The following is an essay from 2001 by political scientist James Kurth on the “Protestant Deformation” or what could be described as the radical secularization of Protestantism. As he notes, we’re now entering the final stages of this deformation, a long and twisty road that has led us to a radical individualism that threatens a new form of totalitarianism upon the free world: the totalitarianism of the self. Enjoy.

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 declension. 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.

The 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 century.

The long struggle between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Wars of Religion, culminated in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). 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 Turkey). 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 realms.

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 powers.

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.

The 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 community. 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 others. 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 anti-community. 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 community.

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.

The Protestant Churches and Church Governance

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 monarchy.

Less hierarchical were those Protestant churches ruled by elders — the Calvinists (the Netherlands) and the Presbyterians (Scotland and the United States).   (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 democracy.

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.

The 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.

The 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).

  1. 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 Capitalism, 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).

  1. 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.
  2. The unitarian transformation. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Protestant 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.

The 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.

The 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 religion. 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.

The 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 cliché 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.

International 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 powers. 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.

The 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 Age.”

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 forms.

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.

The 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).