This book analyzes Christian clergymen’s transition from isolationism and pacifism to ardent support for the Spanish-American War in 1898. Religious leaders moved away from “exemplarist” models of foreign policy, in which the United States redeemed the world by example, toward a “messianic interventionism” wherein Americans had a religious duty and destiny to help suffering people across the globe (p. 5). Organized in chronological chapters, the book relies on sermons and religious publications by mostly white Protestant clergy and focuses on the ideology they articulated throughout 1898.
In his introduction, McCullough lays out the book’s main argument: in order to understand Woodrow Wilson’s policy of humanitarian intervention in the early twentieth century, historians must take into account its origins in religious leaders’ justifications for the earlier, and understudied, war with Spain. Citing many religious leaders’ fixation on domestic concerns in the decades prior to the Spanish-American [End Page 764] War, McCullough claims that 1898 marked a dramatic departure in clergymen’s perspectives on foreign policy. He also details the particular arguments clergy made for entering the war, including biblical references to the Good Samaritan and Christ’s redemptive suffering and death. Clergy argued that Americans’ benevolent and selfless intervention saved Cubans from brutal Spanish imperialism. They also interpreted quick and decisive victories as evidence of God’s providential plan for America. McCullough traces new permutations in the ideology of messianic interventionism as religious leaders such as Josiah Strong made “Anglo-Saxonist” arguments for ongoing American rule of newly freed territories, and other clergy extended arguments about duty and destiny to include not only liberating island residents but also ruling over them. McCullough ends the book with reflections on American violence against Filipino insurgents, what he calls the “tragic irony” of the nation’s newly interventionist policies (p. 130).
The book’s strength lies in its careful reading of sermonic literature and religious periodicals that spoke to the war and the issues it raised. Although many of McCullough’s sources are white Protestant leaders, he also included some Roman Catholic and African American leaders. His analysis certainly offers the most focused study we have of clergy responses to the Spanish-American War.
At the same time, this tight focus on clergymen’s words and the emerging consensus about the war also limits the study’s significance. The transition in policy approach and justifications for it are important to highlight but leave many questions unanswered that a more in-depth study would have taken up. For instance, can we assume that words published in periodicals or proclaimed in sermons represent consensus? Critical readers of these sources should assume that these persuasive forms were necessary because opinions varied so much. Further, what have we gained if we know ideology but not its effects? Admittedly, it can be hard to trace the relationship between ideology and action, but it is not impossible. Did these leaders lobby Congress or the president? Did they found organizations aimed at [End Page 765] affecting American response? Did their words prompt more support for mission efforts in the newly acquired territories? In sum, why was this ideology important?
In the end, McCullough’s very focused book is best read in combination with two other studies that place religious responses to the Spanish-American War in wider context: Edward Blum’s last chapter of Reforging the White Republic (2005) and Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (2012). The significance of McCullough’s historical actors can be more fully understood in light of Blum’s work on the Reconstruction-era white supremacy that fueled debates over intervention in Cuba and Preston’s effort to understand emerging arguments about humanitarian intervention during and after the Civil War.
JENNIFER GRABER is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America (2011) and is currently working on a book on religion...