Skip to main content

Kurth – The Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy

Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy


Presented to The Philadelphia Society
37th National Meeting, April 22, 2001

Analysts of American foreign policy have debated for decades about the
relative influence of different factors in the shaping of American foreign
policy. National interests,
domestic politics, economic interests, and liberal ideology have each been seen
as the major explanation for the peculiarities of the American conduct of
foreign affairs. But although
numerous scholars have advocated the importance of realism, idealism,
capitalism, or liberalism, almost no one has thought that Protestantism – the
dominant religion in the United States – is worth consideration.
Certainly for the twentieth century, it seemed abundantly clear that one
could (and should) write the history of American foreign policy with no
reference to Protestantism whatsoever.

This essay will present an alternative view.
We will argue that American foreign policy has been, and continues to be,
shaped by the Protestant origins of the United States.
But the Protestantism that has shaped American foreign policy over two
centuries has not been the original religion but a series of successive
departures from it down the scale of what might be called the Protestant
We are now at the end point of this declension, and the
Protestantism that shapes American foreign policy today is a peculiar heresy of
the original religion, not the Protestant Reformation but what might be called
the Protestant Deformation. With
the United States left as the sole superpower, this Protestant Deformation is at
its greatest, even global influence. But
because it is such a peculiar religion, and indeed is correctly seen as a
fundamental and fatal threat by all the other religions, its pervasive sway is
generating intense resistance and international conflict.

Protestant Religion and International Politics in European History

The Protestant religion was an enormous force shaping international
politics in the early modern era. Indeed,
the Protestant Reformation – along with the Italian Renaissance, the commercial
revolution, and the European discovery of the New World – was one of the four
major movements that initiated the modern era itself during the early sixteenth

The long struggle between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic
Counter-Reformation, the Wars of Religion, culminated in the Thirty Years War
That war was concluded with the Peace of Westphalia and the
establishment of what international-relations scholars have termed "the
Westphalian system" of independent states.
Most analysts of international politics consider the Treaty
of Westphalia to be the beginning of the modern states-system and of
international politics as we have known it down until recent times.

Prior to the Thirty Years War, Central Europe had been dominated by the
Habsburgs of Austria, who were Roman Catholic and who ordered the region within
the elaborate and hierarchical framework of the Holy Roman Empire, which was a
legacy from the medieval era. The
four major movements of the modern era were bringing about the development of
nation-states in Western Europe, especially in the Protestant countries of the
Netherlands and England, but within the medieval structure of the Holy Roman
Empire, the nation-state did not yet exist.

The Thirty Years War resulted in a substantial decline in the power of
the Habsburgs, and the Treaty of Westphalia ratified a substantial decline in
the authority of the Holy Roman Empire. An
international structure composed of a hierarchy of emperor, kings, princes, and
cities was replaced with one composed of many formally-independent and
formally-equal states.
Some of these states, of course, were more independent,
"more equal," than the others, and these would later become known as
great powers. The Treaty of
Westphalia was the recognition that Europe was no longer one empire but was a
system of many powers, i.e., a multipolar system.

In the view of some international-relations analysts, the Westphalian
multipolar system was replaced after 1945 with the Cold War bipolar system,
which in turn was replaced after 1991 with the post-Cold-War unipolar system.
But although the number of truly-great powers has decreased, the number
of formally-independent states has increased.
In this sense, the Westphalian states-system remains the system that we
still live in today. And that
system was one of the great consequences of the Protestant Reformation and the
Wars of Religion.

The leading powers during the Wars of Religion and later in the early
Westphalian states-system included ones that were Catholic (Habsburg Spain,
Habsburg Austria, France, and Poland); Protestant (the Netherlands, England,
Sweden, and Brandenburg); Eastern Orthodox (Russia); and even Muslim (Ottoman
Among these powers, however, the Protestant ones had a
distinctive character.

The first great Protestant power was the Netherlands; it was soon
followed by England. The
Netherlands and England were great powers because they were the leading
commercial economies and naval powers of the time.
They clearly illustrate the connection between the Protestant ethic and
the capitalist spirit, which Max Weber analyzed so acutely.
But although the Netherlands and England were great powers, they were
actually rather small countries, and small in the amount of territorial
resources and land forces – then the standard measures of power – within their

These two powers, however, were superior in the ability to organize their
limited resources with maximum effectiveness.
This was another distinctive feature of Protestant powers.
It appeared that there was a connection between the Protestant ethic and
the organizing spirit as well.

This last connection was also illustrated by the two leading Protestant
land powers, first Sweden in the seventeenth century and then Prussia in the
eighteenth century.
Each was unusual in its ability to organize limited resources
with maximum effectiveness in ways that astonished the other (and Catholic) land

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Westphalian states-system
had developed into the classical balance-of-power system composed of several
great powers. The Protestant powers
were better organized and more efficient than their Catholic (and Orthodox and
Muslim) rivals, but the non-Protestant powers possessed large territories and
armies, and some had begun to develop their own ways of improving organization
and efficiency. The result was a
rough equivalence in the resources that the powers actually deployed in the
arena of international politics, and in the weight that they threw upon the
balance of power.

The goals and objectives that the Protestant powers now pursued in
international politics were not substantially different from those pursued by
the non-Protestant powers; they were almost wholly the secular goals of
territory, wealth, and power. One
can thus write (and almost all scholars have written) the history of European
international politics in the eighteenth century without reference to the
Protestant religion.

