Cara Burnidge is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Northern Iowa. This interview is based on her new book, A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write A Peaceful Conquest?
CB: A Peaceful Conquest is the result of me thinking about the American social gospel movement as both intimately connected to Christian ideas of proper governance, particularly American democracy, and as an example of American religious movements responding to their global context.
As a graduate student, my primary research area was on the work of white social gospel ministers and the women of the settlement house movement. I knew from the primary sources that these themes were present, but when it came time to write a proposal for my dissertation, I had a hard time finding a hook that could make this project make sense without being the cliche of a PhD candidate who couldn’t speak succinctly about their own research. While sharing this conundrum in a meeting with a mentor, she asked simply “What about Woodrow Wilson? Have you thought about him?” I hadn’t. I didn’t consider myself a presidential historian and, to be honest, the vantage point of suffragists colored what limited considerations of Wilson I had had at that time. To be fair and start with the most obvious intersection between “on the ground” reformers and politicians, I began reading the The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the most recent biography of Wilson at the time. I hoped to find a connection that would show that local and regional social gospel efforts made an impact beyond domestic policy concerns. Rather than a connection I could point to then move on, I found a treasure trove of of memos, letters, telegrams, speeches, and policy conversations that demonstrated the pervasive influence of social gospel thought in American foreign relations. The combination of primary and secondary sources convinced me that I had a different perspective to contribute to the existing historical conversation about Wilsonian liberal internationalism and American religion in this era based on my understanding of the social gospel movement.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Peaceful Conquest?
CB: I argue Woodrow Wilson’s religious identity, shaped by both southern evangelicalism and social Christianity, influenced his liberal internationalism and its legacies for American religion and politics in the twentieth century.
JF: Why do we need to read A Peaceful Conquest?
CB: It should come as no surprise that I am not the first person to write about President Wilson and that others have written great works examining the role of religion in Wilson’s presidency. In fact, Wilson is often the go-to example of a president whose religion “mattered.” What makes A Peaceful Conquest different from these works is its intentional placement of Wilson in the greater American religious landscape and its reconsideration of how we think of presidents and their religious identity. Methodologically, I consider Wilson’s religious identity as I would any other historical figure—intersectional. Race, class, gender, and religion are not separate “lenses” to clarify or frame figures, but constitutive parts that must be held together to understand the whole person and their historical context. Some readers may find this approach helpful for understanding recent public conversations about Wilson’s legacy. It also allows scholars to place Wilson in historical perspective as Americans think (and rethink) the place of white evangelicalism in American identity and the role of America in the world.
A Peaceful Conquest should be added to your reading list if you want to know more about how American religion shaped international politics; if you’re interested in how religious identity does (and does not) shape presidents and their policies; if you’d like to think about the peculiar ways religion is both present and absent from American democracy; if you’re wondering how the social gospel could have been central to American culture yet seemed to disappear after World War I; and if you’re wondering how or why the so-called “God gap” became central to the Democratic Party’s identity.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CB: As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having professors and mentors who treated me and other history majors as their equals. The History professors at Washburn University impressed upon us that history is a conversation among historians and they treated us as members of the guild well before we earned our credentials. Those conversations—arguments, debates, and more than one pontification on how history can save the world—convinced me that I was an American historian. More good fortune, generous mentors, and hard work helped me get to the position I am in now.
JF: What is your next project?
CB: My next project examines the King-Crane diplomatic mission, which surveyed residents of mandated territories of Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan to determine who they preferred to oversee their development toward democracy. I am considering how the State Department approached the role of residents’ religion and race in its commitments to advancing national self-determination and democracy in the Middle East.
JF: Thanks, Cara! Sounds like some good stuff.