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On matters of foreign policy, Americans are divided into two hidden camps. Not Republicans versus Democrats, nor liberals versus conservatives, nor rival schools of foreign policy you read about in college courses. The divide is primarily religious in nature—or perhaps “theological” is the better word, for what matters in foreign policy, as in so many other aspects of American politics, are the religious divisions among Protestants.

The most important is the divide between Protestant modernists and fundamentalists, which developed in the early part of the twentieth century. It is my contention that the modernist-fundamentalist controversy did not come and go in the course of the twentieth century. It was an earthquake along a tectonic fault that continues to divide our world today.

From its inception until the election of John F. Kennedy, the elite of the United States was Protestant to its core. Since 1960, however, this country has remade itself. Non-Protestant and non-Christian immigrants have flooded in, leaving Protestants a smaller percentage of the population today than ever before. A Protestant identity is no longer a requirement for admission to the elite. At the same time, a great secularization has swept the culture, such that now it makes sense to talk of a “post-Christian” America. Still, the tectonic divide remains.

Where does the fault line run? It is difficult to detect with precision. Let’s begin by considering the Scopes trial of 1925—the moment when the intra-Protestant chasm opened up in a dramatic way.

Authorities charged John Scopes, a substitute teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, with violating the law by teaching Darwinian evolution instead of the divine creation of man. The trial was a national event, broadcast live on radio. Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution. Bryan, who had grown up in Illinois, was a leading figure in the Democratic party for decades, and a great populist. For several years he had crusaded against the teaching of evolution. If any one man was responsible for setting fundamentalists against modernists, it was Bryan.

The opposition to him was searing. H. L. Mencken was the harshest critic, not just of Bryan but also of his followers. American farmers, he wrote, dreamed of a bucolic utopia that would bring about the downfall of modern civilization. “They dream it,” Mencken wrote, “behind the egg-stove on winter nights, their boots off and their socks scorching, Holy Writ in their hands.” He continued:

They dream it as they commune with Bos taurus, Sus scrofa, Mephitis mephitis, the Methodist pastor, the Ford agent. It floats before their eyes as they scan the Sears-Roebuck catalogue for horse liniment, porous plasters and Bordeaux mixture. . . . This Utopia haunts and tortures them; they long to make it real. They have tried prayer, and it has failed; now they turn to the secular arm. The dung-fork glitters in the sun as the host prepares to march.

For Mencken, Bryan was leading the peasants with pitchforks in a holy war, “a jehad against what remains of American intelligence, already beleaguered in a few walled towns.”

Bryan died the same month of the Scopes trial. “Never speak ill of the dead,” the sages advise us. Mencken ignored their counsel. His obituary of Bryan summed up the great populist’s career in this way: “Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.” In prosecuting Scopes, Mencken continued, Bryan had revealed himself to be “a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.”

Clearly, the Scopes trial was about more than the teaching of evolution. The conflict pitted Eastern urban elites against rural populations in the Midwest. At stake for Bryan was the future of popular democracy. “A religion that didn’t appeal to any but college graduates,” he wrote in 1922, “would be over the head or under the feet of 99 percent of our people. The God I worship is the God of the ignorant as well as the God of the learned man.” The Scopes trial was an opportunity for Bryan not only to champion the wisdom of the common people but also to denounce the role of experts in government. Scientists, Bryan claimed, were attempting “to set up an oligarchy in free America, the most tyrannical that has been attempted in history.”

Bryan’s “jehad,” then, was against the Progressive vision of a managerial elite that overrides the will of the people. This is how one observer, at least, understood it. This man lamented how Bryan’s name had become synonymous with opposition to evolution, because that fight detracted from Bryan’s larger mission. Bryan was “one of the most misunderstood and underestimated men in American history,” former president Harry S. Truman wrote in a posthumously published memoir. “He was in a class by himself from about 1896 on, the man who was in the forefront for the welfare of the common, everyday fellow who didn’t have any real representation of any other kind.”

Bryan was a model and inspiration for Truman, who saw Bryan’s populism as an outgrowth of the finest American political tradition. One of my tasks is to put a name to this tradition. Like Truman, I find the label “fundamentalist” inadequate. The tradition to which Bryan attached himself long predated the rise of the fundamentalist movement. Though this tradition has roots in religion, it also has a face that is secular and political.

