Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy

Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist
William Steding
Palgrave Macmillan  304pp  £66

The author's initial impetus for this book was to understand the role George W. Bush's religious beliefs played in his foreign policy decisions. However, soon realising that too many documents relevant to that exploration were still classified, he turned his attention to two presidents whose papers were available, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, hoping to unravel their beliefs in divine purpose and what connection there was between their notion of God and the style and conduct of their international policy.

Steding is surely right to emphasise the importance of understanding the mindset a president brings to the momentous foreign policy decisions that are unavoidable for the occupant of the White House. Traces of the book's origins in a doctoral thesis are evident, such as calling these mindsets 'cognetic narratives' or 'cognetics'. Such jargon aside, the author succeeds in illuminating the way the presidents looked at the world. He makes the valid point that even historians who are interested in the values and beliefs of leaders tend to pass lightly over their religious convictions – clearly a mistake with Jimmy Carter and, perhaps less obviously, with Ronald Reagan.

Carter, a born-again Christian, was a Bible-class teacher and ardent church-goer. Influenced by the 'Christian realism' of Reinhold Niebuhr, he was prepared to take a tough line with the Soviet Union. His religious beliefs, however, informed his emphasis on human rights, which he applied not only as a propaganda tool against Communism but to authoritarian (but pro-American) regimes in Latin America. Previous American presidents (as well as his successor, Reagan) tended to adopt a double standard when it came to right-wing authoritarians: 'He may be a bastard, but he's our bastard.'

Carter's Christianity underlay his stress on both peace and justice, especially his efforts in the Middle East, an area which had special significance for him, as he had been 'steeped in the Bible since early childhood'.  Steding points out that Carter invested more political capital in the effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together than could be explained by political advantage. Indeed, although he was committed to the preservation of Israel, his advocacy of a homeland for Palestinians did him more harm than good domestically. He had at least a partial success in his effort to 'save the Holy Lands from violence and destruction' – the Camp David Accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt.

Reagan's religious beliefs were more inchoate than Carter's. His mother made sure that he had a Christian church-going childhood, but in adulthood his contacts with men of the cloth were sporadic and owed something to political expediency. When in the early years of his presidency he was attacked by Catholic bishops for his military build-up and obduracy, he sent for the cavalry in the shape of conservative evangelists who could be relied upon to take a hard line against godless Communism. His famous description of the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire' came in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983.

However, Reagan's frequent invocation of God was not merely a rhetorical device. He really believed, especially after he recovered from the assassination attempt. He decided that God had saved him for a purpose. He also believed in Armageddon – fortunately, not in a fatalistic way. Rather, it was his mission to avoid or, at any rate, postpone it. Thus, his puzzling faith in the likely efficacy of SDI (an anti-ballistic missile system), which made agreement with the Soviet Union more difficult, went along with the belief that actual nuclear war would mean Armageddon.

On the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Reagan found a partner, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was even more committed to ending the Cold War than he was. Carter was less fortunate. His presidency wholly coincided with the conservative Communist gerontocracy led by Leonid Brezhnev. Reagan, after overlapping with three Soviet leaders with whom progress was zero, was lucky with his fourth – and he rode his luck.

Archie Brown is author of The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Vintage, 2015).  

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