For the most part, this is true of the history of European international
politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well.
There were a couple of important exceptions, however.
In the 1880s-1890s, Protestantism effected the expansion of the British
empire, especially in tropical Africa. British
imperial rule was extended into certain areas in order to protect Protestant
missionaries, when there were few other reasons to do so.

Much more significantly, in the 1860s-1870s, Protestantism shaped the way
Prussia expanded as it established the new German Empire.
After Prussia defeated Austria in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, many
German nationalists advocated Prussia’s annexation of the Germans in Austria,
which would thus bring about the unification of virtually all Germans into one
great state. However, since the
Germans in Austria were Catholic, this meant that Catholics would have
outnumbered Protestants in the new unified Germany.
This was unacceptable to the Prussian Protestants, and Catholic Austria
therefore was not annexed. The way
that unification eventually came about in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War
(annexation of some Catholic South German states but not of Catholic Austria)
insured that Protestants were a two-thirds majority in the new German Empire.

Although Germany would not annex Austria for religious reasons, it could
ally with Austria-Hungary for strategic ones.
This it did in 1879, and that alliance would have fateful, and fatal,
consequences in 1914. By then,
however, it would appear that the Protestant religion had ceased to have any
effect upon European international politics.
A certain degree of shared Protestantism between Britain and Germany did
not inhibit them from fighting each other in the First World War for four
terrible years.

Looking back over several centuries, then, one might sum up the impact of
the Protestant religion upon the foreign policies of the European powers as
follows: In the seventeenth
century, Protestantism had a major effect on both the goals of foreign policy
and the means of achieving them; in the eighteenth century, it had almost no
effect on the goals but still had a major effect on the means; in the nineteenth
century, it had an occasional effect on the goals and still had a minor effect
on the means; and in the twentieth century, it has had almost no effect at all
on either the goals or the means.

The United States entered into the Westphalian and secularized
states-system at the end of the eighteenth century.
Like the Netherlands and England before it, it soon became a leading
commercial economy and naval power, and this can be explained in part by the
Protestant religion of much of the American population.
But the goals and objectives that the United States pursued in
international politics were not substantially different from those pursued by
the non-Protestant powers. They
were almost wholly the secular goals of territory, wealth, and power.
There was some anti-Catholic rhetoric during the Mexican War (1846-1848),
the Spanish-American War (1898), and the Central American interventions
(1900s-1920s). But one can write
(and almost all scholars have written) the entire history of American foreign
policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without reference to the
Protestant religion.

These conclusions about the negligible influence of the Protestant
religion on European or American foreign policies are based upon a too narrow
view, however. If one looks at the
way the original Protestant
religion was transformed or mutated in the United States into other versions of
Protestantism, different conclusions will emerge.

Protestant Reformation versus Hierarchy and Community

Protestantism was a protest, a protest against the form that the
Christian religion had taken in the Roman Catholicism of the late Middle Ages
and the Renaissance. The
Reformation was an effort to reform the Christian religion back to the original
faith expressed in the New Covenant or New Testament of the Bible.
(The word testament means covenant.)
The faith of the New Testament had itself been a protest against the form
that the Jewish religion had taken in Pharisaic Judaism at the time of the early
Roman Empire. Although the central
feature of Christianity, Jesus Christ as the Messiah, was a radical break with
traditional Judaism, early Christianity was also in part an effort to reform the
Jewish religion back to the original faith expressed in the Old Covenant or Old
Testament of the Bible.

Protestantism therefore was decisively shaped by what might be seen as a
double reformation or double rejection. There
was clearly the contemporary reformation or rejection of Roman Catholicism, but
this reformation or rejection was in the name of an original faith that was a
reformation or rejection of Pharisaic Judaism.

What were the features of Roman Catholicism that the Protestant reformers
wished to reform? And what were the
features of Pharisaic Judaism that the original Christians wished to reform?
As it happened, the two sets of features had much in common, reinforcing
the definition of what had to be rejected.

The Protestant reformers protested against numerous features of the Roman
Catholic Church, including such familiar ones as the authority of the Pope, the
role of the Virgin Mary and the meaning of indulgences.
But the really central and fundamental issues involved the way that the
Christian believer reached a state of salvation and the roles that the priestly
hierarchy and the parish community played in the process.
The Roman Catholic Church taught that the Christian believer reached
salvation through the mediation of the priestly hierarchy and through
participation in the parish community. The
hierarchy and the community in combination yielded the surest path to salvation,
which was participation in communal sacraments and rituals that were
administered by the hierarchy.

Similarly, Pharisaic Judaism had taught that the devout Jew reached
holiness through observance of the Law and the Commandments, which was aided by
the mediation of the Jewish priesthood and through participation in the Jewish
community. Here, too, the
combination of hierarchy and community yielded the highest degree of holiness,
observance which included participation in communal sacrifices and rituals that
were administered by the priesthood in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Protestant reformers protested against the idea that the believer achieves
salvation through a hierarchy or a community, or even the two in combination.
Although many Protestant reformers accepted hierarchy and community for
certain purposes, such as church governance and collective undertakings, they
rejected them for the most important of purposes, reaching the state of
salvation. Rather, the believer receives
salvation through an act of grace by God. This
grace produces in its recipient the faith in God and in salvation that converts
him into a believer.

