Nearly eight years ago I wrote an essay called “The Protestant Deformation”1 arguing that a certain Protestant heresy, in a secular form, had considerable explanatory power for then-current U.S. foreign policy. That was before George W. Bush was anywhere near the presidency. This essay updates and extends that argument, showing that religion, of a sort, has played an important role in U.S. foreign policy since September 11, 2001 — but not in the way many observers have claimed. Evangelicals and born-again high officials ought not to be the object of our attention, but, rather, the same Protestant Deformation that was at work well before 9/11.
The Ways of Faith
The Bush Administration, it seems to many, has imposed a great transformation upon the traditional conduct of American foreign policy. Its major initiatives — the “Bush Doctrine” of unilateral diplomacy and preemptive military action promulgated in the National Security Strategy of September 2002, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and especially the grand project to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East — have created great resentment toward the United States in other countries. This, in turn, has led to a search within America itself for the causes of this transformation, a search that has intensified with the deepening U.S. troubles in Iraq. What can explain this radical departure in American foreign policy? And more pointedly, who is responsible for the Iraq debacle?
Several culprits have been nominated: neoconservatives, represented in the Bush Administration by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and several of his immediate subordinates; “oil interests”, represented by Vice President Dick Cheney; and hypernationalists, represented by the above figures but especially by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
But of course it is the Bush Administration we are talking about, and the most obvious place to begin the explanation is with George W. Bush himself. And here the focus has been upon what many consider to be the most distinct-and most peculiar-feature of this President: his strong Protestant religious faith and convictions. The President has often spoken of freedom as God’s gift to America and to mankind, and of America’s calling to bring freedom to all peoples. Moreover, his strongest electoral support has come from Evangelical Protestants. These are the people that the liberal media call “the religious Right” (although by that logic the media themselves should be called the “secular Left”).
As it happens, Protestantism has indeed had a major impact on current U.S. foreign policy, but this is not primarily due to Evangelical Protestantism. It is due, as it was during the Clinton Administration, to the Protestant Deformation. It is this peculiar pseudo-religion upon which both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush have drawn in their foreign policies to spread American ideas of liberal democracy, free markets, individual freedom and human rights abroad.
Analysts have debated for decades the relative influence of different factors in the shaping of American foreign policy. They have variously posited national interests, domestic politics, economic interests and liberal ideology as the major explanation for the peculiarities of the American conduct of foreign affairs. But although numerous scholars have stressed the importance of realism, idealism, capitalism or liberalism, until recently almost no one has thought that Protestantism itself — the dominant religion in the United States — was worthy of consideration. In the 20th century, it seemed abundantly clear that one could (and should) write the history of American foreign policy with no reference to Protestantism whatsoever.
This was, and remains, a mistake. American foreign policy has been and continues to be shaped by the Protestant origins of the United States, but with a twist. For the Protestantism that has shaped American foreign policy over two centuries has not been the original religion, but a series of successive departures from it down the scale of what might be called the Protestant declension. We are now at the end point of this declension, and the Protestantism that shapes American foreign policy today is a distinctive heresy of the original religion — not the Protestant Reformation but the Protestant Deformation. Let us review how this has come about.
Hierarchy and Community
Protestantism was in its origins a protest against the form that the Christian religion had taken in the Roman Catholicism of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Reformation was an effort to return the Christian religion to the original faith expressed in the New Covenant, or New Testament, of the Bible. Protestant reformers objected to numerous features of the Roman Catholic Church, including such familiar ones as the authority of the Pope, the role of the Virgin Mary, and the meaning and practice of indulgences. But the really central, fundamental issues involved the way the Christian believer reached a state of salvation, and the roles that the priestly hierarchy and the parish community played in the process. The Roman Catholic Church taught that the believer reached salvation through the mediation of the priestly hierarchy and participation in the parish community’s sacraments and rituals. In combination, these yielded the surest path to salvation.
