The Deeper Roots of Faith and Foreign Policy

By Preston, Andrew | International Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Deeper Roots of Faith and Foreign Policy


Preston, Andrew, International Journal


To the obvious relief of many, it appears that the wave that carried the religious right to power in the United States has crested. Though domestic issues such as health care or the environment threaten to enfiarne partisan and ideological tensions in US politics, the religious right does not seem to be playing a conspicuous role. Moreover, while the issues near and dear to Christian conservatives, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, continue to be relevant, they are not dominating the national agenda as they once did. In this sense, the end of the George W Bush presidency, the failure of Mike Huckabee's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and the disastrous performance of the vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, have signalled a major shift in the American political landscape. Christian conservatives no longer seem to hold the balance of political power in America. In fact, for the first time in a generation, whether they even hold the balance of power within the Republican party is a matter of debate. And finally, of course, there is the election of Barack Obama, an ecumenical Protestant who is liberal on matters both political and theological.

Does this mean the end of the religious right's influence on US foreign policy? Possibly - at least for now. But does this also portend the end of the religious influence on US foreign policy? Hardly. The presence of religion in American public life is too broad, deep, diffuse, and diverse to be reliant upon any single person or group. Indeed, the key to understanding the everpresent ideological and moral bases for US foreign policy - with which even realists have had to contend - lies mainly in a better understanding of an American religious tradition that cannot be reduced to simple stereotypes about evangelicals and fundamentalists. This is best illustrated by delving into the mindset of foreign policy figures, some of whom are not usually thought of as especially religious or pious. For those outside the United States trying to grapple with the often confusing path of US foreign policy, this is one of the least understood but most important lessons of history.

BACKWARDS CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS?

The story of the religious right's political rise and fall is straightforward enough. Until fairly recently, evangelicals and fundamentalists had been the most rigorous adherents to the doctrine of separating church from state, for it protected them from government regulation. As society's traditional economic and social outsiders, they felt they had much to fear from the state. This antistatism explains the religious right's conservative stance on other matters of public policy, such as welfare and taxation. But it also helps to explain why many Christian conservatives deliberately separated themselves from worldly concerns, such as politics. They would focus on God and, as the Bible enjoins, "render unto Caesar" the more secular concerns of governing this world on earth.

This longstanding separation of conservative religion from conservative politics began to erode in the 1970s. Reacting to the liberalism and moral relativism of the 1960s - and especially to the sexual revolution in gender relations that led to relaxed attitudes towards homosexuality, abortion, sex, and birth control - and building on decades of grassroots growth, Christian conservatives felt they could no longer allow secular politicians to set the national agenda. Moreover, as the industrial base of the northeast and midwest rusted from within and its people fled for the suburbs, warmer temperatures, lower taxes, and more socially conservative values of the south and west, Christian conservatives discovered that they had moved from society's margins to its very centre. Similarly repelled by what they saw as the anarchy of the 1960s, many Americans who had never before considered themselves especially religious began to gravitate to conservative Protestant churches. By the 1990s, no longer was it correct to speak of a Christian conservative "subculture" - evangelicals had become part of the mainstream. …

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