Religion and US Foreign Relations: A Roundtable Recap

The following is a guest review by Dan Hummel of a roundtable that took place on June 20th at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).  Dan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He studies American religious history and the history of American foreign relations, with special focus on American evangelicals and the state of Israel in the postwar period.  Many thanks to him for this wonderful report!

The panel was entitled “Religion and U.S. Foreign Relations: A Roundtable on the State of the Study.” There were an unusually large number of people on the stage familiar to RIAH. Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) chaired, while presenters included Cara Burnidge (Florida State University), Will Inboden (University of Texas-Austin), Emily Conroy-Krutz (Michigan State University), Edward Blum (San Diego State University), and Leo Ribuffo (George Washington University).  Cara, Ed, and Emily are also members of the religion and U. S. Empire Group, which Sylvester Johnson recently posted about. Rather than provide a blow-by-blow account, the following paragraphs will simply include some of my loosely organized impressions as a graduate student studying religion and foreign affairs.

It seems fitting, however, to start at the beginning with Molly Worthen’s brief remarks that set a sort of agenda for the roundtable. As she and other panelists reiterated, the very fact that there has been a “religious turn” in the history of American foreign affairs was evident all around us at the SHAFR conference. Many panels had religious themes in their titles, and many more papers incorporated religious sources and perspectives. The roundtable itself was evidence of religion assuming the mantle as the newest “fad” (a wry designation by the estimable Leo Ribuffo) of new scholarship, and especially among younger historians and grad students. To my mind, the book displays just outside the meeting room reinforced this reality. Recent offerings from Ussama Makdisi’s Artillery of Heaven (2008) to Axel Schäfer’s Piety and Public Funding (2012) show the thematic and chronological breadth of the religious turn.

Worthen also posited three methodological/theoretical questions at the heart of the intersection between religion and foreign affairs: 1) What is religion? 2) What are foreign relations? 3) What does it mean to “take religion seriously” in our scholarship? Worthen offered these questions to ponder, and gave some principles for historians to follow. These included the recognition that historical actors can be both sincere and inconsistent in their religious beliefs; that the causal line between belief and action is a “zig-zag” rather than clear-cut; and that it is important for enthusiasts of the religious turn to be modest in their claims of religious influence on historical actors. My sense was that all the panelists agreed on these principles, and that most of the audience did as well.

My first (and most obvious) takeaway from the roundtable was the centrality of recent work by Andrew Preston for the religious turn. This should not be surprising if you follow developments in the field. Virtually all of the presenters paid homage to Preston’s recent book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (2012). In addition, Cara Burnidge structured her talk around Preston’s 2006 Diplomatic History article, “Bridging the Gap Between the Sacred and the Secular in the History of American Foreign Relations.” That said, Leo Ribuffo reminded us that he, along with Bruce Kuklick and even William Appleman Williams (with a shout out to The Contours of American History (1961)) have been exploring the intersection between religion and foreign affairs for decades.

Of course, each “turn” in a historical field has its unique emphases and arguments, this religious turn being no different. Perhaps the most central methodological agenda item for the panelists was in countering what Will Inboden called the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” This hermeneutic entailed, paraphrasing Inboden, skepticism of genuine religious motivation, even when the “regular threshold” of documentary evidence had been met. In particular, if both private and public sources correlate as to the religious motivations of a policymaker, then, Inboden asserted, religion as an independent variable in decision-making should be no more controversial than economic or national interest motivations. More generally, panel members emphasized a variant on taking seriously references to religious motivations in sources and not reducing religion to supposedly more “base” economic, racial, or other motivations.

The roundtable displayed the diverse methods and approaches historians are using in their turn to religion. This seems to me to be the next frontier in the turn: a debate (hopefully friendly as it was here) over how much related fields such as religious studies, anthropology, and sociology will influence a diplomatic/foreign affairs framework. In the roundtable, Edward Blum was perhaps the most daring in calling for historians to expand their scope to include “supra-human characters” (conceptions of God and millennial expectations) and “other-than-human material objects” (amulets, sacred objects, etc.) in the mix.  Citing concepts from religious studies scholar Robert Orsi and sociologist Bruno Latour, Blum turned to early Mormonism as an example where he saw particular opportunities to reshape the narrative away from an American to a global context.

