U.S. Intellectual History Blog

God in the Think Tank

The following is an abridged version of a paper Mark Edwards presented on the panel, “Finding Religion in American Foreign Policy” at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). The panel chair was Michaela Hoenicke Moore, and included Caitlin Carenen and Gene Zubovich, in addition to Edwards.  It is unfinished thinking about a work-in-progress, tentatively entitled God in the Think Tank: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the American Century.  Of course, Edwards welcome all comments, corrections, and criticisms.  If you haven’t done so already, check out Dan Hummel’s summary at RIAH next Wednesday June 25 of one the many power panels at SHAFR this year: A Roundtable on Religion and American Foreign Relations featuring Leo Ribuffo,William Inboden, Molly Worthen, Emily Conroy-Krutz, Ed Blum, and S-USIH’s own Cara Burnidge.

(This is a slightly edited version: I have added William Inboden to the roundtable and the date of Dan Hummel’s report)  

We may debate when and how the “religious turn” in diplomatic history occurred, but there can be little doubt that it has occurred. Thanks to the work of Dianne Kirby, Andrew Rotter, William Inboden, Andrew Preston, and so many others, scholars now understand sacred matters as constitutive as well as constituted elements of American globalism. Religion is not epiphenomenal; it is not merely a mask for realpolitik. As Preston writes in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (2012):

Aside from the personal faith of individual policymakers, religion has been integral to American politics and culture, and to America’s sense of itself, and thus also to the products of politics and culture, such as foreign policy. . . . In times of war, religious liberals and conservatives, militants and pacifists have all called upon God to sanctify their cause, and all have viewed America as God’s chosen land. As a result, U. S. foreign policy has often acquired the tenor of a moral crusade.[i]

In fact, Preston is so successful at tracking religious presence in U. S. statecraft that he has led me to ask a new question: Why is there so much secularism in American foreign relations? Why did we need a religious turn if religion’s always been there? For some time now, historians of religion and politics have been trying to debunk the myth of the naturally secular public square—a timely and necessary project. But we must also confess that, in America at least, secularism is something that had to be constructed deliberately within, against, and even on behalf of a normative Protestant culture and politics.

This paper will explore the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as just such a site of what we might call “religio-secularism” (I first heard this term from Karen DeVries, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, who offers it as an alternative to Habermas’s “postsecular”). The CFR was begun in 1918 by a group of New York swells sweet on the business ends of Wilsonianism. The CFR’s swing to secular statecraft came in 1921 when it joined with the fledgling Institute for International Affairs (IIA). The IIA was an offshoot of Woodrow Wilson’s “scientific peace” planning group, popularly remembered as “the Inquiry.” The new CFR’s members willfully tried to build discursive spaces free from organized religious points of view. Secularization, as they witnessed AND championed it, entailed the transfer of cultural authority from religious to non-religious actors and institutions. We should take their common-sense definition of secularization seriously yet critically. Indeed, current writing on religion and the secular view them both as dynamic, inter-related projects in pursuit of public power. There are no purely religious nor exclusively secular realms. Rather, there are multiple secularisms produced in relation to multiple religions.

If historiography be our guide, the CFR’s relationship to American Protestant culture is the perfect place to explore this confluence of religion and secularism within American foreign policy. The best survey of the CFR, Robert Schulzinger’s Wise Men of Foreign Affairs (1984), barely mentions religion at all. Martin Eerdman’s Building the Kingdom of God on Earth (2005), however, sees CFR members as heralds of faith-based world government—a global City of God. Who is right?

Both, of course (but Schulzinger more so). To appreciate fully Schulzinger’s wise men of irreligion, we must first admit with Preston and others the Protestant incitement to global American expansion in the decades following 1890.[ii] These were critical times in which gentlemen policymakers sought strenuously to secure what Senator Albert Beveridge called the “empire of our principles” by means of guns, gunboats, and new exports like DuPont gunpowder.[iii] Missionaries exerted an enormous influence on this imperial American age by serving 1) as apostles of information about foreign peoples and 2) as high priests of advice about how best to win over the hearts and minds of those same peoples for God and Fordism. The early CFR itself entertained religious speakers such as the globe-trotting YMCA evangelist Sherwood Eddy and the Reverend Arthur J. Brown. At one CFR dinner, Brown foresaw a “new Asia” being brought forth by Western missionary cultivation of an indigenous “Christian leadership.”[iv] Brown’s invocation of “Christian” here was a racial as well as religious term, drawing upon centuries of Europeans trying to distinguish themselves from imagined Global Southern savagery. Scholars such as Joseph Grabill, James Reed, and Susan Harris, among others, have documented that transnational Protestant personnel like Brown decisively shaped American policy and identity in relationship to the Near and Far East.[v] Missionary diplomacy peaked in the ministry, sorry, Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Cara Burnidge, in her excellent forthcoming study, A Peaceful Conquest (Chicago, 2015), argues that Wilsonianism was functionally a liberal Protestant venture seeking the global triumph of Christian Americanism. Wilson’s civil religion of national expansion was entirely in keeping with the proliferation of Christian imagery during what Phillip Jenkins has recently called the “Great and Holy” First World War. The absence of distinctive Christian rhetoric in peace talks simply reveals that what Wilson believed to be sacred could assume forms other than what historians traditionally consider to be “religious.”[vi]