The Protestant reformers rebelled against the idea that the believer achieves salvation through a hierarchy or a community, or even the two in combination. Although many Protestant reformers accepted hierarchy and community for certain purposes, such as church governance and other collective undertakings, they rejected them as a means of reaching the state of salvation. Rather, they asserted that the believer receives salvation through an act of grace by God. This grace produces in its recipient the faith in God and in salvation that converts him into a believer.
The believer can achieve greater knowledge of God, however, through his reading of the Holy Scriptures. The Protestant reformers placed great emphasis on the Word, but they held that interpreting the Bible did not necessarily require the intercession of a hierarchy or a community. Indeed, these might actually impede the individual believer in reaching the right interpretation.
All religions are unique, but Protestantism is more unique than all the others. No other major religion is so critical of hierarchy and community or of the traditions and customs that go with them. Indeed, most other religions are based upon hierarchy or community: in addition to Roman Catholicism, also Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and even, to a degree, Buddhism. At its doctrinal base, however, Protestantism-essentially a rejection of Roman Catholicism-is anti-hierarchy and anti-community. The early Protestant reformers sought to remove hierarchy and community so that the individual Christian believer could have a direct relationship with God-more accurately and subtly, a relationship with God directly through the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, and so that he could receive salvation from God directly through the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
The removal of hierarchy and community, traditions and customs — of any earthly intermediaries between the individual and God — strips away, at least for the most important purposes, any local, parochial, cultural or national characteristics of the believer. In principle, grace, faith and salvation can be received by anyone in the world; they are truly universal, or catholic (in the original sense of that term). The Protestant reformers thus saw the vast array of cultures and nations through a perspective that was, in effect, even more universal than that of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the three centuries after the Reformation, the Protestant rejection of hierarchy and community in regard to salvation spread to other domains of life as well. Some Protestant churches came to reject hierarchy and community in church governance and other collective undertakings. This was especially the case in the new United States, where the conjunction of the open frontier and the disestablishment of state churches enabled the flourishing of new, unstructured and unconstraining denominations.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Protestant rejection of hierarchy and community had also spread to important arenas of temporal or secular life. Again, this was especially the case in the United States. In the economic arena, the elimination of hierarchy (monopoly or oligopoly) and community (guilds or trade restrictions) meant the establishment of the free market. In the political arena, the elimination of hierarchy (monarchy or aristocracy) and community (traditions and customs) meant the establishment of liberal democracy.
However, the free market could not be so free, nor liberal democracy so liberal, that they became anarchic. Although economic and political life could no longer be ordered by hierarchy and community, by tradition and custom, they had to be ordered by something. That something came to reflect the Protestant emphasis on written words and arose in the form of written covenants between individual Protestant believers. In the economic arena, this was the written contract; in the political arena, it was the written constitution.
The Protestant Reformation was thus giving birth to what by the early 20th century would become the American Creed. The fundamental elements of that secular creed — liberal democracy, free markets, constitutionalism and the rule of law — were already fully in place in the United States in the early 19th century. This spread of the Protestant rejection of hierarchy and community from the arena of salvation to the arenas of economics and politics was driven by a particular inner dynamic, or rather decline, within the Protestant faith itself. Today, almost half a millennium after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, we can discern six stages of what may be called the Protestant declension.
The Protestant Declension
Stage 1: Salvation by grace. At the personal level, the original Protestant (and, as the reformers saw it, the original Christian) experience is that of a direct, loving and saving relationship between the believer and God. This direct relationship and state of salvation are brought about by God, through his sovereign grace, and not by the person through his own works. This is the experience of being “born again” into a new life.
Obviously, any intermediaries, traditions or customs that could stand in the way of this direct relationship must be swept aside. The original Protestant and born-again Christian experiences his new life as a tabula rasa that enables him to release previously constrained energies and to focus them intensely on new undertakings. This in part explains the great energy and efficacy of many newly Christian persons. When the number of such persons is greatly multiplied, as it was at the time of the Reformation, it also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some newly-Protestant nations (think of the Netherlands, England and Sweden in the 16th and 17th centuries).
