By Nuechterlein, James
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 229
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy
BY ANDREW VRESTON
KNOPF, 832 PAGES, $37.50
America, G. K. Chesterton famously observed, is "a nation with the soul of a church." In his masterfui new survey Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, Cambridge historian Andrew Preston demonstrates that the influence of religion in American life has been as pervasive in diplomacy and warfare as it has been in domestic politics and culture.
Preston's approach to his subject is disinterested and evenhanded. He avoids judgment on the wisdom or morality of American foreign policy and offers no evaluation as to whether the influence of religion in shaping that policy has been a salutary one. His analytical assessments are acute and provocative, but he displays no ideological bias in laying them out or, indeed, any indication of his own religious or political inclinations. It's refreshing to encounter such an admirably old-fashioned exercise in objective historical analysis--and all the more so to see it brought off with such intelligence, sophistication, and grace.
The scheme of the book is at once ambitious and restrained. It provides a comprehensive and exhaustively researched account of the shaping influence of religion on foreign affairs from the nation's colonial origins through the presidency of Ronald Reagan (a hurried and hopelessly condensed concluding chapter--one suspects a publisher's influence-dashes from Bush the elder to Barack Obama in fewer than fifteen pages), but it imposes no dominant theme on that account. It highlights recurring motifs in the conduct of foreign policy but is everywhere sensitive to complexity, nuance, and ambiguity.
It is religion's ubiquitous influence on foreign relations, Preston suggests, that explains why America's foreign policy has so often taken on the "tenor of a moral crusade." But if religion has served as the primary source of the tendency to idealism in foreign relations, he notes, it has not been univocal in its effects. Its presence can be felt in justificatory themes of American forcefulness--providence, manifest destiny, the New Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill--but it also has been the fount of contrary impulses toward pacifism, anti-imperialism, anti-interventionism, and internationalism.
Indeed, critics of American policy have been as quick as its defenders to rest their arguments on religious grounds. Preston argues not that religion has determined American foreign policy--that, he concedes, would claim too much--but that, in diplomacy as elsewhere, it has been a taken-for-granted part of the language of politics.
The most obvious reason why religion has counted in foreign affairs is that policymakers, like the vast majority of their countrymen, have themselves been religious (Preston's survey reminds us that most American presidents have been genuinely pious Christians), and even those who were not recognized the need to take into account the religious sentiments of their constituents.
Beyond that, Americans gave religious sentiments a significant place in their diplomacy because they could afford to. Unlike most nations, the United States had the luxury of free security. Protected by two oceans, strategically unthreatened on their own continent, Americans were less bound than other nations by the imperatives of realpolitik and comparatively free to imagine--and even, on occasion, to conduct--an idealistic diplomacy in which the meliorating impulses of religion had more than customary influence.
The faith culture in which diplomacy operated was not, of course, simply one of religion in general. It was specifically Christian, and for the greater part of the nation's history Protestant Christian. Beginning in the colonial period--when, Preston notes, Protestant Christianity was the English settlers' most common tie--and proceeding well into the twentieth century, most Americans saw the survival and flourishing of Protestantism as essential to the survival and flourishing of the nation. …