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date: 25 March 2017

Religious Influences on U.S. Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Since 2001, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of scholarly monographs dedicated to religion and foreign relations. More scholars and policymakers agree that religion is an important feature of foreign affairs, regardless of whether one thinks it ought to be. While policymakers and scholars often discuss “religion” as a single “lens” for understanding the world, religious traditions do not exist in isolation from the political, economic, or social and cultural aspects of life. Tracing religious influences on U.S. foreign policy, then, can lead scholars in a variety of directions. Scholars researching religious influences in foreign policy could consider theologies and creeds of religious organizations and figures, the rhetoric and rituals of national norms and civic values, the intersection of “sacred” and “secular” ideas and institutions, the service of individual policymakers and diplomats, international legal or military defenses for or against specific religious groups, or public discourse about religion, to name but a few options.

Advances in the study of religion and foreign policy will require collaboration and dialogue across traditional boundaries for disciplines, fields, and subfields. For many scholars, this means broadening research approaches and methods. Instead of prioritizing “first-” and “second-” order causes, for instance, historians and social scientists could move beyond cause-effect relationships alone, complicating U.S. foreign relations by considering intersectional experiences and interstitial explanations. Rather than looking for “the” univocal religious influence, scholars might pay greater attention to the multiplicity of “religious” influences on a given topic. This will likely occur by reading and researching beyond one specific area of expertise. It will also require attention to differentiating between institutional and “popular” or “lived” religion; recognizing the disparities between the official dogma of a religious affiliation and ethnographic and empirical data on religious practice; and giving attention to the underlying assumptions that occur when international organizations, national governments, and scholars choose to pay attention to certain forms of “religious” thought, behavior, and organizations and not others.

Keywords: Religion, foreign policy, secularism, fundamentalism, religious freedom, faith-based, liberal internationalism, isolationism, nationalism

In August 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that he considered sectarian strife to be one of the most pressing issues concerning diplomacy and foreign policy in the 21st century.1 Religion presents major challenges to peaceful international relations, Kerry explained, by producing diplomatic stalemates and roadblocks to “simply understanding people.” Kerry disclosed that if he returned to college he would major in comparative religion because it is so closely tied to his current diplomatic work. These remarks accompanied the announcement of the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. Later renamed the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, this new entity reports directly to the secretary of State and serves as the primary means through which the United States engages with global religious leaders and organizations.2 The State Department’s institutional recognition that religion holds powerful influence over world affairs appears relatively new in U.S. history; yet, this attention to religion remains consistent with Americans’ longstanding reliance upon religious freedom as a pivotal component of national identity and U.S. diplomatic missions.

The Office of Religion and Global Affairs formalized the U.S. government’s attention to religious influences in foreign relations. In many ways it serves as a culmination of decades of academic and policy initiatives that sought to understand more fully the role of religion in international politics.3 “Religion,” however, is not a monolithic or univocal expression of human thought or behavior. Separate religious groups and their individual adherents interpret scripture and international events in distinct and competing ways. Even members of the same denomination often disagree about matters pertaining to both church and state. While policymakers and scholars often discuss “religion” as a single “lens” for understanding the world, religious traditions do not exist in isolation from other aspects of life. Political scientist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd emphasized this point in her 2015 book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion.4 Hurd delineated three distinct religious constituencies—expert religion, lived religion, and governed religion—and the competing roles these groups can play in global affairs. Tracing religious influences on U.S. foreign policy, then, can lead scholars in a variety of directions. As a result, several perspectives must be taken into account in order to understand how religious ideas, figures, groups, and even the study of religion have shaped U.S. foreign policy.

Nationalist Discourses

One of the first ways that religious institutions and their adherents influenced U.S. foreign policy was by contributing to the development of an American identity distinct from indigenous populations and European empires that colonized the continent. For instance, churches throughout the North American British colonies helped to foster a culture that distinguished “American” life as separate from their “British” counterparts. Beginning with Pilgrim “separatists,” British colonists in America imagined themselves as possessing a shared religious identity that was distinct from their national citizenship.5 Throughout the colonial period, an array of Protestant churches, including Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Quakers, and Moravians, encouraged a shared sense of “America” that transcended each distinct British colony and challenged the metropole. The Protestant alliances built through the colonial era, particularly among “New Light” evangelicals and their churches, were an early indication of the ways in which diverse religious groups would work together. Despite their theological differences, many religious adherents in the American colonies upheld an “American” identity against external threats, both real and imagined. While churches were not responsible for revolutionary sentiment alone, they did contribute to a culture that expressed the value of individual conscience, of the free exercise of religion, and of nonsectarian consensus. These values fostered a shared sense of the necessity of moral virtue for good government and society even though all could not agree on the means to achieve it.

