Christianity and US foreign policy

Mike Thompson

In recent years the link between Christianity and US foreign policy has become a topic of increasing global interest. During the Bush era religion seems to have re-entered the public square with a vengeance. The convergence of the extraordinary military and economic pre-eminence of the US with the rise of an explicitly religious political discourse behind it has left some people bemused, some alarmed and many angry.

So how can we understand the role Christianity plays in this picture?

If, on the one hand, our mistake as Australians can be to view the US too cynically, on the other, it can be that we engage in no critical reflection at all. In offering an historical perspective, I'm not intending to offer you a story or a chronology, but rather an analysis of some of the main ways in which Christians have thought about foreign affairs in American history. A series of paradigms, if you will. There are three:

1)  American exceptionalism
2)  American Protestant fundamentalism
3)  Christian pacifism

And then fourthly, I will suggest the contours of a paradigm that doesn't actually exist, but one that I wish did - a wish-list, if you like.

American exceptionalism

Some call it exceptionalism, some simply American nationalism, while others call it the 'redeemer nation' motif.

Writing in the middle of the Vietnam War, historian E.L. Tuveson, in his classic 1968 Redeemer Nation, summarized it succinctly. The 'redeemer nation' belief, in a capsule, was this: "Chosen race; chosen nation; millennial-utopian destiny for mankind; a continuing war between good (progress) and evil (reaction) in which the United States is to play a starring role as world redeemer".

Sound familiar?

The belief that God has acted through American history gave rise to what Columbia University historian Anders Stephanson called 'Destinarianism'.  Destinarianism is a sense of historical destiny: that some divine being or ideal manifests its plan in time and space, in an historical moment. Stephanson links this to war in the 1840s and 1890s, to President Wilson during World War I and President Reagan in the 1980s.

The relationship of Christianity to this mentality is complex. On the one hand exceptionalism is a view that shapes many Americans, whether Christian or not. And on the other hand, it has come out of a kind of "translation" of Christianity itself.

Neconservatism is in fact an extension and radicalization of this exceptionalist tradition, even while it claims to be more "realistic".

At no point does neoconservatism purport to be Christian. Yet in the post 9/11 years, we have seen an all too easy alliance between Christians and a neoconservative and ultra-nationalist foreign policy agenda.

In order to address this, we need to take account of one more layer in the equation. That is, the worldview of so-called 'fundamentalist' evangelicalism, which has its own separate and colourful history.

American protestant fundamentalism

Fundamentalism properly construed doesn't just mean someone who holds to something dogmatically. Its particular historical meaning comes from rifts within American Protestantism in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Fundamentalism sought to fight religious and intellectual modernism and all it represented. It insisted on the literal truth of scripture, but as historian Mark Noll shows, this wasn't Scripture as reformed evangelicalism would hold it. This was about what he called the 'versification' of scripture (carving it up into verses) - the taking of little pieces of scripture out of context and insisting upon their self-interpreting authority.

These improper uses of the Bible have had a direct bearing on foreign policy. American fundamentalism over the last 120 years gave birth to a whole new, now mainstream, genre of what they call "prophecy" teachings, (in stricter parlance "pre-millennialist Dispensationalism").
What this amounts to is the ability to view foreign policy in terms of an apocalyptic battle. Currently in the US, you can see TV shows about how American policy toward Iran is the next step in the apocalyptic equation.

With roots in the new evangelicalism of the 1950s, the "religious right" became politically organized by pioneers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the 1970s and 1980s - supporting Reagan over the avowedly Christian Jimmy Carter; remaining critical of Clinton, and supporting George W Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections. While they were mainly interested in a socially conservative and perhaps fiscally conservative agenda, hawkishness in defense policy was part of the package. And it suited the evangelicals' sense of patriotism and sense of cosmic warfare.
So to sum up, looking at the situation of post 9/11 US, we have to take into account these historical layers: American exceptionalism; the peculiar neoconservative mix of realism and idealism; and the rise of fundamentalism to political (and cultural) influence.

Christian pacifism

The most devastating critique of the above conglomeration of Christianity, politics and empire has come from the re-emergence of Christian pacifists. The one figure who best exemplifies this position today is American theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

Unlike the liberal pacifists of the 1920s and 1930s, Hauerwas's pacifism is not about reforming the world, nor about maintaining the national purity of the United States. Rather, it emphasizes the separation of the church from the world. Not that Christians should withdraw from the world, but that they should actively refuse to participate in the ways of the world where those ways conflict with the example and message of Jesus Christ. Let the church be the church, they say, and call Caesar to repentance, not join his State Dept or staff his Pentagon.

Their effort to forge a politics that takes Jesus' death and resurrection seriously, and that seeks to answer the call for the church to be a public community of peace, and not merely a collection of individuals exercising a private religion, is timely.


In offering a fourth paradigm, if Christians were to approach international relations, I would hope their approach would have the following contours:

-  It would recognize the God-given capacity of states to exercise judgment but resist the pretensions of nationalism, the identity-conferring capacity of the nation-state and the false claims to universal validity.
-  It would seek to promote relationships between nations by respecting positive international law, but more importantly, natural and divine law out of reverence for Christ. As such, the just war tradition is the furthest you could go, in terms of military action.
-  It would seek to realize the theological truth of the truly global body of Christ, in which national barriers are defeated, and allow the church to foster an internationalism that 'spills out' into unity across ethnic and cultural divides.
-  It would preach humility to itself and the nations based on recognition of universal sin and the transcendence of God.

Mike Thompson is currently completing his PhD in History at the University of Sydney, where he is researching and teaching American History.