Maya Aronoff is a sophomore in the Woodrow Wilson School, perusing a certificate in the History and Practice of Diplomacy. She is interested in conflict resolution, refugee affairs, and both criminal and international law. Her past coursework has focused on the Middle East and East Asia, but by the time she finishes her undergraduate degree she hopes to have exposure to each region of the world.
Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both had “born-again” experiences which revitalized their devotion to forms of evangelical Christianity, and claimed that this experienced shaped the way that they viewed their role in the White House and the role of the United States in the world. Previous literature has acknowledged the impact of ideology on individual leaders, and both Carter and Bush formulated a cohesive framework for decision-making embedded in religion. In order to compare the impact of their respective “religious ideologies” on decision-making, I examine their respective foreign policies in the Middle East—specifically, Carter’s approach to the Camp David Peace Process and formulation of the Carter Doctrine, and Bush’s intervention in Iraq. In both cases, it is likely that religious ideology was a contributing factor to the ways in which Carter and Bush selected intelligence, listened to advisors, processed information, and perceived policy options. The evangelical Christian belief system held by both Presidents contributed to their shared belief in a universal Good which the United States—and they as its leader—had a responsibility to promote around the world. The revivalist nature of their faith contributed to both their beliefs in the possibility of adversaries changing their attitudes and behaviors in the interests of this Good, but while President Carter’s belief in the ability of individuals to change motivated his initial approach to the Soviet Union and persistence at Camp David, President Bush was quicker to believe regime change was necessary for progress. Crucially, both leaders perceived rejection by adversaries as a highly personal rejection of their “mission”—and by logical extension, the will of God—contributing to hawkish backlash (Carter Doctrine, invasion of Iraq) when adversaries were deemed unwilling to change. While Bush’s perception of foreign policy as a practically cosmic conflict between Good and Evil was not demonstrated by Carter, both Presidents believed in the divine righteousness of their pursuits. With similar moral certainty, both Presidents proved unwilling to compromise or back down—regardless of public opinion or the input of advisors—on issues they deemed to be “holy” causes. This analysis indicates that religious ideology is an important consideration when studying leaders, and has implications for the way in which other leaders with similar religious ideologies or personality traits may be likely to behave.