For help in seeing its multifaceted character, let’s turn to Herman Melville. Though his finest work, Moby-Dick, appeared some seventy-five years before Bryan began his campaign against evolution, it celebrates popular democracy in similar terms. Ishmael, the narrator, sings the nobility of mankind:

Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes.

God made man in his image, and that fact gives even the lowliest of humans a great dignity. The narrator continues:

But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

Popular democracy has a divine halo around it; the will of the people is sacred. Ishmael turns to God and asks him to affirm the narrator’s attribution of quasi-divine qualities to lowly whalers:

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities . . . then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!

Ishmael’s God is a populist. Like William Jennings Bryan, the Almighty does not approve of a religion that appeals only to college graduates. Melville concludes by citing the earthly progenitor of the political and religious tradition Bryan represents. Still beseeching God to affirm his populism, Ishmael says:

Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!

According to Moby-Dick’s narrator, when a man as great as Andrew Jackson arises from the common people, we are witnessing the hand of the Lord in human affairs—and we see the role of popular democracy, which sets the stage for divine intervention.

When Bryan railed against the oligarchy of scientists, he was following self-consciously in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson, who fought against a “monopoly” of government by elites—and who won everlasting glory in that fight by destroying the Second Bank of the United States. Jacksonian democracy enjoins the popularly elected president to use the power of the presidency to protect, as Truman put it, “the common, everyday fellow” from unaccountable and unrepresentative concentrations of political and economic power. Jacksonian democracy places trust in the wisdom of the common man, which it favors over rule by experts.

During the Jacksonian era, this preference—and many related sentiments—dominated American politics. To denote this temper, the historian Marvin Meyers coined the term “Jacksonian persuasion.” Meyers defines a persuasion as a

set of attitudes, beliefs, projected actions: a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment. The community shares many values; at a given social moment some of these acquire a compelling importance. The political expression given to such values forms a persuasion.

Historians have paid too little attention to the influence of the Jacksonian persuasion after the end of the Jacksonian era, which traditionally runs from 1828 to 1848. Following my colleague Walter Russell Mead, however, I argue that the Jacksonian persuasion has continued to influence American politics long after that date. It is still working on our politics today.

Seen in this light, the Scopes trial takes on a new significance. It was certainly a fundamentalist outburst against Darwinism and, more broadly, against the Protestant modernism and secularism that were sweeping the urban elite. But it was also something more: a revolt of Jacksonian populism against centralized power. If we approach the Scopes trial as a Jacksonian eruption, it appears part of a much longer and more consequential dynamic. My goal is to tease out the implications for American foreign policy of the competition between the Jacksonian persuasion and its rival, to which I will attach a name in a moment.

Jackson believed that Americans were a chosen people in a promised land—chosen by God for a mission to the whole human race. He described that mission in his farewell address in 1837:

Providence has showered on this favored land blessings without number, and has chosen you [fellow citizens] as the guardians of freedom, to preserve it for the benefit of the human race. May [the Almighty] who holds in His hands the destinies of nations make you worthy of the favors He has bestowed, and enable you, with pure hearts and pure hands and sleepless vigilance, to guard and defend to the end of all time the great and mighty charge which He has committed to your keeping.

In Jackson’s view, God intervenes directly in the affairs of men, and the American people influence history by honoring the covenant between God and our democracy. Jackson envisions the United States lasting until the end of days. Our mission is to guard and defend our freedom.

This is surprisingly restrained, coming from a man renowned for his lack of restraint. From boyhood, Jackson spent much of his life in military campaigns. For most of adulthood, he carried a bullet in his lungs from a duel he had impetuously initiated. Yet he imagines an America that is rather aloof, a shining city on a hill, not the headquarters of a global democratic revolution. Judgment Day is coming, he implies, but America will be judged on its success in keeping the torch of freedom alight, rather than in spreading the fire around the globe.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, attitudes similar to these became codified in dispensational premillennialism, one of the main tributaries of the religious current that, by the time of the Scopes trial, would be called “fundamentalism.” An influential precursor of this theology appeared in 1863 in the creedal statement of Prophetic Times, a Philadelphia-based monthly millenarian periodical. That creed is part of a family of religious ideas that forged the foundational attitudes of the Jacksonian persuasion. “We believe,” the editors wrote:

  • That Christ will soon reappear upon earth, to avenge His elect, and fulfil His covenant to them.
  • That the saints shall rise first, and together with such of the living as shall be accounted worthy of such honor, be received up in the glorified state, to share with Christ in His subsequent dealings with our world, and its inhabitants.
  • That great judgments are pending over Christendom, and that all present systems in Church and State shall be revolutionized by them, if not quite destroyed.
  • That only those who are properly awake to these truths, and watchful, and waiting, and looking for the Lord’s speedy return, and prepare accordingly, shall escape the dreadful tribulations which are to mark the last years of this dispensation.