The believer can achieve greater knowledge of God, however, through his
reading of the Holy Scriptures. The
Protestant reformers placed great emphasis on the Word, as evidenced in the
written words of the Bible. But
this reading did not necessarily require the interpretations of a hierarchy or a
Indeed, these might actually impede the right interpretation
of the Bible by the individual believer.

All religions are unique, but Protestantism is more unique than all the
No other religion is so critical of hierarchy and community,
or of the traditions and customs that go with them.
Indeed, most other religions are based upon hierarchy or
community (in addition to Roman Catholicism, also Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam,
Hinduism, Confucianism, and even, to a degree, Buddhism).
At its doctrinal base, however, Protestantism is anti-hierarchy and
Thus, Protestantism is a double rejection in a double sense.
It is a rejection of both its experience of Roman Catholicism and its
image of Pharisaic Judaism, and it is a rejection of both hierarchy and

The Protestant reformers sought to remove hierarchy and community so that
the individual Christian believer could have a direct relationship with God.
More accurately and subtly, so that the individual believer could have a
relationship with God directly through the second person of the Holy Trinity,
Jesus Christ, and so that he could receive salvation from God directly from the
third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

The removal of hierarchy and community, traditions and customs — of any
earthly intermediaries between the individual and God — strips away, at least
for the most important purposes, any local, parochial, cultural, or national
characteristics of the believer. In
principle, grace, faith, and salvation can be received by anyone in the world;
they are truly universal or catholic, in the original sense of the latter term.
The Protestant reformers saw the vast variety of cultures and nations
through a universal perspective, one that was even more universal than that of
the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestant Churches and Church Governance

tab-stops:13.0pt 351.0pt”> Despite
their doctrinal rejection of hierarchy and community for the purpose of
salvation, many Protestant churches maintained some kind of hierarchy for
purposes of church governance. The
most hierarchical were those Protestant churches ruled by bishops and
archbishops — the Lutherans (Germany and the Scandinavian countries), Anglicans
(England), Episcopalians (the United States), and Methodists (England and the
United States). (The word Episcopal
is derived from the Greek word for bishop.)
Indeed, the organization of some of the churches in Europe, particularly
the Anglican and Lutheran state churches, looked very much like the organization
of the Roman Catholic Church, but with the Pope removed and replaced by a
"defender of the faith" in the form of the ruler of the state.
The secular and political counterpart of this form of church governance,
for both Roman Catholicism and this version of Protestantism, was of course

Less hierarchical were those Protestant churches ruled by elders — the
Calvinists (the Netherlands) and the Presbyterians (Scotland and the United
(The word Presbyterian is derived from the Greek word
for elder.) Indeed, this form of
organization looked rather like the organization of Pharisaic (and later)
Judaism around councils of rabbis. Here,
the secular and political counterpart of this form of church governance was
aristocracy or oligarchy.

Least hierarchical were those Protestant churches ruled by the
congregation themselves. Many of
these were in the United States — the Congregationalists, the Baptists, and a
vast variety of American denominational and especially non-denominational
churches. Here, of course, the
secular and political counterpart of this form of church governance was

Despite their differences in regard to church governance and also similar
differences in regard to community emphasis, however, all Protestant churches
reject hierarchy and community as the means to salvation.
At the level of fundamental theology and doctrine, Protestantism denies
that hierarchy and community are of fundamental importance.
Indeed, Protestants often assert that hierarchy and community, along with
the traditions and customs that so with them, are obstacles to what is of
fundamental importance — the way that the individual Christian believer reaches
the state of salvation.

Protestant Spread into Secular Life

In the three centuries after the Reformation, this Protestant rejection
of hierarchy and community in regard to salvation spread to their rejection in
regard to other domains of life as well. We
have already seen that some Protestant churches rejected hierarchy and community
in regard to church governance and local undertakings.
This was especially the case in the new United States, where the
conjunction of the open frontier and the disestablishment of state churches
enabled the flourishing of new unstructured and unconstraining denominations.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Protestant rejection of
hierarchy and community had spread to important arenas of temporal or secular
life. Again, this was especially
the case in the new United States. In
the economic arena, the elimination of hierarchy (monopoly or oligopoly) and
community (guilds or trade restrictions) meant the establishment of the free
market. In the political arena, the
elimination of hierarchy (monarchy or aristocracy) and community (traditions and
customs) meant the establishment of liberal democracy.

However, the free market could not be so free, nor the liberal democracy
so liberal, that they became anarchy. Although
they could no longer be ordered by hierarchy and community, by tradition and
custom, they had to be ordered by something.
That something reflected the Protestant emphasis on written words and was
a version of the written covenant between individual Protestant believers.
In the economic arena, this was the written contract; in the political
arena, it was the written constitution.

The Protestant Reformation was giving birth to what by the early
twentieth century would become the American Creed.
The fundamental elements of that secular creed — liberal democracy, free
markets, constitutionalism, and the rule of law — were already fully in place
in the United States of the early nineteenth century.

This outer spread of the Protestant rejection of hierarchy and community
from the arena of salvation to the arenas of economics and politics was driven
by a particular inner dynamic, or rather decline, within the Protestant faith
itself. Today, almost half a
millennium after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, we can
discern six stages of what might be called the Protestant declension.

Six Stages of the Protestant Declension

1. Salvation by grace.
At the personal level the original Protestant (and the original
Christian) experience is that of a direct, loving, and saving relationship
between the believer and God. This
direct relationship and state of salvation is brought about by God, through his
sovereign love or grace, and not by the person, through his own efforts
or works. This is the
experience of being "born-again" into a new life.