Although white Protestant church networks helped to create an early American culture, their influence was disproportional to the number of denominational members. Indeed, church membership in colonial America was quite low.6 The power and influence of Protestant churches instead related to their ability to form coalitions with the greater number of theists who did not hold membership with a specific denomination and those who subscribed to Christian republicanism over and above their own sectarian affiliation. The idea that America embodied a unique form of religious pluralism became one of the first intellectual exports of American culture. Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance, informed European audiences about the peculiar relationship between religion and politics in American life in his book Democracy in America. De Tocqueville was especially intrigued by two ostensible contradictions: first, the disestablishment of churches and the resulting voluntarism of American church members and, second, the plurality of religious traditions and worship practices amid a strong consensus that morality is central to good government. If one component of foreign policy is the articulation of national identity in a global context, then perceptions of domestic culture like de Tocqueville’s have an important role to play. De Tocqueville supplied an external evaluation in which America held an exceptional place in the world because it possessed a unique religious culture. Religious pluralism’s relationship to U.S. foreign relations may be indirect rather than causal—as de Toqueville and later historians have described it—but it remains significant as a central theme to the nationalist discourse diplomats and policymakers present to international audiences. In other words, assessments of religion in America contribute to the ways the United States and Americans project themselves to the world and the ways that they are perceived abroad.

Legal Framework

The U.S. Constitution formally outlines the powers and responsibilities of the federal government pertaining to both foreign policy and religion. The power to conduct foreign policy is divided between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches in an effort to provide checks and balances within the federal government. Whereas Congress holds the power to declare war and regulate international commerce, the president has the authority to negotiate treaties and appoint ambassadors to the other nations. This power of the executive, however, is also subject to approval of the Senate. The judicial branch completes this system by being able to review cases pertaining to international agreements with foreign states, international officials, or foreign nationals. Beyond those specific powers and responsibilities, the U.S. Constitution leaves open the procedures and customs necessary to conduct foreign affairs. This means that much of foreign policy is and has been subject to formal legal precedence and informal norms established by all branches of government. As a result, the history of U.S. foreign policy reveals continued American debates about the role and purpose of government.

This is also the case with regard to the federal government’s legal relationship to religion. According to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first or “establishment” clause prohibits the federal government from both making one religious tradition the official religion of the state and showing favor to one tradition over any others. The second or “free exercise” clause prevents the federal government from restricting citizens’ exercise of religion. Even though the First Amendment specifically prohibits the establishment of a specific state religion, its ratification did establish cultural norms pertaining to religion. American political and religious culture is built upon the assumption that the U.S. government is, and should be, formally disestablished from any specific religious institution. Popular interpretations of the First Amendment and of disestablishment contribute to an enduring American sentiment that the United States values religious liberty and religious pluralism above specific sectarian creeds, rituals, or institutions. This association between American culture and religious liberty has shaped both domestic and foreign affairs. It determines the way the federal government and U.S. faith-based organizations can legally interact on local, national, and international levels.

The First Amendment holds an enduring legacy for examining federal expressions of American identity, but not necessarily a consistent one. Foreign relations provides one avenue for parsing the numerous ways disestablishment shapes America’s role in the world. For instance, in 1796, President John Adams submitted to the Senate a peace treaty between the United States and “the Bey and subjects of Tripoli, of Barbary,” a portion of the Ottoman Empire. Article 11 of the treaty states: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims].”7 To bring an end to fighting in the Barbary States, Adams clarified the relationship between religion and the state, making clear that the United States valued religion, but did not do so according to a state adherence to Christianity. This statement solidified an internationally recognized description for the new nation, setting it apart from both European empires that united church and state, such as Great Britain and Spain, and Islamic states like Tripoli. The Senate unanimously accepted and ratified the treaty, in an ostensible endorsement of Adams’s summation of America’s relationship to Christianity. Later presidents, however, would describe the United States in remarkably different ways. For example, when President Harry S. Truman exchanged correspondence with Pope Pius XII in August 1947, he asserted, “Your Holiness, this is a Christian nation … As a Christian Nation our earnest desire is to work with men of good will everywhere to banish war and the causes of war from the world whose Creator desired that men of every race and in every clime should live together in peace, goodwill, and mutual trust.”8 In equally straightforward language, Truman’s letter offered an entirely different depiction of the United States. Truman insisted upon a Christian basis for the United States in order to differentiate American democracy from communism. Both Adams and Truman considered their perspective to uphold the spirit and letter of the First Amendment. The laws pertaining to religious liberty, especially the idea of a freedom of “conscience,” influenced the way each president represented the nation to international figures. In each case, these documents and the descriptions of Christianity within them were primarily matters of state and not matters of faith. Their opposing interpretations reveal the unexplored possibilities the study of religion holds for understanding how Americans present their nation to the world.

Foreign Policy “Traditions”

Within this legal framework for religion and foreign policy, America’s position toward the world has moved along a spectrum of “isolationist” and “internationalist” positions. Along this historical spectrum, religious ideologies—including cosmological and eschatological frameworks about the nature of humanity and the progress of history—may influence the way that individual civil servants conceive of appropriate and effective policies. The traditional approach of U.S. foreign policy followed the precedent established through President George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796. Washington implored the nation to avoid “interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe” causing the nation to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.”9 This tendency to “isolate” the United States did not translate to a complete refusal to engage with European nations but rather inspired a limited and measured approach to both binding and nonbinding international agreements. This general orientation toward international engagement remained the norm until the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, when presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson expanded U.S. economic, military, and cultural interests beyond the borders of the continental United States. While presidents make policy decisions based on distinct circumstances, both in concert with other civil servants and with voter approval in mind, each of these presidents expressed an interest in broadening America’s “civilizing” influence in the world. Most notably, perhaps, is President McKinley’s leadership in the Spanish-American War. According to an interview published in the Christian Advocate in January 1903, the president admitted to kneeling in prayer “to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night,” which led him to decide “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.”10 Broadly, white American Protestants found common cause in McKinley’s interest in “Christianizing” Filipinos. McKinley and a broad base of white Protestant voters conceived of advancing Christian mission and American empire as essentially the same endeavor. Both were considered “civilizing” influences that generally (and inherently) improved the lives of indigenous peoples. In the latter decades of the 19th century, many “liberal” or “progressive” Protestants inspired by the Social Gospel considered “uplift” and social reform work in urban settings to be the first step in making those outside of an Anglo-American heritage “civilized” at home and abroad. They raised money, lobbied Congress, and encouraged military intervention to apply that “civilizing” influence to “home missions” and to other nations and territories, like the Philippines, Cuba, and Hawaii.