Stage 2: Grace evidenced through work. A serious problem soon arises; indeed, it arises within the very next generation. The children of the original born-again Protestants are born into a Protestant family and church, but they themselves may not be born-again Protestants who have personally experienced the direct relationship with God and the state of salvation that grace brings. As Max Weber famously discussed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this can give rise to great anxiety about the spiritual state of second-generation Protestants.
For some in Protestant churches, especially the Anglican and Lutheran state churches of Europe but even the Episcopal and Lutheran churches in America, there was a solution close at hand. These churches had remained hierarchical (with the Pope replaced by the state monarch) and even somewhat communal. Perhaps, in some way that was not theologically clear but that was psychologically reassuring, the state of salvation could be reached by participation in the rituals and works of the church. In these churches, therefore, the focus upon grace gradually shifted in practice to a focus upon works, as had been the case in the Roman Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.
However, for persons in other Protestant churches, especially those known as the Reformed churches — the Calvinist churches of Europe as well as the Presbyterian and Congregational churches in America — the solution to the dilemma of Protestants who were “born in” but not “born again” had to be a different one. The stricter Reformed theology of these churches did not easily permit a diminished emphasis on the necessity of grace. Further, their relative absence of hierarchical and communal features meant that they had a less developed structure for the exercise of rituals and works. And yet, without the personal experience of grace, what evidence was there that second-generation, or birth-right, Protestants had received it?
As Weber discussed, the evidence for grace became a particular and peculiar kind of works: not the performance of works in the church, but the success of work in the world. This was how the Protestant ethic became the capitalist spirit. Because the Reformed churches had reformed away the legitimacy of hierarchy, community, tradition and custom, work in the world could be unconstrained by these obstacles. Thus, the second- and later-generation Reformed Protestants could experience worldly life and worldly work as a tabula rasa. This experience enabled these generations also to experience a release of previously constrained energies and to focus intently on new undertakings.
Indeed, this version of Protestantism in its worldly work was so focused that it became methodical and systematic in previously unseen ways. This experience in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some second- and later-generation Reformed Protestants. Again, when the number of such persons was large, it also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of established Protestant nations, not just for the second generation, but for several generations thereafter (for example, the Netherlands and Sweden until the 18th century; England, Scotland and America until the late 19th century).
Stage 3: Salvation by works. After several generations of this kind of Reformed Protestantism, a certain Protestant culture even with traditions and customs, developed. The number of Protestants who had experienced the culture but not the grace greatly increased. Even in the Reformed churches (Calvinist, Presbyterian, Congregational) the idea of the necessity of grace began to fade. Work in the world was no longer seen as a sign of grace but as a good in itself. Works as a good became a new version of good works.
Stage 4: The unitarian transformation. As the focus on grace faded, so too did the focus upon the agencies of grace, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus Reformed Protestantism, with its highly articulated trinitarian doctrine, turned into unitarianism, with its abstract concept of a Supreme Being or Divine Providence. Unitarianism was an actual denomination, of course, complete with its own churches, but it was also a more widely held theology and philosophy. This was the stage in the Protestant declension that some of the American political elite, including some of the Founding Fathers, had reached by the end of the 18th century. Thus the public documents of that time frequently made reference to the Supreme Being or Divine Providence and rarely to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.
Stage 5: The American Creed. The fifth stage in the Protestant declension was reached when the abstract and remote God, the Supreme Being or Divine Providence, disappeared altogether. Now the various Protestant creeds were replaced by the American Creed, which reached its fullest articulation in the first half of the 20th century. The elements of the American Creed were free markets and equal opportunity, free elections and liberal democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law. The American Creed definitely did not include as elements hierarchy, community, tradition and custom. Although the American Creed was not itself Protestant, it was clearly the product of a Protestant culture — a sort of secularized version of Protestantism as it had come down through its fourth declension.
Stage 6: Universal human rights. The sixth and final stage in the Protestant declension was reached only in the 1970s, essentially in the last two generations. Now the American Creed was replaced by the universal conception of human rights. More accurately, the elements of the American Creed were generalized into universal goods. Then in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist ideology, and with the stagnation of the German “social market” and Japanese “organized capitalism”, every familiar alternative to American economic and political conceptions seemed discredited. America had thus brought the world to “the End of History.”
