Saturday, November 29, 2008

Review: What the World Should Be by Malcolm D. Magee

What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy
by Malcolm D. Magee
Baylor University Press, 2008.

What is the impact of an individual's faith on public policy and the governance of a nation? Our modernist prejudices can cause us to underestimate the role of religion in our leaders. We tend to think that religion is at best an extra, a private motivation for pursuing or eschewing policies rooted in commonly held values; or, at worst a cynical move directed at selling these same values to a superstitious populace.

In his book, What the World Should Be, Malcolm Magee examines the religious beliefs of President Woodrow Wilson and demonstrates the pervasive affect that these beliefs had on Wilson's view of the world as it is and should be, how Wilson faced challenges in the political realm, and how these beliefs played out in history. John Maynard Keynes, the English economist and contemporary of Wilson wrote that:

"The President was like a nonconformist minister, perhaps a Presbyterian. His thought and his temperament were essentially theological not intellectual, with all the strength and the weakness of that manner of thought, feeling, and expression" (The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1920).

Taking this claim of Keynes seriously, Magee examines in detail the distinct Princeton Presbyterian tradition that Wilson inherited and Wilson's own substantial theological writings.

Magee's approach limits itself to Wilson's foreign policy, from the US's intervention in Veracruz, Mexico, through World War I, and culminating in the negotiations for the League of Nations. Wilson's policies led time and again to disappointment: like a Greek tragedy in which the protagonist never recognizes his tragic flaw. For Magee, this flaw is lack of personal humility, but to me it seems that Wilson's theology isolated him even from co-religionists and made it difficult to learn from experience and from others. Magee describes the key ideas of the theology in a clear and concise way for a non-specialist reader. He demonstrates lucidly how this theology pervades Wilson's policies. With this information, the reader is in a good place to evaluate the intersection of the political, the theological, and the personal.

The ancillary materials include "Christ's Army": A Religious Essay by Woodrow Wilson from 1876, Wilson's "Fourteen Points" Address to Congress, The Covenant of the League of Nations. and the 1876 Inaugural Address of Wilson's father, the Rev. Joseph R. Wilson, DD Delivered before the Board of Directors of the Southwestern Presbyterian University. These documents display a consistent theological point of view, well supporting Magee's thesis of the influence of Wilson's theology on his foreign policy.

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