According to this statement, the end of days is near. The salvation of the world will come through Jesus, operating on His schedule and through His tools, not ours. He will transform our institutions. The elect among us will be those who have shown great personal piety, and they will join Jesus in revolutionizing the world. Everyone else will undergo great tribulations.

This creedal statement does not explicitly discuss the role of government, but that role is not hard to glean. Government’s job is not to spread the word of God or to perfect the world; it is to protect the community, to safeguard its freedom. Man is inherently broken, so perfection in this world will not come from human agency. “We believe,” the statement also says, “That the personal return of the Lord Jesus is the great hope of the Church, to which, and not to the triumph of present institutions, we are to look for the fulfilment of the great promises of the world’s ultimate blessedness.” Jesus Christ Himself, not state institutions, will create the truly just society.

When applied to foreign policy, this theology lends the Jacksonian persuasion the character of a sleeping volcano. When its freedom is safe, it lies dormant—neither an impediment to nor a support for any major initiative. But if it perceives enemies to its freedom, it is roused from its slumber and erupts. Popular democracy is the incubator of God’s elect—“Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons.” A Jacksonian eruption, therefore, takes the form of a righteous conflict—a “jehad,” in H. L. Mencken’s derisive term. But the appetite for holy war is short-lived. Jacksonians appear to their detractors militaristic, religiously bigoted, or jingoistic, because of their sense of absolute right and wrong and their willingness to fight and die for their values. Their appetite for conflict, however, is actually limited. War, for them, is a defensive act. After annihilating the immediate threat to American liberty, they yearn to bring the boys home.

This mercurial attitude has bedeviled every president who has ever sent troops into battle. In moments marked by threats to the nation, the Jacksonian persuasion will provide the greatest reservoir of pro-interventionist sentiment imaginable. Its thirst for conflict, however, passes quickly. Once that thirst is slaked, the Jacksonian persuasion becomes a force for isolationism and, seemingly, even for pacifism. This fickleness is part of the larger paradox at the heart of the Jacksonian sensibility, namely its love-hate relationship with the federal government and chief executive. Both are vital to the survival of American liberty, which is a light unto the nations. The halo that surrounds liberty also encompasses, therefore, the military; it can widen, in certain circumstances, to encompass the presidency and the federal government as well. But the state itself is neither inherently sacred nor even good. Indeed, when federal power or executive action endangers liberty, Jacksonians can regard them as a pestilence.

As America has secularized, the profound connection between the Jacksonian persuasion and Evangelical Christianity has become difficult to observe. Jacksonians today come in many different religious guises—Evangelical Christians, libertarians, and atheists. They tend to be more right-wing than left-wing, but historically their roots are in the Democratic party. They may appear politically indifferent, even ideologically illiterate. To the H. L. Menckens of the world, they are nothing but a rabble of bigoted groups—“deplorables,” to borrow an overworked word. To be sure, they are nationalistic and can be inward-looking. At times, they are uninterested in developments beyond our borders—indifferent to what some of them see as the endless machinations and meaningless gyrations of foreigners. But their heritage is venerable. Their worldview is coherent. And their perspective on politics is grounded in both the American founding and the deepest traditions of the Protestant religion.

Now let’s move to the other side of the tectonic divide. Historians of religion have labeled William Jennings Bryan’s detractors “modernists.” That is as misleading as calling his supporters “fundamentalists.” In the interest of symmetry, I will dub the other side “the Progressive persuasion.” This outlook provided the theological rationale for the Progressive movement.

In matters of theology, Progressivism follows a postmillennial view of end times, which teaches that the spread of the gospel will produce a millennium prior to Christ’s return. During this period, peace and prosperity will reign throughout the world. In sharp contrast to dispensational premillennialism, postmillennialism downplays the brokenness of man. It highlights, instead, man’s perfectible nature and his ability to improve his situation through his own agency—or through government agencies.

