreign policy in the United States and abroad are relatively unfamiliar with conservative U.S. Protestantism. That the views of the evangelical Reverend Billy Graham lead to quite different approaches to foreign relations than, say, those popular at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University is not generally appreciated. But subtle theological and cultural differences can and do have important political consequences. Interpreting the impact of religious changes in the United States on U.S. foreign policy therefore requires a closer look into the big revival tent of American Protestantism.
Why focus exclusively on Protestantism? The answer is, in part, that Protestantism has shaped much of the country’s identity and remains today the majority faith in the United States (although only just). Moreover, the changes in Catholicism (the second-largest faith and the largest single religious denomination in the country) present a more mixed picture with fewer foreign policy implications. And finally, the remaining religious groups in the United States are significantly less influential when it comes to the country’s politics. […]
Evangelicals, the third of the leading strands in American Protestantism, straddle the divide between fundamentalists and liberals. Their core beliefs share common roots with fundamentalism, but their ideas about the world have been heavily influenced by the optimism endemic to U.S. society. Although there is considerable theological diversity within this group, in general it is informed by the “soft Calvinism” of the sixteenth-century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, the thinking of English evangelists such as John Wesley (who carried on the tradition of German Pietism), and, in the United States, the experience of the eighteenth-century Great Awakening and subsequent religious revivals.
The leading evangelical denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention, which, with more than 16.3 million members, is the largest Protestant denomination in the country. The next-largest evangelical denominations are the African American churches, including the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., and the National Baptist Convention of America (each of which reports having about 5 million members). The predominately African American Church of God in Christ, with 5.5 million members, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, and the rapidly growing Assemblies of God, which has 2.7 million members, is the largest Pentecostal denomination that is not predominately black. The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod, which has 2.5 million members, is the second-largest predominately white evangelical denomination. Like fundamentalists, white evangelicals are often found in independent congregations and small denominations. So-called parachurch organizations, such as the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Promise Keepers, and the Wycliffe Bible Translators, often replace or supplement traditional denominational structures among evangelicals.
Evangelicals resemble fundamentalists in several respects. Like fundamentalists, evangelicals attach a great deal of importance to the doctrinal tenets of Christianity, not just to its ethical teachings. For evangelicals and fundamentalists, liberals’ emphasis on ethics translates into a belief that good works and the fulfillment of moral law are the road to God — a betrayal of Christ’s message, in their view. Because of original sin, they argue, humanity is utterly incapable of fulfilling any moral law whatever. The fundamental message of Christianity is that human efforts to please God by observing high ethical standards must fail; only Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection can redeem man. Admitting one’s sinful nature and accepting Christ’s sacrifice are what both evangelicals and fundamentalists mean by being “born again.” When liberal Christians put ethics at the heart of their theology, fundamentalists and evangelicals question whether these liberals know what Christianity really means.
Evangelicals also attach great importance to the difference between those who are “saved” and those who are not. Like fundamentalists, they believe that human beings who die without accepting Christ are doomed to everlasting separation from God. They also agree with fundamentalists that “natural” people — those who have not been “saved” — are unable to do any good works on their own.
Finally, most (although not all) evangelicals share the fundamentalist approach to the end of the world. Virtually all evangelicals believe that the biblical prophecies will be fulfilled, and a majority agree with fundamentalists on the position known as premillennialism: the belief that Christ’s return will precede the establishment of the prophesied thousand-year reign of peace. Ultimately, all human efforts to build a peaceful world will fail.
Given these similarities, it is not surprising that many observers tend to confuse evangelicals and fundamentalists, thinking that the former are simply a watered down version of the latter. Yet there are important differences between the fundamentalist and the evangelical worldviews. Although the theological positions on these issues can be very technical and nuanced, evangelicals tend to act under the influence of a cheerier form of Calvinism. The strict position is that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was only intended for the small number of souls God intended to save; the others have no chance for salvation. Psychologically and doctrinally, American evangelicals generally have a less bleak outlook. They believe that the benefits of salvation are potentially available to everyone, and that God gives everyone just enough grace to be able to choose salvation if he wishes. Strict Calvinist doctrine divides humanity into two camps with little in common. In the predominant evangelical view, God loves each soul, is unutterably grieved when any are lost, and urgently seeks to save them all.
