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 long-ago 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 1754–63in 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.”
Preston sees the War of 1812 as a turning point: Religion was used both for and against the war as the first pacifist antiwar movement emerged; no longer could the federal government claim a monopoly on righteousness. At this point, Sword of the Spirit begins to evolve into something of a religious epic, with two sides locked in a contest for supremacy: those professing faith, hope, and charity as they turn the other cheek, versus those in the tradition of Augustine’s “Christian Prince” who must make hard decisions about the management of this fallen world. The outcome of the War of 1812 strengthened the latter camp’s vision of the United States as divinely destined for greatness.
Manifest Destiny would spread both faith and commerce across the North American continent, while missionaries dispatched abroad became “accidental imperialists.” The Civil War turned the American Religion’s moral vision on itself. Abraham Lincoln, not really religious at the outset, became a spiritual leader; his second inaugural address served as an American “Sermon on the Mount.” The war was contained within the nation’s borders, but it profoundly affected Americans’ mission to the world, as the duty to bring freedom to the South was transposed into “a redemptive platform for America to save the world.”
Somewhat problematically, Preston depicts the United States as subsequently launching a sporadic series of “crusades,” an overworked, never quite apt term. The first was the Spanish-American War of 1898,as shaped by Secretary of War Elihu Root, bred in New York State’s feverishly devout “burned-over district,” by naval historian and theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan—for whom religion was indispensable—and by the “muscular Christianity” of Theodore Roosevelt, who declared that “we stand at Armageddon.”The war was a “humanitarian intervention” to halt the “cruel, barbarous, and uncivilized” practices of Cuba’s Spanish colonial rulers.
The second crusade was Woodrow Wilson’s. The 1917 declaration that signaled the United States’ entry into World War I was at odds with the sentiments of key American religious leaders, but out of it came an “idealistic synthesis,” a grouping identifiable as “America’s first-ever liberal internationalists.”Although Wilson, a son of the manse, did not take the United States into war for a specifically religious reason, it was “a war for the good of the world to ensure perpetual peace.” The idealistic war aims he announced in his Fourteen Points speech were founded on the golden rule, and “Wilsonianism was essentially an expression of Christian reformism.” It was not by chance, Preston observes, that Wilson insisted on calling the League of Nations a covenant, nor that the organization was headquartered in Geneva, “the birthplace of Calvinism.”
The third American crusade emerged from the “simple faith” of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the very embodiment of the country’s civic religion and the first president to give faith itself first place as the essence of democracy. While FDR “tolerated all faiths, he could not tolerate a lack of faith,” Preston writes, explaining how World War II can be seen as a struggle for religious liberty.
The name of Reinhold Niebuhr appears frequently in Preston’s account. For two decades after Wilson, Christian pacifism had been ascending. Now an exciting new religious thinker took an oppositional stance, declaring with authoritative irony that the only Christian doctrine that had been empirically proved was original sin. From the halls of Union Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School came “a theology and a morality for military intervention.”
World War II, Preston shows, was not the “good war” of nostalgists. On the one hand, it spawned such sentiments as “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” and “God is my co-pilot.” On the other hand, mainstream religious liberals had a hard time overcoming their World War I revulsion toward ultra-patriotism and were deeply troubled by the draft, the demand for unconditional surrender, the internment of Japanese Americans, and strategic—and ultimately atomic—bombing. A new antiwar wave of liberal resistance was formed.
The Cold War can be recognized as a fourth crusade. Harry Truman’s Baptist faith encouraged him to see it in religious terms. Even the Presbyterian anticrusader George F. Kennan was shaped by the duality of his beliefs—in pessimistic original sin and optimistic providence—to struggle with the paradoxes of his containment doctrine. NSC-68, the founding document of America’s Cold Warthat spelled out that doctrine, derived phrasing and meaning from the reformed Protestant tradition, declaring the Soviet Union a spiritual as well as political and military threat, “animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own.” The 1950s thus produced another “Great Awakening” of religiosity. During these years the markers of the Cold War were steeped in religion, including the recognition of the State of Israel, the insertion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the assumption of a leading role by Dwight D. Eisenhower and presidents since in the National Prayer Breakfast.
