What They Learned: Sonia Schmidt ’21

The religion major analyzed Christianity’s influence in U.S. politicians’ justifications for war.

While there is no official religion in the United States, religion still influences most areas of life, including politics. Sonia Schmidt’s religion thesis explored the use Christian rhetoric in American politicians’ speeches about war.

She found that the use of this rhetoric to justify military intervention abroad evolved over time.  For example, President McKinley justified military intervention in the Philippines by arguing that they could convert the people to Christian, democratic, “Western” values, but more recent politicians like President George W. Bush argued they could convert the population to support human rights.

“In my thesis I do, however, deconstruct the lineage of human rights in order to show its theoretical links to Christian ideas as well,” she said. “In this way, even though President Bush did not call for conversion to Christianity by name, Christianity and its ideas still undoubtedly influenced how more contemporary presidents justify war.”

Her research identified three themes that emerge from Christian ideas: conversation through loving violence, the dignity of humans, and a dichotomy of good and evil. Then she searched for these themes in the rhetoric of presidents and politicians. Future students or academics could use the three themes she identified to analyze how Christian logic is used in foreign policy speeches and writings.  

Schmidt, a religion major with a Bryn Mawr political science minor and a concentration in peace, justice, and human rights, will attend George Washington University Law School this fall. Her thesis research encouraged her to focus on international and comparative law there. 

What inspired your thesis work?

I was inspired to write about Christian rhetoric in justifications for wars, firstly, because of my interdisciplinary studies. I wanted to find a way to combine my interests in religion, political science, and peace, justice and human rights … I also wanted to understand, more broadly, how the United States has justified wars, particularly wars with the articulated intention of helping or saving the population which the United States invaded. My mother’s family immigrated relatively recently from Ukraine, and so my childhood was full of stories about the domineering force that was the USSR and how their ideas were treated as universally good. Wars were fought over that supposed universality. So then, when I discovered that the United States, the country which was supposed to be the beacon of freedom for my family, was enacting domineering violence in other places, with calls for the universalization of a certain set of values, I had to find out more.

What is the most surprising thing you learned about your topic?

The most surprising thing I learned was from a book recommended to me by my thesis advisor, Molly Farneth. She suggested I read Holy Terrors by Bruce Lincoln, and it was a fascinating read. Parts of his ideas were integrated into my thesis. He isolates several times where President [George W.] Bush used coded language to signal to his evangelical base when discussing the war in Afghanistan. While I knew that the former president had often cited the Bible during speeches, it had seemed more ceremonial than it did substantial to me. However, Lincoln pointed to the many moments that he used language similar enough to the Bible that for his evangelical base, the phrases would be familiar and hold some rhetorical weight, but to the untrained eye, they might just seem like dramatic turns of phrase.

“What They Learned”is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.