However, the CFR’s merger with the IIA in 1921 marked a new direction in American statecraft—away from imperial Christian developmentalism and toward secular scientific expertise. Few incorporations have been as fortuitous. The Council’s cadre of corporate lawyers and bankers, following the Wilsonian setback, was flush with capital but wanting for vision and purpose. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Inquiry wanted to establish a permanent foreign policy think tank on the model of Britain’s Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA). Wilson’s best and brightest HAD the vision and purpose but not the money or location. Council directors thus decided in 1921 to “re-create” the CFR along the proposed IIA lines.[vii] The IIA’s predominant constituency, social scientists, now possessed the resources they needed to free foreign policymaking from the constraints of explicit Christian typology.

To be sure, the new CFR boasted few outright secularists beyond the Inquiry veterans Walter Lippmann and Columbia historian J. T. Shotwell. In books such as The Religious Revolution of Today (1913) and Intelligence and Politics (1921), Shotwell joined John Dewey in outright criticism of evangelical Protestantism’s public influence. Shotwell prophesied instead religious privatization making way for genuine sciences of human living.[viii] Other CFR insiders—Whitney Shepherdson, A. C. Coolidge, Isaiah Bowman, Hamilton Fish Armstrong—expressed religious indifference more than outright hostility. Members shared Shotwell’s commitment to experimental over revelatory intelligence, all the same. The insider word best reflecting that common, implicit secularism was the word “nonpartisan.” The most obvious meaning of nonpartisan was political: The CFR wanted Democrats and Republicans to work together toward irresistible commercial empire. However, the religious implications of nonpartisan were also evident. According to a 1921 CFR “Statement of Aims and Activities,”

The Council is not a trade nor profit organization nor has it any connection with any political party or religious or social reform agency. It is an entirely non-partisan body, pleading no special cause and committed to no particular point of view or program. Its aim is to aid by scientific and impartial study in the development of a better understanding of international problems and a reasoned American foreign policy.[ix]

“Non-partisan” helped Council members reinforce as well as refocus what Amy Kaplan has called the “double discourse of American imperialism.” As Kaplan explains, “the discourse of U. S. imperialism is . . . double, because it delineates national power that is simultaneously disembodied from territorial boundaries and embodied in the American man.” The realistic Wilsonians of the Inquiry and then the CFR carried forward America’s liberation from geography. But they simultaneously promoted a new ideal of imperial manhood: The “expert.” Following WWI, the seemingly boundless American Century found face, not in Teddy Roosevelt, but in Herbert Hoover ( On this point as well, I’d encourage everyone to check out Neil Smith’s American Empire, a biography of one of the CFR’s founders Isiah Bowman. Smith offers numerous insights into the frustrated Wilsonian desire for what he calls “geo-economic” over geo-political domination.)[x]

We know now not to accept “expert” claims to disinterested research blindly. Instead, we need to understand how the transfer from religious to scientific authority in American foreign policy served certain class, gender, and racial prerogatives. First, while the new CFR was fronted by social scientists, it was backed by Manhattan bankers and lawyers. As Sven Beckert has observed, years of gross capital accumulation had led to a “problem of legitimacy” for New York’s upper-classes in the years before WWI. Organized religion provided less and less comfort, as Victorian gospels of wealth gave way to Christian socialism and other variants of the social gospel. Urban elites, as Thomas Rzeznik and Matthew Bowman have recently noted, were robbed of their “spiritual capital” by the pastoral turn toward the poor and immigrant working classes. The Inquiry’s secular saints thus offered the CFR’s core membership salvation from the sin of conspicuous consumption. The chief architects of the Empire State could continue to conquer Europe, and to pursue the uneven development of the Global South, as a matter of impartial scientific advancement over class or religious fiat.[xi]

