In his engaging essay in First Things on the Protestant theological roots of American foreign policy, scholar Michael Doran asserts that “Americans are divided into two hidden camps”—Protestant fundamentalists, whom he personifies with early twentieth-century populist politician William Jennings Bryan, and Protestant modernists, whom he associates with the urbane and acerbic critic of the same period, H.L. Mencken. He locates the clash of these two titans and their worldviews with the so-called Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925 in which Bryan, to the scorn of Mencken, argued against the theory of evolution and in support of a scriptural understanding of science. This watershed cultural event was famously fictionalized in the classic film Inherit the Wind, and given Bryan’s humiliation at the trial and death days afterwards, is often depicted as a signal defeat for the forces of fundamentalism.
Doran’s casting and stage selection for his drama is curious; Mencken’s and Scopes’ connections to American foreign policy are not intuitive. His drama is also incomplete, conspicuously omitting the perspective of one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr. Indeed, Niebuhr’s distinctive Christian realism represents a third “hidden camp” that not only shaped the liberal internationalist consensus dominating the United States’ foreign policy for the past 70 years, but also remains the most relevant for our future.
Notwithstanding his omission of Niebuhr, Doran is right to identify Bryan as an exemplar of the Protestant fundamentalist roots of American foreign policy. In addition to being a vocal defender of creationism and a strict interpretation of the Bible, he was a ruling elder of the Presbyterian church and readily conjured Christian imagery in his political rhetoric, most famously with his “cross of gold” speech. More revealing of Bryan’s foreign policy views than the Scopes trial, however, was his service as secretary of state to President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson nominated Bryan for the cabinet post in recognition of his populist appeal and decisive role in delivering Midwestern Democratic votes for the first southerner elected to the White House since the Civil War. In his brief tenure as the nation’s top diplomat, Bryan distinguished himself as a peacemaker, brokering treaties and promoting arbitration as an alternative to war. When Germany later incited the United States into entering the war raging in Europe by torpedoing the Lusitania and sending nearly 100 Americans to a watery death, Bryan quit in protest to Wilson’s planned saber-rattling response. Bryan’s resignation letter demonstrated the lengths to which he would go to fulfill “what I deem to be an obligation to my country…namely, the prevention of war.” “As an humble follower of the Prince of Peace,” Bryan pleaded, “I beg to be counted among those who earnestly urge…to continue negotiations with Germany until an amicable understanding is reached.”
Behind Bryan’s preference for appeasement over the use of force abroad is an isolationist impulse inherent in his theology, which can be detected in his seminal speech “Against Imperialism,” delivered during the first of his three unsuccessful presidential runs in 1900. “If true Christianity consists in carrying out in our daily lives the teachings of Christ, who will say that we are commanded to civilize with dynamite?” Rather than “cast aside the omnipotent weapon of truth to seize again the weapons of physical warfare,” he saw instead America’s role as “a republic which shakes thrones and dissolves aristocracies by its silent example.” “No exterior force can disturb this Republic,” Bryan averred.
The seeds of isolationism sowed by the prairie populist found fertile ground in Bryan’s native Midwest, which became the locus of the first “America First” movement during the interwar period. It was this movement, inspired by a flawed fundamentalist sense of American exceptionalism, that my wife’s grandfather, Minnesota Republican Senator Joseph Ball, sought to quell lest the United States find itself defenseless against the rising tides of fascism and communism worldwide. His black prophecy was fulfilled with Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, shattering Bryan’s naïve belief that “no exterior force could disturb the Republic” and setting America on an irreversible course toward greater international engagement.
In contrast to the fundamentalist-isolationist view, Woodrow Wilson—a more illuminating exponent of the Protestant modernist perspective than Mencken—advocated for an assertive American role in the world, and one more comfortable with the use of force. One of our most learned and devout presidents, Wilson’s progressive Presbyterian beliefs allowed for the reconciliation of evolution and creationism, of science and faith. They also led him toward a more sanguine worldview in which the United States was divinely appointed to lead a universal “presbytery of nations,” bound by sacred pact to achieve permanent peace. The League of Nations Covenant, establishing the first universal organization for collective security, epitomized Wilson’s faith-based progressive internationalism.
The utter failure of the League, doomed in part by American isolationists’ success in preventing US entry, exposed the failures of this second “hidden camp” of Protestant theology of foreign policy. From the ashes of both Bryan’s ignoble isolationism and Wilson’s utopian universalism rose the school of Christian realism advocated by Reinhold Niebuhr. His synthesis combined a powerful recognition of the pervasiveness of sin with an abiding faith in the potential to approximate justice in international affairs, if not build permanent peace. Forged in the crucible of two world wars, Niebuhr’s theology proved to be a stronger alloy with which to erect US post-war foreign policy.
Doran traces President Harry Truman’s heritage to Bryan, citing as evidence their shared support for Zionism. But despite this, their common Midwestern roots and their similar populist political style, the two could sparsely differ more in their foreign policy views, exposing a fatal flaw in Doran’s analysis. Rather than perpetuate Bryan’s isolationist stance, Truman all but buried it by supporting a constellation of initiatives, systems, alliances and organizations—from the Marshall Plan, to Bretton Woods, to NATO to the UN—that locked the United States into a new world order. His doctrine acknowledged a divided international system pitting the free world against the communist empire that dethroned progressives’ utopian universalism. Like the Cold War presidents who followed him, Truman’s foreign policy owes less to the Protestant theology of Bryan than to that of Niebuhr, who served as an advisor in his administration and whom the architect of his containment strategy, George Kennan, dubbed “the father of us all.”
Theology has long had a powerful if hidden influence on the course of US foreign policy. Facing few existential threats and blessed with immense power, Americans have had the luxury to transcend many of the realpolitik considerations of more vulnerable nations to debate their providential role and moral responsibilities in the world. Doran’s essay does a great service in teasing out this influence. However, his failure to fully appreciate the isolationist impulse in Protestant fundamentalism or recognize the pivotal role of Christian realism leaves his readers inheriting the wind.
Matt Gobush is a contributing editor for Providence and served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the US Department of Defense, the US Senate, and the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and six internationally adopted children.
Photo Credit: Detail of RNS file photo.