One Nation under God

By Hill, Charles | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

One Nation under God

Hill, Charles, The Wilson Quarterly


Religion in American War and Diplomacy.

By Andrew Preston.

Knopf. 815 pp $37.50

THE MODERN ERA HAS DEFINED ITSELF against religion. At worst, religion is reviled; at best, it is regarded as a subject not to be mentioned in the corridors of power. It wasn't always so. In the premodern world, religion was pervasive, respected, and powerful. The turning point came with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War, a horrendous, religiously motivated scouring of much of Europe. From then on, the states of the international system were expected to keep their holy scriptures off the diplomatic negotiating table.

But America has always been saturated in religion. As I made my way with increasing fascination through the pages of Cambridge University historian Andrew Preston's monumental study Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, I recalled my longago work as a member of a team preparing a proposal to reconstitute the old Patent Office building in Washington, D.C., as the National Portrait Gallery. In deciding the criteria by which to select portraits of the most influential Americans, we could pick those whom we regarded as major figures in the present, or those who had been most influential in their own time. If we chose the latter course, we suddenly realized, most of the portraits would be of clergymen.

This book solidifies Preston's reputation as one of the foremost younger scholars working in the great tradition of historical interpretation of war, diplomacy, and peace. Over nearly 800 pages (disclosure: I am mentioned in the acknowledgments), Preston describes how America's religion has been far more intimately intertwined with its statecraft and foreign policy than is generally understood.

His achievement is to provide a convincing explanation of why the rest of the world finds the United States so weird and perplexing. Political scientist Samuel Huntington, in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, argued that the United States is a premodern polity that formed just before Hobbes's theory of the social contract centralized modern European state power in a secular form that would be carried to every other region of the world. Preston deepens and elaborates upon the difference. This is not the new master narrative of America, but it is close enough.

America's sense of security, protected as the nation was by two oceans, allowed freely chosen morality to influence policy. The American conception that liberty's task was to oppose concentrated power produced a sense that the country had a mission to reshape the world in a form much like its own, and enlarged a conviction that America was God's country, with an exceptional and newly chosen people. The American civil religion that emerged was presided over by presidents who aimed to carry out reformation on a grand scale.

Preston's American Revolution sits atop nearly a hundred pages of analysis of colonial creedal struggles that transferred Puritan ideas into politics. We see the French and Indian War of 1754-63 in a religious dimension animated by fervor against Catholics and their demonical Indian adjuncts, as vividly depicted in James Fenimore Cooper's classic 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans. Preston calls the American Revolution an "American Revelation" a label that helps to explain the wild rhetoric of the upheaval, stimulated by the colonists' fear of domination by the Church of England. George Washington restored confidence and calm. The real meaning of his Farewell Address was that a free republic could spin out of control unless its citizenry was virtuous--and the surest source of virtue was religion.

John Quincy Adams's sense of imperial destiny, as Preston tells the story, exemplifies Alexis de Tocqueville's perception that in America, uniquely, religion and liberty were compatible. Adams prefigured Tocqueville in the conviction that "democracy flowed from religion, just as religious liberty was made possible by democratic freedoms? …

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