Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy, pt. I

As I’ve described briefly in my previous post, the project of historicizing religious freedom is necessarily allied with normative goals and carries normative implications. But before I go to that, I’d like to give a preview of one case study I look at in the dissertation. My project takes a closer look at the American official effort to promote religious freedom as law abroad, an idea historically grounded on the Protestant notion of separation of church and state. A recent book by historian Andrew Preston chronicles the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy from the Founding period to the Obama administration, and in a short companion piece at Foreign Affairs, he argues that precisely because of this history, Obama should take advantage of the fact that the U.S. can also speak in the language of faith when it deals with other countries. I have certain reservations with this general claim but more on that next time. What I do agree with Preston wholeheartedly is that religion played a significant role in U.S. foreign relations. Iraq and Bush were simply part of that ongoing American tradition.

For example, many people know that Woodrow Wilson was a thoroughly devout Presbyterian and that his religious thinking permeated his policies. But what many people don’t know is that he in fact tried to crystallize his concern for religious freedom in the League of Nations Covenant, which met strong opposition from the other Great Powers involved in the negotiations. One of the reasons that France and Britain gave was that the main offenders Russia and Germany were not going to be part of the League anyway so it did not make sense to write it into the Covenant. But while Wilson, for various other reasons, failed to incorporate it in the general Covenant, he succeeded in including it in the several Minority Treaties signed between the Great Powers and the newly-independent countries of Poland, Romania, Hungary and others in Eastern and Central Europe. Articles 2-8 of the Minority treaty with Poland (which served as a template for the others) was in fact called the “Wilsonian core.” Moreover, he was also the one who included it as a guarantee for the inhabitants of Mandate territories.

Now, a question would be why was Wilson interested in doing that? What was in it for the United States? In the same way we ask why is this American tradition present all the way up to Obama? Preston claims that one reason is an exceptionalist conceit of the U.S. as God’s chosen nation.  While that is certainly true, there were, as expected, political uses, at least insofar as lawmaking abroad was involved. But it was one that can’t also be thoroughly divorced from the personality involved or from the prevailing attitudes of the time. Woodrow Wilson, lawyer, political scientist, and the last Ph.D. degree holder to become President of this country, was a visionary when it came to foreign relations in many ways, and the League of Nations, though a catastrophic disaster as it might have been, was one big proof of that. But he was also coming from an imperial milieu. Despite the official promise of independence by the U.S. to the Philippines at that time in the form of the Jones Act of 1916 (the first such act by a colonial power in history, by the way), the U.S. was an overtly imperial power under Wilson. Together, the promise of spreading religious freedom elsewhere was in certain ways an act of humanitarian imperialism, probably not very much unlike the underlying ideals of the Covenant itself. But why law? For the longest period before the American victory over Spain in 1898, the U.S. government has been making interventions on behalf of oppressed religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, but without the lawmaking part. What changed then?

That, and more stories for the next post.

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