“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.