In the 20th century the interconnectedness of civilization, Christianity, and American life was advanced most prominently through Woodrow Wilson’s administration. During Wilson’s first term in office, he and his first secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, developed an approach to foreign policy that sought to encourage democratic reform in Mexico and Haiti and, later, through World War I. Historian Erez Manela extends this influence even further, arguing that the twenty-eighth president inspired a “Wilsonian moment” in anti-colonial movements in Egypt, China, India, and Korea.11 Wilson first demonstrated his approach to internationalism when he directed the U.S. Army to intervene during the Mexican Revolution. Wilson explained intervention as part of an effort to help Mexicans “elect good men,” illustrating two components he considered necessary for successful democracies—morally virtuous civil servants and open elections. Compelled by a moral imperative to spread Christianity and American democracy, Wilson and Bryan’s approach earned the nomenclature “missionary diplomacy.” As committed Presbyterians and Democrats, Wilson and Bryan built their political careers upon progressive domestic reform, and their endeavors carried over into international affairs. Although both Wilson and Bryan intended to represent American and Christian values through their civil service, they did not always agree on how best this could be achieved. Not least of all, Bryan and Wilson disagreed on the role of the United States in World War I. As a pacifist, Bryan considered American neutrality to be a matter of Christian principle that could not be violated by an individual or by the nation. Wilson, in contrast, considered the means of spreading American democracy to be a matter of circumstance. When he asked Congress to declare war in April 1917, Wilson believed that he as a Christian statesman and Americans as the “champions of mankind” had a duty to make the world “safe for democracy.”12 To Wilson, and many presidents who came before and would come after him, war and Christianity were not mutually exclusive, especially when the establishment of democracy was purported to be at stake.

Institutional Partnerships

Presidents loom large in historical examinations of religion and foreign policy. As the representatives of the United States to the world, presidents often become associated with the major events that shaped their tenure in office. Many scholars make their first foray into the study of religion and foreign policy by examining presidents, or other figures pivotal to U.S. diplomacy, and their denominational affiliations. Demonstrating a relationship between an individual’s ideology and his policies, however, is not the only means through which scholars can analyze religion and foreign policy. Religious groups and movements have also shaped the development of American foreign relations through formal organizations and informal social networks. These institutional partnerships often created the means through which the United States carried out its policy initiatives.

The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and various denominational missionaries, for example, served a critical role in implementing federal Native American assimilation policies. Throughout the 19th century, missionaries administered education and other civil services to Native Americans at the request of federal agencies and with federal sponsorship. When President Ulysses Grant began his so-called Peace Policy and reorganized federal relationships with Native American tribes, he also redistributed Christian missionary responsibilities. Under Grant’s direction, the federal government issued new contracts with missionary organizations, limiting access to one denomination per reservation and tending to favor Quakers and nonsectarian Protestant groups. Rather than end a patronage system in which the federal government favored some denominations over others, it created more competition among denominations to gain access and favor within reservations to maintain a monopoly on federal financial support for their missionary efforts. In fact, part of Richard H. Pratt’s infamous call in 1892 to “kill the Indian, save the man” was inspired by his frustration with the results of the United States relying upon missionaries to educate, and therefore “civilize,” Native Americans.13 To Pratt, missionaries were too preoccupied with maintaining a distinctive character for “Indians”—as natives and as sectarian Christians—to properly assimilate Native Americans to “American” culture. By the end of the 19th century, nonsectarian public schools—rather than publicly funded parochial schools—would inculcate Native American children. They learned what many Americans considered the proper understanding of church and state, an ideal relationship in which religion made all citizens moral but did not encourage sectarian difference.

