The sun strikes a flag in Yuma, Arizona, hung to commemorate the one year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Photo by Janna Noe, 2002.


A review of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacyby Andrew Preston (Knopf, 2012).

By Gale L. Kenny

In a New York Times article in May this year on the Obama administration’s “secret ‘kill list,’” State Department lawyer Harold H. Koh had these words to describe Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, CIA veteran John O. Brennan: “If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude. . . . It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”  Critical of the moral implications of drone warfare, and in response to the article, Sojourners’ senior policy adviser Duane Shank launched “Drone Watch,” on Christian left activist Jim Wallis’ blog. It’s this kind of intersection between war and personal piety and the dilemmas it creates that Andrew Preston addresses in his new book “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith.” In this ambitious and engaging history of the relationship between American religion and foreign policy, Preston shows that the relationship between faith and war is far from new; nor is the religiously motivated activism calling American leaders to account for the morality of their foreign policy decisions.

While teaching at Yale in the months leading up to the Iraq War, Preston fielded questions from students who wondered whether President George W. Bush was unusual for using religion to justify foreign policy. As he searched to see if other scholars had already provided an answer, he found that historians of American religion and diplomacy had rarely crossed paths. Preston’s response to this omission, “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith,” reconnects religion with diplomatic history in a sweeping narrative of four centuries of American history. Preston examines policymakers and presidents as well as grassroots activists and as his title suggests—taken from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians—his focus includes both the religious justifications for war as well as Christian pacifism, non-interventionism, and internationalism. Rather than advocating either for or against the need for religion in policy decisions, Preston offers a scholarly narrative of how religion has shaped foreign policy decisions as well as how war and international politics have influenced American religious life.

Preston chooses several themes or “core features” that have appeared throughout American history, from English colonization in the early 1600s through the present (7). First, and most important, Preston argues that religion has operated as the “conscience of American foreign relations.”  Because of the United States’ geopolitical position and its religious population, American leaders have justified their decisions about war and foreign alliances in religious and moral terms. Preston highlights four elements that have driven U.S. foreign policy: morality, liberty (specifically religious liberty), progress, and nationalism or civil religion. Throughout the book, Preston locates these religious justifications for war, peace, and international organizations within the historical context, and he does not pretend that any political or religious leader’s moral reasoning was necessarily righteous or even unanimous. Importantly, Preston also takes the religious beliefs and arguments of his characters seriously rather than dismissing their religious language as political pandering or moral insulation meant to hide a more insidious goal.

The first third of the book covers the origins and early development of Preston’s four themes from the 1600s through the 1800s. While these chapters do not offer new information, and specialists might bristle at the rapid pace with which Preston flies through the centuries, he writes an effective synthesis that sets up the book’s remaining chapters. For example, his discussion of the seventeenth-century colonial wars in which English Protestants fought “barbaric” and licentious Indians as well as “despotic” Catholics show how the defense of an idea—Protestant liberty—became intertwined with the survival of the colonies and the defense of the emerging nation. Preston then shows how Protestant liberty evolved into the First Amendment idea of religious liberty during and after the American Revolution. This lays the foundation for how later American leaders understood religious liberty as a necessary component of democracy and a cause worth fighting for, even as the world changed. In an important passage that echoes throughout the entire book, Preston argues that the founders and later American leaders understood religion to be a “matter of conscience” and that “to interfere with a person’s religion, then, was to intrude into the deepest recesses of their mind…. As sources of personal conscience, religious liberty and diversity were indispensable to freedom overall” (97). As Preston shows, the notion that religious liberty is integral to freedom and to democracy provided the moral justification for much of American foreign policy from the hard and soft imperialism of the nineteenth century to anticommunism and to discussions of human rights and terrorism now.

The narrative becomes more deliberate when Preston arrives at what he calls “the first crusade”: William McKinley’s decision to go to war in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 and the resulting overseas American empire. In chapters alternating between the political sphere and the religious sphere, and organized by the twentieth century’s major conflicts, Preston weaves together revealing religious biographies of presidents, policymakers, theologians, and grassroots religious activists along with an intellectual and social history of religious ideas and organizations. The juxtaposition of religious history and diplomatic history works well, yet Preston rarely strays from the worn path of American religious history that has centered on white northern liberal Protestants and a handful of Catholic and Jewish leaders. With some exceptions, southerners and conservative Christians remain largely in the background until the latter part of the twentieth century, and Preston rarely incorporates black or other non-white religious leaders when he surveys the thinking of white Protestants, Jews, and Catholics on a given issue. Besides the exceptional but relevant Pan-African ideologies of the Garveyites and the Nation of Islam, it would have been interesting to learn where black clergy and activists stood in relation to the other religious groups detailed in the book, especially as African Americans negotiated and fought for their own rights in the United States. Preston’s narrative provides a starting point for thinking about how faithful Americans beyond Union Seminary and the White House understood and responded to foreign policy and international events.

