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.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.
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."
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.