Protestant Pluralism and the American Creed
The movement from the fourth to the sixth stage in the Protestant declension is particularly important to understanding contemporary U.S. foreign policy. So let us review that process in more detail.
At its birth at the end of the 18th century, the United States was populated by a wide variety of Protestants ranging throughout the first four stages of the Protestant declension. No one church and no one stage represented a majority of the American population, or even of the enfranchised white male population.
This condition of Protestant pluralism meant that public pronouncements on religious themes that honored citizens situated in one church or stage were just as likely to offend those situated in another. This drove public officials to a religious rhetoric of the lowest common, and least offensive, denominator-the rhetoric of unitarianism. Not all American Protestants could believe in the full implications of each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, but all of them could believe that God was a Supreme Being and that Providence was divine. The adoption of this unitarian rhetoric was facilitated by the fact that some of the political elite in fact believed it.
In the early 19th century, there were periodic religious revivals — Great Awakenings, they are often called — among portions of the American population that moved some Protestants back up the scale to higher stages of belief. (The religious revival in America during the past generation or so has done the same.) However, this did not change the religious rhetoric of public pronouncements. The logic of religious pluralism, reinforced by the substantial numbers of Roman Catholics and Jews immigrating to the United States in the 1840s and thereafter, continued to drive public officials even further toward the rhetoric of the lowest common and least offensive denominator.
This trend gave rise to a public vocabulary that used concepts congruent and congenial to Protestant ones, but that made almost no references to actual religion at all. In regard to economic matters, the central concept was the free market; in regard to political matters, it was liberal democracy. By the early 19th century, most Americans had come to believe that the only legitimate form of economics was the free market, ordered by written contracts, and that the only legitimate form of politics was liberal democracy, ordered by a written constitution. This was the mentality, really the ideology, described so brilliantly and beautifully by that young Frenchman who was both an aristocrat and a liberal, Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1834).
The full development of these ideas would eventually lead to the fifth stage of the Protestant declension, the American Creed, as noted above. But in the 19th century the United States had few opportunities to bring this ideology into its foreign policy. At the beginning of the 20th century, by contrast, America suddenly found itself a great power and had many opportunities to do so. And for some Americans — most obviously President Woodrow Wilson, but also most U.S. presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush — opportunity has increasingly been redefined as necessity, as American power allowed the translation of what should be in the world into what could be in the world.
Woodrow Wilson was a Presbyterian, indeed the son of a Presbyterian clergyman. His pronouncements on public policy, however, have more in common with Unitarianism than with Presbyterianism. He seems to have believed that he was carrying out God’s will, but he does not seem to have given much thought to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is not surprising for someone who was president of a vast nation characterized by a wide range of religious diversity and, by that time, even by a substantial amount of secularization.
Wilson’s political identity was that of a Progressive and his political program was known as “the New Freedom.” These were congruent with his religious identity as a Presbyterian and his religious actuality as a Unitarian. Wilson believed deeply in free markets ordered by written contracts, and in liberal democracy ordered by a written constitution. He also believed that God meant for him to advance these ideals both at home and abroad, “to make the world safe for democracy.” Conversely, Wilson had almost no sensitivity or sympathy toward non-Protestant conceptions of hierarchy, community, tradition and custom. Wilson’s political and economic conceptions were repeatedly expressed in his foreign policies, most notably in his notion that the problems of Latin American countries could be solved by formal elections, written constitutions and the enforcement of contracts; his focus upon freedom of the seas, international law and democratic ideology during World War I; his relentless opposition to the Habsburg Monarchy (the very embodiment of hierarchy and community, tradition and custom and the only Roman Catholic great power) in the name of self-determination, which was an individualist and even Protestant conception inappropriately applied to a communal and even Catholic condition; and his insistence upon the abstraction of collective security, as written down in the Covenant of the League of Nations, as the solution to the perennial problem of international conflict.