Obviously, anything that could stand in the way of this direct
relationship, e.g., any intermediaries, traditions, or customs, must be swept
aside. The original Protestant and
born-again Christian experiences his new life as an open field, a blank slate, a
tabula rasa. This enables
him to also experience a release of previously-constrained energies and an
intense focus of them upon new undertakings.
This in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some
newly-Christian persons. When the
number of such persons is greatly multiplied, as it was at the time of the
Reformation, it also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some
newly-Protestant nations (e.g., the Netherlands, England, and Sweden).

2. Grace evidenced
through work
. However, a
serious problem soon arises, within a generation and indeed with the next
generation. The children of the
original born-again Protestants are born into a Protestant family and church,
but they themselves may not be born-again Protestants, i.e., they may not have
personally experienced grace, and the direct relationship with God and the state
of salvation that it brings. As Max
Weber famously discussed in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
, this can give rise to great anxiety about just what kind of
state that the second generation Protestants are in.

For persons in some Protestant churches, especially the Anglican and
Lutheran state churches of Europe but even the Episcopal and Lutheran churches
in America, there was something of a solution close at hand.
These churches had remained hierarchical (but with the Pope removed and
replaced with the state monarch) and even somewhat communal.
Perhaps, in some way that was not theologically – clear but was
psychologically – reassuring, the state of salvation could be reached by
participation in the rituals and works of the church.
In these churches, therefore, the focus upon grace gradually
shifted in practice to a focus upon works, as had been the case in the Roman
Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.

However, for persons in other Protestant churches, especially those known
at the Reformed churches — the Calvinist churches of Europe but also the
Presbyterian and Congregational churches in America — the solution to the
dilemma of the Protestants who were born-in but not born-again had to be a
different one. The stricter
Reformed theology of these churches did not easily permit the fading-away of the
necessity for grace. Further, their
relative absence of hierarchical and communal features meant that they had a
less developed structure for the exercise of rituals and works.
And yet, without the personal experience of grace, what evidence was
there that the
second-generation or birth-right Protestants had received it?

As Weber discussed, the evidence for grace became a particular and
peculiar kind of works, not the performance of works in the church, but the
success of work in the world.
This was how the Protestant ethic became the capitalist
spirit. Because the Reformed
churches had reformed away the legitimacy of hierarchy, community, tradition,
and custom, this work in the world could be unconstrained by these obstacles.
Thus, this second-generation and later-generation version of Reformed
Protestants also could experience worldly life and worldly work as an open
field, a blank slate, a tabula rasa.
This enabled them also to experience a release of previously-constrained
energies and an intense focus of them upon new undertakings.
Indeed, this version of Protestantism in its worldly work was so focused
that it became methodical and systematic in ways that previously
had never been seen. This also in
part explains the great energy and efficacy of some second-generation and
later-generation Reformed Protestants. Again,
when the number of such persons was greatly multiplied, it also in part explains
the great energy and efficacy of established Protestant nations, not just for
the second generation, but for several generations thereafter (e.g., the
Netherlands and Sweden until the eighteenth century; England, Scotland, and
America until the nineteenth century).

3. Salvation by works.
After several generations of this kind of Reformed Protestantism, a
certain Protestant culture, even traditions and customs, developed.
The number of Protestants who had experienced the culture, but who had
not experienced the grace, greatly increased. Finally,
even in the Reformed churches (Calvinist, Presbyterian, Congregational), the
idea of the necessity of grace began to fade.
Work in the world no longer was seen as a sign of grace but as a good in
itself; work as a good became a new version of good works.

4. The unitarian
. As the focus on
grace faded, so too among some was there a fading of the focus upon the agencies
of grace, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the second and the third persons of
the Holy Trinity. Thus Reformed
Protestantism, with its highly-articulated trinitarian doctrine, turned into
unitarianism, with its abstract concept of a Supreme Being or Divine Providence.
Unitarianism was an actual denomination, complete with its own churches,
but it was also a more widely-held theology and philosophy.
This was the stage in the Protestant declension that some of the American
political elite, including some of the Founding Fathers, had reached by the
beginning of the nineteenth century. At
least the public documents of that time frequently made reference to the Supreme
Being or Divine Providence and rarely to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.

5. The American Creed.
The fifth stage in the Protestant declension was reached when the
abstract and remote God, the Supreme Being or Divine Providence, disappeared
altogether. Now the various
Protestant creeds were replaced by the American Creed, which reached its fullest
articulation in the first half of the twentieth century.
The elements of the American Creed were free markets and equal
opportunity, free elections and liberal democracy, and constitutionalism and the
role of the law. The American Creed
definitely did not include as elements hierarchy, community, tradition, and
custom. Although the American Creed
was not itself Protestant, it was clearly the product of a Protestant culture
and was a sort of secularized version of Protestantism.

6. Universal human rights.
The sixth and final stage in the Protestant declension was reached only
in the 1970s, i.e., in the last generation.
Now the American Creed was replaced by the universal conception of human
rights or, more accurately, the elements of the American Creed were generalized
into universal goods. Finally, in
the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist ideology, with
the stagnation of the German social market and Japanese organized capitalism,
and recently with the debacle of the newly industrializing Asian countries and
their developmental capitalism, all of the alternatives to the American economic
and political conceptions have been discredited, at least temporarily.