Though this theology has roots that predate the nineteenth century, its spread and popularity are tied to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern science, medicine, and technology. In the late eighteenth century, society’s ability to master the material world improved immeasurably. As a result, the God of Andrew Jackson’s farewell address—he who intervenes directly in the affairs of nations—ceased to exist in the minds of Progressives. Their religion evolved instead in the direction of ethical humanism. Meanwhile, the advances of modern industrial society introduced significant social problems, concentrated mostly in cities. Infused with the belief that man could liberate himself from his limitations, Progressives argued that confronting these urban problems should be the priority. Postmillennialist in outlook, Protestant modernism developed the religious doctrine to support this progressive political view.

Protestant modernism also shifted the focus from personal piety to collective action. It thus became the natural religious home for social reform initiatives. The trend culminated in the social gospel movement of the early twentieth century. Walter Rauschenbusch, its leading figure, depicted the historical Jesus as a social activist, an ethicist who eschewed dogma. “Deeds not creeds” might have been Rauschenbusch’s slogan. The elimination of social injustice through education, aid to the poor, and government restraint of capitalist excesses—these were now the highest callings of the Christian. The traditional focus of the Church on saving individual souls became secondary. The primary goal of Christian life was eliminating human suffering. This task required breaking down the barriers that separate man from his fellow man. Religiously minded Progressives defined eliminating divisions among Protestant denominations as the first step toward this goal. Before long, their vision became universal in scope, and they began working to dissolve the barriers among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and pagans. This project continued with gusto even as the religiously minded fell by the wayside. As society secularized, the Progressive persuasion promoted equality between the sexes and among America’s racial and socioeconomic groups.

The Progressive persuasion conflicts with its Jacksonian counterpart in crucial respects. Though both accord the government a vital role in protecting “the common, everyday fellow,” the deepest concern of the Jacksonian is individual liberty, whereas the Progressive focuses more intently on destroying inequality. The Progressive, moreover, is eager to embrace “collective” initiatives, which in practice means government initiatives. Though some of these will pass muster with the Jacksonian persuasion, the Progressives’ embrace of centralizing government power, even when legitimated in terms of the interests of the common man, often appears as a threat to individual liberty. For the Jacksonian persuasion, the Progressive vision quickly turns into the oligarchy of experts that so troubled William Jennings Bryan.

When it comes to foreign policy, Progressives are internationalist in outlook. The Jacksonian persuasion, with its roots in the divine mission of America, conduces to nationalism. It assumes, moreover, that a resort to arms to protect American liberty is a regrettable but inevitable aspect of the human condition. By contrast, Progressivism emphasizes universal human brotherhood, which it believes is within the capacity of humans to achieve. As a result, the Progressive persuasion tends to emphasize peacemaking more than vigilant self-defense. One pole of the Progressive spectrum is an idealistic pacifism. The other pole can be very militant, for it accords the United States an exceptional mission in the world. This mission, however, is not Andrew Jackson’s notion of keeping the flame of liberty alive until Judgment Day. The mission of America is, rather, to use its military and economic power to nudge the world toward universal brotherhood.

After World War I, John D. Rockefeller Jr., leaving behind the orthodoxy of his parents, played a major role in developing this new ideology of activist exceptionalism. I will focus on one particularly revealing episode.

In 1930, Rockefeller established a commission to study the foreign mission work of seven Protestant denominations. The commission’s report, officially titled Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, is commonly known as the Hocking report, after the leader of the commission, William Ernest Hocking, a Harvard professor of philosophy. The Hocking report calls on Christian missionaries to cease proselytizing. Jesus, it argues, is not the sole path to knowledge of God. Christianity is the fullest expression of truth, yes, but the other great religions also express elements of it. The job of Christian missionaries, therefore, is to identify the “Christian-like” elements in other religions, and to cultivate them with an eye to forging alliances across religious divides. The key to this coalition-building is “deeds not creeds.” The missionary goal should be to promote activities—education, health care, assistance to the poor—that non-Christians can join while remaining faithful to their own traditions. In short, the primary duty of the Christian missionary should be to apply the social gospel internationally.