These institutional relationships between the federal government and “faith-based” organizations only increased throughout the 20th century. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may be classified as “faith-based” according to their mission statement or overarching purpose, an association with a specific religious affiliation or ecumenical organization, or employment requirements that include creedal affirmations, or they may raise funds through religious institutions, including fundraising by either clergy or laity. Throughout the 20th century more and more religious adherents developed NGOs to aid in humanitarian relief. During World War I, for instance, churches sponsored Sunday war bond drives and worked with Army recruiting agencies to increase enlistment. The Federal Council of Churches, one of the largest nonsectarian Protestant organizations, regularly published pamphlets and books that supported the war and President Wilson’s vision for postwar negotiations. Members of the Wilson administration, like Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, aided in fundraising efforts for Christian humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross and the YMCA, because they saw a common cause with faith-based organizations. By the 1920s and 1930s, many churches recognized the pivotal role their institutions and clergy members could play in bolstering morale in the military and, thus, advancing democracy. Many institutions reorganized their humanitarian efforts as a result. Due to internal differences over racial and religious intolerance, some members of the Federal Council of Churches helped to form the National Council for Christians and Jews in 1927, which continued to advance Wilson’s liberal internationalism throughout the interwar period. Other organizations remained committed to a sectarian ideology or denominational affiliations while engaging in humanitarian relief. Organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, or Jewish Welfare Board raised money and provided other resources to those in crisis around the world. These organizations often existed as extensions of or auxiliaries to specific denominations or religious institutions. Others still, such as the Red Cross, YMCA, and Salvation Army, took a nonsectarian Christian approach to humanitarian relief. Even though “realist” approaches to foreign policy dominated in international relations and the upper echelons of policymaking during the Cold War, “faith-based” NGOs continued to be useful to the federal government.

Moralism and Humanitarian Networks

The motivations behind faith-based humanitarian work vary among participants. Some see humanitarian work as an extension of a missionary impulse, a duty belonging to their religious identity, or an ethical responsibility that reflects individual piety or group cohesion. In this way, “religion” in foreign relations is often associated with the exercise of morality. Until quite recently, the literature pertaining to religious influences on foreign policy widely held that religious groups and people bring this kind of “moral” dimension to foreign policy. This assumption requires three overlapping presumptions: first, that “religion” and “morality” are synonymous or interrelated; second, that morality is, essentially, an idealized impulse contributing to the greater good or human progress; and, third, that without religious persuasions foreign policy would be an exclusively rational affair (presuming, of course, that “religion” is irrational). This latter approach imposes a divide between “faith” and “reason” that is not held by many formal doctrinal creeds or even among popular religious traditions around the world. Together, these assumptions presuppose, somewhat paradoxically, religions and religious people are both anti-intellectual (or, in some respect irrational) and inherently “good.” This line of thinking, however, neglects the complicated history of international moral reform among American Christians. For example, during the antebellum period most American Christians believed that the transatlantic slave trade was a morally upstanding institution that advanced the Gospel message to Africa and among Africans throughout the Americas. The systematic prohibitions on slaves’ religious practice stripped Africans of their heritage, sense of self, and humanity.14 American ministers regularly defended the constitutionality and biblicism of slavery from their pulpits. From the Puritans to the Confederacy, Christian theologies denied full citizenship—and, at times, even humanity—to Africans. Indeed, the racialization of slavery in colonial Virginia depended upon the assumed global distribution of Christians (that is, that Africans could not have been Christians “in their native lands”) and an expectation of who held the intellectual capacity to be converted to Christianity and, thus, “civilized” enough for citizenship.15 Countless clergy members and lay Christians underwrote the international and imperial commerce of the African slave trade by condoning Anglo American moral, legal, and economic superiority over Africans and African Americans.

It is through this cultural influence that many scholars agree religious groups and people are “salient” features of foreign policy. Rather than crafting the verbiage of policy, conventional wisdom suggests, ideology indirectly influences the moral and ethical standards that shape policy. This influence, however, can appear more direct than indirect when transnational networks within religious traditions are taken into account. Historian Ian Tyrell, for instance, has focused on the “webs of communication” between Anglo American reformers that worked with nation-states and beyond their purview to achieve their desired humanitarian goals.16 Transnational moral reform movements for causes like temperance, abolition, and suffrage in the 19th century laid the organizational groundwork for international peace movements and precedents for international law in the 20th century.

All religious groups, however, did not participate in these humanitarian networks equally, and humanitarian aid was not always distributed evenly. The flow of money across transnational faith-based organizational networks was subject to hierarchies regulated by social capital and cultural norms. White Protestants’ fears and prejudices against Catholicism, for example, shaped the distribution of humanitarian aid for Catholic immigrants in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarly, public concern about the threat of Islamist terrorist groups both at home and abroad caused many Americans to question the efficacy of accepting Arab or Muslim refugees in the second decade of the 21st century.17 Some presidential candidates in the 2016 election suggested accepting only Christian refugees and immigrants from certain regions of the world.18 Although religious tests for citizens are unconstitutional, public opinion, national security, and the complexities of international humanitarian aid complicate the American practice of disestablishment and concomitant expectations of religious freedom.

As a result of these complications, transnational and global mission networks have influenced the way indigenous peoples perceived both American diplomats and Christian missionaries. American missionaries often provided the first introduction to U.S. culture among indigenous cultures. In this respect, missionaries have served as harbingers of a cultural imperialism, furthering the aims of U.S. foreign policy by inserting themselves into indigenous societies. Africans, for instance, remained skeptical of missionaries and their presence in Africa because they often viewed Christians as extensions of the nation-states and colonial empires from which they came. As Sylvia Jacobs has pointed out, both black and white American Christians encountered resistance and, at times, conflict even though they did not officially represent the United States.19 In this way, missionaries encountered the consequences of U.S. foreign policy even if they did not help to shape actual policies. Women missionaries in particular provide windows into the formal and informal boundaries of domestic and foreign customs as they both challenged and served U.S. interests abroad. Black missionaries in Africa, as well as in other locations under colonial rule like India, confronted U.S. racial discrimination from their international locales. More recently, historians have considered complicated negotiations like these between missionaries’ depictions of American culture and indigenous receptions of this information.20