Pluralism and Public Rhetoric

At its birth at the end of the eighteenth century, the United States was
populated by a wide variety of Protestants.
They were found in a wide variety of churches – ranging through
Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and
Unitarians. And they were found on
a wide spectrum of the Protestant declension ranging through its first four
stages from born-again Christians to unitarians.
No one church and no one stage represented a majority of the American
population (or even of that part of the white male population which comprised
the only persons with the right to vote).

This condition of Protestant pluralism meant that public pronouncements
on religious themes that honored citizens situated in one church or stage were
just as likely to offend those situated in another.
This drove public officials to a religious rhetoric of the least-common,
and least-offensive, denominator. This
was the rhetoric of unitarianism, which was the fourth stage of the Protestant
declension. Not all American
Protestants could believe in the full implications of each of the three persons
of the Holy Trinity, but all of them could believe that God was a supreme being
and that providence was divine. The
adoption of this unitarian rhetoric was facilitated by the fact that some of the
political elite already believed it.

In the early nineteenth century, there were periodic religious revivals
among portions of the American population.
These moved some Protestants back up the scale to higher stages of
belief. However, this did not
change the religious rhetoric in public pronouncements.
The logic of religious pluralism, reinforced by the substantial numbers
of Roman Catholic and even Jews immigrating to the United States in the 1840s
and after, continued to drive public officials even further toward the rhetoric
of the least-common and least-offensive denominator.
This would be a public rhetoric that, while it would use conceptions that
were congruent and congenial to the Protestant ones, would make almost no
references to religion at all. In
regard to economic matters, the central conception was the free market; and in
regard to political matters, it was liberal democracy.
By the early nineteenth century, most Americans had come to believe that
only legitimate form of economics was the free market, ordered by written
contracts, and that the only legitimate form of politics was liberal democracy,
ordered by a written constitution. This
was the mentality, really ideology, that was described so brilliantly and so
beautifully by that young Frenchman who was both an aristocrat and a liberal,
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America (1834).
The full development of these ideas would eventually lead to the fifth
stage of the Protestant declension, the American Creed.

Protestant Declension and American Foreign Policy

During the nineteenth century, these transformations down the scale of
Protestant declension did not have much impact upon American foreign policy,
even though they had tremendous impact upon American domestic politics
(including the origins of the Civil War). As
long as the United States was focused upon the great task of westward expansion
across the North American continent and as long as it was on the western margins
of the international competition between the European great powers, the American
ideology of the free market and liberal democracy could have little effect upon
international affairs. Its chief
foreign impact was upon the native American tribes (which, however, were
sometimes called "nations") and upon the Mexican population annexed by
the United States after the Mexican War.

With the beginning of the twentieth century, this all changed.
The grand project of continental expansion was completed and was replaced
within a decade by a new project of overseas expansion, at first into the
Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific.
The era of the United States being on the margins of the great-power
competition was followed, after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War and
its construction of the Great White Fleet, by an era where the United States was
clearly one of the great powers.

In the nineteenth century the United States had few opportunities to
bring its particular ideology into its foreign policy.
Now, suddenly with the twentieth century, it had many opportunities to do
so. And for some Americans, most
obviously President Woodrow Wilson but also most U.S. presidents from Franklin
Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, opportunity has been seen as a necessity.

Fourth Stage of the Protestant Declension:
Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson was a Presbyterian and the son of a Presbyterian
clergyman. His pronouncements on
public policy, however, seem to have more in common with Unitarianism than with
Presbyterianism. He seems to have
believed that he was carrying out God’s will, but he does not seem to have given
much thought to the other persons of the Trinity, Jesus Christ and the Holy
Spirit. As we have already
discussed, this is not surprising from someone who was president of a vast
nation which was characterized by a wide range of religious diversity and by now
even by a substantial amount of secularization.

Wilson’s political identity was as a Progressive and his political
program was known as "the New Freedom."
These were congruent and isomorphic with his religious identity as a
Presbyterian and his religious actuality as a unitarian.
Wilson believed deeply in free markets, ordered by written contracts, and
in liberal democracy, ordered by a written constitution.
He also seems to have believed that God meant for him to advance these
ideals both at home and abroad, e.g., "to make the world safe for
democracy." Conversely, Wilson
had almost no sensitivity or sympathy toward those non-Protestant conceptions of
hierarchy, community, tradition, and custom.

These political and economic conceptions of Wilson were repeatedly
expressed in his foreign policies: (1)
his notion that the problems of Latin American countries could be solved by
formal elections, written constitutions, and the enforcement of contracts:
(2) his focus upon freedom of the seas, international law, and democratic
ideology as he led the United States into the First World War;
(3) his relentless opposition to the Habsburg Monarchy, the
very embodiment of hierarchy and community, tradition, and custom (and the only
Roman Catholic great power), in the name of self-determination, which was an
individualist or even Protestant conception inappropriately applied to a
communal or even Catholic condition; and (4) his insistence upon the abstraction
of collective security, as written down in the Covenant of the League of
Nations, as the solution to the perennial problem of international conflict.

Each of these notions seemed normal and obvious to Wilson and to millions
of other Americans.
Indeed, in their up-dated versions, they seem normal and
obvious to Bill Clinton and millions of other Americans today.

They only seem normal and obvious, however, to a people growing up in a
culture shaped at its origins by Protestantism, rather than by some other
It is difficult to imagine a statesman who was Eastern
Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, Buddhist, or even Roman Catholic coming up
with these notions so consistently and continuously as did Wilson and his fellow
Americans. At least no such actual
statesman comes readily to mind. It
is even difficult to imagine a statesman of secular convictions but growing up
in a culture that was shaped by one of these other religions developing this
particular ideology. The ideologies
of even such democratic secular figures as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sun Yat-sen, or
Konrad Adenauer were quite different.