The Hocking report calls on Christian Americans to drop their theological triumphalism. Human enlightenment, it claims, will come instead “by way of the immediate strengthening of several of the present religions of Asia, Christian and non-Christian together.” The Hocking report seeks the creation of a global ecumenical religious culture that will pave the way to universal brotherhood. It is, in essence, a foreign policy manifesto for the Protestant modernist movement—but it is also much more. Rockefeller was laying the groundwork for the moral justification of American global hegemony. He believed that the fundamentalist beliefs championed by men like William Jennings Bryan could not provide the basis for American global leadership because they would alienate non-Christian nations. Moreover, national self-interest is “un-Christian.” America must rule as a benevolent, unbiased, and selfless global power.

This vision of global harmony was not the work of just a few thinkers such as Hocking. Rockefeller was elevating and publicizing an existing current of opinion among Christian missionaries. Let’s call it, after the historian David A. Hollinger, “missionary cosmopolitanism.” Long before Hocking’s manifesto articulated the ideology of global ecumenism, thousands of Protestants abroad were already working out the implications of the project for American foreign policy—missionary cosmopolitans like William Eddy.

Born in 1896 in Lebanon, William Eddy was the son of prominent Presbyterian missionaries. The work of American Christians in the Middle East was infused with the ethos that eventually found expression in the Hocking report. From the moment they arrived, American missionaries were forced to abandon any effort to convert Muslims, whose hostility to Christian evangelizing was insurmountable. The missionaries had every incentive to renounce what modernists derided as “creedalism.” They devoted their energies instead to pious deeds that would gain the support of the local Muslim population—education and health care among the most prominent.

Eddy joined the Marines in World War I, saw harsh combat, and lost a leg. But his disability did not stop him from reenlisting when World War II broke out. Despite the missing limb, he ran the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in North Africa. When the war ended, he became the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. In 1947, he moved to Washington, where he helped to establish the foundations of the modern CIA.

Warrior, spymaster, diplomat, Eddy was a man of action—hardly the type, it seems, to dream of interfaith harmony and global brotherhood. But it was not only in embracing the doctrine of good deeds that Eddy was ahead of the Hocking report. The report argues that Christian missionaries, as they abandon proselytizing, should behave as though they were the diplomatic envoys of the West. The modern age, Hocking writes, “might be pictured as an era of foreign service or ambassadorship,” in which the primary role of missionaries “will be to serve as ambassadors of good will between the West and East.” Hocking, of course, uses the word “ambassador” metaphorically. But Eddy’s career took the logic to its literal conclusion. He joined the Foreign Service and became, like scores of other missionaries, an actual ambassador.

Given his background, it was only natural for Eddy to translate Hocking’s agenda for missionaries into policy proposals for the U.S. government. At the heart of the Hocking report is the notion that Christianity and other major religions have a shared interest in uniting because their underlying message is supposedly the same—and because they face a common threat from the spread of irreligion. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, therefore, are not the rivals of Christianity. They are, rather, its allies against a common foe: secularism. The primary adversary of religious people everywhere, the Hocking report explains, is “the anti-religious element of the philosophies” of, among others, Marx and Lenin. Writing in the 1930s, Hocking was thinking of a cultural project conducted by Christian missionaries, nongovernmental actors rather than official agents of the state. But in a Cold War context, it was hardly a leap for Eddy and others to turn the Hocking report’s vision into a plan for the U.S. government to counter the influence of the Soviet Union.

In January 1951, Eddy wrote to General Robert A. McClure, the head of psychological operations in the Pentagon. McClure had run anti-Nazi propaganda in the European theater under Eisenhower. “I still feel,” Eddy wrote, “that our country could earn large dividends at a very small cost, by encouraging a moral alliance with Islam against Communism.” Eddy’s ideas had a direct impact on the policies of government, as was obvious in June 1957, when Eisenhower dedicated the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. “As I stand beneath these graceful arches,” Eisenhower stated, “surrounded on every side by friends from far and near, I am convinced that our common goals are both right and promising.”

In mid-century America, missionaries were modeling themselves on ambassadors, and ambassadors were recruited from the ranks of missionaries. Inevitably, the American foreign policy establishment’s definition of the national interest began to look suspiciously like missionary cosmopolitanism. The Progressive persuasion found full-blown expression in foreign policy.

