The Author of Liberty: Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy

The Author of Liberty: Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy

As the U.S. occupation of Iraq dragged on, George W. Bush declared in April 2004 that the United States is “the greatest power on the face of the earth,” and that “we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom. . . . That is what we have been called to do, as far as I’m concerned.” In his inaugural address in January this year, Bush declared that the United States had been given a “mission” by the “Maker of Heaven” and “Author of Liberty” to spread freedom and democracy. And in May, Bush again asserted that encouraging “freedom’s advance” is the “calling of our time. And America will do its duty.”

In these and many other statements, Bush invoked religious ideas to justify U.S. foreign policy: the idea of “calling,” for example, has its origins in Calvinist theology. Bush has often been criticized for invoking religious belief in this manner. After his April 2004 speech, U.S. News and World Report commented, “Listening to President Bush’s religious rhetoric, some Americans may wonder if they elected a president or a pastor.”

In fact, there was nothing exceptional about Bush’s resort to religion. Since the country’s founding, Americans have invoked the Bible and Christian, often specifically Protestant, beliefs to explain their role in the world. Presidents from John Adams and Andrew Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan attributed America’s role to “Providence” or “Destiny.” In his inaugural address, Adams thanked an “overruling Providence which has so signally protected this country from the first.” During the Second World War, Roosevelt told Congress, “We on our side are striving to be true to [our] divine heritage.”

Many high officials have invoked an American “mission” or “calling” to “further freedom’s triumph.” Woodrow Wilson saw America’s leadership in the new League of Nations as leading to the “liberation and salvation of the world.” During the 1960 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon said that America had come “into the world 180 years ago not just to have freedom for ourselves, but to carry it to the whole world . . . ” And in his second inaugural, Reagan described Americans as “one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world.”

In short, many presidents before Bush have invoked religious concepts or quoted the Bible to justify or explain a foreign policy dedicated, they claimed, to the spread of freedom and democracy. What has differentiated their foreign policies is how each of them attempted to make good on this commitment. What strategy did they pursue in order to spread freedom? And more important, did they allow religious beliefs not only to define America’s ultimate objectives, but also to color their understanding of the challenge that America faces in achieving them....