Dr. Walter McDougall on American Civil Religion and Foreign Policy

Upon meeting Dr. Walter McDougall for the first time you will notice that he immediately puts his audience at ease. Though having many achievements, Dr. McDougall is mild-mannered, unassuming, and a careful listener. His humble composure and intellectual disposition are qualities that make him an excellent professor. He cares about his work and the people around him. If the word “gentleman” still holds value in our society, Dr. McDougall is the epitome of the term—courtesy and humility are his trademarks.

Dr. McDougall is currently Professor of History and Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. He was invited by the Agora Institute to speak at Eastern University on Wednesday, February 15th. The Templeton Honors College also invited him to speak at its weekly Honors Forum on Friday, February 17th. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner who received his bachelor’s from Amherst College, and his master’s and doctorate from the University of Chicago. Dr. McDougall honorably served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict. He has received multiple fellowships and awards, as well as published several books including The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy (2016), and The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985), for which he was awarded the
Pulitzer Prize. His varied life experiences and academic background explain why he is one of the foremost historians in America.

At the Agora lecture, Dr. McDougall spoke on “American Civil Religion: Its problematical relationship with biblical religion and especially its nefarious influence on US Foreign policy in our history.” At Honors Forum he took on a slightly different theme within the same topic by focusing on American Civil Religion and the faith and practice of President Donald Trump.

During his Honors Forum lecture, Dr. McDougall made a compelling case that the notion of “American Civil Religion” (ACR) is a viable way to understand the history of American Foreign Policy. The ACR was defined by sociologist Robert Bellah as a “general belief in a transcendent, spiritual reality guiding the nation through space and time.” The evolution of ACR may be marked by presidential administrations. Dr. McDougall explained, “at least three ACRs, or competing orthodoxies, evolved over time as the nation grew into a world power and various sectors came to dominate its economy’s commanding heights.” Dr. McDougall noted these examples: 1) pre-industrial era: Classical ACR (Washington), 2) industrial revolution era: Progressive ACR (the Roosevelts), and 3) Cold War era: Militant ACR (Reagan).

Bringing this up to date with the Trump presidency, Dr. McDougall first talked about his reaction after the election: In a November blog post he had proposed that the Trump presidency would just be the last “hoorah” of Progressive or Classical ACR, which was already in the process of being replaced by Global ACR. After watching the Trump inauguration (which preached elements of traditional ACR), and after living through the first few months of the Trump presidency, Dr. McDougall concluded that the future could be very different from the one he had proposed in November. He stated, “The pretense of global civil religion as defined by globalization, open borders, multi-culturalism, political correctness, and too often apostasy may well be challenged by some form of resurgent American Civil Religion, with unpredictable consequences for church and state.” Dr. McDougall makes an astute observation that a great percentage of the American people felt threatened by elites who sought to change the very essence of traditional Americanism in the name of globalization and political correctness, which brought about the Trump phenomenon. However, will this movement outlive the Trump presidency? Or, was Dr. McDougall correct in his November observation that this would be the death knell of Progressive/Classical ACR? The answers to these questions are dependent upon the Trump administration’s ability or inability to generate economic prosperity and to keep campaign promises. Thus, the future for the next generation of America hinges on the events of the coming months.

On behalf of Eastern University, I thank Dr. McDougall for the time he took to discuss American Civil Religion and the Trump presidency.

Russell Risden (’17) is a Templeton Scholar studying Political Science and European History. He is also a Cadet in Air Force ROTC. 

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