What part does religion play in American foreign policy, particularly the motivations behind our nation's involvement in various wars over the years?
It's a difficult question, and I've seen reasonable arguments that religion has played almost no role in many of the major wars of the 20th Century, including World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
But two experts in comparative religion are arguing this: "America’s foreign interventions over the last century arise from deeply held religious motivations."
They tie their contention to what's been known as the Social Gospel, which has acquired many definitions over the years.
Here's one from Stephen Prothero's helpful book, Religious Literacy: "Protestant theological movement that sees sin and salvation as social and seeks to apply Jesus' teachings to socioeconomic problems."
And here's one from the reliable Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions: "American religious social-reform movement that was prominent from about 1870 to 1930, especially among liberal Protestant groups dedicated to the betterment of industrialized society. Labor reforms. . .constituted the Social Gospel's most prominent concerns."
James K. Wellman, Jr., and S.R. Thompson write in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion that the rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq is, to quote the piece's abstract (the only part available to nonsubscribers on the IJRR Web site), "a legacy of the Social Gospel movement in the late nineteenth century. Social Gospellers believed that 'Christianization' of society would occur first in the United States and then spread across the globe because of the dominance of the U.S. economy, political system, military, and Protestant religion."
Beyond that, they argue this in a related piece in a "Sightings" entry at the Web site of religion scholar Martin E.Marty: "Traces of this movement mark the Spanish American War, the Filipino intervention, World War I and II, the multiple interventions into Latin America in the twentieth century, the Vietnam War, and the recent involvements in the Middle East." (To read the "Sightings" piece click here.)
Well, what to make of this theory? I find it intriguing and worth thinking about more. Certainly we Americans have rarely hesitated to project our values, our religions and even our systems onto the rest of the world on the assumption that we have it more right than most folks.
This, of course, leads us into all kinds of trouble, from being labeled as "The Ugly American" tourist to being the source of arrogant and rigid Christian missionaries (much less true today than 100 years ago).
But my guess is that the authors are giving the Social Gospel movement too much credit (or blame) for being the driving force behind our foreign interventions. I think run-amok capitalism, healthy atruism, misguided friendships and many other factors play a role. I'd love to see someone do a more thorough analysis of all possible causes and assess how much each contributes. I'm thinking Social Gospel might come in fourth or fifth down the line.
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CAN'T THEY JUST BE QUIET?
It's bad enough that the Pat Robertsons and Glenn Becks of the world over and over say ridiculous things they think are from God. What's worse is that people continue to be duped by such foolishness. Beck now says the Irene storm was a blessing from God. I wonder if he'd have the courage to say that in person to the families of the people who died because of Irene.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Faces of Grief: Stories of Surviving Loss and Finding Hope, by Sherry Lee Hoppe. In many ways grief is intensively individual and private. Which is to say that the one whose husband, wife, child or friend has just died often feels as if no one in the world has ever felt what he or she if feeling now. And in a sense that's true, because the person who died had never died before. But there is a certain commonality to bereavement, a certain plot of common ground on which all mourners stand. And this book helps to find that ground, identify it and suggest to readers that others have stood there before and stand there even now with them. The author writes from the personal experience of going through the death of her husband, and thus the essays in the first part of the book are not dry academic exercises but are, instead, drawn from her own life. In the second part we get fairly brief, often paintful stories of grief and how others have dealt with that experience. Especially instructive is Hoppe's observation that "I have learned to be grateful I had so much to lose." I did, however, find it odd that although she counsels against easy answers, such as telling a bereaved widow that her husband now is "in a better place," she nonetheless seems to engage in that herself. At the end of one chapter about the death of a couple's son, for instance, she writes: "Maybe God needed Jason's compassion and love in heaven, and that's why He called him home." Such sentiments are understandable (at least temporarily) coming from grieving parents seeking to integrate their loss into their lives, but they amount to trite misconceptions and death denial when they come from others.