On June 1954, the CIA deposed Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz in a coup. Using a CIA-trained militia and a thorough propaganda campaign, the United States intervened in a small agricultural state with minimal international influence. To explain such a move, historians often point to the profit-maximizing machinations of Boston-based United Fruit Company, which owned banana plantations that Árbenz had redistributed. When the UFC appealed to their connections in the Eisenhower administration to protect American economic interests, Eisenhower mobilized the CIA and the State Department, and the rest is history. 

Recently, however, historians have wondered whether ideology—not economics—was this episode’s true motivator. Fear of a Communist conspiracy behind Árbenz’s land reform and the subsequent spread of Soviet influence into the western hemisphere, the argument goes, motivated Eisenhower to intervene more than did United Fruit’s bottom line. In an interview given to historian Piero Gleijeses, an adviser to Árbenz’s government famously lamented: “They would have overthrown us even if we had grown no bananas.”  

What motivates American decision-making? Historians have tended to focus on politics or economics, systems of power that dictate interests and attendant actions. Recently, they have begun paying more attention to the influence of ideology on foreign-policy decisions. This materialist-versus-ideology debate is particularly prevalent in studies of American history because of a supposedly strong American ideological streak—the desire to remake the world in its image—that guides its foreign policy. 

University of Pennsylvania historian Walter A. McDougall examines this ideology and its implications in The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy. He especially focuses on the role “civil religion” plays in shaping the way Americans see the world. McDougall borrows political scientist Ellis West’s definition: “a set of beliefs and attitudes that explain the meaning and purpose of any given political society in terms of its relationship to a transcendent, spiritual reality.” Distinct from nationalism or state-worship, civil religion is a belief in an eternal reality, often divinely ordained, and the nation’s place in it. In the case of the United States, McDougall insists that the First Amendment, by banning an official state religion, “silently established a civil religion to which all sectarian believers must bow.” 

What, then, is American civil religion? According to McDougall, it comes in three varieties. The first, termed “classical,” teaches that the United States is a promised land meant to serve as an example of prosperity to the rest of the world. Epitomized by Washington’s oft-quoted Farewell Address and built into the Constitution by the Founders, classical American civil religion dominated in the first hundred years of U.S. history. These early Americans believed that they must look after their country’s own affairs rather than become ensnared in the complications of the Old World. Americans had their place, and they had to maintain and cultivate it; any crusading or expansionist impulse could only harm the soul of the United States. Although the United States did intervene in Latin America and subdue the land and people of the North American continent, McDougall insists that the animating spirit of the nineteenth century was not expansionism per se, but rather improvement of the sphere that they believed God had granted. 

McDougall calls the second brand of American civil religion the “progressive” vision, which dominated from the 1890s to the 1960s. Progressivism was an abrupt departure from classical civil religion. Rather than seeing themselves as a mere model, Americans began to feel a call to “export[…] American material and spiritual blessings.” What changed in the 1890s? The checks that had previously existed on American power—patchy control over its own western territory, relative weakness, and “theological humility”—disappeared, encouraging what McDougall calls “Protestant fanaticism.” He points to growing financial and technological capabilities and a new sense of global interconnectedness that encouraged Americans to feel that they had to expand or perish. Emerging ideas of social Darwinism only supported this mandate.  

Occupation of the Philippines and Cuba in 1898 was the inaugural event of this era of American civil religion. Nonintervention, previously the guardian of American goodness and prosperity, became “hiding a lamp under a basket,” a sin rather than a virtue. Beginning with McKinley and extending through the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, exporting American values Became the goal of foreign policy-making.  

THE THIRD PHASE of American civil religion, the millennial phase, is the extension of the progressive mindset to the rest of the world. While progressive foreign policy was confrontational, battling for American influence, millennial foreign policy was the fruition of this effort, the final stage at which other countries and global institutions had (or eventually would) come into alignment with American priorities. Some might call this “triumphalism,” a sense that history’s end has finally arrived, and that all that is left to do is wait for the last holdouts of other ideologies to see the light. According to McDougall, the presidents of the last forty years of the twentieth century—Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton, and then, most prominently, Obama—were giddy on millennial civil religion. So prevalent is it now that McDougall projects, “Millennial ACR will most likely double as the first operational global civil religion.” 

McDougall calls his approach “U.S. diplomatic history in the metaphysical mode.” Few scholars of foreign policy take the role of religion as seriously as does McDougall. Rather than a mere “superstructure” that glosses over “real” economic systems or a cover for greed, religion and assumptions stemming from it were earnestly believed and structured policymaking throughout American history. Although we tend to think of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as ages of increasing secularization, the denizens of that time had their own enchantments. McDougall singles out William Appleman Williams, a renowned Marxist historian, as a special foil. Williams argues that American history is the history of expanding influence and accumulating wealth; McDougall demonstrates how this was the opposite of American policy until the 1890s, precisely because of the dominant classical ideology of the time. 

But McDougall has a larger point, a unique answer to the pervasive debate among historians about the importance of material conditions versus ideology: at least in the case of American history, this is a false dichotomy. In American mythology, doing well materially is closely tied up with having moral wisdom. Throughout the book, McDougall often refers to American civil religion as “the right to feeling good about doing well”—that by achieving material prosperity, whether at home or abroad, Americans were acting morally for themselves and for the rest of the world. Thus, selecting either the lens of materialism or ideology is inadequate.  In the American mentality, one entails the other. 

Although his narrative thread is remarkably consistent and well-researched, McDougall loses focus halfway through the book. It becomes unclear whether his main story is about American civil religion, the religiously inflected “everyman” understanding of God’s hand in American history, or the response of institutional religions (and the elites that controlled them) to foreign-policy decisions. He explains that by World War II most institutions of mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism had fallen into lockstep with American civil religion and remained so after (he calls this alliance the “spiritual-industrial complex”), but McDougall is silent on this matter before the chapters on World War II. By not explaining this shift in focus, McDougall risks confusing the two categories of American civil religion and institutional religion. 

In his 1998 book Promised Land, Crusader State, McDougall declared that the question of our century is whether the United States can have a progressive worldview (be a “crusader state”) and still remain the promised land that classical civil religion envisioned. His answer then, at the height of American triumphalism after the Cold War, was no; the United States can only compromise itself and its values by embarking on quests abroad. Eighteen years later, after several disastrous wars and interventions, he reaches the same conclusion: “The deformation of American Civil Religion has ended by devouring America itself.”

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the January 6, 2017 issue: View Contents
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