Fifth Stage of the Protestant Declension: The
American Creed

The last and grandest of Wilson’s projects, the League of Nations, was of
course a failure, being rejected in 1920 by the U.S. Senate and by millions of
other Americans as well. But most
of Wilson’s Protestant-like notions became permanent features of American
foreign policy.

It is a clichÈ of American diplomatic history that the United States
"retreated into isolationism" after the First World War.
In fact, this U.S. retreat or withdrawal really only applied to Europe
(and there only in regard to security and military matters).
In other regions of the world, particularly Latin America and East Asia,
the United States continued and even expanded its presence in the 1920s under
Republican administrations in much the same way as it had under the Wilson
administration. Then, under the
impact of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the administration of Franklin
Roosevelt adopted new approaches toward Latin America (the Good Neighbor Policy
and an end to U.S. military interventions) and East Asia (a renewed focus upon
the Open Door Policy and China). But
throughout the inter-war period, American foreign policy in these two developing
regions was dominated by the promotion of the central elements of what was by
now the fully-developed American Creed: free
markets and equal opportunity, free elections and liberal democracy, and
constitutionalism and the rule of law.

A central reason why the United States withdrew from European security
matters after 1920 was because Americans had come to believe that they could not
make-over the European nations — economically-developed, militarily-strong, and
politically independent — in America’s image, i.e., they could not convert the
European nations to the American Creed. In
Latin America and East Asia — economically-underdeveloped, militarily-weak
(except Japan), and politically-dependent — it was a different story.
Because of the weakness and therefore openness of these
countries, it seemed plausible that they might actually be converted to American
ways. Of course, this could only
seem plausible if the cultural and social features, the traditions and customs,
of these countries could be dismissed or ignored.
But these features were formed around such religions as Catholicism and
Confucianism, which, to the Protestant mind of Americans, seemed obviously
retrograde and irrational. With
just a little persuasive effort on the part of Americans, this would become
obvious to Latin Americans and East Asians as well.
Then they too would adopt some version of the American Creed.

Thus, a characteristic pattern had developed in the conduct of American
foreign policy in peacetime. When a
country was strong in relation to the United States, particularly if it was a
great power, American foreign policy tended to be marked by either prudence or
distance, by either "realism" or "isolationism."
The United States acted toward that country in ways similar
to those of the other great powers. In
contrast, however, when a country was weak in relation to the United States,
American foreign policy was marked by the drive to convert that country to free
markets and liberal democracy, by "idealism" (really secularized
Protestantism). The United States
sought to remake that country in the image of the American Creed.

A problem would arise, however, if the United States, while seeking to
convert a particular weak region, came into conflict with a particular great
power. Then the idealism and the
insistence would come into conflict with the realism and the prudence.
This of course is what happened from 1931 to 1941 when the American
vision for China came into conflict with the expansion of Japan.
The result was the U.S. entry into the Second World War.

In the course of that war, Franklin Roosevelt mobilized and deployed many
of the same notions that Woodrow Wilson had promoted during the First World War.
Formally, Roosevelt was an Episcopalian, whereas Wilson had been a
Presbyterian, and his foreign policies were rather more realistic and pragmatic
than those of Wilson. In their
actual religious beliefs, however, they both seem to have been some kind of
unitarian, and in their wartime policies they both vigorously advanced free
trade and liberal democracy. And,
of course, Roosevelt brought about at the end of the war the resurrection of
Wilson’s League of Nations in the form of the United Nations Organization.

After the Second World War, the characteristic pattern of American
foreign policy — "realism" toward the strong and "idealism"
toward the weak — developed further. When
the United States was dealing with weak nations (and in the post-war era this
was the condition of the European states and Japan), American foreign policy
sought to remake them into an image resembling the American Creed.
When the United States was dealing with great powers (in the Cold-War era
this was first the Soviet Union and later also China), however, American foreign
policy was different. An interim
period of conflict with these communist powers over their weaker neighbors
(Central and Eastern Europe for the Soviet Union; Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast
Asia for China) was followed by the establishment of a rough division of the
contested region into spheres of influence, and the ensuing U.S. policy tended
to be marked by realism, be it prudence (toward the Soviet Union) or distance
(toward China until 1973).

During the Cold War, another characteristic of American foreign policy
also reached its fullest development. This
was the peculiarly American focus upon international organizations as the
solution to international problems, a feature that we have already noted in
Wilson’s League of Nations and Roosevelt’s United Nations Organization.
This characteristic also seems to have roots in Protestantism.

Organizations and Protestant Conceptions

When great powers have become great enough to create a sphere of
influence composed of themselves and several smaller states (usually neighbors
in their own region), they have normally established some kind of international
association which has served to legitimize and institutionalize their hegemony.
These associations have usually been termed "confederations" or
"leagues." Thus,
Napoleon’s France established the Confederation of the Rhine,
Metterich’s Austria the German Confederation and the Italian
League, Bismarck’s Prussia the North German Federation, and twentieth-century
Britain the Commonwealth of Nations. This
variety of examples demonstrates that great-power status and interest in
themselves are a sufficient explanation for a great power establishing an
international association.

