U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Christian Origins of the American Century

I am at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New Orleans, a place I had never been to before–and yes, the food and drink are outstanding.  I am here ostensibly to present a paper on a project that the Academy of American Franciscan History has sponsored as part of a book series.  My book is on Franciscans and the culture they created through media.  The panel went well, but more on that topic (again) some other time.

I attended an excellent panel Friday morning (at 8:30) entitled “Christian Origins of the American Century,” chaired by MSU’s Malcolm Magee and commented on by Andrew Preston of Cambridge.  The panelists were all very strong and young and well-spoken.  In short, the panel was a great success.  I want to give a brief review of it because the panel demonstrates, as Preston observed, all the great work that has been done religion and American foreign policy, and the great amount of work still needed to be done.

The panel’s creator was a Cara Burnidge, who is working on a book that deals with how World War I and the debate over the League of Nations offered Protestants opportunities to establish specific religious positions on the role the United States would play after the war.  Among the most interesting insights Burnidge offered was the battle over the kinds of Biblicism Protestant church leaders, and leading politicians such at Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson brought to bear on competing visions of an American foreign policy.  In short, each historical actor believed that the war and the fight over the League revealed who had a “true” vision of Christianity.  Burnidge emphasized that this battle took place well-before historians typically peg the schism in evangelical and fundamentalist thought–the Scopes Trial is at least five years after the debates over the League take place.  And so she sees clear signs of a fracturing among Protestants over international affairs before domestic events take center stage.

The second paper came from Mark Edwards, a friend of this blog, who regularly offers sharp comments to our many posts, and who is the author of The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism.  Mark’s paper was on the little known (though not for long) Protestant polymath Francis Pickens Miller, whose writing on totalitarian nationalism and the need for unified Christian front as a countervailing force, anticipated by a decade the work and pronouncements of his much better-known contemporaries, Reinhold Niebuhr and John Foster Dulles.  Mark is looking specifically at how Miller worked through the Council on Foreign Relations to help shape a Christian response to horrors of World War II and Soviet Communism.  For me, Mark brings a great deal more context to the development of Niebuhr’s thinking–in fact, Mark has a hunch that Miller understood where Niebuhr was headed with Christian realism before the great man did himself.  Mark has begun to marshall a set of sources that will, it seems to me, be a definitive look at the way religion played a fundamental role in the shaping of foreign policy in the 1940s and 1950s, and not merely as I and others have argued, as a set of assumptions and almost rhetorical arguments for opposing Communism and framing war.

The third presenter was Caitlin Carenen from Eastern Connecticut State University whose new book is strong and timely, The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel.  The title states what Carenen’s significant contribution is: she illustrates how *liberal Protestants* played a role in the formation of and support for the state of Israel.  Thus, this is not simply a story about fundamentalists and evangelicals using Israel for domestic consumption and foreign policy leverage.  Among the great revelations of Carenen’s work is her well-documented campaigns by the American Christian Palestine Committee (ACPC) to convince liberal Protestants that supporting the state of Israel and its ownership of Jerusalem made sense.  While the reasons for such support might sound obvious–Christian guilt over the Holocaust and geo-political calculations about the region–the ACPC still had its work cut-out for it when trying to convince groups of Protestants that Jews had a legitimate claim to statehood in the Middle East.

All three papers were really well-delivered–something that I know we all can appreciate.  The comments provided by Andy Preston demonstrated why he is simply one of the best historians of modern America today.  Preston has written a big book on religion and American foreign relations, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. It is the first full length look at the interaction between religion and American foreign policy to appear.  And because Preston is a fine writer, it is a persuasive and genre-setting work.  His comments were generous and specific but I want to conclude with the one that is most revealing and pertinent to me.  Preston asked, quite justifiably, in these Christian origins of the American century, where are the Catholics?  Indeed, none of the papers took up this angle, though, admittedly, none of the authors claimed they would.  However, the absence of mention of Catholics in the presentations suggests that work needs to be done on not merely the general integration of religion in the history of American foreign policy and war, but the also integration of Catholics into it.  This is not to say that the topic is completely overlooked but I expect we will see studies in the coming years that bring Catholics into debates over the League of Nations, the alliance system of the early cold war, and the creation and support of Israel, among other topics.  I know I will contribute to that discussion in someway…perhaps with something on Richard John Neuhaus.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Its a shame that there is really no good biography of Father Edmund Walsh, who tied the Catholic faith to American civil religion, on the market.

  2. Thanks so much for this perceptive and generous write-up, Ray!

    You and Preston are spot on in noting that many religious historians (including myself) struggle to craft narratives that inter-relate Protestants AND Catholics. It’s about as visible and vexing a problem as the conservative-liberal Protestant divide in American historiography. And international issues/foreign policy seems to be an site in which these new narratives should be appearing. Angela Lahr and others have written on how the Cold War provided a context for fundies to reassert the relevance of their message; I remember writing a paper as a first-year graduate student in which I argued that the Cold War did the same thing for Catholics. That probably happened earlier, as FDR and other power elites began looking to Catholics for support in the war against Fascism. In other words, it’s hard to imagine the development of the “American Century” apart from the greater prominence and persuasiveness of Catholic networks and ideas.

    Sorry I didn’t have anything to offer yet as to the Catholic presence in the CFR. I’m a slow thinker; pondering your question as the day went on, I should have responded that Catholicism certainly was central to the development of Protestant internationalism, even if Catholics were not. As my paper made implicit and my book explicit, Prots like Miller couldn’t imagine achieving universal expression and unified action, in the witness against totalitarianism (nationalism more generally), apart from themselves becoming more Catholic (or at least Anglican!). At the same time, ecumenists were hardly generous to their Catholic progenitors–H. Richard Niebuhr prophesied in 1948 that it was ecumenists’ destiny to “be more Catholic than Rome is, to become, in short, the vehicle of Catholic Reformation”).

    So, there’s alot to be done on Catholics’ role in shaping US foreign policy; hopefully, some of it will overcome the continuing Protestant-Catholic historiographical divide.

    • That was a very solid panel, Mark. And you are an excellent presenter and writer. I strongly encourage all readers of this blog to ask your libraries to pick up Mark’s book. On the subject of Catholics and foreign policy, I should have known enough to check what Wilson Miscamble is doing–he is writing a book on the topic from that covers the period from 1898 to the present. So we will, I imagine fairly soon, have a book that fills the gap we discussed. It will be THE overview of the topic, so there will be work that needs to be done on topics related to it and contesting it–especially, as Mark notes above, on the interaction between different religious groups.

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