Andrew Preston makes some very dubious claims about religion and U.S. foreign policy:
Religion is instead a shared value, a bipartisan outlook common to most Americans throughout their history, and it has been at the heart of U.S. foreign policy for centuries. George Washington began the tradition of promoting peace and democracy through religious liberty, and even impious presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison continued it.
This is all quite vague, but I think it is fair to say that “promoting peace and democracy through religious liberty” has not been a major part of the foreign policy of the United States for most of American history. American politicians have employed religious rhetoric over the centuries, and it is usually as vague, non-committal, and universalistic as possible. There certainly is a tradition of confusing American nationalism with religion, and there is a tradition of making Americanism into a pseudo-religion to which people are supposed to subordinate the obligations of their faith. This is what would be better described as idolatry or hubris.
Asking why U.S. foreign policy is “so moralistic” is to pursue a different investigation. Moralizing in foreign policy doesn’t prove that religion is “at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.” On the contrary, the willingness of many Christians, among others, to contort and reinterpret the teachings of their religion to conform with contemporary U.S. policies suggests that American religious culture may more often be shaped by its contemporary political and policy debates than it shapes them. Generic religious rhetoric and the moralizing tendency in foreign policy debates may lure some believers into confusing certain policies (such as democracy promotion) with their own religions’ imperatives, and some groups of believers do seek to influence U.S. foreign policy for what are ultimately reasons of religious sympathy, but they typically express their arguments in secular terms. It doesn’t help Preston’s case much that one of the main example he cites as proof for his thesis is the limited, relatively unimportant passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Why, unusually among the diplomats of the world, do American foreign policymakers appeal to ideals and values, such as the promotion of human rights and democracy, when the leaders of other nations do not?
Of course, it’s simply not the case that policymakers in other countries don’t appeal to ideals and values. Preston is treating “ideals and values” as being inseparable from his catch-all category of “religion,” when the two sometimes don’t have much to do with one another. There are obvious examples of appeals to “ideals and values” by policymakers from other Western, less religiously observant nations, and to some extent “the promotion of human rights and democracy” functions as a sort of secular political substitute for religious commitments. As European societies have become post-Christian, their political classes have increasingly adopted and employed “values” rhetoric. They have done this partly to provide some ideological substance to the European project, and “values” rhetoric is also well-suited to European governments that tend to emphasize soft power in conducting foreign relations. Preston’s language is so vague and all-inclusive that it becomes almost meaningless. Policymakers in most, if not all, governments appeal to “ideals and values,” but these may be ideals and values that many Westerners don’t share or respect.