In their efforts to raise awareness of humanitarian crises in foreign lands, missionaries also raised awareness of discriminatory practices in the United States. In this respect, religious influences for foreign relations work, like humanitarian interventions sponsored by faith-based institutions, drew attention to blemishes in U.S. culture, complicating diplomatic endeavors with allies and international partners. Even though their mission was to evangelize or educate, many missionaries and humanitarian aid workers learned a great deal about America from their interactions with indigenous and colonized peoples. Learning about these other cultures inspired many to change U.S. culture and law. Historian David Hollinger, for instance, argues that experiences abroad caused missionaries and their children to return to the United States and their home churches with more liberalizing and secularizing impulses than might be expected.21 These experiences, in turn, reshaped many of the purposes and procedures for diplomatic missions in the 20th and 21st centuries.

“World Religions” and Policymaking

Global religious traditions have, at times, shaped the way in which the United States engages with other nations. From conflicts with the Barbary States during John Adams’s presidency to the 21st-century War on Terror, Islam has influenced U.S. foreign relations. In each case, the official pronouncements of the United States insisted that that armed conflict was not waged against Islam, as a religious tradition, or Muslims, as religious adherents; instead, the executive branch carefully stated that the United States fought tyrannical leaders occupying predominately Muslim territories. Popular sentiment among Americans, however, remained mixed. Literature, film, and the arts often depict Muslims through an Orientalist lens that presents Islam as the inverse of American culture and values.22 While popular culture may not be an accurate indication of formal policy, recent public opinion polling suggests that American engagement with Muslims does affect how Americans perceive external threats from Islamic terrorists.23

These popular perceptions of religious groups also help to shape Americans’ general support of specific nations or causes. America’s continued support of the state of Israel, for instance, has been buttressed by positive U.S. popular opinion toward Jews and widespread support for the state of Israel.24 Much of U.S. support for Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, has come from American Christians, especially evangelicals. The belief that Jews and Jewish-Palestinian territories have a pivotal role to play in the Second Coming of Christ has fueled some American Christians’ support for Jewish nationalism, also known as Christian Zionism. Throughout the 20th century, Christian Zionists lobbied U.S. presidents and members of Congress and shaped public opinion to support the Balfour Declaration, U.N. Resolution 181, and humanitarian and military aid to the state of Israel. Both knowledge of Judaism as a global tradition and public perceptions of Jews and Jewish culture influence the tone and tenor of U.S.–Israel relations. This influence is partially the result of evangelicals’ eschatological beliefs about the end times and nonsectarian support of Jews as a religious and ethnic minority deserving the friendship and protection of the United States.

Secularism and the Study of Religion

Between the 1950s and 1980s, concern over the expansion of communism dominated U.S. foreign policy. As a result, U.S. national security agencies began to consider the strategic role religious figures and groups could play in foreign policy. George Kennan’s Article X provided the first outline of a “containment” strategy that sought to prevent the spread of communism beyond its current geographical areas of dominance. While Kennan’s ideas did not specifically include religion as a part of the strategy, they did lead to new formulations for religion’s role in national security. To contain communism, national security leaders began to educate themselves on “world” religions. The Central Intelligence Agency and armed services turned to scholars of religion, like Houston Smith, and academic monographs, such as Smith’s The Religions of Man, to gain more cultural knowledge for the fight against communism. Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan as well as Buddhists in South Vietnam, for instance, became attractive partners for a coalition of the faithful that could prevent communism from spreading. Federal aid and U.S. armed forces were directed toward these religious groups in order to bolster cultural support for American capitalism and democracy and to deploy strategic interventions denying communist influence in these regions. Even though theological commitments did not necessarily dictate policy, knowledge of religious groups outside the United States became a matter of national security. Religious literacy, as a component of cultural knowledge in global hot spots, contributed to the implementation of this and other policies in the late 20th century.

Like with other Cold War intelligence efforts, effectiveness was limited by the accuracy of information. Generalizations about the “Muslim world” and Orientalist stereotypes persisted despite the efforts of the OSS, CIA, and NSA to learn about the greater Middle East and Islam. Cold War thinkers did not fully anticipate the complexities of ethnic, religious, and national dynamics among Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey.25 U.S. policymakers and the general public continued to struggle to understand the intricacies of ideological, ethnic, and nationalist differences among Muslims and apply that knowledge to policy decisions. The Iranian Revolution served as an important point of transition for U.S. policymakers and diplomats. Political instability as well as anti-American sentiment in Iran changed the course of policymakers. Those who had expressed a willingness to work with Muslim partners became skeptical of Islamic activists more generally. Failed strategic alliances with the shah of Iran and with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, along with the continued growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Palestinian territories, led to a shift in Cold War approaches to religion. Rather than continue to build coalitions among the faithful in a fight against communist “godlessness,” the United States increasingly differentiated religious groups among “good” and “bad” forms of religious belief and practice.26 Theologies and faith-based institutions that contributed to the advancement of American democracy were classified as legitimate religious actors in international relations; others were deemed illegitimate international partners or terrorists who manipulated scripture. These new approaches toward the end of the 20th century as well as public awareness of Islamic terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIL (also known as ISIS) have led to the federal government making strict divisions between “religious actors” and “terrorists” with ease. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs established in 2013, for instance, exists to determine who are proper religious actors and those who have “hijacked” religion for violent ends. In public discourse and in more private diplomatic affairs, then, the federal government tacitly makes decisions regarding orthodoxy and orthopraxy: which beliefs, actions, and organizations represent the norm for specific faith traditions.

