Mark Thomas Edwards is Associate Professor of US History and Politics at Spring Arbor University, where he researches the intersection of religion, politics, and diplomacy in the United States. In his new book, Faith and Foreign Affairs in the American Century, Edwards examines the convergence of Protestant Christianity and secularism in the shaping of American diplomacy since the Spanish-American War.
ECM: To what, specifically, does “the American Century” refer?
MTE: Historically, the phrase “American Century” refers to an editorial written in February 1941 by Life magazine publisher Henry Luce. Luce was part of a group of East Coast elites, centered around the Council of Foreign Relations, wanting the United States to declare war on Germany. In the essay, Luce argued that the United States should give up its misguided “America First” isolationism, in large part because it was self-defeating. A realistic assessment of American interest would recognize that the United States should be building a world order or “environment” friendly to American economic and cultural expansion.
Luce believed American military endeavors would be temporary; following victory, the United States would rather invest in peace-making policies of global capitalist development, modernizing “backward” states, and humanitarian assistance. His thousands of respondents, as detailed in the introduction of my book, were divided over whether or not his vision was imperialistic. They were also split over the question of the place of Christianity in either promoting or restraining American globalism.
The phrase “American Century” was quickly forgotten but then revived after 1980 in both scholarly and popular literature. A lot of the focus has been on the question of whether the American Century is now over. My book is in part a genealogy of the American Century concept, especially as it might be considered a religious icon.
ECM: The book opens with a discussion of missionary diplomacy as a forerunner to public diplomacy. Can you explain the significance of these terms?
MTE: I challenge current definitions of public diplomacy. Most historians since 2000 have followed the foreign policy establishment in defining public diplomacy as propaganda aimed at winning foreign audiences over to American values, policies, and interests. Historically, the term was more fluid and, at first, involved elite efforts to persuade Americans themselves to support their country becoming a great world power. Public diplomacy, between the world wars especially, also meant experiments to democratize foreign policymaking—this was sometimes called “popular diplomacy.”
Public diplomacy in the American Century can also be understood as a secularization of nineteenth-century missionary diplomacy. By “missionary diplomacy,” I mean two things: missionaries were primary (if often unreliable) creators of information about the world beyond North America; and missionaries and their home front administrators were chief cheerleaders for American expansion. Missionaries often justified US economic, cultural, and even military imperialism in terms of bringing “civilization” to “savage,” “backward,” and/or “undeveloped” peoples. New post-WWI think tanks like the Foreign Policy Association and Council on Foreign Relations were fairly explicit in rejecting missionary authority in favor of public diplomacy built upon a foundation of social scientific expertise. As I show, missionary discourses of “civilization” still pervaded the work of the Council on Foreign Relations well into World War II.
ECM: Who were Francis and Helen Miller, and why are they so central to the story you tell?
MTE: This book began as a biography of the Millers, and they remain the “connective tissue” of the broader narrative I crafted. As a pastor’s kid whose brother became a missionary, Francis was steeped in the missionary diplomacy of the nineteenth century. Miller went on to serve as a college YMCA organizer at home and abroad, a private during World War I, a Rhodes scholar, and eventual chairman of the World’s Student Christian Federation, a missionary coordinating organization and forerunner of the World Council of Churches. Miller served a turn in the Virginia House of Delegates before becoming a leading coordinator of interventionist activity and entering World War II as a member of the spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and General Eisenhower’s staff in postwar Germany. Miller unsuccessfully ran for Governor of Virginia in 1949, and Senator in 1952, in an effort break up the conservative Democratic “Byrd Machine” and bring New Deal liberalism to the state. He ended his career in the State Department working on a variety of public diplomacy projects.
Helen, meanwhile, during the 1920s worked in the trade union movement and earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. With Francis, she wrote one of the first American analyses of the rapid Americanization of Western Europe after World War I. Also with Francis, she worked on behalf of the Foreign Policy Association to establish a nationwide network of local, city-based Policy Committees that would bring primarily middle-class representatives together for political deliberation. She, too, was an equal partner with Francis in coordinating interventionist activity, including meetings with British ambassador Lord Lothian, a family friend. Helen went on to become one of the most well-known and respected Washington insider journalists and reporters during the 1950s and 60s. Though she never considered herself a feminist, Helen would write the first report on the Presidential Status of Women commissioned by John F. Kennedy.
Many people helped “draft” Luce’s American Century concept in the years between 1898-1941. The Millers were often working behind the scenes to bring those people into contact with each other. So an examination of this power couple shows both how the public diplomacy of the American Century was made possible and how it remained a contested ideal.
ECM: You stress that the Millers helped to develop a US foreign policy that was at once Protestant and secular, rather than one or the other. Why is that important?
MTE: The main purpose of my book is to introduce “Protestant secularism” to the writing of American history, especially the study of American foreign relations. Protestant secularism is a long-established notion among religious studies scholars but, for this study, I chose to trace Protestant secularism back to its first theorist, the theologian Paul Tillich, who during the 1920s suggested that Western secularism was something that was interdependent and even cooperative with Protestant expressions of Christianity.
Historians normally treat “religion” and “the secular” as separate and antagonistic spheres of experience and/or ideology. That, of course, privileges the political polemics and agendas of both secularists and Christian activists. In fact, secularism and Christianity, as Tillich noted, have often been co-generative and co-constitutional. Faith and Foreign Affairs in the American Century attempts to delineate the rise and fall of a “Protestant secular age” as embodied in several interwar public diplomacy projects. I believe historians need to take secularization seriously but also recognize the Protestant inflections of so much of American secularism. As I conclude, Christianity was at once absent and present, central and marginal, influential and tangential to the long writing of Luce’s American Century.
