October 23, 2012
Religion in American War and Diplomacy: A History
In his talk for the Strauss Center on October 23, 2012, Andrew Preston outlined his book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, as a historical analysis of the influence of religion on U.S. international relations and foreign policy. Starting in the colonies, he traces the historical evolution of the deep and profound relationship between religion and foreign policy.
From the protestant settlers to the establishment of the first amendment and the principle of the separation of church and state, religious liberty has always been an important current in American political thought. This influence was diverse and sometimes contradictory, but nonetheless provided a mental map for normative, moral and value driven policies.
Dr. Preston explained that he viewed the subject through two lenses: a top-down approach to study the decision makers and a bottom-up approach to the social and cultural influence of religion. The engine of the book is the interaction between these top decision makers and the social and cultural groups such as abolitionists, ecumenical missionary groups, and, in some instances, broad based opposition to the president as in the case of Nixon.
The top-down approach proved particularly trying because it is difficult to nearly impossible to talk about what a person believes and then linking that to specific behavior. Instead, Dr. Preston said he looked at the consistencies and irregularities of the manifestation of faith in the leader’s decisions. Taking the audience through a case study of President McKinley, Dr. Preston explained how the president’s particular faith influenced major decisions in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.
Religion in this sense helps to frame the context in which the world is perceived. It is much more of a factor than we have previously acknowledged and it enhances our understanding much in the same way as adding pieces to an unfinished puzzle.
Watch the full presentation below:
Andrew Preston is Senior Lecturer in American History and a Fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University, where he also serves as Editor of The Historical Journal. He is the author of The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam (Harvard University Press, 2006) and co-editor, with Fredrik Logevall, of Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977 (Oxford University Press, 2008). His most recent book is Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf, 2012).