- Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacyby Andrew Preston, and Religion and the Cold War: A Global Perspectiveed. by Philip E. Muehlenbeck
Preston’s ambitious and highly recommended Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faithexamines “how” religion influenced U.S. foreign relations from [End Page 282]the early colonial period to the Obama administration. Preston contends that religion is the “missing link, a vital but unrecognized, even undiscovered” aspect of the history of U.S. foreign relations (7). Although the subtitle suggests a focus on high-level politics and policy, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faithis not limited to the Oval Office and the State Department. Preston explores the beliefs and actions of U.S. presidents and public officials as well as private citizens and nongovernmental organizations. In doing so, he is careful to distinguish between foreign policy and foreign relations, defining the latter to include policy formation and “a wider array of American interactions with the world, from missionaries to voluntarist and philanthropic initiatives to corporate and economic interests” (6).
Drawing on a wide and diverse range of archival and secondary sources, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faithis a sweeping work that is often engaging and beautifully written. Preston argues that religion “acted as the conscience of American foreign relations.” Popular religious pressure, he contends, led policymakers to “merge the moralism and progressivism of religion with the normally realist mindset of international politics” (7). Underlying the moralism was a shared belief in “Protestant exceptionalism,” which he states “helped breed American exceptionalism and led to a consistent belief in America as a chosen nation and in Americans as a chosen people” (13). These notions inspired and served to justify American imperialism and interventions abroad.
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faithoffers a number of telling insights and anecdotes. From William McKinley’s evangelism to the “unorthodox spiritualism” of Ronald Reagan, Preston reveals that religion—or the political use of it—was a key consideration for American presidents. However, the connection between religion and foreign policy can be difficult to demonstrate. Although Preston’s attempt to give equal weight to the activities of private individuals and groups is admirable, at times it appears tangential. For example, Chapter 26 provides an informative discussion of opposition to the Vietnam War by religious groups and figures. Yet Preston concedes, “It is impossible to know definitively whether their religious opposition to the war had an effect on policy. Perhaps it limited President Lyndon B. Johnson’s options by making further escalation too controversial. But most likely it did not, at least not directly” (530).
Preston also discusses the actions of Cardinal Francis Spellman and Rev. Billy Graham in support of the Vietnam War. While their commitment to the war effort may have been sincere, Spellman and Graham appear to have provided moral cover—if not absolution—for the actions of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Yet even this had its limits. as Graham eventually “came to doubt the depth, even the sincerity, of Nixon’s faith” (541). Thus, it remains unclear if religion had a significant influence on U.S. policy in Vietnam or elsewhere.
Although it is an admirable work, Sword of the Spiritis not flawless. In spite of its considerable (and unnecessary) heft, there are notable omissions. For example, Preston offers an interesting discussion of President [End Page 283]Eisenhower’s religious beliefs and carefully crafted public image. However, the overview of Eisenhower’s foreign policy does not mention the failed attempt to promote King Saud of Saudi Arabia as a “Muslim Pope” and a counterweight to the Arab nationalism and socialism espoused by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. 1
Preston’s analysis is often thoughtful and nuanced. However, his discussion of the Arab–Israeli conflict suffers...