Once again, Preston astutely demonstrates that retrospective consensus is a myth; the country was divided along a “Great Schism,” with one side represented by Billy Graham’s unflagging support for every president, and the other by pastors and priests who favored dialogue, disarmament, development, the United Nations, and recognition of communist China, and were increasingly sharp in their critique of segregation and capitalism. Mainline Protestantism was on the way out. Black Power and liberation theology marched hand in hand. The anti–Vietnam War movement was only one of several cultural revolutions that swept America in the 1960s and ’70s. New Age beliefs and strange foreign religions appeared; Hare Krishnas danced in airports.
Neither Richard Nixon’s Quaker background nor Henry Kissinger’s Jewish upbringing approached anything like the faith of Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, or Truman. The exception was Nixon’s insistence, in the depth of their travails in 1974, that he and Kissinger fall on their knees to pray. Though both men were profoundly patriotic, they nonetheless conducted an almost Metternichian foreign policy, centered on détente and the adroit shifting of great-power relationships. But in the eyes of those on the religious right, détente was defeatist, the opening to Mao’s China a betrayal. Nixon and Kissinger found themselves surrounded by a resurgence of traditional Christian religion and morality, fiery in its opposition to the 1970s leftist world agenda.
Christian Zionism, inflamed by the 1975 UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism, re-emerged as well. Nixon and then Gerald Ford were surprised by opposition from what they had assumed was their side. Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson, Democrat of Washington, took up the cause of Soviet Jewry’s right to emigrate. Kissinger, Preston writes, was slow to appreciate the muscle behind this drive, “and in the end it cost him détente.”
Today, after all the studies and biographical analyses of Ronald Reagan, he remains, his biographer Edmund Morris concluded, impossible to fathom. But not for Preston, who locates President Reagan’s Cold War successes almost entirely in his religious beliefs and his adept handling of religion’s symbolic power. Reagan had that sixth sense, and “reconfigured the Judeo-Christian civil religion from what it had been since the 1930s—a way to foster inclusiveness—into a rhetorical device to attack liberalism and secularism.”
Reagan was engrossed by the Book of Revelation and the idea of Armageddon, but that fascination didn’t color his outlook with nihilism; instead, he used it to snatch U.S.-Soviet relations back from the brink. Suppression of religion, Reagan believed, was the linchpin of atheistic communism; remove that, and the Soviet Union would change. Reagan focused on a group of radically religious Siberian Pentecostals who had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the Carter administration. If the Soviets let the Pentecostals leave the country, Reagan promised he wouldn’t crow about it. He kept his word, establishing a new basis for trust between the two superpowers.
President George H. W. Bush claimed born-again status, and evangelicals composed much of his electoral base, but once in office he prioritized order over justice and stability over human rights. President Bill Clinton, religious enough, appeared to have no larger vision for the world beyond the news cycle. President George W. Bush, who expressed his personal faith more openly than any previous chief executive, sought after 9/11 to return to the tradition of using religion to frame foreign policy. But Bush’s sense of global mission was challenged by an array of religious Americans. Preston summarizes all the evidence for President Barack Obama’s Christianity, from the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. to Obama’s erstwhile place in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s congregation, but this has not translated into a religion-based vision for the world.
If Sword of the Spirit is an epic in which the story of Christianity is recapitulated through American foreign policy, the last couple of decades in Washington seem to have caught up with the metahistory of the ages, as religion, in the United States and, indeed, the world, struggles to come to terms with a newly secular global age. At the end, this engrossing book makes its point about religion indisputably: “Those who conduct U.S. foreign policy ignore it at their peril.”