All Christians, whether fundamentalist, liberal, or evangelical, acknowledge at least formally the responsibility to show love and compassion to everyone, Christian or not. For evangelicals, this demand has extra urgency. Billions of perishing souls can still be saved for Christ, they believe. The example Christians set in their daily lives, the help they give the needy, and the effectiveness of their proclamation of the gospel — these can bring lost souls to Christ and help fulfill the divine plan. Evangelicals constantly reinforce the message of Christian responsibility to the world. Partly as a result, evangelicals are often open to, and even eager for, social action and cooperation with nonbelievers in projects to improve human welfare, even though they continue to believe that those who reject Christ cannot be united with God after death.
Evangelicals can be hard to predict. Shocked by recent polls showing that a substantial majority of Americans reject the theory of evolution, intellectuals and journalists in the United States and abroad have braced themselves for an all-out assault on Darwinian science. But no such onslaught has been forthcoming. U.S. public opinion has long rejected Darwinism, yet even in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, which have large actively Christian populations, state universities go on teaching astronomy, genetics, geology, and paleontology with no concern for religious cosmology, and the United States continues to support the world’s most successful scientific community. Most evangelicals find nothing odd about this seeming contradiction. Nor do they wish to change it — unlike the fundamentalists. The pragmatism of U.S. culture combines with the somewhat anti-intellectual cast of evangelical religion to create a very broad public tolerance for what, to some, might seem an intolerable level of cognitive dissonance. In the seventeenth century, Puritan Harvard opposed Copernican cosmology, but today evangelical America is largely content to let discrepancies between biblical chronology and the fossil record stand unresolved. What evangelicals do not like is what some call “scientism”: the attempt to teach evolution or any other subject in such a way as to rule out the possibility of the existence and activity of God.
Evangelicals are more optimistic than fundamentalists about the prospects for moral progress. The postmillennial minority among them (which holds that Christ will return after a thousand years of world peace, not before) believes that this process can continue until human society reaches a state of holiness: that the religious progress of individuals and societies can culminate in the establishment of a peaceable kingdom through a process of gradual improvement. This is a view of history very compatible with the optimism of liberal Christians, and evangelicals and liberal Christians have in fact joined in many common efforts at both domestic and international moral improvement throughout U.S. history. Although the premillennial majority is less optimistic about the ultimate success of such efforts, American evangelicals are often optimistic about the short-term prospects for human betterment. […]
The growing influence of evangelicals has affected U.S. foreign policy in several ways; two issues in particular illustrate the resultant changes. On the question of humanitarian and human rights policies, evangelical leadership is altering priorities and methods while increasing overall support for both foreign aid and the defense of human rights. And on the question of Israel, rising evangelical power has deepened U.S. support for the Jewish state, even as the liberal Christian establishment has distanced itself from Jerusalem.
In these cases as in others, evangelical political power today is not leading the United States in a completely new direction. We have seen at least parts of this film before: evangelicals were the dominant force in U.S. culture during much of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. But the country’s change in orientation in recent years has nonetheless been pronounced.
Evangelicals in the Anglo-American world have long supported humanitarian and human rights policies on a global basis. The British antislavery movement, for example, was led by an evangelical, William Wilberforce. Evangelicals were consistent supporters of nineteenth-century national liberation movements — often Christian minorities seeking to break from Ottoman rule. And evangelicals led a number of reform campaigns, often with feminist overtones: against suttee (the immolation of widows) in India, against foot binding in China, in support of female education throughout the developing world, and against human sexual trafficking (the “white slave trade”) everywhere. Evangelicals have also long been concerned with issues relating to Africa.