Secular institutions, policies, and leaders are an important dimension to understanding religious influences on foreign policy. Their significance lies not in providing a counterpoint to religious institutions, policies, and leaders but in their ability and legal authority to define what constitutes “authentic” or “sincere” religious action and belief. Secular definitions of religions not only provide fodder for academic research but also often carry the formal power of legal, military, and cultural enforcement mechanisms. The potential material and human consequences of the U.S. government classifying one’s religious beliefs and actions as illegitimate or threatening to U.S. interests cause faith leaders and their organizations to participate in the active construction and maintenance of “secular” public space and governments. U.S. public life provides an important case study in the history of religious adherents encouraging the separation of church and state in order to maintain a more beneficial relationship between religious and civil authority.

As David Sehat argued in Myth of American Religious Freedom, the idea of religious freedom is a staple in Americans’ understanding of their own nation. Upholding religious freedom remained central to the mission of many U.S. presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush and, most recently, Barack Obama. The shared notion that religion influences American culture not only is a source of pride to many generations of Americans but also provides a perennial narrative for U.S. engagement abroad. Protecting the freedom of others around the world animated U.S. military engagement throughout the 20th century and well into the 21st century. Americans’ peculiarly Protestant notion of “religious freedom”—one that preferences “sincere” belief over rituals or other “works”—illustrates how cultural and legal approaches to religion reflect historical contexts and ideologies even as they purport to uphold universal values. Recognizing and analyzing the interplay between “secular” and “sacred” approaches to religion is an underdeveloped area of research in part because, as the Office of Religion and Global Affairs makes clear, it hits too close to home.

Discussion of the Literature

Disciplinary distinctions loom large in the literature pertaining to religious influences on U.S. foreign relations. Graduate or professional training plays a significant role in determining the way in which scholars and policymakers consider the relationship between religion and foreign affairs. While interdisciplinarity is encouraged within academia as a whole, current literature reflects deep theoretical and methodological divisions among scholars trained in international relations, political science, U.S. history, American studies, and religious studies. One of the most divisive issues is also a fundamental building block for several fields of study: can the nonmaterial (the supernatural specifically or ideas more generally) shape history in a legitimate (that is, identifiable or measurable) way?

Since 2001, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of scholarly monographs dedicated to religion and foreign relations. More scholars and policymakers agree that religion is an important feature of foreign affairs, regardless of whether one thinks it ought to be. This proliferation of scholarship has occurred along a few trends. First, scholars have asserted that religion is increasingly a salient factor in global conflict and, therefore, must be given attention in scholarly research. This assertion, largely held by political scientists and scholars of international relations, relies upon a correction to the “secularization thesis” that dominated social science in the 20th century. This theory on secularization assumes “modern” life necessitates the decline of religious thought and practice in society. To correct the overdependence upon “secular” figures and “secular” thinking, scholars following this line of new scholarship have expanded their research to include religious ideas, figures, and groups. When seen as entirely “new,” this position ignores a large body of research written from within religious studies, American studies, and American history that “took religion seriously” well before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. From within certain scholarly circles, especially those that presume “religion” to be premodern and irrational, this inclusionary approach toward religious people and ideas is innovative, as it seems to give weight to “irrational” or “cosmic” motivations for human action.

Second, scholars insist that religion is and should be its own analytical category. This contention, led by religious and, to a smaller degree, diplomatic historians, insists that religion is a “force” or “lens” that provides insight into historical events or actors. Just as economics, gender, or race sheds light on the past, “religion” also is a way of seeing the world. Historians who contribute to this line of thought may do so by insisting that religion or, in broader terms, “ideology” is the most useful or efficacious category for understanding the past. Other historians who use this line of thought will temper their contention to say that religion is one analytical category among many that influence historical actors. In other words, religion might not be the primary analytic but it is one necessary to include in concert with others or otherwise deserving of its own analysis. Whichever position a scholar takes, this line of thought seeks to contribute to scholarship by placing “religion” alongside other analytical tools a scholar chooses to use. This second position receives harsh criticism from those who consider religion to be essentially irrational or a ruse for another more legitimate analytical category. Leo Ribuffo offers the most succinct refutation of this position by stating that “no major policy decision has turned on religious issues alone.”27

Third, scholars are considering the way in which national and international affairs affects religious thought, behavior, and institutions. The field of American religious history, for instance, developed alongside the larger “cultural turn” within the discipline of history. As result, historical monographs dedicated to American religion traditionally considered religion as a matter separate from the development of state political institutions, both formal and informal. Notable religious historians, including Nathan Hatch, Jon Butler, and Mark Noll, demonstrated how religious figures and ideas contributed to American notions of democracy. More recently, however, scholars of American religion have given greater attention to the state as an important influence on American religious life. Winifred Sullivan, Sarah Barringer Gordon, and David Sehat, for instance, have considered how the law has shaped religious ideas, figures, and institutions in the United Sates. Some works demonstrate how domestic religious life influenced foreign affairs; others illustrate how foreign affairs influenced domestic religious life; and there has been a growing body of literature that considers how the two were co-constituted.

