Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Chapter 3: Why the American Heresies?

Chapter 3: Why the American Heresies?

The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy:

How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest


McDougall Book Jacket

The original draft of this book contained 172 pages of endnotes, which had to be shed in the name of economy. Thanks to the Internet, readers can access them here. Unfortunately, of course, the author had to substitute page and paragraph numbers for the original superscripts in the text, but in most cases it should be clear which sentences in a given paragraph match up with which sources.

Paragraphs appearing in their entirety on a single page are identified by the page number (e.g., p. 122). Paragraphs divided between two pages are identified by those pages (e.g., pp. 92-93). Paragraphs that share a page with another complete paragraph are identified by the page number and paragraph number (e.g., p. 103, ¶ 1).





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Chapter 3: Why the American Heresies?

25: Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96, no. 1 (Winter 1967): 1-19. See also Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971); Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1974); Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press, 1975); Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond, Varieties of Civil Religion (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980); Leroy Rouner, ed., Civil Religion and Political Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1986).

25-26: See the extraordinary treatise by Hiram Caton, The Politics of Progress: The Origins and Development of the Commercial Republic, 1600-1835 (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1988). Inspired by J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1975), Caton traces the evolution of what he calls “polytechnic rationality” in the Protestantism, capitalism, scientific spirit, and representative governments of the Dutch United Provinces after 1581, the British Whig ascendancy after 1688, and the United States after 1776.

26-27: On the four spirits of English expansion see Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828 (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), pp 17-37.

27: Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 2008), is absolutely correct when he describes the Anglo-American project as religious, indeed anglican (small A), and not secular. “Juggling scripture, tradition, and reason, the English-speaking world blundered its way into an increasingly open society in which religion was constantly adjusting to the demands of social and economic change” (p. 228). See also the concise treatment by Russell Kirk, America’s British Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1993). On the Protestant devolution (or deformation) see James Kurth, “The Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy,” Orbis 42, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 221-39.

27-28: The religious influences on the American War of Independence have inspired a vast literature of which the most example is James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University, 2013). See also Conor Cruise O’Brien, God Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1988), p. 29. Catherine L. Albanese, Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1976), contains abundant evidence for the conflation of Americans’ political and religious agendas.

28: Thomas Paine, Common Sense (New York: Penguin, 2004 <1776>), quote from p. 13. For a brilliant analysis of Paine’s rhetoric see Robert A. Ferguson, “The Commonalities of Common Sense,” William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 3 (July 2000): 465-504.

29: John T. Noonan, Jr., The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom (Berkeley: University of California, 1998).

29-30: Ellis M. West, “A Proposed Neutral Definition of Civil Religion,” Journal of Church & State 22, no. 1 (Winter 1980): 23-40 (p. 39); Richard W. Van Alstyne, Genesis of American Nationalism (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell Publishing, 1970), pp. 3-57. The literature on the faiths of American presidents has grown geometrically in the past thirty years as an expression, in part, of the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s and the foreign wars of the 2000s. Just for example, see Michael and Jana Novak, Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 2003); Daniel L. Dreisach, et al., eds., The Founders on God and Government (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004); John Eidsmore, Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of our Founding Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2004); Randall Balmer, God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008); Gastón Espinosa, ed., Religion, Race, and the American Presidency (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008); Paul Kengor, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004); Mark Rosell and Gleaves Whitney, eds., Religion and the Bush Presidency (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Gary Scott Smith, Faith and the Presidency (New York: Oxford University, 2006); Gastón Espinosa, ed., Religion and the American Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Columbia University, 2009); David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama (Athens: University of Georgia, 2012).

30: James G. Wilson, The Imperial Republic: A Structural History of American Constitutionalism from the Colonial Era to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 1-9. When the Founders casually boasted that America was or would become a great empire, what they had in mind was not even remotely akin to the global alliances and foreign military deployments the United States has engaged in since 1941. The word “empire” meant one of three things in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The obvious first meaning was autocratic rule by a capricious emperor who crushed the liberties of his subjects and exploited them in pursuit of power and glory.  Americans abominated that sort of empire.  A second usage connoted a vast region larger than the typical European kingdom and singled out for some characteristic.  That is the sense in which Jefferson spoke of an Empire of Liberty.  The third meaning of empire in Early Modern English, however, connoted a very specific legal identity: utter, untrammeled sovereignty.  When Henry VIII broke with  the papacy he bade Parliament to pass a format statute declaring “this realm of England is an Empire,” meaning a realm subject to no superior authority, either temporal or spiritual, on the face of the earth.  As William Blackstone explained in his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), I: 235, the words “empire” or “imperial” as used by Parliament simply means that the English king “owes no kind of subjection to any other potentate on earth.”  The Founders and Constitutional Framers assuredly understood that when Congress broke away from the English crown it was declaring the United States to be an empire in the sense of “utterly sovereign.”  Washington’s general orders at:

30-31: Identifying the radical gene in Americans’ DNA is about the only thing Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage, 2006) gets right, but even there he erred by insisting it is the dominant gene. On Jefferson’s fanatical streak see Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist, The Atlantic 278, no. 4 (Oct. 1996): 53-74.

31-32: Most recently Kagan, Dangerous Nation, has argued for ideology. The United States, whenever rightly directed and true to its mission, has advanced democracy, free enterprise, and human rights. Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010); The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008); and The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University, 2005), has argued for economics.  The United States has always been driven by an American Dream that operates like a vast Ponzi scheme, consuming more and more resources and landing the nation in permanent war.  He cites as his inspiration William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: Dell, 1962) and Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament (New York: Oxford University, 1980).  But Professor of Religious Studies Rowland Sherrill understood how civil religion absorbs and transcends ideology and interests alike:  “Civil religion has gone through permutation after permutation throughout the course of our history. Every significant historical event that the country passed through had to get folded into it somehow. There are signs and remnants of religion in places where you don’t expect it. Civil religion is voracious and will gobble up anything it thinks useful”:

Washington’s World: The Civil Church Expectant

p. 33: Letter to William Plumer (Jan 17, 1817) in Worthington Chauncy Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, 7 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1913-17), 6:143.

35: For a brilliant brief description of the literary culture of late colonial America see George H. Nash, Books and the Founding Fathers (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2008).

36, ¶ 2: Washington’s faith remains hotly contested because secularists perpetuate the unfounded myth of his Deism while evangelicals insist on his Christianity. As a self-conscious national leader he carefully cultivated all denominations and referred to the Almighty with ecumenical euphemisms. He was also, like so many military men, something of a mystic.  But it is undeniable that he believed in a personal God who intervenes in history, usually through secondary causes.  See Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2006), pp. 119-42), and John G. West, Jr., “George Washington and the Religious Impulse,” in Gary L. Gregg II and Mathew Spalding, eds., Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999), pp. 267-86.  For my part, Washington is no mystery.  He was exactly what one would expect him to be: an eighteenth-century, latitudinarian, low-church Anglican and Freemason.  He ceased attending Anglican services in 1776, I believe, for the obvious reason that the head of that church was the King of England, so the honorable thing to do was absent himself.  But that did not stop him from paraphrasing the Book of Common Prayer in his Thanksgiving proclamation in 1781.  Americans, he said, had a duty “with grateful hearts, to celebrate the praise of our gracious Benefactor; to confess our manifold sins; to offer up our most fervent supplications to the God of all grace, that it may please Him to pardon our offences and incline our hearts for the future to keep all his laws” (p. 126).  

37: Washington Inaugural Address (April 30, 1789):


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