Each of these notions seemed normal and obvious to Wilson and to millions of other Americans. Indeed, in their updated versions, they seem normal and obvious to millions of Americans today. They only seem normal and obvious, however, to a people growing up in a culture shaped at its origins by Protestantism, rather than by some other religion. It is difficult to imagine a statesman who is Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, Buddhist or Roman Catholic coming up with these notions as consistently as did Wilson and his fellow Americans after him. It is even difficult to imagine a statesman of secular convictions, raised in a culture shaped by one of these other religions, developing this particular ideology. The ideologies of such democratic figures as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sun Yat-sen and Konrad Adenauer were quite different.
The Foreign Policy of The American Creed
The last and grandest of Wilson’s projects, the League of Nations, was of course a failure, rejected in 1920 by the U.S. Senate and by millions of other Americans as well. But most of Wilson’s Protestant-like notions became permanent features of American foreign policy.
It is a cliché of American diplomatic history that the United States “retreated into isolationism” after World War I. In fact, this U.S. retreat, or withdrawal, really only applied to Europe (and there only in regard to security and military matters). In other regions of the world, particularly Latin America and East Asia, the United States continued and even expanded its presence in the 1920s under Republican administrations in much the same way it had under the Wilson Administration. Then, under the impact of the Great Depression, the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt adopted new approaches toward Latin America (the Good Neighbor Policy and an end to U.S. military interventions) and East Asia (a renewed focus on the Open Door Policy and China). But throughout the interwar period, American foreign policy in these two developing regions was dominated by the promotion of the central elements of the now fully developed American Creed: free markets and equal opportunity, free elections and liberal democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law.
A central reason why the United States withdrew from European security matters after 1920 was that Americans had come to believe they could not convert European nations — economically developed, militarily strong and politically independent — to the American Creed. In Latin America and East Asia — economically underdeveloped, militarily weak (Japan excepted) and politically dependent — it was a different story. Because of the weakness and therefore openness of these countries, it seemed plausible that they might be converted to American ways.
Of course, this was only plausible if the cultural and social features of these countries could be dismissed or ignored. But this turned out to be fairly easy, since these features were formed around such religions as Catholicism and Confucianism, which, to the Protestant mind of Americans, seemed obviously retrograde and irrational. With just a little persuasive effort on the part of Americans, this would become obvious to Latin Americans and East Asians as well. Then they, too, would adopt some version of the American Creed.
Thus, a characteristic pattern had developed in the conduct of American foreign policy in peacetime. When a country was strong in relation to the United States, and particularly if it was a great power, American foreign policy tended to be marked by either prudence or distance, by “realism” or “isolationism.” The United States acted toward that country in ways similar to those of the other great powers. In contrast, when a country was weak in relation to the United States, American foreign policy was marked by “idealism” (really secularized Protestantism) — by the drive to convert that country to free markets and liberal democracy. The United States sought to remake that country according to the tenets of the American Creed.
A problem would arise, however, if the United States, while seeking to convert a weak country or region, came into conflict with a great power. Then idealism would come into conflict with realism and prudence. This of course is what happened from 1931 to 1941, when the American vision for China came into conflict with the expansion of Japan. The result was the U.S. entry into World War II.
In the course of that war, Franklin Roosevelt deployed many of the same notions that Woodrow Wilson had promoted during World War I. Formally, Roosevelt was an Episcopalian, whereas Wilson had been a Presbyterian, and Roosevelt’s foreign policies were rather more realistic and pragmatic than those of Wilson. In their actual religious beliefs, however, they both seem to have been Unitarians of some kind, and in their wartime policies they both vigorously advanced free trade and liberal democracy. And, of course, Roosevelt resurrected Wilson’s League of Nations in the altered form of the United Nations.
After World War II, the characteristic pattern of American foreign policy — “realism” toward the strong and “idealism” toward the weak — developed further. When the United States was dealing with weak nations (and in the postwar era this was now the condition of the European states and Japan), American foreign policy sought to remake them along the lines of the American Creed. When the United States was dealing with great powers (in the Cold War era this was first the Soviet Union and later also China), its foreign policy was different. An interim period of conflict with these communist powers over their weaker neighbors (Central and Eastern Europe for the Soviet Union; Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia for China) was followed by the establishment of a rough division of the contested regions into spheres of influence, and the ensuing U.S. policy tended to be marked by realism, be it prudence (toward the Soviet Union) or distance (toward China until 1972).