Other panelists had similar particular methodological emphases. Emily Conroy-Krutz focused on early-19th century missionaries as a set of historical actors that reframed pre-Civil War American foreign relations. Will Inboden raised the question of whether religion was a form of identity or a set of ideas and values, leaning toward the latter but not dismissing the former. Cara Burnidge brought a strong religious studies sensibility to Preston’s “Bridging the Gap” metaphor of sacred and secular. Burnidge called for historians to historicize the concepts of secular and sacred and to think more broadly about what constitutes “religious” – a point of emphasis she shared with Blum. Practices, truisms, material objects, and particularly legal systems and laws were understudied sites Burnidge mentioned for historians of American foreign relations. Overall, my sense is that the methodologically diverse panel mirrors the state of the field at present. A lot of younger scholars/grad students of foreign affairs (such as myself) have been cross-trained in American religious history or a related field and thus have had immediate exposure to a wide array of religion-specific methodological tools. If we are trained to use inter-field or interdisciplinary methods from the start, there will inevitably be more ecumenism and diversity when we all gather together.

Leo Ribuffo, who spoke last, sought to temper the relatively optimistic mood of the other panelists while also providing a longer history to the study of religion in American foreign affairs. He did so with usual wit and wry humor, calling for historians to avoid “theological determinism” and to beware of exaggerations of historical influence, among other warnings. His observation that not all religious actors are “Protestant or conservative” is pretty well substantiated by a litany of recent scholarship (works by Mark Edwards, Caitlin Carenen, and David Settje come to mind – all were also in attendance at SHAFR), but for someone who studies conservative Protestants, like me, it also important to remember in contextualizing and making connections with the broader historical canvas.

From my perspective, the panel struck the audience in diverse ways. Some in the audience expressed a level of skepticism about the “special treatment” panelists were giving to religion. Were panelists advocating an almost uncritical approach to the sources? Of course, none of the panelists advocated such a methodology, but there did seem to be a lack of understanding across generational lines nonetheless. I will say this as delicately as possible: older historians seemed much more skeptical about the role of religion in American foreign affairs, or focus on it by historians of American foreign relations. This is a gap I have not experienced at the University of Wisconsin, but I had suspected was present in the wider SHAFR community. The panel confirmed it.

Otherwise, it seemed that the audience was on board with the enthusiastic embrace of religion evident among the panelists. At present – perusing the conference’s program of almost 100 panels for the 2014 meeting – religion is not taking over SHAFR, nor is it necessarily even fundamentally altering SHAFR’s terrain. There are still numerous panels on nuclear diplomacy, North-South issues, human rights, and particular presidential administrations. At present, the religious turn seems to be a vibrant and growing subfield that has allowed some of us who otherwise would be consigned awkwardly to American religious history or religious studies to share in our common interest of foreign affairs. Inboden’s call (representative of the panel) to be more methodologically explicit, however, seems to be the next big discussion, one I look forward to observing as I try to tackle the basic questions Worthen posited in my own work.


Tom Van Dyke said…
If I may, the American metaphysics--religion if you will--is one of Providentialism, and has been from its earliest days.

Not the deism of a creator who then took off and left mankind to its own devices, but a Creator who is still man's God.

Providentially--by divine will-- America may be justly punished for her sins [the Civil War] or used as God's own instrument of justice [WWII, the Cold War].

Being a chosen people, or as Lincoln put it cautiously, an "almost" chosen people, is, I submit, still the consensus of the American people, but theologically attentive readers of the "Old Testament" are quite aware that being God's Chosen People" ain't so great a deal as it might sound to the unchosen.

Chosen people are held to a higher standard, and are punished or rewarded accordingly.

I also submit that American Christianity--specifically its evangelical Protestantism--is the only society on earth that takes the "Old Testament" and Mighty Jehovah seriously.

If you want to track down the core vibe, I believe that's where it is. If there is an American Exceptionalism, at its best its arrogances are well aware of its chastisements.

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