Fourth, scholars are reconsidering “religion” in order to better understand its role(s) in foreign affairs. Religious studies is perhaps the most vocal field encouraging scholars and policymakers to rethink what constitutes a “religious” influence. Somewhat ironically, religious studies scholars do not assert the need to look at the world through a “religious” lens or apply “religion” as an analytic category necessary for the study of the past. Religious studies scholars are instead interested in applying a variety of methodologies to examinations of religious identifications. More specifically, scholars are considering the construction and projection of religious identities in global affairs as well as the power dynamics related to maintaining divisions along ideological, ethnic, and racial lines. Scholarship in this vein might consider how and why some self-described religious actors are considered legitimate among the international community and others are illegitimate. Likewise, religious studies scholars have increasingly become concerned with legal definitions of religion and the role of the state in determining acceptable forms of religious practice.

Advances in the study of religion and foreign policy will require collaboration and dialogue across traditional boundaries for disciplines, fields, and subfields. For many scholars, this means broadening research approaches and methods. Instead of prioritizing “first-” and “second-” order causes, for instance, historians and social scientists could move beyond cause-effect relationships alone, complicating U.S. foreign relations by considering intersectional experiences and interstitial explanations. Rather than looking for “the” univocal religious influence, scholars might pay greater attention to the multiplicity of “religious” influences on a given topic. This will likely occur by reading and researching beyond one specific area of expertise. It will also require attention to differentiating between institutional and “popular” or “lived” religion; recognizing the disparities between the official dogma of a religious affiliation and ethnographic and empirical data on religious practice; and giving attention to the underlying assumptions that occur when international organizations, national governments, and scholars choose to pay attention to certain forms of “religious” thought, behavior, and organizations and not others. In this regard, scholars in religious studies could apply familiar concepts and theories to state and non-state actors beyond religious institutions. While the study of religion has traditionally focused on theology and “meaning-making” among religious groups, the field also includes functionalist and social-critical approaches that could be applied to international law, nationalism, and global civil society more intentionally.

Studies on religious influences on foreign policy will not likely help policymakers until scholarship reflects the complicated power dynamics embedded within and among religious identities and institutions. Scholars and policymakers alike will need to remain attuned to the competing identities and resources at play among self-described religious actors and the states investing in them. They will need to recognize the way in which national and international legal discourses shape religious behavior and identity. In particular, the privilege and protection of laws protecting religious freedom are not applied blindly or evenly to all self-described religious persons or institutions. In short, the most notable contributions to the study of religion and foreign policy will likely come from scholars who consider the power religion holds in world affairs: the various material, legal, ideological, economic, and cultural advantages and disadvantages that accompany specific religious identities, institutions, and ideologies.

Primary Sources

Even though the study of religion in U.S. foreign policy can occur within a number of disciplines and fields, the primary source material for research will likely remain similar. Historical research on U.S. foreign policy will require interaction with two significant source bases: the Foreign Relations of the United States series published through the Government Printing Office and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), especially its location in College Park, Maryland.28

The best place to start research on U.S. foreign relations is the Foreign Relations of the United States series (FRUS). This publication is the official history of U.S. foreign policy and includes declassified primary source documents. First published in 1861 and in continuous publication ever since, FRUS contains pertinent documentation for major historical events in U.S. foreign policy as well as records of related diplomatic endeavors. Fortunately for researchers, it is held in most research libraries and is accessible through the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Collection. While a welcome boon to researchers interested in the affairs of the state, the breadth of documentation in FRUS only scratches the surface of the depth of documentation accessible through National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA archivists suggest researchers bring FRUS citations with them to NARA so that they may aid in pulling other relevant materials beyond what was published.

NARA holds the records pertaining to the business conducted by the United States. Approximately 3,000 employees preserve and maintain these records at twelve regional facilities and a host of other affiliated societies and offices across the nation.29 NARA at College Park (also known as NARA II) is the primary location of government records pertaining to foreign relations, especially civilian-employed agencies as well as Army and Navy records for most of the 20th century. Other NARA locations may also be of interest to researchers depending on particular needs (such as the National Military Personnel Records Center–Military Personnel Records at the St. Louis, Missouri, location or the U.S. Navy records regarding bases in the Pacific region at San Francisco). Because of the volume of materials held by NARA and the number of researchers each year, it is best for researchers to begin browsing the NARA catalogue online and contacting archivists well in advance of any research trip. It is also in researchers’ best interest to review the rules and procedures prior to arriving in College Park.30

While it may appear odd to suggest that researchers interested in religion conduct research at a state archive, this approach will yield an overwhelming amount of sources for almost any project because the federal government keeps extensive records related to international affairs. Any civilian who served as an informant, as a formal or informal diplomat, or who aided in creating policy decisions will intersect with NARA. Any federal employee who appealed to a religious figure, group, or event to aid in the implementation of foreign relations will also intersect with NARA. This holds great promise for researchers as long as their particular topic is declassified. First-time researchers at NARA interested in relatively recent history will need to familiarize themselves with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the procedures for obtaining classified information.31 If researchers suspect that the records they seek may be classified, it is in their best interest to contact an archivist early in the research process.