Universal Human Rights
In the 1970s, American political and intellectual elites began to promote the notion of universal human rights as a fundamental goal of American foreign policy. This conception took the central elements of the American Creed and carried them to a logical, universal conclusion.
A conjunction of factors caused American elites to embrace universal human rights at that time. First, those elites who had condemned the U.S. intervention in Vietnam needed to develop a new doctrine for American foreign policy to replace the doctrine of containment, which in their eyes was now discredited. Second, the surge in U.S. trade and investment in newly industrializing countries beyond Europe and Japan caused some elites to see a need to develop a new doctrine for American foreign policy that could be applied to a wide variety of different (and often difficult) countries and cultures. Most important, however, were changes within American society itself.
America was changing from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, and thus from a producer to a consumer mentality. America was also changing from a modern to a postmodern society, and thus from an ideology of “possessive individualism” to an ideology of “expressive individualism.” The new post-industrial, consumer, postmodern, expressive individualist America was embodied in the “me generation”, the baby boomers. For boomers, the rights (and definitely not the responsibilities) of the individual (and definitely not of the community) were the highest — indeed the only — good.
In the new ideology, human rights are thus seen as the rights of individuals. The individual’s rights are independent of any hierarchy or community, traditions or customs in which that individual might be situated. This means that human rights are applicable to anyone anywhere in the world; they are universal, not merely communal or national. Individual rights and universal rights are one and the same.
This ideology of individualism reaches into all aspects of society; it is a total philosophy. The result appears to be totally opposite from the totalitarianism of the state, but appearances can be deceiving. It is, in essence, a sort of totalitarianism of the self. Both totalitarianisms are relentless in breaking down mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the highest powers or the widest forces. With the totalitarianism of the state, the highest powers are the ruling authorities; with the totalitarianism of the self, the widest forces are the agencies of the global economy.
Individualism — with its contempt for all hierarchies, communities, traditions and customs — represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion. The Holy Trinity of original Protestantism, the Supreme Being of unitarianism, even the American nation of the American Creed have all been dethroned and replaced by the imperial self. The long declension of the Protestant Reformation has reached its end point in the Protestant Deformation, a Protestantism without God, a reformation against all forms. In the Protestant Deformation, we no longer say “In God we trust” and really mean it; we trust in ourselves and ask God, if he exists, to say, “Amen.”
The foreign policy of the Protestant Deformation is promoting universal human rights. During the Cold War, there were constraints on the full pursuit of this project. As long as the United States was engaged in its great struggle with the Soviet Union and with communist ideology, it had to show respect for and make some concessions to the particularities of hierarchy, community, traditions and customs in the countries it needed as allies. These concessions were often departures from the normal U.S. promotion of free markets and liberal democracy, giving rise, among other things, to what was known as the friendly tyrants dilemma.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the discrediting of communist ideology removed much of the necessity for such compromises and concessions. At the same time, the spread of the global economy and the competition among national governments to liberalize their economies in order to attract foreign capital legitimized the idea of free markets. Now the United States could pursue unconstrained its grand project of universal human rights.
From Clinton to Bush
The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 marked the arrival to political power of that generation of Americans who were true believers in expressive individualism — the baby boomers. The Clinton Administration promoted universal human rights more than any previous administration. It saw human rights, free markets, liberal democracy and individual freedom as the solutions to virtually every human problem.
When the Bush Administration came to power, it made a big show of rejecting much of the foreign policy of its predecessor. Its individualism, too, was more of the possessive than of the expressive kind. However, with respect to the promotion of American values abroad (now catechized as the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity”) the Bush Administration has largely been a continuation, and even an amplification, of the Clinton Administration. In its public rhetoric, the Bush Administration’s preferred term has been democratization, whereas the Clinton Administration’s preferred term was globalization. But in fact each Administration has vigorously promoted both. These Administrations have differed some on tactical issues, such as the role of international institutions and international law. But when George W. Bush speaks about liberty and democracy for all as a universal, God-given right, he is as sincere as any political being can be, as much as if not more so than Woodrow Wilson himself.
