60-Second Expert: Religion and Empire

American foreign policy is built on a deep foundation of Christian theology. Drawing from the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr, which applied the notion of original sin to the conduct of foreign relations, neoconservative thinkers believe that organized religion is the most effective institution in promoting moral absolutes and self-control and staving off a rising tide of moral relativism that is breaking down the bulwarks of social order.

Inspired by this neoconservative philosophy, the Bush administration ranks the world’s nations according to a moral hierarchy with irrational, sinful enemies at the bottom and the United States at the top in a class by itself because its national motives are somehow untainted by original sin. This myth of U.S. moral and global supremacy went largely unchallenged until the U.S. venture in Iraq went sour. The critics of this venture now fall into three categories. A bipartisan elite challenges the administration’s tactics, but not its goals. Critics on the right complain that the neoconservatives betrayed Niebhur’s realism by failing to recognize the original sin of the United States and the limits of American power. And the left has taken issue with the administration’s unilateralism, arguing that America’s role in the world should be characterized not by strength and dominance, but by sharing and cooperation.

An alternative to the original-sin approach to foreign policy also relies on the value of moral certainty, but rooted in the goodness of non-violence. Our goal would always be to move the world one step closer to becoming the universal beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr. described. We would no longer act out the myth of good versus evil. We would not demonize a bin Laden or Saddam — or a Bush or Cheney. We would recognize that when people do bad things, their actions grow out of a global network of forces that we ourselves have helped to create. King said it most eloquently: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

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Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the author of Monsters to Destroy, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. For more articles in FPIF’s Religion and Foreign Policy focus, please visit www.fpif.org.