American Civil Religion has embraced exceptionalism at the risk of prudence, giving us the endless wars we have today.

By John A. Burtka IV
January 22, 2018
The American Conservative


The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, Walter A. McDougall, Yale University Press, 424 pages

“The deformation of American Civil Religion has ended by devouring America itself.” With those ominous words, Walter McDougall closes his most recent book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. I ordered McDougall’s work shortly after attending a lecture of his last fall in Philadelphia. It was a robust history of American Civil Religion that challenged our society’s deepest beliefs about our national purpose and role in the world.

McDougall, a true American patriot and veteran, takes the reader on a sobering journey that reckons with over a century of American empire and its disastrous effects. While his conclusions are not for the faint of heart, a proper reading of his book is immensely needed as a rising generation of Americans face tough choices about how to deal with the sins (real and perceived) of their forefathers.

Many factors influence a country’s foreign policy, but perhaps the most fundamental is the story or myth that memorializes a society’s purpose and relationship to the divine. The concept of civil religion, according to McDougall, is best defined by political scientist Ellie West as “…a set a beliefs and attitudes that explain the meaning and purpose of any given political society in terms of its relationship to a transcendent, spiritual reality, that are held by the people generally of that society, and that are expressed in public rituals, myths, and symbols.” All societies have civil religions and depend on them for social cohesion and morale, which McDougall acknowledges as both natural and healthy. However, problems arise when the tenets of a civil religion threaten the foundation of a regime itself.

In the case of America, McDougall describes three iterations of American Civil Religion (ACR) and their effects on our actions throughout the world. In the late 1790s, the “Classical ACR” of our Founding Fathers was epitomized by George Washington’s Farewell Address. America was a promised land of religious, political, and economic liberty and a constitutional republic worthy of honor and veneration. To preserve the inheritance that Providence bestowed upon us, we should “avoid entangling alliances and foster goodwill towards all nations.” America was to lead primarily by example, not by force.

In the 1890s, the influences of progressive pastors in mainline churches, altruistic business tycoons, and scientific advancements in the academy forged a divergent new faith that McDougall calls the “Progressive ACR.” According to this civil religion, the Kingdom of God comes not through faith and repentance but through social advances that improve the quality of life for all Americans. The ills of human life—poverty, disease, death—were no longer the fruits of sin or vice but obstacles that could be overcome by an enlightened group of experts directing our progressive society. The new mission of American foreign policy would not be to hide the gospel of progress under a bushel but to take it to the world under the banner of Old Glory. President McKinley summarized this mission best in his second inaugural address when he proclaimed: “The American people…reject as mistaken and unworthy the doctrine that we lose our own liberties by securing foundations of liberty to others. Our institutions will not deteriorate by extension under…tropic suns in distant seas.”

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