Putting it All on the Table

by Cara L. Burnidge

This week, during his first overseas trip as Secretary of State, John Kerry talked to German students about the virtues of the United States:
"As a country, as a society, we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance, whatever the religion, and political freedom and political tolerance, whatever the point of view.

People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it's the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another.

The reason is, that's freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid--if you want to be. And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be. And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that's a virtue. I think that's something worth fighting for."
The focus of the news headlines and the attention of his German audience settled on the statement that "in America you have a right to be stupid" (See NPR's brief report and the audio from Reuters). But what captures my attention is Kerry's description of American virtues. This is a fascinating turn of phrase for a Secretary who succinctly stated that "foreign policy is economic policy," giving fuel to the historiographic debate that ideology has a second class status in foreign relations history.

In less than a month since his confirmation as Secretary of State, Kerry has supplied plenty of data for those of us interested in religion and foreign policy. Early on, Kerry has defined the value of the United States according to its "religious freedom and religious tolerance." Indeed, this has been the topic of many studies: the way in which the United States defines religious freedom, promotes and defends it abroad, and the contradictions that lie between those two points. While this is certainly a valuable avenue of scholarly inquiry, I think we're only beginning to scratch the surface of potential studies on the intersection of religion and foreign relations.

Let's think for a moment about William Jennings Bryan...not his "Cross of Gold" speech or the Scopes Trail, but his tenure as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. By 1913 when he began his appointment, Bryan's reputation as an anti-imperialist and pacifist certainly preceded him. Bryan did not disappoint, arbitrating treaties and eventually resigning from office when it became clear that the United States was on a path toward entering World War I. The summation of the role Christianity played in his approach to foreign policy, however, cannot be found in a single speech or act he performed. Instead, I would argue, that if one wanted to understand the influence of evangelicalism on Bryan's time in office, his desk is the place to start. Sitting atop Bryan's desk was a small paperweight. Fond of symbolism, Bryan had asked the War Department to melt several swords no longer in use and recast them into plowshares that could serve as paperweights. Isaiah 2:4 was engraved on the side: "Nothing is final between friends; They shall beat their swords into plowshares." When Bryan successfully negotiated treaties he gave the paperweight as a gift, a tangible bond between allies that represented the need to have one less weapon in the nation's arsenal. (The link to the Library of Congress's digital copy of the image can be found here.)

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

Arguing for the importance of ideology in the history of U.S. foreign relations can be a tricky historiographical debate. Often "ideology" is assumed to be immaterial only and, therefore, less important than, perhaps, economics. But articulating the virtues of America and forging relationships with other countries often requires policymakers to lean on ideology in a variety of ways. I'm excited about the new scholarship in this area of American Religions because historians are beginning to look beyond "religious" words and look more fully at the policymaker, the groups to which s/he belongs, his/her actions, and even the objects close to them.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for this wonderful post and image, Cara! It seems the debate in Diplomatic History is no longer "if" religion matters but "why" religion matters. You seem to be saying that we should move beyond simply documenting uses of religious rhetoric and rather chart the "religiousity" of the policymaker(s). In other words, biography (personal or group) is the way to establish the always-elusive "influence" of religion on statecraft. Is that a fair summary? I'm essentially taking that same approach in regards to the Council on Foreign Relations, so any thoughts you have would be welcome.
Thanks, Mark! Actually, I'm not so much advocating a biographical approach as re-thinking what should "count" when we focus on individuals. It seems that most studies, especially what I read on Wilson or Bryan, focus on their church attendance, statements about God, or the "authenticity" of their rhetoric (the assumption being that politicians don't *really* believe what they say--and we need to get to the bottom of it). I'm thinking that to study religion and foreign policy, you have to think more broadly about the religious world/environment policymakers construct for themselves and, by the nature of their position, the nation. Their personal beliefs and rituals are a part of that, but its also, I think, the more mundane activities and objects they surround themselves with.

To get back to your first point, I think DH is still concerned, primarily, with causation. Religion may matter more in DH, but it matters in relation to the cause and effect of policymaking and as the "moral impulse" behind policy. Maybe this post isn't a great example of my interest there, but there will be more to come!
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, Cara. I agree entirely with your assessment of DH. The field still has a very narrow conception WHY religion matters, as I note in a forthcoming review of an excellent article by Andrew Preston in Cold War History, his very nice follow-up piece to his magisterial Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Vary nice, Cara. WJB represents a very odd reshuffle of the Christian, the modern, and the liberal.

BTW, the actual transcript of the Scopes Monkey trial. That damnable movie did such a disservice to the man, and to the truth. WJB was far from the fool you see in the play and the film.


