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A Religious Spirit Drives America’s Interventions

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America’s foreign interventions over the last century arise from deeply held religious motivations.
The source of these motivations reaches back to the end of the 19th century and the invention of the “social gospel.”

A gospel that would redeem not only individual souls but groups and even nations, the social gospel took root in the effort to civilize, democratize and Christianize the world.

Traces of this movement mark the Spanish American War, the Filipino intervention, World War I and II, the multiple interventions into Latin America in the 20th century, the Vietnam War and recent involvements in the Middle East.

John McCain has argued that America’s “interests are our values.” We are led not simply by a lust for power, land or oil but by an ideology of principles, expressed as a civil gospel forged over a century ago.

This gospel has consistently knitted together democracy and laissez-faire economic policy in a peculiar American tapestry synthesized as an American gospel to be shared with the world.

President William McKinley said God told him to invade the Philippines, and President Woodrow Wilson, who was infused with the piety of the social gospel and who crusaded to create world peace in the League of Nations, gave his life for this dream, which he called “the kingdom of God.”

George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, too, stated that the United States had the “right and responsibility” to occupy a foreign country because America embodied “a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.”

Bush’s dream, sometimes thought of as an aberration, smoothly ties together the strains of the American civic gospel.

And for much of the last century, U.S. interventions have had “tutelage” as their goal — that is, to train and guide nations in American civic gospel and then to give them independence.

Wilson did this for the first time in the case of the Philippines. A similar kind of policy appears to be at work in Iraq.

Past generations have often talked about “civilizing the uncivilized,” mentoring our “political children,” intervening in the affairs of “lesser” countries to Christianize and democratize them.

We don’t say that now, but this is at least in part what we are doing in Afghanistan and why we have entered into the internecine conflict in Libya.

Much of this comes out of a deeply Anglo-Saxon march to re-invent the world in the image of the American dream of democracy, capitalism and Christianity.

Many have disputed whether these belong together, but consistency and purity of religion have never been an American virtue; extending the American civic dream trumps the prophetic strain in the biblical tradition.

Those who voted for President Barack Obama did so not because he was religious or motivated by his Christian faith.

Yet, in addressing the committee for his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama took a page straight from the 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a critical figure in the construction of the Cold War.

Niebuhr embodied Christian realism: to deter evil and to secure the innocent, to keep totalitarian regimes from doing their evil.

Obama picks up many of these themes, beginning with the idea that self-righteousness is the first error of great powers, so we must be humble and aware of our faults.

But, as Obama says, “make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies… To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

This is Christian realism in its purest form. Ironically, American liberals are neither historically secular nor isolationists; they are often motivated by a religious sensibility.

They have believed that intervening to stop evil and to promote the good of democracy, freedom and yes, capitalism is sometimes necessary.

This explains in part the Left’s ever-reborn support for nation building through the use of force, which we see once again today in Libya.

Now, many will say, “This is naïve, that religion had nothing to do with it and our interests were territory, oil and power.” Cynics abound.

Others will say that the social gospel was a counter note to this American civic gospel, but in our research we found quite the opposite, indeed, an ideological paradigm to extend the values of the American dream.

And so, we say, read the history. Over the last 100 years, in particular, our values have driven our interests.

Have they sometimes been misguided? Of course.

Have they sometimes been deeply fruitful? Yes, indeed.

In either direction, though, a religious spirit has driven American interventions in the world.

James Wellman is associate professor and chair of the Comparative Religion Program at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. Wellman and S.R. Thompson, a master of arts graduate from the Comparative Religion Program, just published online “The Social Gospel Legacy in U.S. Foreign Policy.” It can be read at ReligJournal.com. This column first appeared in Sightings.