The Millers literally embodied Protestant secularism in their marriage: Francis remained a devout lifelong Presbyterian while Helen left the church at a young age and eventually embraced atheism. Their book on Americanization reflected the social scientific secularism of the interwar foreign policy establishment all the while suggesting that missionaries stood to profit from American expansion. Their grassroots organizing during the 1930s and 40s similarly reflected and expanded the Protestant secular underpinnings of interwar participatory democracy. In other words, the Millers both shaped and were shaped by Protestant secularism up and through World War II.
ECM: How did the Millers’ vision square with the contemporary calls for participatory democracy?
MTE: The term “participatory democracy” was popularized during the 1960s by activists who thought that America needed more town hall, Stars Hollow (obligatory Gilmore Girls reference) forms of government. Historians have since traced that quest for robust local and deliberative democracies to the Progressive era of 1890-1920 and the work of Jane Addams, John Dewey, and others. They have paid much less attention to the period between 1920-1940, when I suggest participatory democracy enjoyed its golden age. Participatory democratic theories and practices pervaded labor unions, adult education, college curricula, and New Deal agencies, including a federally funded public Forum movement.
The Millers were both schooled in participatory democracy and were among its leading progenitors during the 1930s and 40s. Their Policy Committees were intended to support a bottom-up “due process of policymaking” as an alternative to decisions made by insular, unaccountable federal bureaucrats. Francis’s labor for the Council on Foreign Relations to establish a national movement of local Foreign Relations Committees sought to fulfill Helen’s dream, expressed in her dissertation, of the “democratic control of foreign policy.” Luce’s editorial represented one vision of an American Century of enlightened world leadership. The Millers’ committees represented an alternative American Century, a path never fully traveled.
ECM: In what ways did Protestant secularism lend itself to Christian Nationalism?
MTE: Protestant secularism was always a fragile, unstable mixture of discourses. Ironically, one of its greatest expressions, Luce’s editorial, was published during a time of Christian nationalist renewal. America never was a “Christian nation,” but various groups throughout the country’s history had attempted to make it so in various legal, cultural, and political ways. The World War II and Cold War eras witnessed one of the most aggressive Christian nationalist projects that continues to shape the culture wars today. While evangelicals and other conservative Christians are often remembered as the most ardent Christian nationalists of the twentieth century, in fact it was Christian internationalists like Francis Miller who first took up the Christian nationalist banner as a seeming wartime necessity. Miller ended up arguing that it was the American state, not the world church he had helped build, that was “chosen” by God to bring freedom and order to the planet.
The shift from Protestant secularism to Christian nationalism was evident in one of the other keywords of the American Century: democracy. “Civilization” had started out as a favorite rhetorical tool of missionary imperialists only to end up working for secularist think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations. “Democracy,” meanwhile, began its twentieth-century career within the Protestant secular fold of participatory democrats like Addams, Dewey, and the Millers, only to be co-opted by Christian nationalists like Francis. Democracy was reimagined during the Cold War as an American possession to be exported to others rather than an ever-elusive ideal to aspire to.
ECM: Your final chapter documents the Millers’ push for democracy and civil rights in 1950s Virginia. How did their foreign policy experience inform this domestic campaign?
MTE: When Francis returned from World War II, he and Helen explicitly wanted to bring their internationalist experiences to Virginia. That meant taking on the Byrd Machine and bringing “real democracy” to the state. For Francis, that was a Cold War imperative: How could Americans lead the free world while allowing totalitarian rule within their own shores? Miller ran for Governor and Senator as a New Deal Democrat, pushing for an end to the poll tax, civil service reform, economic and educational development, and expanded rights such as better access to health care.
Both Millers had been involved in Southern interracial and desegregationist circles since the 1930s, and Francis had enjoyed good support from African American voters for his promises to open up more opportunities for Virginia’s Black community. As Virginia became ground zero for resistance to the Brown decision, Francis took a moderate approach. He criticized the ruling for causing disorder yet stood for compliance with it. In several addresses, Miller noted that the world was now watching how the country treated African Americans. To defeat international Communist propaganda that Americans were hypocrites regarding race relations, states like Virginia needed to advance not resist civil rights for its minority populations. Race and racism were historical constructions, the Millers had learned from their extensive world travels, and they could be overcome.
ECM: You close with a few thoughts on the long arch of American diplomacy from Wilson to Trump. Does this history tell us anything about where we’re headed?
MTE: Good question! Wish I had a good answer. I would say that, since World War II, American foreign policy has been characterized by a Wilsonian consensus. “Wilsonianism” defined here as the conviction that it is in America’s best interest to become and remain a great world power. Nevertheless, there have been competing Wilsonianisms. Luce, the Millers, and the Council on Foreign Relations advanced a “realistic Wilsonianism” that pursued empire through a variety of means—military, but also economic, cultural, and diplomatic. A rival “military Wilsonianism,” however, has stressed military solutions to world problems more exclusively.
So is Trump’s “America First” ideology (a xenophobic, isolationist mantra dating back to the 1920s and 1930s) a rejection of Wilsonianism generally, or is it just more military Wilsonianism? One thing is clear: Luce would not recognize Trump’s American Century. We cling to the largest military establishment in the world, including at least 800 military bases globally. Trump seemingly wants to maintain record levels of defense spending while “bringing the troops home.” One of these things is not like the other. Still, the recent humanitarian crisis in Northern Syria enabled by US troop withdrawal highlights how the benefits of US policing/peacekeeping around the world outweigh the costs.