The challenges posed by failed communist states in the 1990s caused the Clinton Administration to focus upon the Balkans (a region once considered part of the Near East) as the arena for its democratization project. The challenges posed by Islamist terrorist networks in the 2000s caused the Bush Administration to focus upon the Middle East and more broadly upon the Muslim world. The Clinton Administration waged two wars (Bosnia and Kosovo) while carrying out its project, and so has the Bush Administration (Afghanistan and Iraq). Of course, the Clinton Administration was rather more successful in its wars than its successor has been; it did bring an end to the violence in Bosnia and Kosovo, while the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq has persisted and is even getting worse. Yet the Clinton Administration was not successful in establishing democracy in Bosnia or Kosovo. Each remains under the rule of an international protectorate, their underlying conflicts frozen but not solved. The Bush Administration has not been able to achieve even this in its two target countries, and despite the holding of elections, it has not achieved genuine democratization in either of them.
There have been significant differences between the two Administrations with respect to the politics of their democratization projects. The Clinton Administration was directly and actively pressured to undertake its project and the associated military interventions by the human rights lobby. It was also supported in this by the globalization lobby, by business firms with global economic interests. In contrast, the Bush Administration was directly and actively pressured to undertake its project and the associated military interventions (particularly the Iraq war) by the neoconservative lobby. The neoconservatives also took the lead in building a political coalition in favor of democratization and intervention by recruiting some members of the human rights lobby (the “liberal hawks”) and the globalization lobby to provide support. They similarly recruited some members of the Evangelical Protestant lobby, but these Evangelicals only provided support; they did not take the initiative or apply pressure to go to war.
The Evangelicals supported the Bush democratization project because it was a Bush project, and they were already committed to his policy (or more accurately his rhetoric) on cultural and social issues. Conversely, some human rights proponents supported the Bush democratization project because it was a democratization project. They opposed Bush on just about every other policy, especially those involving cultural and social issues. Indeed, the human rights proponents have despised the Evangelicals, and the result has been an unstable coalition of support for the Bush foreign policy.
For the most part, Evangelical Protestants have not considered American foreign policy to be one of their priority political issues. They were utterly indifferent to U.S. democratization efforts under the Clinton Administration. If democratization should come about in a foreign country, Evangelicals will be pleased, all the more so because it might open up the country to missionary activity. (In this respect, China now appears to be an especially promising field for evangelization.) But Evangelicals think that such openings will come about through God’s work and not through their own political actions. Certainly, Evangelical Protestants who take their Bible seriously know that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and that to see America as this light is a form of idolatry and heresy.
Still, as the foreign policy of the Bush Administration draws closer to a debacle, someone will have to take the blame. This will particularly be the case in the election campaigns of 2006 and 2008. Democrats and liberals will attack Republicans and conservatives. The latter two groups, in turn, will have a strong incentive to distance themselves from the Bush presidency and from the Evangelical Protestants, “the religious Right” who so strongly and so carelessly supported Bush when he led America into a reckless adventure in the Middle East. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and secular conservatives will agree that the Evangelicals are to blame. The real architects of the Bush foreign policy will go on to other things and will be forgotten, if not forgiven, because they do not threaten Democrats and liberals on the cultural and social issues that mean so much to them. The Evangelicals do threaten the liberals on domestic issues, however, and the opportunity to marginalize them by blaming them for a foreign policy debacle will be irresistible.
Of course, it was the liberals who invented the American democratization project in the first place, championing the export of the American Creed. If Evangelicals do get blamed for a foreign policy gone awry, they should not be surprised. Long skeptical of the efficacy of worldly pursuits to reform mankind, they know full well that the ungodly world will always find new ways to blame true Christians for its own errors. Such is the dynamic of the Protestant Deformation.
1Orbis (Spring 1998).