*The following article is a discussion of Walter McDougall, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (Yale University Press, 2016)*

Since 1992, America has had every iteration of Executive and Legislature: a Republican President with a Republican Congress; a Republican President with a Democratic Congress; a Democratic President with a Democratic Congress; and a Democratic President with a Republican Congress. In every iteration, the president has authorized lethal action in at least one Middle Eastern country, a region that continues to be plagued by unspeakable misery. In an era of unprecedented partisan polarization, it often seems that the only truly bipartisan solution is bombing the Middle East. Why?

In his recent book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, University of Pennsylvania historian Walter A. McDougall offers an analysis of how the United States’ deeply held beliefs about herself have shaped the rhetoric, diplomacy, and military actions of foreign policy since the nation’s founding. The book is, in the author’s own words, “U.S. diplomatic history in metaphysical mode.”

McDougall begins with the event that is permanently seared into the modern American conscious: 9/11 and its aftermath. Emerging from a decade of historically unprecedented wealth, productivity, and power, Americans, “rather than stoically but confidently absorbing the [9/11] attack as a virulent, but ultimately futile, protest against globalization … apparently went berserk.” Broad constitutional war-making powers were ceded by Congress to the President; American troops and tax dollars were hurled into two wars abroad; civil liberties were abridged at home; and the protestations of longstanding allies were deemed treacherous.

Seventeen years later, these reactions are still difficult to explain. The staggering cost in blood and treasure well exceeds what could be rationally deemed retaliation. President Bush’s historic approval ratings belie a hostile neocon takeover. So what explains this reaction? McDougall proffers that the true crisis of 9/11 and its fallout was neither fundamentally military nor strictly geopolitical. Rather, the crisis of September 11th was a civil religious one. According to McDougall, 9/11 brought the complex house of cards that is our American Civil Religion crashing down, and caused a frantic national soul search as our deepest convictions were called into question. Understanding the 9/11 fallout through the lens of Civil Religion helps explain the puzzling national behavior.



American Civil Religion (ACR) according to McDougall is a historical conglomeration of religious, philosophical, political, and economic thought. As a sociological theory, the term “civil religion” dates back to Rousseau’s The Social Contract and became a major topic in American academic discourse after Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America.” This quasi-religious compound exists as a set of common values meant to foster social and cultural cohesion.

McDougall’s Tragedy builds on the author’s previous book Promised Land, Crusader State (1997), which traces ACR’s development through two distinct phases. The first phase, The Promised Land, was a combination of Liberty (exceptionalism), Unilateralism (isolationism), the American System (Monroe Doctrine), and Expansionism (Manifest Destiny). In this phase, America’s primary ambition abroad was to earn a seat at the table as a coequal in the family of civilized nations. This is the foreign policy context of Washington’s farewell warning against “permanent alliances,” Jefferson’s admonitions toward just warfare, and John Quincy Adams’s declaration that America “goes not abroad for monsters to destroy.” America was a teleocracy, her existence defined her divinely appointed mission to be a shining example, a “City on a Hill” to the backwards nations of Europe and elsewhere.

Initially, America’s City-on-a-Hill religion leant itself to a largely noninterventionist bias. The U.S. resisted the urge to throw its weight behind any one of the nation-state revolutions that erupted throughout Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. McDougall notes that for “sixty years, the largest federal agency – and the only one most citizens encountered – was the post office.” Almost completely protected on all sides by strong foreign powers and “bequeathed” a vast frontier of untold riches, Washington called America’s place in the world “a most enviable position”. The United States was to be the Civil Religious embodiment of the Puritans’ ambition to be “in but not of the world.”