In addition to FRUS and NARA, denominational and missions archives and records may also prove useful. Some university library collections will be fruitful for specific research interests, such as Harvard University’s collection on the ABCFM. These primary source bases will vary according to the resources of each particular archival institution. How scholars determine their archival sources is subject to their particular research interests. For instance, some scholars may begin with the records of a specific denomination if they already know which religious actors they wish to study. For example, the foreign missions records of the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be found at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. If the mission efforts under study were nondenominational or ecumenical, then researchers would need to find the records of the funding mechanism, such as a nonsectarian or interfaith institution, and locate the corresponding archive. Wheaton College, for instance, holds records for the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, an evangelical missionary organization that held its own standards for membership beyond denominational affiliation. Rather than begin with religious actors in mind, geographical or chronological interests may determine where scholars begin their search. Knowledge of humanitarian workers or agencies present in a specific region or diplomatic mission may lead some scholars to religious institutions for supplemental information beyond the official record in FRUS. In these cases, the findings from missionary archives or religious institutions can provide insight and texture to the sources available from the state. The records and record-keeping of these types of sources varies wildly among repositories, making the task of archival research both daunting and exciting. The underutilization of these sources in the study of foreign religions should quell any professional reservations. In this uncharted archival territory lie countless possibilities for the study of religious influences on foreign policy.

American Presidency Project, University of California-Santa Barbara.

Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University.

Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Columbia University.

Constitute: The World’s Constitutions to Read, Search, and Compare.

Council on Foreign Relations.

Divining America: Religion in American History, National Humanities Center, TeacherServe.

God in America, American Experience, Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service.

Global Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project.

Interfaith Voices Public Radio.

Office of Religion and Global Affairs, U.S. State Department.

Religlaw: International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Religion and Law Consortium.

Religious Legal Systems in Comparative Law: A Guide to Introductory Research, Hauser Global Law School Program, New York University School of Law.

Religious Landscape Study, Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project.

Further Reading

Abrams, Elliot, ed. Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.Find this resource:

Allison, Robert. Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Amstutz, Mark. Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Cady, Linell E., and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, eds. Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.Find this resource:

Chaplin, Jonathan, and Robert Joustra. God and Global Order: The Power of Religion in American Foreign Policy. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Fitzgerald, Timothy. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Haynes, Jeffrey. An Introduction to International Relations and Religion. 2d ed. New York: Pearson, 2007.Find this resource:

Herzog, Jonathan P. The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle against Communism in the Early Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Inboden, William. Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Soul of Containment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.Find this resource:

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918–1967. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2011.Find this resource:

Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Mahmood, Mamdani. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Pantheon, 2004.Find this resource:

Preston, Andrew. Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith. New York: Knopf, 2012.Find this resource:

Ribuffo, Leo. “Religion.” In Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. Edited by Alexander DeConde, Richard Dean Burns, and Fredrik Logevall, 371–391. New York: Scribner, 2002.Find this resource:


(1.) John Kerry, “Remarks at the Launch of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives,” August 7, 2013, Washington, DC.

(2.) Office of Religion and Global Affairs, Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary, U.S. Department of State.

(3.) See, for example, “Religion and International Relations: A Primer for Research,” The Report of the Working Group on International Relations and Religion of the Mellon Initiative on Religion Across the Disciplines, University of Notre Dame.

(4.) Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

(5.) Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1992); Richard Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690–1765 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); and Stephen Foster, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570–1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

(6.) Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

(7.) Treaty of Tripoli. See also, Robert Allison, Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

(8.) Harry S. Truman, “Exchange of Messages With Pope Pius XII,” August 28, 1947, Online by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.

(9.) George Washington, “Farewell Address” (1796), Avalon Project, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

(10.) General James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” Christian Advocate, (January 22, 1903), 17. A digital version of this interview can be found via Digital History (William McKinley, “Decision on the Philippines”).

(11.) Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

(12.) Woodrow Wilson, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress Requesting a Declaration of War against Germany,” April 2, 1917, Online by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.

(13.) Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46–59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” in Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900, ed. Franic P. Prucha (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–271.

(14.) Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(15.) An Act concerning Slavery and Slaves” (1705), Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

(16.) Ian Tyrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

(17.) Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman, “G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors to Syrian Refugees,” New York Times (November 16, 2015).

(18.) Thomas Kaplan and Wilson Andrews, “Presidential Candidates on Allowing Syrian Refugees in the United States,” New York Times (November 17, 2015).

(19.) Sylvia Jacobs, “Africa American Missions in the Congo,” in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, ed. Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(20.) See, for example, Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo, eds., Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(21.) David Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

(22.) See Robert Allison, Crescent Obscured; and Susan Nance, How Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

(23.) How Americans Feel about Religious Groups,” July 16, 2014, Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life Project.

(25.) See Salim Yaqub, Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); and Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Pantheon, 2004).

(26.) Mahmood, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.

(27.) Elliot Abrams, ed., Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), ix.

(28.) Foreign Relations of the United States (Washington, DC: GPO, 1861–), Online by University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

(29.) “About the National Archives,” National Archives.