Preston does not lack for material as he moves through the major religious movements of the twentieth century. He examines the Social Gospel with its liberal missionaries, debates over pacifism and intervention in both world wars, the emergence of the Judeo-Christian consensus (which also included Catholics), and the fracturing of mainline Protestantism in the 1960s. For example, over the course of several chapters, Preston constructs a running comparison of liberal Protestantism’s ecumenical movement and the rise of international organizations from the late 1800s onward. This part of the narrative includes a reexamination of John Foster Dulles, perhaps best remembered as a strident cold warrior in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In the 1940s, however, Dulles, a devout Presbyterian and scion of missionaries and diplomats, worked in the religious sphere as the head of the Federal Council of Churches’ Commission on a Just and Durable Peace. For years he worked closely with liberal Protestants like Henry Sloane Coffin to build ecumenical and international ties, and as he planned for a postwar international organization that would become the United Nations, he saw Christianity as the “solvent of world conflict” because it was a transnational faith that transcended nationalism (389). Dulles’ internationalist faith faded in 1945 when he attended the San Francisco conference organizing the United Nations and became fearful of the Soviet Union’s apparent disdain for religious liberty. This realization paired with his growing political partisanship led Dulles to abandon his support for the World Court and other transnational entities. Tracing out Dulles’ background in ecumenism gives Preston the tools for a complex analysis of how religious beliefs and political ideology intertwined during Dulles’ tenure in the State Department.

The coalition led by liberal Protestant clergy and politicians carried real moral weight through the 1950s, Preston argues, and it helped Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower to unite the American people through a broadly progressive and religious nationalism that emphasized the democratic United States’ moral righteousness in contrast to the godless and despotic Soviet Union. But a change occurred in 1960 after the election of John F. Kennedy and amid the backlash against the Vietnam War. The latter chapters of the book take up the changing religious landscape of postwar America as well as foreign policy. As a Catholic, Kennedy necessarily insisted on religion as a private matter, not a tool to build support for foreign policy initiatives. Moreover, as the cultural upheavals that rocked both political and religious institutions in the 1960s as the Vietnam War continued, “faith acted as a complication rather than a complement to foreign policy” (519). Liberation theology and existentialism radicalized some Christians who turned against liberal leaders like Lyndon Johnson, and Preston examines the wide range of religious activists who mobilized against the Vietnam War. Further, the development-minded policymakers who came to the White House in the 1960s favored secularization theory and were flummoxed by religion’s persistence in the world they looked to manage. When Buddhists in South Vietnam rebelled against the Catholic dictator Ngo Dihn Diem, Kennedy asked, “Who are these people? Why didn’t we know about them before? (517). Dean Rusk similarly saw religion as a mystery and reduced the religious-political conflict of the Six Day War in 1967 to an irrational and unsolvable enigma: “When both Jews and Arabs are convinced they’re speaking for God, that makes for a tough negotiation. I’ve been at the table when Arabs quoted the Koran while Jews quoted the Book of Moses. And I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, come on now, don’t give me any of that stuff!’” (518). This point, followed by the observation that Jimmy Carter, arguably the most devout president in decades, used religion in his foreign policy the least, segues to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the rise of the religious right. As he does with other presidents, Preston draws a complex portrait of both Reagan and the assorted religious advocacy groups who opposed and supported him. While Reagan had idiosyncratic religious beliefs, Preston argues that the cold warrior was genuinely frightened of Armageddon. Reagan skillfully deployed religion to attack the human rights violations of the “evil empire” (as well as to build his appeal among Christian conservatives) while also conducting realist negotiations to ease tensions behind the scenes. An appreciation for people of faith also led Reagan and his devoutly Catholic CIA chief William Casey to look kindly on the Islamic Afghan rebels fighting against the godless Soviets. The consequences of this decision are examined in Preston’s brief epilogue on the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, Americans embraced a “faith-based vision of a virtuous, tolerant, and democratic America” until President George W. Bush, an evangelical Methodist, “deployed religion” in the form of the “sword of the spirit” as well as the “shield of faith” (603). Surrounded by devout Christians like Michael Gerson and Condaleeza Rice, Bush’s foreign policy combined both a “crusade” against Islamic terrorists and “evildoers” while reaffirming America’s “exceptional” commitment to religious liberty and defending Islam as a worthy faith. As in earlier times of war, not all religious leaders agreed with the President’s decisions. Not unlike earlier grassroots religious responses to war, critics ranging from liberal rabbis to evangelical Protestants “mounted counter crusades to reclaim faith” from conservatives and advocated for America to engage in the world through expanded humanitarianism instead of military action (610). Preston does not dwell on religious activists’ reinvigorated interest in international development, but his work suggests that like the older international work of foreign missions and international ecumenism, religious leaders now have come to see modern humanitarianism as the “shield of faith” alternative to the “sword of the spirit.”

Preston ends by observing that “those who conduct U.S. foreign policy ignore [religion] at their peril” (613). His book indeed offers lessons for both historians and politicians about the pervasiveness of religion in foreign policy debates, as well as the consequences of ignorance of religions and religious motives. His journey through catastrophes like the occupation of the Philippines and the Vietnam War as well as the struggles of liberal Protestant pacifists during the 1930s reminds readers of the tendentious nature of moral arguments made for and against war. While Preston does not intend to provide easy answers, his analysis of the dynamics between religion and foreign policy illuminates the vital importance of morality to American foreign policy from all sides. To return to the matter of drone warfare, Preston’s book shows that there is nothing new in the Obama administration’s decision to defend targeted assassinations as not just militarily needed but a more moral form of warfare. Nor should we be surprised to see the religious activists at Sojourners protesting drones in order to restore the nation’s moral conscience.


Gale Kenny is Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at New York’s Barnard College. Her work focuses on religion, race and gender in 19th Century United States and the Atlantic World.  She is the author of “Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1833-1866″, a book published by University of Georgia Press, 2010

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