BRYAN: These gentlemen have not had much chance. They did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it, and they can ask me any questions they please.

JUDGE RAULSTON: All right. [Applause.]

DARROW: Great applause from the bleachers.

BRYAN: From those whom you call "yokels."

DARROW: I have never called them yokels.

BRYAN: That is the ignorance of Tennessee, the bigotry.

DARROW: You mean who are applauding you?

BRYAN: Those are the people whom you insult.

DARROW: You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.

JUDGE RAULSTON: I will not stand for that.


DARROW: Do you consider that every religion on earth competes with the Christian religion?

BRYAN: I think everybody who believes in the Christian religion believes so...

DARROW: I am asking what you think.

BRYAN: I do not regard them as competitive because I do not think they have the same source as we have.

DARROW: You are wrong in saying "competitive"?

BRYAN: I would not say competitive, but the religious unbelievers.

DARROW: Unbelievers of what?

BRYAN: In the Christian religion.

DARROW: What about the religion of Buddha?

BRYAN: Well, I can tell you something about that, if you would like to know.

DARROW: What about the religion of Confucius or Buddha?

BRYAN: Well, I can tell you something about them, if you would like to know.

DARROW: Did you ever investigate them?

BRYAN: Somewhat.

DARROW: Do you regard them as competitive?

BRYAN: No, I think they are very inferior. Would you like for me to tell you what I know about it?


BRYAN: Well, I shall insist on giving it to you.

DARROW: You won't talk about free silver, will you?

BRYAN: Not at all.


BRYAN: I mentioned the word "reciprocity" to show the difference between Christ's teaching in that respect and the teachings of Confucius. I call your attention to another difference. One of the followers of Confucius asked him, "What do you think of the doctrine that you should reward evil with good?" And the answer of Confucius was, "Reward evil with justice and and reward good with good. Love your enemies. Overcome evil with good. And there is a difference between the two teachings -- a difference incalculable in its effect and in -- the third difference -- people who scoff at religion and try to make it appear that Jesus brought nothing into the world, talk about the Golden Rule of Confucius. Confucius said, "Do not unto others what you would not have others do unto you." There is all the difference in the world between a negative harmlessness and a positive helpfulness, and the Christian religion is a religion of helpfulness, of service, embodied in the language of Jesus when he said, "Let him who would be chiefest among you be the servant of all." Those are the three differences between the teachings of Jesus and the teaching of Confucius, and they are very strong differences on very important questions. Now, Mr. Darrow, you asked me if I knew anything about Buddha.

DARROW: You want to make a speech on Buddha, too?

BRYAN: No sir, I want to answer your question on Buddha.

DARROW: I asked you if you knew anything about him.

BRYAN: I do.

DARROW: Well, that's answered, then.

BRYAN: Buddha...

DARROW: Well, wait a minute. You answered the question.

RAULSTON: I will let him tell what he knows.

DARROW: All he knows?

RAULSTON: Well, I don't know about that.

BRYAN: I won't insist on telling all I know. I will tell more than Mr. Darrow wants told.

DARROW: Well, all right, tell it. I don't care...

Tom Van Dyke said…
Oh, and sorry--I thought my memory had failed me, but here's the money quote, which y'd never know from Inherit the Wind.

DARROW: Then when the Bible said, for instance, "And God called the firmament heaven, and the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?

BRYAN: I do not think it necessarily does.

DARROW: Do you think it does or does not?

BRYAN: I know a great many think so.

DARROW: What do you think?

BRYAN: I do not think it does.

DARROW: You think these were not literal days?

BRYAN: I do not think they were 24-hour days.

DARROW: What do you think about it?

BRYAN: That is my opinion -- I do not know that my opinion is better on that subject than those who think it does.

DARROW: You do not think that?

BRYAN: No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in six million years or in six hundred million years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.


BTW, WJB's testimony was not offered to the jury, only entered into the record for the appellate court. WJB's long-windedness here is quote intentional, not mere grandstanding.


JUDGE RAULSTON: It is not competent evidence for the jury.

McKENZIE: Nor is it competent in the Appellate Courts, and these gentlemen would no more file the testimony of Col. Bryan as a part of the record in this case than they would file a rattlesnake and handle it themselves.

DARROW, HAYS, MALONE: We will file it. We will file it. We will file every word of it.

BRYAN: Your Honor, they have not asked a question legally, and the only reason they have asked any question is for the purpose -- as the question about Jonah was asked -- for a chance to give this agnostic an opportunity to criticize a believer in the word of God; and I answered the question in order to shut his mouth, so that he cannot go out and tell his atheistic friends that I would not answer his questions. That is the only reason, no more reason in the world.