This foreign policy, however, contradicts the preferences of the Jacksonians in many ways—including with respect to specific policies. Two major areas of disagreement are obvious.

The first of these is multilateralism. The Progressives see it as inherently valuable. The Jacksonian persuasion regards it only as a tool for achieving specific goals dictated by the national interest. This is not an insignificant difference. If you add up the three components of the Progressive worldview—a preference for multilateralism, an inclination to seek systemic solutions to human problems, and an aspiration to universal peace and brotherhood—they yield a desire to bind the United States to the kind of international organizations that Jacksonians deeply distrust.

The creation of the United Nations owes a great deal to the Protestant modernist establishment, which founded the Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Durable Peace, an initiative to shape the postwar political order. More than any other actor on the American political scene, the commission was responsible for convincing the American public to support the establishment of the United Nations. The commission was an outgrowth of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), the engine of the Protestant modernist movement in the United States. The FCC rose to prominence when it supported Woodrow Wilson’s effort to bring the United States into the League of Nations. Wilson’s failure was a blow, but the fight taught the FCC that it was possible to overcome interdenominational obstacles to unify mainline denominations behind a practical goal. When World War II broke out, the FCC was both ready for action and intent on rectifying the mistakes of the past.

The commission held conferences that were covered widely in the press, both religious and secular. It drew up plans for a postwar successor to the League of Nations, which the FCC published and distributed through the churches. Consequently, the United Nations, when first founded, had a sacred aura, which persists to this day. It was to be a beacon of universal brotherhood, the embodiment of Protestant modernists’ hopes for a more peaceful world.

Of course, the Jacksonian persuasion casts a suspicious eye on the United Nations. It fears that the organization will divert the attention of America’s elites from the national interest. More, the United Nations appears to Jacksonians a concentration of unelected and unaccountable power. It is also a source of nondemocratic law. It looks like a world government in embryo: an entity that, if allowed to grow, will smother the liberty of the American people.

The two persuasions clash even more violently in a second important area: Zionism. Let’s return to the creedal statement from the Prophetic Times. “We believe,” write the editors, “That, in this new order of things, the house of Israel, or Jewish race, shall again occupy their own land, and hold the first place among the nations, under their proper King, the Son of David, forever.”

This document dates from 1863, the year of the battle of Gettysburg—a cataclysmic moment. The Anglo-American millenarianism of the nineteenth century (which fed into the Protestant fundamentalism of the early twentieth century) was Zionist. It was Zionist before there was an organized Jewish Zionist movement. Because the return of the Jews to the Holy Land anticipates the return of Christ, American fundamentalism has always considered support for Zionism a proper use of government power, not a hubristic attempt to influence history through human agency. And it has understood Zionism and the mission of America as inseparable parts of a single divine plan. Our forefathers wove this idea so deeply into American culture that even in its modern secular guise, the Jacksonian persuasion regards Zionism as an integral commitment of American democracy.

In 1891, William E. Blackstone presented to President Benjamin Harrison a petition titled “Palestine for the Jews.” A Chicago businessman and the author of Jesus Is Coming, one of the bestselling books of the nineteenth century, Blackstone believed that Scripture predicted the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The role of the United States was to follow in the footsteps of Cyrus, king of Persia, and help the Jews reclaim their birthright. “What shall be done for the Russian Jews?” the petition asks. “Why not give Palestine back to them again? According to God’s distribution of nations, it is their home, an inalienable possession, from which they were expelled by force.”

The most remarkable aspect of Blackstone’s petition was not the idea of restoring the Jews to Palestine. It was the legitimacy of the project. Blackstone collected the signatures of 413 prominent Americans, a list that included the chief justice of the Supreme Court; the speaker of the House of Representatives; the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; and the mayors of Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan signed, as did the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post. Five years before Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State, the event that conventionally marks the birth of the modern Zionist movement, many among the American elite were pro-Zionist.

Not so the Protestant modernists and, especially, the missionary cosmopolitans among them. A key aspect of their global vision was (and remains) hostility to Zionism. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, missionaries in the Middle East worked to develop friendships with Arab Muslims. Support for Zionism by the United States led many Arabs to view the Americans among them as representatives of a hostile power. In the eyes of the missionaries, therefore, Zionism was responsible for damaging both the missionary project and the national interest—two indistinguishable commitments, in their minds.

