Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith by Andrew Preston

“Reading this book is a thrilling intellectual adventure” —Karen Armstrong, author A History of God

A richly detailed, profoundly engrossing story of how religion has influenced American foreign relations, told through the stories of the men and women—from presidents to preachers—who have plotted the country’s course in the world.

Ever since John Winthrop argued that the Puritans’ new home would be “a city upon a hill,” Americans’ role in the world has been shaped by their belief that God has something special in mind for them. But this is a story that historians have mostly ignored. Now, in the first authoritative work on the subject, Andrew Preston explores the major strains of religious fervor—liberal and conservative, pacifist and militant, internationalist and isolationist—that framed American thinking on international issues from the earliest colonial wars to the twenty-first century. He arrives at some startling conclusions, among them: Abraham Lincoln’s use of religion in the Civil War became the model for subsequent wars of humanitarian intervention; nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries made up the first NGO to advance a global human rights agenda; religious liberty was the centerpiece of Franklin Roosevelt’s strategy to bring the United States into World War II.

From George Washington to George W. Bush, from the Puritans to the present, from the colonial wars to the Cold War, religion has been one of America’s most powerful sources of ideas about the wider world. When, just days after 9/11, George W. Bush described America as “a prayerful nation, a nation that prays to an almighty God for protection and for peace,” or when Barack Obama spoke of balancing the “just war and the imperatives of a just peace” in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, they were echoing four hundred years of religious rhetoric. Preston traces this echo back to its source.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith is an unprecedented achievement: no one has yet attempted such a bold synthesis of American history. It is also a remarkable work of balance and fair-mindedness about one of the most fraught subjects in America.

Andrew Preston teaches American history and international relations history at Cambridge University, where he is a fellow of Clare College. Before Cambridge, he taught history and international studies at Yale University. He has also taught at universities in Canada and Switzerland, and has been a fellow at the Cold War Studies Program at the London School of Economics. He is the author of The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam.

From our Q&A with the author

Q: Why did you set out to write this book?
A: My students first prompted my curiosity about the role of religion in US foreign policy. In the wake of 9/11, when George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden were using religion to explain their actions, it was impossible to ignore the role of religion in international relations. But I was startled to discover that very few historians had examined this relationship, and none had explored it over a large sweep of time. In writing this book, I hope to bring the history of US foreign policy into dialogue with the history of American religion, and to show how the two not only overlapped but intimately influenced one another.

Q: Who were the most religious presidents, and how did this shape their foreign policy decisions?
A: Some are well-known, such as William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. But what surprised me was how religious other presidents were, such as Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II, and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower during the Cold War. In fact, to varying degrees most presidents have been religious, and most have used religion to explain and define their foreign policy.

(…read the rest)