In the history of international associations, however, the United States
has a unique place. It has
established more of them than any other great power, and indeed it has
established more than all of the other great powers of the modern era combined.
It has established them with a greater range of functions — economic as
well as security — than the other great powers.
It has established them with a greater degree of complexity,
resulting not just in associations but in organizations or even institutions.
And it has sought to establish not just organizations with a regional
scope but also those with a global or universal scope as well.
International organizations are clearly a central part of the American
way, the American creed, in foreign policy.

Much of the U.S. focus upon international organizations can be explained
by a realist theory of U.S. foreign policy.
As the greatest of the great powers, it is to be expected that the United
States would establish international organizations wherever its power or
hegemony has extended. At first,
this was only Latin America (the Pan-American Union, followed by the
Organization of American States). After
the First World War and then again after the Second World War, it briefly seemed
to be the world itself (the League of Nations, followed by the United Nations,
the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank).
Then, during the Cold War, U.S. power extended into several regions —
Western Europe (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the Middle East (the
short-lived Middle East Treaty Organization), and Southeast Asia (the Southeast
Asian Treaty Organization).

With the end of the Cold War and with the end of any other great-power
competitor, the United States has returned to the construction of international
organizations with a global or universal scope (a new economic institution, the
World Trade Organization, and an expanded role for the United Nations).
But it also has continued to develop regional organizations (the creation
of the North American Free Trade Area and the expansion of NATO).

The establishment of these myriad international organizations in
particular places and at particular times can be explained by the particular
opportunities for and limitations on American power.
Still, the consistency and continuity of the American practice with
international organizations does seem extraordinary.
Americans clearly have both a drive and a gift for international
organizations that goes beyond that found in other nations that have been great
For these other nations, the most natural way of organizing
international relations between a great power and smaller ones is through some
sort of explicit hierarchy, ordered by customary deference.
For Americans, the most natural way is through some sort of formal
equality, ordered by a formal treaty. This
American way is the only way that is congruent and isomorphic with the
Protestant conceptions of ordering relations between individuals.

The American focus upon international organizations represents a bridge
between the fifth stage of the Protestant declension, the American Creed, and
the sixth stage, universal human rights. In
the moment from one stage to the next, it almost seems that international
organizations are transformed from being a means by which U.S. policy-makers
advance American foreign policy to being a means by which they advance abstract
universal values.

Sixth Stage of the Protestant Declension: Universal
Human Rights and the Protestant Deformation

In the 1970s, American political and intellectual elites began to promote
the notion of universal human rights as a fundamental goal of American foreign
policy. This conception took the
central elements of the American Creed and carried them to a logical conclusion
and to a universal extent.

It was a conjunction of factors that caused American elites to embrace
universal human rights at that time. First,
those elites who had condemned the U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War needed
to develop a new doctrine for American foreign policy to replace the doctrine of
containment, which in their eyes was now discredited.
Secondly, the surge in U.S. trade and investment in newly-industrializing
countries beyond Europe and Japan caused some elites to see a need to develop a
new doctrine for American foreign policy that could be applied to a wide variety
of different (and often difficult) countries and cultures.
Most importantly, however, were changes within the American people
themselves. America was changing
from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and thus from a producer to a
consumer mentality. It was also
changing from a modern to a post-modern society and thus from an ideology of
"possessive individualism" to an ideology of "expressive
individualism." The new
post-industrial, consumer, post-modern, expressive-individualist America was
embodied in the "me generation," i.e., the baby-boomer generation.
For them, the rights (and definitely not the responsibilities) of the
individual (and definitely not of the community) were the highest, indeed the
only, good.

In the new ideology, human rights are thus seen as the rights of
individuals. The individual’s
rights are independent of any hierarchy or community, traditions or customs, in
which that individual might be situated. This
means that human rights are applicable to any individual, anywhere in the world,
i.e., they are universal, and not merely communal or national.
There is thus a close logical connection between the rights of the
individual and the universality of those rights.
Individual rights are universal rights, and universal rights are
individual rights.

Numerous social analysts have noted that the United States has become in
the past two decades a new kind of political society, what has been called
"the republic of choice."2
It is characterized by the "rights revolution" in law,
"freedom of choice" in politics, "consumer sovereignty" in
economics, "question authority" in attitudes, and "expressive
individualism" in ideology. In
regard to spiritual life, one manifestation of this new mentality is "New

The ideology of expressive individualism thus reaches into all aspects of
society; it is a total philosophy. The
result appears to be totally opposite from the totalitarianism of the state, but
it is a sort of totalitarianism of the self.
Both totalitarianisms are relentless in breaking down intermediate bodies
and mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the highest
powers or the widest forces. With
the totalitarianism of the state, the highest powers are the authorities of the
nation state; with the totalitarianism of the self, the widest forces are the
agencies of the global economy.

