Messiahs and Imperialists

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In the Fall issue of Dissent, John Judis revisits a perennially fascinating topic: the religious roots of American foreign policy. There are a couple ways of look at this issue. Judis spent a lot of time in his last book, The Folly of Empire discussing how America’s image of itself as God’s chosen nation—as Abraham Lincoln said, the “last, best hope on earth”—has inspired the idea that the United States has a “calling” to transform the world. Not only that, but American often casts its conflicts in terms of good and evil, which, as Walter Russell Mead pointed out, means that it tends to fight viciously and rarely, if ever, accept defeat.

These religious ideals certainly aren’t the only thing driving American policy, but they play a part; after all, far and away most foreign policy thinkers believe that the United States does have a duty to transform the world. And sometimes those ideals do more good than folly. As Judis points out, the main differences among the different schools are tactical—liberal internationalists, for example, tend to value multilateralism and a sense of prudence, they believe in the magical healing powers of global capital, and they don’t usually descend into the trance-like messianism of George W. Bush, as recently described by Seymour Hersh:

In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that “God put me here” to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that “he’s the man,” the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reelection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.

It’s insane. But as Judis touches on, and Anatol Lieven really dives into, a president with a divine sense of purpose is hardly the scariest religious impulse in American foreign policy. That honor belongs to the various forms of millennialism in the United States, which can hold that it’s America’s duty to bring about the millennium—as the 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards said, “the dawning, or at least the prelude, of that glorious work of God… shall begin in America”—a mentality which can incline one towards reckless and revolutionary foreign policy. Alternatively, the broad prophetic belief in the Rapture—as depicted in the Left Behind series, which has sold 62 million copies—tends to foster paranoia and national aggression of the worst sort. Here’s Lieven:

Not only is this [prophetic] tradition deeply and explicitly hostile to the Enlightenment and to any rational basis for human discourse or American national unity, it cultivates a form of insane paranoia toward much of the outside world in general. Thus The End of the Age, a novel by the Christian Rightist preacher and politician Pat Robertson, features a conspiracy between a Hillary Clintonesque first lad and a Muslim billionaire to make Antichrist president of the United States. Antichrist, who has a French surname, was possessed by Satan, in the form of the Hindu god Shiva, while serving with the Peace Corp in India.

It would be wrong to think these sorts of views have no effect on shaping Republican foreign policy—or Democratic foreign policy, for that matter—although it’s hardly a necessary leap from millennialism to a neoconservative foreign policy that’s intent on revolutionizing the world through armed aggression. Many populists over the years have put the millennial impulse in the service of a more isolationist foreign policy—in which, as William Jennings Bryan put it, “Our mission is to implant hope in the breast of humanity, and substitute higher ideals for the ideals which have led nations into armed conflict.” In other words, the U.S. will set a good example from afar. Pat Robertson has advocated something similar, although he also seems to dabble in political assassination these days.

At any rate, religion—especially crazy religions—won’t leave the United States anytime soon. So Judis argues that the most successful American policymakers will “focus on America’s objectives, as given by the millennialist framework, while still retaining a complex and non-apocalyptic view of means and ends, capabilities and challenges.” Or, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it, one must have a sense of irony towards the “pretentious elements in our original dream.”

That may be. On the other hand, the standard bearer of a “non-apocalyptic view of means and ends, capabilities and challenges” tends to be the “realists” within the foreign policy establishment—those, like Jeanne Kirkpatrick or Condoleeza Rice, who believe that America must remake the world in its own image, but should be cautious about how to do so. These include the officials who dissuaded George W. Bush from pushing a hard-line, neoconservative stance against Russia and China in early 2001, and who convinced the president to adopt a more pragmatic approach towards Iran, North Korea, and Syria—stepping back from messianic talk of “evil” regimes—in 2005. But even if these “realists” don’t drink from the same millennial Kool-Aid as the neoconservatives, they very much serve their own master: namely, American militarism. Lieven again:

This relative caution on the part of Realists in the U.S. establishment reflects in part the nature and interests of the U.S. military-industrial and security elites. These elites are obviously interested in the maintenance and expansion of U.S. global military power, if only because their own jobs and profits depend on it. Jobs and patronage also ensure the support of much of Congress, which often lards defense spending bills with weapons systems the Pentagon does not want and has not even asked for, to help out senators and congressmen whose states produce these systems. And as already noted, to maintain a measure of wider support in the U.S. media and public, it is also necessary to maintain the perception of certain foreign nations as threats to the United States and a certain minimum and permanent level of international tension.

But a desire for permanent international tension is different from a desire for war, especially a major international war which might ruin the international economy. The American generals of the Clinton era have been described as “aggressive only about their budgets.” The American ruling system is therefore not a Napoléonic or Moghul one. It does not actively desire major wars, because it does not depend on major victorious wars for its own survival, and it would indeed be threatened by such wars even if the country were victorious. Small wars are admittedly a different matter.

(Needless to say, an approach that fosters a “minimum and permanent level of international tension,” with, say, China, without intending to go to war can still lead to war—even by accident.)

So these seem to be the broad constraints on American foreign policy. On the one hand, there’s the widespread, quasi-religious idea that America is the chosen nation called on to transform the world, with all the genuinely noble and appallingly ugly impulses that brings. On the other hand, there’s a security establishment that doesn’t buy into these millennial fantasies, but still remains committed to the endless “maintenance and expansion of U.S. global military power.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is held in high regard by the Democratic establishment, sees the world as a “Grand Chessboard,” which gives a sense for what that’s all about. If this is all correct, then any hopes for a sensible foreign policy in the near future are probably foolish. A lot will have to change before then. Fortunately, Barbara Rossing’s book on why the Rapture is bad theology is now out in paperback. A good stocking-stuffer, for sure..


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