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Review by Francis P. Sempa

Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. New York: Anchor Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4000-7858-5.  815 pp., $37.50 hardcover, $18.00 trade paperback.

In the introduction to this very ambitious book, the author, Andrew Preston, who teaches American history and international relations at Cambridge University, describes his work as “a new survey of the history of American foreign relations, told predominantly through a religious lens.” It is, he writes, “a study of how religion shaped America’s engagement with the wider world.” Preston does not claim that religion has been the predominant influence on U.S. foreign policy or that it has always determined the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, he contends that religion has influenced policymakers and policies throughout American history and thereby contributed to shaping America’s approach to the world.

Preston combines historical narrative with examinations of the personal religious beliefs of Presidents and other important American statesmen, the use of religious-inspired rhetoric to explain and justify foreign policies, and the role of clergy, religious groups, and prominent religious individuals in promoting and debating international issues. His narrative stretches from the colonial period to the present, with emphasis on America’s wars: colonial wars against Native Americans and France; the War of Independence; the War of 1812; the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; World War I; World War II; the Cold War, including Vietnam; and the War on Terror. His approach and treatment of the role of religion in shaping attitudes during these conflicts is mostly balanced and judicious. His focus on religion’s role in policymaking, however, tends to downplay other, arguably more important, factors that influenced and shaped U.S. policies.

The influence of Protestantism in the colonial period is undeniable.  “English Protestants,” writes Preston, “saw themselves as a chosen people destined to preserve their liberties by cultivating a new England overseas.” Richard Hakluyt, who Preston calls “England’s leading intellectual architect of colonial expansion,” combined geopolitics with spirituality in promoting overseas expansion of territory and faith. Wars with native populations for control of territory, such as the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, were often viewed or justified as righteous struggles of good against evil, and, according to Preston, “left a permanent imprint on colonial American identity.”

During the late 17th century and throughout much of the 18th century, England fought a series of wars with France for control of the North American continent. These wars coincided with an intercolonial religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Once again the struggle for territory took on religious overtones. Protestant England defeated Catholic France and her “heathen” Indian allies. Imperialism, it seemed, was sanctioned by God.

Preston claims that religion played a central role in the outbreak and course of the American Revolution.  It is true that many of the Founders were religious and religious liberty was important to their worldview, but the causes of the American Revolution were fundamentally political and economic. The colonists had largely been left alone by England to govern themselves for many decades. When Parliament sought to tax the colonists to help pay for the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War in North America), many colonists resisted, resulting in repressive measures by England which produced further resistance and the move toward independence. Religion played very little role in any of this.

This theme of religion playing a central role in policymaking continues throughout Preston’s whole narrative through the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam and the War on Terror. In general, the author discusses a particular war or foreign policy issue, notes the religious beliefs of American statesmen at the time, details the religious attitudes of prominent observers, clergymen and religious groups concerning the particular aspect of U.S. foreign policy, then claims that religion had a role in shaping that policy. This is true, but only in the very limited sense that the religious beliefs of a statesman in a democracy contribute to his or her worldview.  That does not mean that American statesmen have conducted foreign policies based on their religious beliefs, or that those religious beliefs had any significant role in shaping the nation’s foreign policy.

To be fair, Preston acknowledges that “presidents and diplomats . . . usually prioritize national interests ahead of national ideals,” but in the end Preston claims too much for religion at the policymaking level. American foreign policy from Washington’s Farewell Address to President Obama’s “war on terror,” though not always wise or prudent, has mostly been based on a pragmatic appreciation of U.S. national security and economic interests. Preston characterizes several American wars as “crusades,” but U.S. policymakers, rhetoric aside, have largely avoided crusades in favor of realism. It was not George Washington’s religious beliefs that guided his policy of neutrality between Britain and France; it was his keen appreciation of America’s weakness and unpreparedness for war. It was not Lincoln’s religion that led him to wage total war against the Confederacy; it was his oath to preserve the Union. It was not Wilson’s religious beliefs that brought the United States into the First World War; it was Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was not Franklin Roosevelt’s religion that led him to wage a global war against Hitlerism and Japan; it was Pearl Harbor and Nazi aggression. It was not Harry Truman’s or George F. Kennan’s or John Foster Dulles’ religion that produced the policy of containment; it was Soviet encroachments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It was not Senator Henry M. Jackson’s religious beliefs that made him oppose detente with the Soviet Union; it was Soviet efforts to achieve nuclear superiority and its geopolitical offensive in the 1970s. In other words, it was geopolitics, not religion, that largely shaped U.S. foreign policy.

In instances where U.S. statesmen have departed from realism, they have usually  done so based on the idealistic “civil religion” of spreading democracy and righting the world’s wrongs: President Wilson’s insistence on national self-determination and his hopes for a League of Nations; FDR’s antipathy towards British imperialism and his dream of a peaceful world order under the guidance of the United Nations; Jimmy Carter’s promotion of human rights in countries ruled by friendly authoritarian regimes; and George W. Bush’s efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world.

Preston is on firmer ground is discussing and cataloguing the efforts of religious groups, prominent clergymen, and others to influence American foreign policy. He details those efforts in encyclopedic fashion: from John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield in the colonial era; to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Morse, John O’Sullivan, and William Lloyd Garrison in the early-to-mid 19th century; to Alfred Thayer Mahan, William Jennings Bryan, Josiah Strong, Reverend Henry Sloane Coffin, Jane Addams, and James Cardinal Gibbons in the late 19th century-early 20th century; to Reinhold Niebuhr, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Sherwood Eddy, the Federal Council of Churches in the 1920s, 30s and 40s; to Cardinal Francis Spellman, Bishop Fulton Sheen, the National Council of Churches, Norman Vincent Peale, Martin Luther King, Jr., Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, William Sloane Coffin, Billy Graham, and many others during the Cold War.

Preston’s story of the interaction between popular religious groups and elites about U.S. foreign policy is the most informative part of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith. Throughout American history, he writes, “[r]eligious communities and elites spoke to each other in a continual effort to try to convince one another of what should be done in U.S. foreign policy. The religious influence . . . was the product of this continual dialogue.” That dialogue included Christian pacifists protesting our entry into the First World War; Christian realists supporting our entry into the Second World War and later opposing the war in Vietnam; Catholic bishops proposing nuclear disarmament; Jewish-Americans and Christian fundamentalists lobbying for aid to Israel; and Christian conservatives opposing detente with the Soviet Union and diplomatic recognition of Communist China. Religious leaders and organizations could be found on both sides of every foreign policy issue or debate. Preston chronicles all of this in a very readable and interesting manner.

Americans in general are a religious people. Efforts to remove religion from the public square have not and will not be successful. Preston’s book is an important reminder that Americans with strong religious beliefs have frequently been policymakers and have always sought to influence how the nation interacts with the world. “Those who conduct U.S. foreign policy,” Preston concludes, “ignore [religion] at their peril.”End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War (2011), America’s Global Role (2009), and Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (2002). He is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (2012), and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Strategic Review, and the Washington Times. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.

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