Expressive individualism — with its contempt for and protest against all
hierarchies, communities, traditions, and customs — represents the logical
conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant
religion. The Holy Trinity of
original Protestantism, the Supreme Being of unitarianism, the American nation
of the American Creed have all been dethroned and replaced by the imperial self.
The long declension of the Protestant Reformation has reached its end
point in the Protestant Deformation. The
Protestant Deformation is a Protestantism without God, a reformation against all

The foreign policy of the republic of choice, of the Protestant
deformation, is universal human rights. But
during the Cold War, there were constraints on the full pursuit of this project.
As long as the United States was engaged in its great bipolar
struggle with the Soviet Union and with communist ideology, it had to show some
respect for and make some concessions to the particularities of hierarchy,
community, traditions, and customs in the countries that it needed as allies.
These concessions were often departures from the normal U.S. promotion of
free markets and liberal democracy. In
Western Europe and Japan, the United States accepted restrictions on free
markets, while continuing to promote liberal democracy.
In Latin America and Southeast Asia, in contrast, the United States
accepted violations of liberal democracy, while continuing to promote free
markets. Some of these
concessions were beneficial to the people of the countries concerned, as when
the United States accepted the policies of the Christian Democratic (usually
Roman Catholic) parties and Socialist parties in Western Europe and supported
the activities of the Roman Catholic Church in Eastern Europe.
Some of these concessions were detrimental as when the United States
supported brutal dictatorships in Central America and the Caribbean.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the discrediting of
communist ideology removed much of the necessity for such compromises and
concessions. Now the United States
could be unrestrained and uncontained in pursuing its grand project of universal
human rights. At the same time the
spread of the global economy and the competition among national governments to
liberalize their economies in order to attract foreign capital legitimized the
idea of free markets. Finally, the
election of Bill Clinton in 1992 marked the arrival to political power of that
generation of Americans who are the true believers in expressive individualism,
the baby boomers.
The Clinton Administration promoted universal human rights
more than any previous administration. It
saw human rights, free markets, and liberal democracy as the solutions to
virtually every human problem.

As has been discussed by Samuel Huntington and others, this universalist
and individualist project of the United States has generated resentment and
resistance in societies whose religions traditions are different from the
Christianity of the West.
Huntington has called this "the clash of
civilizations," a struggle between "the West and the rest."3
There has been almost no resistance in those nations with a Protestant
tradition, there has been some resistance in those with a Roman Catholic
tradition, and there has been the greatest resistance in those with an Islamic
or a Confucian tradition.

Virtually all nations whose religious tradition is Protestant have by now
adopted some version of the human-rights ideology, if not the full extent of
expressive individualism and the republic of choice (Canada, Australia, New
Zealand, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and even Britain and
Germany). More resistant but now
being driven into at least free markets and liberal democracy are those nations
whose religious tradition is Roman Catholic (France, Italy, the former
corporatist countries of Spain and Portugal, the former communist countries of
Eastern Europe, and the former authoritarian and protectionist countries of
Latin America). However, Pope John
Paul II has consistently and comprehensively criticized particular elements of
the American project (i.e. liberal ideology and the market economy) in several
papal encyclicals.
The Pope clearly recognizes that the liberal program, the
Protestant deformation, represents the idolatry of the self.

As Huntington has observed, the major resistance to this American
universalist and individualist project has been mounted by countries with either
an Islamic or a Confucian tradition. The
contemporary, modernized versions of Islam and Confucianism represent a
counterpart to the most secularized version of Protestantism, a sort of
Counter-Deformation to the Protestant Deformation.
However, Islam is split among numerous states, no one of which has much
prospect of becoming a great power in international politics.
Furthermore, the current crisis in several Asian economies has
discredited Asian-style capitalism based upon "Asian values" of
hierarchy and community, be those values rooted in Islam (Indonesia and
Malaysia) or in Confucianism (Japan, South Korea, and the Chinese communities in
Indonesia and Malaysia).

We can not now know the outcome of this "clash of
civilizations," this struggle between the West and the rest, these wars of
secularized religion between the Protestant deformation and the
counter-deformation. But the
ultimate answer may lie in the character of the Protestant deformation itself.

Protestant Reformation and the Protestant Deformation

The Protestant Reformation was a prime movement in the making of the
modern era. Five hundred years
later, the Protestant deformation is a prime movement in the making of the
post-modern era. The Protestant
Reformation was the most unique of all religions.
The Protestant deformation seeks the end of all religions, or rather it
seeks to replace the worship of God with the expression of the self.

The Protestant Reformation brought into being the first nation states and
the first great powers of the modern era. The
most Reformed Protestant of all nations was the United States, and it became the
greatest of all great powers as well. Much
of the power of the United States can be traced to the energy, efficacy, and
organization that was a legacy of its Reformed Protestantism.
However, the Protestant deformation, because of its universalist and
individualist creed, seeks the end of all nation states and to replace loyalty
to America with gratification of oneself. It
relentlessly undermines the authority of the United States, the superpower which
promotes that creed throughout the world.

In his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
once wrote that the Roman Empire spread the Christian religion throughout the
ancient world, but that the Christian religion then undermined the Roman Empire.
Now, the American empire is spreading the Protestant deformation
throughout the modern world, but the Protestant deformation is beginning to
undermine the American empire.

Perhaps one day, on the open and hostile terrain that has become the
global economy and amid the empty formalisms of what was once liberal democracy,
there will be found an individual. Once
so intoxicated with his boisterous self-expression but now so exhausted from
stress and strain, he at last recognizes how lonely and isolated he has become.
Then perhaps he will turn and seek his refuge and his safety
in the protection of a hierarchy, the support of a community, and the comfort of
traditions and customs. And then
perhaps too he will turn and seek his salvation by becoming open to receive the
grace of God.


1. On
Wilsonianism and "global meliorism," see Walter A. McDougall, Promised
Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776

(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

2. Lawrence
M. Friedman, The Republic of Choice: Law, Authority, and Culture
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1990).

3. Samuel
P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

© The Philadelphia Society 2019 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.