Social Science Research Council Research AMP Mediawell

Woodrow Wilson and the Spirit of Liberal Internationalism

Menchik, Jeremy,
Politics, Religion & Ideology

Woodrow Wilson is among most influential presidents in U.S. foreign policy history, and the most pious. The challenge for scholars is joining Wilson’s faith and his foreign policies. What was the role of religion in Wilson’s worldview? What is the place of religion in Wilsonianism? This article uses original archival sources and a synthesis of historical research to intervene in IR theory, demonstrating that Wilsonianism is a product of Wilson’s specifically Southern Presbyterian upbringing, his admiration for other Christian idealists, and the influence of the budding movement of the Social Gospel. This finding raises a historiographic puzzle: why did late twentieth century IR scholars erase religion from theories of liberal internationalism? The article suggests Wilson’s religion has been erased as part of the broader project of desacralizing and universalizing liberal internationalism. Wilson’s worldview was a mirror for the kind of social and political order he witnessed and propagated in America, a Janus-faced spirit of universalism and exceptionalism, internationalism and parochialism, that continues to motivate the liberal internationalist project. Unearthing the Protestant origins of Wilsonianism helps us to explicate the missionary spirit driving the liberal internationalist project.