Is American Foreign Policy Christian? A Conversation with Andrew Preston

by Peggy McGuinness

Over at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion Forum, my colleague Mark Movsesian has posted a fascinating conversation with Professor Andrew Preston (Cambridge), author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith.  Preston’s book examines the role faith has played in the conduct of U.S. foreign and military policy over the course of our history.  In this review of the book, Mark discusses the religious theme in American foreign policy that Preston has identified as “Christian republicanism,”

 which Preston defines as “a blend of Protestant theology and democratic politics.” This worldview prizes religious liberty as the foundation of democracy and views it as the most important of human rights. Indeed, Preston shows how the protection of religious liberty abroad has been a constant theme in American diplomacy. In the nineteenth century, the State Department advocated for missionaries, including Mormons, with foreign governments, even though the Department often found the missionaries a nuisance. In the twentieth century, Henry Kissinger’s attempts to get Congress to grant the Soviet Union most-favored-nation status failed largely because Kissinger underestimated American sympathy for the plight of Soviet Jews.

Preston explains how religion influences the U.S. approach to international human rights:

CLR Forum: Sword of the Spirit shows that religion has had a complex influence on American foreign policy. Christian convictions have justified both isolationism and internationalism, sometimes in the thought of the same person, e.g., John Foster Dulles. Do you see these same tensions today? On what issues do the contemporary religious right and religious left disagree? On what issues do they agree? 

Preston: I think the religious right and left, and Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and others all agree that America should promote and protect basic universal human rights around the world. What is remarkable is the extent to which religious isolationism has more or less disappeared. Most religious communities agree that the United States should engage with the world to promote its ideals; they just disagree on how this should be done. Religious liberals are wary of military intervention, religious conservatives less so.

CLR Forum: Protestant missionaries were the first international human rights campaigners in American history. Of course, today’s human rights discourse is almost entirely secular. And yet you note that, just like the nineteenth-century missionaries, today’s secular human rights campaigners sometimes fail to recognize that their ideology is not really “universal.” Could you please elaborate on this? 

Preston: We often assume that because some things seem so abhorrent, revulsion for them must be universal. Yet often these practices are not only tolerated but embraced by other cultures. When Western reformers—be they yesteryear’s missionaries or today’s human rights NGOs—enter a foreign country and demand the cessation of certain practices, they are automatically engaging in a kind of cultural imperialism by changing local custom in the name of a universal ideal, even though the locals have never heard of this universal ideal. A good analogy would be between the anti-foot binding crusades by American missionaries to China in the late 19th century and anti-female circumcision campaigns by human rights advocates today. I happen to agree with the morality of both these causes, and I happen to find foot-binding and female circumcision morally repugnant, and I think most Westerners would agree with me. But putting our views into practice means obliterating local cultures around the world. The end result might be a more just world, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t practicing a kind of cultural imperialism by obliterating the local in favor of the universal. The irony is that many human rights campaigners today try to distinguish themselves from the supposedly aggressive missionaries of the past, but to me they seem more alike than different.

The full conversation is well worth a read, especially Preston’s (surprising?) conclusion that Obama is quite similar to FDR in his religious convictions, outlook, and policy emphasis on religious freedom.

http://opiniojuris.org/2012/07/09/is-american-foreign-policy-christian-a-conversation-with-andrew-preston/

2 Responses

  1. “But putting our views into practice means obliterating local cultures around the world. The end result might be a more just world, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t practicing a kind of cultural imperialism by obliterating the local in favor of the universal. The irony is that many human rights campaigners today try to distinguish themselves from the supposedly aggressive missionaries of the past, but to me they seem more alike than different.”

    Well, I do think there is a bit of difference between those human rights campaigners today and Bartolome de las Casas who sought a solution to the oppression of Natives in the New World through the introduction of Africans as slaves.

    There appears to be a false sense of the separateness of the local custom from the wider world and a lack of understanding of the local objections to the local custom that may gain agency from the human rights campaign by changing the relations of power. 

    Best,
    Ben

  2. “The hypothesis we are considering is that the social function of a religion is independent of its truth or falsity, that religions which we think to be erroneous or even absurd and repulsive, such as those of some savage tribes, may be important and effective parts of the social machinery, and that without these “false” religions social revolution and the development of modern civilization would have been impossible.”
    - Radcliffe-Brown, “Religion and Society”

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