Similarly, CFR members reinforced gender and racial hierarchies through scientific secularism. The “expert” did not have to be male. In fact, a few women had served on Inquiry research teams, and the committee charged with incorporating the CFR in 1921 had considered whether or not women could be members. Nevertheless, gender trouble was present at the creation of the new CFR. When word first got out that the Inquiry’s male remnants were looking to start an American IIA, the lawyer and social worker Frances Kellor took matters into her own hands. Kellor had been best known for her work in trying to Americanize European immigrants. As she explained in her 1920 book, Immigration and the Future, an American IIA, understood as a “permanent, non-partisan body of scientific minds,” was needed to study international relations from the standpoint of American interests. Kellor even managed to secure funding and some Inquiry veterans for her Institute. Once the Inquiry’s chief liaison with the old CFR, Whitney Shepherdson, learned of Kellor’s ambitions, he spoke to her financial backers and got them to withdraw support. According to Shepherdson, “the incident served as a prod.” America’s first foreign policy think tank would be gendered well into the 1970s.[xii]

And racialized. The influence of Franz Boas notwithstanding, the postwar scientific turn initially underwrote an increase and not decrease in racial classification. In several instances, social scientific rhetoric intermingled with older arguments for maintaining the global subordination of persons of color. This was evident in Elihu Root’s introductory remarks at a CFR dinner meeting in 1926. The occasion was to hear a report from Henry Stimson, who had recently returned from a tour of the Philippines. Harkening back to his imperial days, Root erased the familiar lines of foreign and domestic when he charged that Filipinos—and Mexicans and Italians, for that matter—were no more ready for “self-government” than African-Americans had been during the “terrible mistake” of Reconstruction. Yet Root no longer talked the civilizing talk of the missionary diplomacy he had been schooled in. Rather, he invoked a nebulous notion of “public opinion” as a marker of effective modern democracy that the Filipinos had not yet learned. Until such time as they did, the US was obligated to “furnish public opinion” for them—evidently through maintaining military bases. Stimson agreed, repeating again and again the necessity of American “supervision” over the islands—if for no other reason than keeping the Chinese and Japanese at bay. Stimson recommended staying the middle course between full Filipino independence and granting statehood, the latter being “the most disastrous thing that could happen.” Why “disastrous?” Because incorporation would threaten white American supremacy, as Kaplan has shown through her analysis of the Supreme Court’s “Insular” cases. It is true that, in his report, Stimson still employed “Christian” as a racial concept—the “so-called Christian Filipinos,” for instance. Other members closer to the CFR’s heart, like Isaiah Bowman, instead embraced the new science of eugenics to prop up the old gradations of peoples.[xiii]

Even still, Bowman and his CFR brethren exposed the falsity of what had recently been dubbed the “religion-secular binary.” In other words, the CFR’s secularism was a “Protestant secularism.” The phrase Protestant secularism, as far as I can tell, was coined by Paul Tillich during the 1920s. Secularism, for Tillich, was “an offspring of Protestantism and is related to it in co-operation or enmity.”[xiv] But where secularism, for Tillich, represented society’s loss of transcendental referents, religious studies scholars such as Talal Asad, Tracy Fessenden, John Modern, and more have come to see secularism as Protestantism’s gain in ability to dominate American religion, culture, and politics. That is not to say that secularism is merely “religion in disguise,” as the several authors of the wonderful treatise, Secularisms (2008), argue. Rather, the notion of Protestant secularism suggests the need for more complex narratives of the historical intersection of religion and public life.[xv] In the case of the CFR, this means wrestling with the fact that, up and through WWII, most rank-and-file members remained practicing Protestants. Council leaders’ quest for an “intelligent” foreign policy, through application of scientific method, still assumed—and counted upon—popular investment in projections of U. S. power formed during the heyday of missionary diplomacy. The CFR’s speakers, editors, and study groups were expected to mute their religious rhetoric and appeals but not to abandon them altogether. A Henry Luce or John Foster Dulles might speak secularism for and before CFR audiences—Luce’s iconic “American Century” essay, for instance, is literally godless—while they nonetheless immersed themselves in Protestant communities. That was clearly evident in Dulles’s leadership of the Federal Council of Churches’ “Just and Durable Peace” crusade during WWII.

