The contingency of American religious history dominated the panel I participated on at the American Society for Church History conference, January 4, 2015. As I mentioned last week, the panel’s participants (beside me) included Andrew Preston, Christine Heyrman, Darryl Hart, and Leo Ribuffo–Leo is the originator of the question above. The panel’s purpose was broadly to take some measure of the questions littering the historiographical landscape in relation to our general understanding of religion and U.S. foreign policy. I took Preston’s book, Sword of Spirit, Shield of Faith, as the touchstone for discussions of that landscape. And while the panel did not offer a collective critique of Andrew’s book, his comprehensive chronological approach to the subject made it possible to suggest why the landscape looks generally the way it does today.
As usual, though, Leo made perhaps the most direct and provocative observation. He suggested that some historians might consider how their fascination with the staying power of religion in U.S. history is contingent on the history that did not happen as much as the history that did. The four years of slaughter endured by Europe during World War I badly undermined religion across the continent, perhaps opening the door for the rise of semi-socialist, secularist states of today. “The U.S. endured only one comparable catastrophe, the Civil War,” he pointed out, “and it occurred before religious belief had been eroded by what Walter Lippmann called the ‘acids of modernity.'” Indeed, Leo asked, “Would American religion still be (relatively) thriving if Gettysburg had occurred at the same time as Verdun?”
The lack of a great falling off of religious commitment might not be completely explained by the absence of an American civil war, post-Darwin. However, the persistence of the belief that religion matters (though how it matters is of course hotly contested) has allowed a variety of historiographical communities to expand their influence. For one thing, Andrew Preston’s book would be a whole lot shorter if American religious thought had diminished in the first half of the twentieth century. Fully half of his book’s 400+ pages are devoted to American religion in foreign policy FOLLOWING Woodrow Wilson.
The persistence that religion matters also enabled particular religious interest groups (using Leo’s characterization) to produce scholarship and generations of scholars to carrying on that scholarship. The best at this, quite obviously, have been Protestant scholars such as George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Grant Wacker (who was honored at the AHA by some of the profession’s leading lights). Their success has gone far beyond the subfield of U.S. foreign policy, but as Leo pointed out, interest especially among younger religious scholars in that subfield is disproportionate to the evidence that exists. If we take just the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series from the Department of State, the vast majority of material found in the tens of thousands of pages of those volumes make very little mention of religion.
Leo is too good a historian leave it at that, though. He was joined by others on the panel and in the audience who argued over the dimensions of the terms “foreign policy” and “religion.” Christine Heyrman provided a fascinating snapshot of how Christian missionaries BEFORE the Civil War had become intrepid reporters and chroniclers of religious and cultural diversity the world over. Heyrman offered that such religious travel provided a “popular cosmopolitanism” long before the growth of an American empire forced Americans to learn the names of distant lands. Christine’s points were buttressed by the work and presence at the session of Emily Conroy-Krutz, whose forthcoming book, Converting the World in the Early Republic, goes far in substantiating the pre-Civil War work of evangelical missionaries through the history of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions from 1790-1850. While not state sponsored, FRUS-eligible documentation, the work of missionaries throughout the expanse of US history complicates not only how we define U.S. foreign policy but the chronological confines of religion’s intersection with it.
The most contentious aspect of the panel dwelled on the definition and use of the term religion. I pointed out in my comments that while Andrew had mapped religion onto his field–America and the world (formerly diplomatic history)–he had not mapped his field onto the history of American religions. A wise choice, no doubt, for Andrew explained the difficulties he encountered determining a working or operational definition of religion. For many of the religious historians in the audience, such as Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Andrew’s frustration is the stuff of the field itself. Darrly Hart well understood that point but argued that there was some significance to distinguishing between religion and sentiments that sounded religious. Perhaps the greatest abuser of the latter category, according to Hart, is civil religion.
The conversation about civil religion, one that I have wanted to take up with Andrew since the publication of his book, encountered some resistance on Hart’s part. However, the audience, especially a few graduate students and a few well-established scholars, including John Corrigan (Florida State), seemed happy to see it as method of inquiry into U.S. imperial designs that set it apart from the faiths that reject it as well as the wily beast of American Exceptionalism that seems to feed off of it. Circling around the subject of civil religion, it seemed to me, was a point Andrew made before opening the session to questions: if the threshold of causation is no longer so strict for many different historical elements, why does it seem to remain especially strict for religion? In other words, as Hart eluded to a couple times, when appeals to a supernatural are involved, do the tests for valid evidence change? McKinley and Bush, Jr. prayed for and with Americans, does that matter and if so, how? As Leo remarked, would it have made a difference if God told McKinley not to invade the Philippines?
It is along those lines that I will conclude. My pitch to the session was this: what are the variety of ways we can map American foreign policy onto the history of American religions? The example I offered was using the history of the Catholic Church and the church’s tradition of employing just-war theory both to align with and mitigate against the imperial history the United States. If we take up an idea such as just-war we change the position from which view foreign policy and perhaps consider political influence. Rather than looking at how government has used religion (very little according to Hart, perhaps much more according to Preston and me), we look at how religion relates to what the government does. We move from the temporal to the spiritual. Certainly the missionaries that Christine and Emily study were concerned with fate that went well beyond the U.S. government budget cycle or treaty obligations. Missionaries obviously have a role in U.S. imperial history but also have a history of foreign affairs that are not neatly national. And in terms of an idea such as just-war, we might see it as both a system independent of the government who claims it as well as dependent on how the government chooses to deploy it.
So did God tell McKinley to invade the Philippines? Is it merely a case of Post hoc ergo propter hoc? The causal connection between religion and US foreign policy need not be so cynical nor dictated merely by the contents of the diplomatic volumes.