Wars for Righteousness

by Paul Harvey

Were George W. Bush’s faith-based foreign policy and righteous crusades abroad foreshadowed by Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian foreign policy? Evidently so, according to a couple of recent works which explore Wilsonianism, with a clear eye backwards to a Calvinist sense of mission and an eye forward towards the Bush doctrine. Both, also, signify the influence of Niebuhrian critique in historical thought, warning of the dangers of hubris in idealism, especially when the exercise of national power is involved.

Richard Gamble’s The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation relentlessly indicts progressive thought on foreign policy during the Wilson years, most especially the falsely eschatological hopes given to World War I. He mostly concerns himself with bashing liberals of that generation, and liberalism more generally, but in doing so indicts many conservative foreign policy thinkers of that and more recent times as well. I'm not sure if his sponsor/publisher (the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which is sort of the youth brigade of the Heritage Foundation and whatever David Horowitz calls his bogus outfit) grasped that point fully, since it doesn't align very well with their take. Doubtless they were more taken with his relentless focus on WW I-era religious progressives, and to be sure they (those progressives) have much for which they have to answer, as Niebuhr pointed out in a later generation -- and as, for that matter, the pioneering pluralist thinker Randolph Bourne pointed out in that generation himself, when he famously asked John Dewey: “If the war was too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be weak enough for you to control and mould to your liberal purposes?” For my money, the chapter "The War for the American Mind" in David Kennedy's Over Here: World War One and American Society remains the best exploration of the implicit coercion involved in the mass march towards voluntarism in that war effort, one led by thinkers of all different political stripes.

From the colonial era to the present, Gamble suggests, Americans have been given to wars of righteousness. In great detail and with a plethora of quotation, the work examines the tragic consequences of this legacy in the early twentieth century. “Progressive clergy and politicians alike infused [World War I] with religious imagery and sacralized America’s participation in the Great War into the accomplishment of a prophetic, atoning work,” Gamble writes in this blistering account of liberal theologians’ conception of the great redemptive purpose of World War I (again, one could do an equally blistering account of conservative theologians on the same issue, but Gamble focuses his fire on the liberal religious thinkers). Religious thinkers such as Shailer Mathews, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Lyman Abbot, and a host of seminary professors in Chicago, New Haven, and elsewhere “pictured America, the Christ–nation, sacrificing itself in Wilsonian service to humanity and leading the armies of righteousness to victory.” Even many of the Christian pacifists panted for the war under the reasoning that “permanent peace required righteousness; righteousness would require war. Peace through righteousness through war.” The conservative Princetonian J. Gresham Machen emerges as the hero of the work, one of the few theologians not sucked into the tragic logic of righteous war.

In my own research, I found Southern Baptist theologians, certainly not "liberals" or "progressives," to be panting for the war as much as the liberals in this book. Despite the ideological blinders, however, this work still presents a valuable and sobering record of liberal religious thought on war during the early twentieth century.

I reviewed Wars for Righteousness a few years back, and now have had the opportunity, thanks to Baylor University press, of reading Malcolm Magee’s more even-handed, less agenda-driven study What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy. Wilson was absorbed in a Southern Presbyterian tradition that he absorbed from his father and mother and education, which shaped his reasoning and policies: “His Presbyterianism made him believe that law was a living embodiment of personal conscience and spirit, not a rigid matter of words, statutes, and precedents. True freedom was obedience to divine order, and he used “covenant” not as an elegant synonym for “treaty,” but rather in its full Old and New Testament meaning of nations and peoples accepting divine order in return for divine blessings. These convictions ultimately made him believe he was providentially chosen to bring that divinely ordered freedom to the nations and peoples of the earth, by peaceful means if possible but through force if necessary” (96). Magee traces the intervention in Mexico during the WWI years, finding it “deeply rooted in Wilson’s idea of principle and his view of the world as he believed it should be. To the end, he held the conviction that the United States, if acted righteously, would always come out on top. . . The working out of God’s will over time would justify American action."

Later, in surveying the results of Wilson’s dream and collapse after WW I, Magee writes: “Wilson’s faith in providence became inextricably entwined with his own inner voice. Faith inspired the best and the worst of Woodrow Wilson, his rise and his fall. It caused him to imagine a better, more just, more noble world, a vision that inspired the loyalty of those who followed him. It also caused him to deceive himself into believing that his personal quest for political power was a selfless act of obedience to providence."

This book is short but abundantly documents Wilson's entwining of faith and foreign policy. These two works, and others like it recently (including Harry Stout’s Moral History of the Civil War), make me wonder if faith will become a touchstone for historical studies of American foreign policy in the way that race recently, and justly, has become (as in the recent excellent works on race and international relations during the civil rights era). Perhaps not; one should never underestimate realpolitik. Dick Cheney’s foreign policy is not faith-based. Nonetheless, the recent epoch entwining faith-based with oil-based foreign adventures seemed to have sparked religious history to move back to some central episodes of the American past and show religion as a central actor in them.

Magee's work comes with some nice blurbs on the back cover from political historians:

"This elegantly written narrative makes an utterly convincing argument: religious belief was at the heart of Wilson's vaunted idealism. After reading Magee's book, you will never see the diplomatic history of the World War I era in the same way again."
-Michael Kazin, Professor of History, Georgetown University

"Finally, we now have a serious examination of Woodrow Wilson's theology. In this thoughtful, well-researched book, Malcolm Magee goes beyond the usual stereotypes of Wilson to reveal a complex, deeply spiritual man who was both beholden to religious and political thought in equal measure. In terms of both history and historiography, students of American foreign relations are in Magee's debt. An excellent book."
-Andrew Preston, Faculty of History, Cambridge University

My thanks to Baylor University Press for giving me the opportunity to survey this new volume.


Virginia said…
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