Yet the CFR’s most interesting Protestant secularist was not Dulles, but Francis Pickens Miller, who would eventually coordinate the CFR’s local Foreign Relations Committees (FRCs). Miller became an early groupie of CFR work following his Rhodes scholarship, yet he was also a secretary and eventual chairman of Protestantism’s premier missionary agency, the World’s Student Christian Federation (WSCF). In 1930, Miller and his wife Helen published a study of the Americanization of Western Europe entitled The Giant of the Western World. Religious discourse and goals were notably absent from the work. At the same time, upon publication, Miller wrote to his brother (a missionary to Persia) that “just as the Roman roads and Latin speech made Paul’s great work possible so the American method of industry and commerce and the universal acceptance of the English language is creating a situation in which it will be possible once again to build a concept of Christendom.” For Miller, then, the secular scientific vision of a Shotwell or a Bowman was a prerequisite to the global outreach of Christian American culture.[xvi]

To come back to the theme of this panel, how influential was the Millers’ and the CFR’s religio-secularism? More specifically, how successful were CFR members in secularizing statecraft? On the one hand, not very successful, given that post-WWI Presidents remained purveyors of Protestant-based civil religion as well as the fact that a revival of Christian nationalism undergird America’s universal nationalism of the WWII and Cold War years—a Christian nationalism that CFR members such as Miller and Dulles actually championed. On the other hand, CFR secularists such as Shotwell and Bowman oversaw the transition from the Christian developmentalism of a Beveridge or Wilson to the technocratic visions of Point IV and postwar modernization theory. To assert that the once-hoped-for Christian Century instead witnessed the circumscription of the public authority of organized religion is not to fall back on the old secularization narrative. Instead, it is to realize that the American Century was an outgrowth of a post-WWI interplay between Protestants and secularists. It is to recognize that tracking religious influence in American foreign relations is a trickier business than noting where “God” is or is not explicitly invoked. It is to admit that the religious turn still has a long way to go.

[i] Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 4.

[ii] See Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Chapters 12-15; and Malcolm Magee, What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008).

[iii] Albert Beveridge, “The March of the Flag,” Address, Indiana Republican Campaign, Tomlinson Hall, Indianapolis, Sept. 16, 1898, in The Meaning of the Times and Other Speeches (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1908).

[iv] Rev. Arthur J. Brown, “The Problem of China,” Address, Council on Foreign Relations, June 10, 1919, pp. 5-6, in The Council on Foreign Relations Records, Public Policy Papers, Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University (hereafter CFR), Box 32, Folder 2.

[v] See Joseph L. Grabill, Protestant Diplomacy and the Near East: Missionary Influence on American Policy, 1810-1927 (University of Minnesota Press, 1971); James Reed, The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy, 1911-1915 (Harvard University Asia Center, 1983); and Susan K. Harris, God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[vi] Phillip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

[vii] Memorandum (circa 1921), Committee on Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, in CFR, Box 34, Folder 1. For an early history of the merger that emphasizes the claims of this paragraph, see “Council on Foreign Relations, History” (circa 1922), in CFR, Box 39, Folder 5.

[viii] On Shotwell, see Harold Josephson, James T. Shotwell and the Rise of Internationalism in America (London: Associated University Presses, 1975), especially pp. 41-43.

[ix] CFR, “Statement of Aims and Activities,” circa 1921, in CFR, Box 33, Folder 8.

[x] Amy Kaplan,The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U. S. Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 95-101. Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

[xi] Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Chapter 10 and Epilogue; Thomas Rzeznik, Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013), 8; Matthew Bowman, The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[xii] Frances Kellor, Immigration and the Future (New York: George H. Doran, 1920), 252; Whitney H. Shepherdson, to Frances Kellor, Sept. 25, 1920, in CFR, Box 34, Folder 1; Whitney H. Shepherdson, “Early History of the Council on Foreign Relations,” circa 1959, 11, in CFR, Box 34, Folder 1.

[xiii] “Dinner Meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations,” New York City, Dec. 14, 1926, 1-3, 9-10, 13, 15-16, 18, 25-26, 29, in CFR, Box 435; Kaplan, Anarchy of Empire, 1-12.

[xiv] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, trans. James Luther Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 213-16. The chapter from which these quotations are taken was originally published in a 1929 collection of Tillich’s German essays.

[xv] On the problems of the “religion-secular binary,” seeJanet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, eds., Secularisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 10, 25.

[xvi] Francis Pickens Miller, Man From the Valley: Memoirs of a Twentieth-Century Virginian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971), 64.