The United States has always been a nation, in which religion has played an important role. The relationship between religion and internal American politics has long been a subject of interest for many scholars, but how did the religion influence US foreign policy? What role did it play in the decisions of US presidents whether their country should or should not go to war and how did the relationship between the American foreign policy and religion changed over time? The aim of Andrew Preston’s book – Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith is to take a closer look at these questions.
“Religion, by teaching man his relationship to God, gives the individual a sense of his own dignity and teaches him to respect himself by respecting his neighbors.
Democracy, the practice of self-government, is a covenant among free men to respect the rights and liberties of their fellows.
International good faith, a sister of democracy, springs from the will of civilized nations of men to respect the rights and liberties of other nations of men.
In a modern civilization, all three – religion, democracy and international good faith complement and support each other.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Religious arguments have been used by both sides in the debate about slavery, during the prohibition, in the civil rights movement and are still widely used for example in dealing with the matters of social justice or gun rights issues. The close relationship between religion and politics in the US is in itself not a surprising fact. Even though most of the founding fathers were largely indifferent to religion, the American people were not. Tenets of the majority’s protestant faith such as strict work ethics, decentralization of authority and the sense of predetermination and exceptionalism overwhelmingly influenced what is now considered “American”. However, over time, the US has become the multi-religious society we know today. Therefore not only Protestants, but also Catholics, Jews and members of other religions have left noticeable marks on the nature of American foreign policy. According to Preston, influence of religious faith on the US foreign policy has not always been strong or consistent. In time it has ebbed and flowed, but it has always been there.
Religion is a sensitive topic, which is hard to write about. Especially nowadays, when the intensive debate about the social impacts of religion between the religious and the New atheists is underway, people are expected to take a firm stand on the issue. It’s therefore refreshing to read Preston’s book, clearly written as objectively as possible. Both defenders and opponents of faith will probably use this book in their arguments, but it is very hard to imagine that Preston wants to take sides in this debate. His aim is to spread knowledge through informing, not preaching or enlightening.
Without the notes section, the book itself has more than six hundred pages and is divided into eight chapters and an epilogue. The author takes reader on a comprehensive tour about historical influences and roles of religion in US foreign politics of war and peace. Book starts with the colonial era by explaining the “protestant roots” of America and then it proceeds to reveal religious influence on decision making and dynamics of American foreign policy through the centuries. The role of religion in all major wars, events and processes of American history is, of course, thoroughly examined, but Preston also pays considerable attention to lesser known issues like the influence of Christian missionaries on US imperialism, American stance on anti-Jewish pogroms in Russian empire or the problematic relationship between the US and the Holy See just to name a few. Extensive parts of the book are also devoted to description of personal faiths of the most important personalities of the US political history. Many readers will probably be surprised to learn about the simple Christian faith of F. D. Roosevelt, deeply religious convictions of George Kennan or the realistic but socialist theology of Reinhold Niebuhr.
In his writing, Preston uses imaginative religious symbolism, especially when he gives explicit religious labels to wars and political personalities. For example Wars that have been justified predominantly on moral grounds like the Spanish-American War or the World Wars are identified as crusades. The revolution of the sixties and the spread of conservative evangelicalism in 70’s and 80’s are labeled as reformation and counterreformation. Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Dulles are high priests of the Cold War etc.
It is hard to not praise this book. I found it informative, enlightening and more than interesting to read. It seems that with his detailed approach, Preston does not leave any stone unturned. Due to its length, factual richness and emphasis on detail, reading the book can sometimes be exhausting. There are of course parts when the reader will question the accuracy of Preston’s claims. The sincerity of McKinley’s or Nixon’s personal faith can be such moments. It should be also noted that in order to read through the whole book it would help to possess at least intermediate knowledge of American politics and of course also religion. On the other hand, Preston makes an effort to explain the background even to those who are less familiar with these issues. Overall, I have no other option than to recommend this thought-provoking work. It raises many questions and it will probably serve as a springboard for other scholars who want to dig deeper into this interesting and important topic.
Preston, Andrew (2012): Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. New York – Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.