Skip to Main Content (Press Enter)
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith by Andrew Preston
Add Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith to bookshelf
Add to Bookshelf

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith

Best Seller
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith by Andrew Preston
Paperback $24.00
Nov 13, 2012 | ISBN 9781400078585

Buy from Other Retailers:

See All Formats (1) +
  • $24.00

    Nov 13, 2012 | ISBN 9781400078585

    Buy from Other Retailers:

  • Feb 28, 2012 | ISBN 9780307957603

    Buy from Other Retailers:

Product Details


“Neither pedantic nor superficial. [Preston] is the rare scholar who can educate a non-academic audience in the complexity of an important subject. Preston cuts through a confusion that often surrounds America foreign policy, by laying bare the unusual moral history behind it, a history that begins with the Puritans and proceeds in the grooves illuminated in this beautifully written book.” —Michael Kimmage, The New Republic

“A unified field theory of American foreign relations capturing the play of personality and politics, passion and hypocrisy—all written with a style that further distinguishes [Preston] in a domain as deficient in literary grace as in candour. . . . Preston excels in portraits of the people at the heart of the matter, from the Puritans to Barack Obama. No governments here in faceless generality, no US in absolving abstract, but rather the frame and temper of human beings in all their force and frailty. History as biography, his work achieves the most elusive of biographical rendering—what did they really think about the nature of man and the universe, and how successfully, as Bierce would put it, did they adapt faith to the sins of policy. This is no simplistic case for religion as single cause. Preston’s genius is to find the blending with all the other, frequently contradictory strains.” —Roger Morris, The Globe and Mail

“[A] monumental study. . . . This book solidifies Preston’s reputation as one of the foremost young scholars working in the great tradition of historical interpretation of war, diplomacy, and peace. . . Preston describes how America’s religion has been far more intimately intertwined with its statecraft and foreign policy than is generally understood. . . . This is not the new master narrative of America, but it is close enough.” —Charles Hill, The Wilson Quarterly
“Fascinating. . . . As a comprehensive survey, the book opens up pathways for others to explore.” —Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch
“Encyclopedic. . . . [Preston] leaves no religious stone unturned . . . I hunger for more.” —Richard I. Immerman, San Francisco Chronicle
“What is most astonishing is not this or that episode but rather the ubiquity of religious influence on America’s international relations, an ubiquity that Preston complains has for far too long been hidden by the secularist bias of academic historians. A much-needed corrective to that bias.” —Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)
“Andrew Preston has written a remarkably comprehensive and uncommonly wise history about one of the most critical elements in the making of American foreign policy. It is a landmark work of scholarship about religion and politics — and a pleasure to read.”  —Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers
“Andrew Preston demonstrates that one of the keys to understanding American foreign policy lies at the interstices of religion and diplomacy.  This is a most impressive book, not only for scope of the author’s research but also for his judicious conclusions.”  —Randall Balmer, author of God in the White House
“[M]arvelously readable. . . . A sharp, clear, deeply researched examination of the consistent application of the founding religious principles to American foreign policy.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Reading this book is a thrilling intellectual adventure: it challenges received ideas at the same time as it throws light on buried, troubling perplexities and changes the way we view not only the United States but the rest of the world. Erudite, balanced and respectful, it could not be more timely and should be required reading for policy-makers, concerned citizens, atheists and religious alike.” —Karen Armstrong, author A History of God
 “There have been a number of good books on particular aspects of religion and American foreign policy.  But no one before Andrew Preston has written such a thoroughly researched, consistently insightful, and ideologically balanced general history of this timely, important, but strangely under-studied subject.  This splendid book makes a major contribution in its own right, but also opens up an entire field for much-needed further study.” —Mark Noll, author of America’s God
“In this landmark work, Andrew Preston sheds light on a critical element of the American experience: the role of religion in our relationship to the world. Faith is one of the most influential factors in our national life, and Preston’s excellent book gives religion its due as a force that shapes who we are, what wars we fight, and which causes we make our own.” —Jon Meacham, author of American Lion

“This extraordinarily important book explores the relatively unknown link between religion and U.S. foreign policy. The author, a historian at Cambridge University, shows that religion has influenced the nation’s foreign policies from the intermittent wars with the Barbary pirates in the 1790s to President Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009. . . . Preston’s work is exhaustive . . . in the opinion of this reviewer, [it] deserves a prize for historical scholarship and writing.” —Al Menendez, Voice of Reason

“Every now and then a book appears that redefines a field. This is one of those occasions.” —Andrew J. Bacevich, Commonweal


Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction WINNER 2013

Cundill History Prize FINALIST 2012

Author Q&A

Q: Why did you set out to write this book?

A: My students first prompted my curiosity about the role of religion in US 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 US 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 poignant 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 us to choose our 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.
Q: 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 favored 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 been 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.

Looking for More Great Reads?
21 Books You’ve Been Meaning to Read
Back to Top