Yet, this noninterventionist commitment would not last. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1898, the United States began her transition from the Promised Land to the Crusader State. In a seemingly contradictory dynamic that is all too familiar today, War Hawks and Progressive Humanitarians found common cause in bringing America’s way of life abroad. Just as the Promised Land embodied the Puritan’s City on a Hill, the Crusader State embodied the Social Gospel’s dismissal of Augustine’s “distinction between a fallen physical City of Man… and a perfect spiritual City of God beyond time.” This “new theology devalorized virtue, prudence, humility, and small government in favor of power, glory, pride, and big government at home.” America was no longer just an example; she was a change agent, meant to actively bring about the New World Global Order by spreading – by force if necessary – the blessings of capitalism, technology, the overthrow of tyranny, and democratic governance. Beginning with American intervention in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, McDougall relays how America’s messianic impulse was executed abroad in Wilson’s Fourteen Points and at home with FDR’s New Deal. In his final chapters, McDougall shows how this vision spurred the United States to achieve superpower status after two world wars and unipolarity after the Cold War.

But, according to McDougall, this impulse is now tearing America apart as her Civil Religion diverges ever more rapidly from her national interest. Citizens were happy to elect Executive global vigilantes so long as they were afforded their divine birthright of wealth, prosperity, and cheap consumer goods. As the U.S. searched boldly to rid the globe of its monsters, Americans became mired in endless conflicts in faraway lands with little strategic value. From Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Libya, America’s mushrooming National Security State has found its constituents in discord and disillusionment as trillions of dollars are poured into failed states overseas.

McDougall contends that at the turn of the 20th Century and continuing into the present, the United States has been driven by the belief that her foreign policy is beholden to a higher calling. This reading of history and current events asserts that the U.S.’ unconditional support of international institutions such as the United Nations, European Union, NATO, and other entities is part of a missionary impulse to advance an American understanding of liberal democracy worldwide.  With the U.S. Crusader State leading the way, the world is destined for a better tomorrow dictated by a broad consensus of values shared by global society nation states and their free peoples.


Every day, men and women in our policymaking bureaucracies are observing, analyzing, and responding to real world events. Like all people, these men and women are influenced by deeply held beliefs and presuppositions about themselves and about the world at large. As McDougall’s work demonstrates clear, America’s view of the world is to some degree shaped by her perceived role in it. This is important. When human beings attempt to “know” things about the world, should we begin with our beliefs about our role?

For Christians, knowing and understanding God is the foundation of our ability to know anything at all (Proverbs 9:10). Only through a right understanding of who God is can we understand the world around us. By understanding the world in light of God’s nature, we come to understand humanity’s place in the cosmic order in the universe. By properly understanding humanity’s place in God’s greater universe, we naturally come to understand our role in it. I have tried to capture this epistemological order in the following diagram:

As it turns out, ACR as defined by McDougall can be illustrated as the inverse of Christian epistemology. At the core of their self-understanding, Americans begin not with who is God, but with what is my/our role as Americans. Americans begin with the premise that they are supposed to change the world and proceed in reverse. Who are we? Divinely appointed change agents. We are in charge, and we must lead. What is the world like? It has its problems, but it is destined for a better future: a global world order that is peacefully governed by American norms and American-lead institutions. It is thus bereft of any reality that would challenge our right to bring about this utopic World of Tomorrow. Who is GOD? Since God appointed us, He is clearly on our side.

ACR does not seek to discover a world in light of God’s truth, but rather seeks to subject God to its own aims, ambitions, and heavily distorted reality.

The danger of ACR is that it has created a strategic environment in which foreign policymakers make decisions based on a version of reality that is not necessarily premised on how the world really is. Observers who are puzzled by the seeming disjuncture between foreign actions and the national interests will benefit from the reminder that many human beings act primarily out of deeply held convictions about themselves and the world, not from careful calculations. When these convictions go unexamined, the results can be catastrophic. Thus, McDougall’s reading of history helps explain some of the otherwise inexplicable foreign policy decisions on the past several decades.  In the theater of global politics, Americans stubbornly proceed as if unconstrained by any inconvenient exterior reality, “conjuring democracies in lands devoid of democrats”, promoting vile maniacs to human rights councils, and claiming “international consensus” for actions anathema to local populations.

Perhaps it is too much to ask that all our leaders try and understand who God really is. But perhaps we could ask that they at least begin with a sober assessment of what the world is truly like. A foreign policy aligned with real instead of imagined realities would be a welcomed change to the stubborn belief in a Civil Religion that diverges ever more rapidly from America’s national interest.





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