Michael Doran argues that debates about American foreign policy are structured by an unrecognized division between rival versions of Christianity. On one side of the chasm stand “modernists.” Heirs of liberal Protestantism, modernists reflexively oppose what they regard as ignorance and superstition. When they practice or praise religion, it is because they admire its worldly aspects at the expense of transcendence. For modernists, the ultimate goal of international politics is achievement of the brotherhood of man. Rather than a permanent outlier or among nations, the United States is called to negate its own exceptionalism by promoting democracy around the world.

“Fundamentalists” see the world, and America’s place in it, differently. If not pessimistic in every respect, they are characteristically skeptical about lasting progress. This skepticism is rooted in their understanding of God. Rather than the indulgent shepherd of the whole human race, the fundamentalist God is a demanding judge of nations. America, on this view, can hope to receive special divine favor so long as it exemplifies moral, religious, and political virtue. Should it become corrupt, however, it will receive the punishment that it deserves.

Doran’s schema demonstrates both the advantages and the disadvantages that accompany any attempt to impose conceptual order on vast and complicated historical phenomena. It succeeds to the extent that it simplifies—but in doing so risks turning into a caricature. For as Doran admits, the terms “modernist” and “fundamentalist”—which were popularized in early twentieth-century theological disputes—are unsatisfying ways of describing dispositions that are much more deeply rooted in the American soul. Midway through the essay, therefore, he replaces them with the labels “Progressive” and “Jacksonian.”

This change in terminology is in some respects an improvement. In particular, Doran’s adoption of the concept of a “persuasion” from the historian Marvin Meyers reminds us that we are dealing with loosely articulated sets of habits and assumptions rather than fully articulated doctrines. It is not the case that Americans, usually a more pragmatic than theoretical people, have reasoned from theological premises to political conclusions in strict logical sequence. Rather, their political persuasions have helped to form their religious beliefs—and vice versa. To mention an example that Doran discusses at some length, Harry Truman considered himself a Baptist largely because he believed that Baptists believed in a God for the common man.

But the new labels do not resolve the problem of anachronism. While the Jacksonian persuasion can claim a lineage that extends to the early nineteenth century, I don’t think it makes sense to project the Progressive persuasion any farther back than Reconstruction. Not because the idea itself was born from the Civil War. But rather because antebellum Americans did not draw the contrast between progress and catastrophe, rational development and chaos, so strictly as those who saw the nation collapse before their eyes. Speaking broadly, most members of the American political and intellectual classes before the war were small-p progressives—including Jacksonians who believed the United States could become a paradise for that celebrated common man.[1]

Perhaps sensing that the religious and historiographical resonances of “Jacksonian” and “Progressive” aren’t quite right either, Doran proposes a third way of dividing American foreign policy traditions. They can be characterized, he suggests, as either postmillennial or premillennial. Postmillennialism designates the idea that man can build up the kingdom of God through his own efforts. Premillennialism holds that this is possible only through a dramatic—and traumatic—Second Coming, for which human beings can prepare but cannot hasten or initiate.

These categories are, in my opinion, the most helpful in the essay. Not least of all, they evoke ways of thinking and acting whose origins can be traced all the way back to the Puritans. The distinction between pre- and postmillennialism is also compatible with the possibility of secularization. Even when faith fails, it is easy to see how the vestiges of these doctrines might structure political attitudes. Finally, both attitudes appeal to a conviction that unites most of the figures Doran discusses. In different ways, all believed that the United States was the pivotal nation—whether as mankind’s redeemer or its final refuge.

Even as they divide us, more or less explicitly millennial interpretations of our national destiny also distinguish American attitudes on foreign policy from those of most other nations. Rather than simply securing our borders or pursuing our interests, Americans continue to believe that what happens here is the fate of the earth. The real challenge to this consensus would be a view of America as just another country, neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally evil. In insisting on our special place in history, we remain one nation after all.

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at the George Washington University.

Photo Credit: Inside of the West Point Cadet Chapel. By Ahodges7, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Incidentally, H.L. Mencken is a very poor representative of any version of progressivism. Although he had little regard for the common man—or his God—Mencken’s opinion of elite reformers was little better.