Q&A with Andrew Preston, author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith

The following Q&A is courtesy of the Charles Taylor Prize:

andrew-preston-200-189.jpgQ: Why did you set out to write this book?

A: My students first prompted my curiosity about the role of religion in U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Q: Given the strong connection between religion and foreign policy that you present, why do you think that religious historians and diplomatic historians haven't drawn out these parallels before?

A: Historians of politics and foreign policy are uncomfortable with religion because they don't like to deal with anything that is implicit or personal, or with phenomena that are similarly difficult to measure. They deal with cause-and-effect, political calculations, and the national interest, and the notion that something as unquantifiable as faith can play a role doesn't sit well. Historians of religion, on the other hand, have focused on developments in American faiths, and so they've tended to neglect religion's impact on foreign policy.

Q: Of the trends that you've discovered, which do you feel are most pertinent to the foreign policy challenges that the U.S. is facing today? What lessons should we take from history?

A: The basic lesson is that religion cannot be ignored in either U.S. domestic politics or world politics. In terms of domestic politics, when presidents ignore the moral and idealistic wishes of the people, as Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush did, they lose popular support for their policies. In terms of world politics, when presidential administrations ignore religious movements or dismiss their followers as mere fanatics, they miss crucial developments in matters of war and peace. This happened to John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter, who marginalized or ignored religion and were blindsided by faith-based political movements in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Q: You state that there are three important reasons why religion matters to policymakers: they are often religious themselves, religion is important to their constituencies, and because American's place in the world allowed it to choose its foreign policy free from fears of security. Can you speak more to the third explanation?

A: Between the War of 1812 and World War II, America's position in the international system allowed it to develop a foreign policy of almost total choice, free from the threat of invasion and physical security that have motivated the foreign policies of other countries. In other words, the absence of threat enabled Americans to devise foreign policies almost as they pleased because they didn't have to worry about attack; they could think of the world as it should be, not as it actually was. Not coincidentally, this was the period in which the United States first became a great power, and then the world's preeminent power, when habits and mindsets about America's role in the world formed.

Q: Historically speaking, do you think the U.S. has more often wielded the "sword of the spirit" or the "shield of faith"? What has been the consequence of leaning one way or the other?

A: Policymakers have definitely wielded the sword of the spirit, while ordinary religious Americans have probably more often brandished the shield of faith. Often the impulses were in tension, and out of such tension sprang peculiarly American ways of seeing the rest of the world. But the most effective foreign policy presidents--FDR or Ronald Reagan, for example--blended the two into a highly potent ideology for America's mission in the world.

Q: Religion is often about doing what's right, while foreign policy is often about acting in a nation's self-interest. How has America reconciled these tensions?

A: Often with great difficulty and debate. Foreign policymaking elites, even those who were very religious, never chose their faith over the national interest. However, the most effective foreign policy presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, aligned their religious principles with the national interest (and vice versa). From the bottom up, however, ordinary religious Americans, through their churches and institutions, relentlessly pressured policymakers to act in accordance with morality. This pushed American officials to adopt a moralistic tone, and pursue causes, like human rights, they otherwise might have ignored.


Q: Why was the colonial time period so crucial to the development of U.S. foreign policy, particularly as it relates to religion?

A: The American colonies were founded as havens of refuge from religious persecution, and it was there, during the colonial era, that Americans formed a religious identity that would provide the benchmark for following generations. This religious identity was intimately tied to other views about the world, especially regarding liberty and empire, and they have remained forefront in the American worldview ever since. Today, they give the United States some of its most powerful ideas about how to act in the wider world.

sword-of-spirit-110.jpgQ: You discuss religion acting as a social bond at various points in U.S. history. How does this notion co-exist with the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state as instituted by the founders?

A: For most of American history, up until the early post-World War II period, the separation of church and state didn't mean separating religion from politics or public life; instead, the First Amendment effectively protected the church from the state. Now, of course, it is the other way around, but for most of American history the principle of separation favoured religion. And for a long time, until the 1960s really, the notion that religion was central to politics and public life was uncontroversial. Despite America's tradition of religious tolerance, in practice this meant that Protestantism dominated American culture, and that people of other faiths--including Catholicism and Judaism--had to adhere to a Protestant cultural norm. Catholics, Jews, and Mormons used many of America's wars as a way to assimilate into the mainstream, even if they had doubts about the wisdom of these wars. For example, privately Catholics and Mormons were resolutely opposed to the "righteous cause" of war with Spain in 1898, but they supported it publicly as a way to demonstrate their patriotic American identity. The same thing happened in the world wars and the Cold War.

Q: Did you find that politicians have had more of an influence over church leaders or church leaders over politicians?

A: Neither. Both politicians and church leaders have supported and opposed each other at various times. Sometimes church leaders have encouraged politicians on certain policies, such as Billy Graham's support for Reagan's efforts to begin detente and serious nuclear arms reduction with the Soviet Union. At other times, church leaders have been a main source of dissent, such as Martin Luther King's opposition to Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam. And of course, both politicians and church leaders have used each other for their own purposes.

Q: Were you surprised by what you discovered about any particular period in history?

A: I was surprised by how powerful and persistent the pacifist tradition was, including during conflicts that enjoyed a lot of popular support, such as World War II. I was also surprised by the piety of some presidents whom historians have not normally considered religious, such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and even Barack Obama. But perhaps most of all, I was surprised by how often I found evidence of religious ideas and ideology in the making of U.S. foreign policy. The religious influence has been remarkably powerful and surprisingly enduring.

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