As evangelicals have recently returned to a position of power in U.S. politics, they have supported similar causes and given new energy and support to U.S. humanitarian efforts. Under President Bush, with the strong support of Michael Gerson (an evangelical who was Bush’s senior policy adviser and speechwriter), U.S. aid to Africa has risen by 67 percent, including $15 billion in new spending for programs to combat HIV and AIDS. African politicians, such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, have stressed their own evangelical credentials to build support in Washington, much as China’s Sun Yat-sen and Madame Chiang Kai-shek once did. Thanks to evangelical pressure, efforts to suppress human trafficking and the sexual enslavement of women and children have become a much higher priority in U.S. policy, and the country has led the fight to end Sudan’s wars. Rick Warren, pastor of an evangelical megachurch in Southern California and the author of The Purpose Driven Life (the single best-selling volume in the history of U.S. publishing), has mobilized his 22,000 congregants to help combat AIDS worldwide (by hosting a conference on the subject and training volunteers) and to form relationships with churches in Rwanda.
Evangelicals have not, however, simply followed the human rights and humanitarian agendas crafted by liberal and secular leaders. They have made religious freedom — including the freedom to proselytize and to convert — a central focus of their efforts. Thanks largely to evangelical support (although some Catholics and Jews also played a role), Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, establishing an Office of International Religious Freedom in a somewhat skeptical State Department.
Despite these government initiatives, evangelicals, for cultural as well as theological reasons, are often suspicious of state-to-state aid and multilateral institutions. They prefer grass-roots and faith-based organizations. Generally speaking, evangelicals are quick to support efforts to address specific problems, but they are skeptical about grand designs and large-scale development efforts. Evangelicals will often react strongly to particular instances of human suffering or injustice, but they are more interested in problem solving than in institution building. (Liberal Christians often bewail this trait as evidence of the anti-intellectualism of evangelical culture.)
U.S. policy toward Israel is another area where the increased influence of evangelicals has been evident. This relationship has also had a long history. In fact, American Protestant Zionism is significantly older than the modern Jewish version; in the nineteenth century, evangelicals repeatedly petitioned U.S. officials to establish a refuge in the Holy Land for persecuted Jews from Europe and the Ottoman Empire.
U.S. evangelical theology takes a unique view of the role of the Jewish people in the modern world. On the one hand, evangelicals share the widespread Christian view that Christians represent the new and true children of Israel, inheritors of God’s promises to the ancient Hebrews. Yet unlike many other Christians, evangelicals also believe that the Jewish people have a continuing role in God’s plan. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, close study of biblical prophecies convinced evangelical scholars and believers that the Jews would return to the Holy Land before the triumphant return of Christ. Moreover, while the tumultuous years before Jesus’ return are expected to bring many Jews to Christ, many evangelicals believe that until that time, most Jews will continue to reject him. This belief significantly reduces potential tensions between evangelicals and Jews, since evangelicals do not, as Martin Luther did, expect that once exposed to the true faith, Jews will convert in large numbers. Luther’s fury when his expectation was not met led to a more anti-Semitic approach on his part; that is unlikely to happen with contemporary evangelicals.
Evangelicals also find the continued existence of the Jewish people to be a strong argument both for the existence of God and for his power in history. The book of Genesis relates that God told Abraham, “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee. … And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee all families of the earth be blessed.” For evangelicals, the fact that the Jewish people have survived through the millennia and that they have returned to their ancient home is proof that God is real, that the Bible is inspired, and that the Christian religion is true. Many believe that the promise of Genesis still stands and that the God of Abraham will literally bless the United States if the United States blesses Israel. They see in the weakness, defeats, and poverty of the Arab world ample evidence that God curses those who curse Israel.
Criticism of Israel and of the United States for supporting it leaves evangelicals unmoved. If anything, it only strengthens their conviction that the world hates Israel because “fallen man” naturally hates God and his “chosen people.” In standing by Israel, evangelicals feel that they are standing by God — something they are ready to do against the whole world.