Review: A Peaceful Conquest

Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College.

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Randall Balmer, "Review: A Peaceful Conquest," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Cara Lea Burnidge. A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 232 pp. ISBN 9780226232317

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In recent decades, the field of religion and diplomacy, or religion and foreign policy, has emerged as a new frontier in the historiography of religion in North America. Much of that scholarship has been credible; others, not so much. Happily, Cara Lea Burnidge’s book on Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy fits snugly into the former category.

A reader looking for deep insight into Wilson’s early life or even his brief political career before the White House will come away disappointed. Others, most recently Barry Hankins, have covered that territory. Burnidge does establish that Wilson’s family of Southern Presbyterians understood slavery as part of a godly order and “that white male leadership was at the heart of God’s design” (14). Wilson, who claimed utter certainty about his religious convictions, embraced the social gospel and the postmillennial mandate to regenerate society, which brought Protestantism outside the walls of the churches. For Wilson, Burnidge writes, “Progress was not defined as dismantling barriers between social distinctions like race, class, or gender but rather through aligning those distinctions under proper Christian leadership” (30).

Burnidge dispatches with Wilson’s term as governor of New Jersey in little more than a paragraph (“New Jersey” doesn’t even make it into the index). Instead, her focus is on how Wilson translated his ideas about godly order and American exceptionalism into foreign policy. As for Wilson’s initial resistance to the United States’ entry into World War I, Burnidge attributes this more to strategy than principle. He wanted to position the nation ultimately to benefit from the war. In the author’s words, “Wilson conceived of neutrality as a means of peacemaking, not pacifism” (65).

With his 1916 reelection behind him(“He kept us out of war!”)Wilson was free to pursue his international ambitions of a new world order. As the war drew to a close, Wilson positioned himself as the architect of the peace, somewhat to the dismay of allies. Burnidge reads his Fourteen Points as “a mounting crescendo in the global application of the social gospel” (83).

The rest of the story is familiar, a cautionary tale of presidential overreach. Wilson insisted on being his own emissary at the Paris Peace Conference, inevitably neglecting political fences at home. His Covenant of the League of Nations (and “covenant” is an important word for Presbyterians) opted for “a nonsectarian league implicitly built upon Christian principles over a league that explicitly named Christianity as its sectarian moral and legal foundation” (94).

The Senate, however, was not buying it. Wilson returned to a Congress, and a nation, deeply skeptical of the League of Nations. Here Burnidge offers a new understanding of the divide in Protestantism, which she suggests was greater than the internationalist-isolationist divide in the Senate: “The fulcrum on which the covenant’s ratification rested—whether or not the United States should engage fully with the world or remain isolated from it—also held in the balance internal evangelical debates about whether or not Christians should be ‘of’ the world or live ‘in’ yet isolated from it” (108). Liberal Protestant clergy supported the League where as more theologically conservative evangelicals did not.

Wilson’s national whistle-stop tour to rally support for ratification proved to be his undoing. He suffered a stroke on October 1, 1919, which debilitated him for the rest of his presidency, and his life. His vision of Christian progress and American exceptionalism would meet  defeat at the hands of Republicans in the Senate as well as the fundamentalists. Wilson’s aspirations to run again for president were rendered moot by his death on February 3, 1924, although his ideas came to be seen by many as prescient as the world careened toward a second world war.

Burnidge’s significant contribution here is seeing the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s in a new light. “As Wilson’s presidency came to an end, the white Protestant moral establishment experienced its own Great War,” she writes. “Rather than designating an adherence to a set of fixed, ahistorical doctrines or a coherent organized body of believers, describing oneself or others as ‘evangelical’ was a way to identify a relationship among other American Protestants. In the political climate of 1920, premillennialism and antiliberalism became new markers for belonging to American evangelicalism” (132).

With deft analysis and impressive command of her sources, Burnidge provides a new perspective not only on Wilson’s foreign policy but on the changes convulsing American Protestantism in the early decades of the twentieth century.