The anti-fundamentalist bias at the heart of Protestant modernism reinforced the anti-Zionism of missionary cosmopolitanism. In the World War I era, when the Protestant modernist movement came into its own, its leading lights—theologians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Henry Sloane Coffin—were every bit as anti-Zionist as their missionary brethren. From the pulpit at the Riverside Church and the lectern at Union Theological Seminary, they articulated a full-throated opposition to the idea of a Jewish state.

In mid-century America, the State Department and the CIA were packed with Protestant modernists and missionary cosmopolitans. It should come as no surprise that these institutions were reflexively anti-Zionist. Their hostility to the idea of a Jewish state set the stage for a clash between the White House and the State Department during the Truman administration. Truman revered Jackson and modeled his career on him. He supported the 1947 partition plan for Palestine and moved to recognize Israel the following year. The State Department responded by seeking first to frustrate and then to reverse his major foreign policy decisions. That fight was bitter and long, but Truman persevered and got his way on major decisions. In his memoirs, he described the stakes:

The difficulty with many career officials in the government is that they regard themselves as the men who really make policy and run the government. They look upon the elected officials as just temporary occupants. Every President in our history has been faced with this problem: how to prevent career men from circumventing presidential policy. . . . [In recognizing Israel] I wanted to make it plain that the President of the United States, and not the second or third echelon in the State Department, is responsible for making foreign policy. . . . The civil servant, the general or admiral, the foreign service officer has no authority to make policy. They act only as servants of the government, and therefore they must remain in line with the government policy that is established by those who have been chosen by the people to set that policy.

Like Jackson and Bryan before him, Truman celebrated popular democracy. He fought against concentrations of unelected and unaccountable power. He rejected the oligarchy of the experts. A true and self-conscious heir to the Jacksonian persuasion and its theological underpinnings, Truman was, consequently, a Zionist.

The “deep state” worked to reverse his decision. No sooner had Truman recognized Israel than the CIA secretly sponsored and funded the establishment of the American Friends of the Middle East. Outwardly a “people-to-people” public diplomacy initiative, AFME brought influential Middle Easterners to the United States, helped them write and publish books and articles, and seeded Middle Eastern student organizations on American college campuses. It also lobbied Congress—against Israel. AFME was a remarkable instance of a CIA-confected front organization designed to counter official government policy, in this case by seeking to delegitimize Zionism in domestic American politics. Hocking, Fosdick, and many other leading lights of the Protestant modernist movement were members of the organization. Eddy was a strong supporter. Despite this powerful lineup, AFME did not turn the American people against Israel, and it failed to roll back the gains of Truman’s pro-Zionist foreign policy.

Allow me to stand, like a tourist on the lip of the Grand Canyon, and marvel at the wondrous chasm that separates the Jacksonian and Progressive persuasions. They differ in their understandings of: human nature (as broken or perfectible, static or malleable); morality (as absolute or relative); the relationship between the individual and society (as requiring personal responsibility, or as requiring collective and systemic solutions); the proper role of government (to safeguard personal liberty, or to safeguard equality); the mission of the United States in the world (to be a beacon of freedom, or to lead the way toward a new era of peace and brotherhood); and the meaning of history (as maintaining a holding pattern until the end of days, or as leading inevitably to human betterment).

These began as religious disagreements. Yet even as God recedes from our public life, the disagreements persist. Perhaps it is because God has receded that they persist. In a secular world, there is no universal moral authority capable of adjudicating between the two sides. All we have now are experts.

For the better part of a century, the descendants of H. L. Mencken have dominated our cultural life. They have relentlessly presented the preferences of the Progressive persuasion as if they flowed directly from science, logic, and secular expertise. Our latter-day Menckens have painted the religious face of Jacksonianism as mumbo jumbo, while depicting secular Jacksonians as bigots, ignoramuses, or worse. But the Progressive persuasion is every bit as religious and irrational as the Jacksonian persuasion. Its vision of history and of America’s place in it is no more scientifically verifiable than dispensational premillennialism’s belief in the Rapture. Indeed, the Progressive persuasion’s belief in the perfectibility of man defies all experience—at least all of my experience. It is a conviction that can only be described as theological, yet our schools teach it as if it were science. 

Michael Doran is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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