Religion used by America to justify going to war
Troy Media – by Eva Sajoo
“Religious influence on foreign relations has been a constant throughout American history,” according to Cambridge professor Andrew Preston. He sets out to prove just that in his ambitious new book. Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, a staggering work of scholarship.
Beginning in 1622, he traces the changing face and voices of American religion, all the way up to President Barack Obama. That religion retains a strong influence domestically is hardly news: it came up regularly in the Republican nomination campaign this year, and has often been invoked by Democrat Obama – and against him. Yet foreign relations are often assumed to be more the domain of realpolitik, in which religion plays but a cynical role.
Religion always significant in American foreign relations
In focusing on U.S. policies at home and abroad, Preston uncovers the ways in which the personal religious beliefs of presidents and diplomats, as well as those of regular Americans, intersect with international events. Preston is quick to admit that religion has not always been “determining or formative” in these matters, but it has never been insignificant. As Obama recently remarked, “to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.”
Preston’s great service is to provide a cool account of these complex debates and interactions without attempting to valorise any particular religious position, or condemn them. This is an achievement, since much commentary on religion seems increasingly polarized between the New Atheists – like Richard Dawkins – and fundamentalist believers such as Rick Santorum who insist on literal readings of scripture.
Along the way, he uncovers fascinating stories. African Americans who served as missionaries to Africa in the late 19th century had the complex role of exporting American Christianity – while suffering racial inequality that was justified by readings of that religion at home. The missionaries would also have had to buy into the stereotype of Darkest Africa in need of Christianization.
No less unexpected, further down the road, was the Northern backlash, amongst Boston Catholics, to the civil rights movement in the form of an anti-busing campaign led by Louise Day Hicks. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Beacon embraced Alabama governor George Wallace as “Christian Patriot of the Year.”
The idea that America has a special place in the world (otherwise known as Manifest Destiny) is traced through the centuries. For non-Americans (including Preston) the moral – and military- danger of such moral hubris is obvious. But this is not the only use of religion. As Preston puts it, “Religious belief is often a source of dogmatic moral certainty, but it can also cause profound doubt and self-reflection, even among the most devoted.” Religious groups provided some of the most biting criticism of U.S. policy, from World War I and slavery to Cold War capitalism and Vietnam. Nevertheless, there has been an ongoing American tendency to attribute the source of democracy and individual freedom to American Christianity. This has not only marshalled religious support for American wars, it has also encouraged the export of American culture as a necessary ingredient in the progress of other countries.
This is also, necessarily, a book about social change within America. One of the most interesting shifts is in national identity. The United States was originally aggressively Protestant, viewing both the Church of England and the Catholic Church as insidious opponents. Eventually, Catholics were seen as legitimate participants in American public life, evident in the election of John F. Kennedy.
More radically, Jews moved from being a tolerated minority in the early 20th century, to being an acknowledged part of foundational American identity. This was evident with the term “Judeo-Christian” coming into use during the Cold War, an “interfaith civil religion” that helped define difference from the Soviets. In the same polemical spirit, “In God we trust” was added to U.S. currency in 1956.
Perhaps the best-known example of religious influence on U.S. foreign policy is support for Israel. Formalised by President Harry Truman in 1946, it was a balance of political interest in pacifying an organised Zionist lobby, and a response to the Holocaust. Truman encountered strong resistance from the Departments of State and Defense, who argued that good relations with Arab states (and hence a balanced policy) were more in the national interest. Yet all but unconditional support for Israel, often at high cost to U.S. political and economic interests as well as its moral standing, has only become more entrenched. Recent remarks by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, indicating his willingness to consult President Netanyahu on Mideast policy decisions, show that, for many Americans, the position has become reflexive. It is hard to explain this without some recourse to religious ideology, in which “Judeo-Christian” identity plays a large role.
Used as a reason for going to war
Religion and its interpretation is constantly evolving, usually at the hands of people with wildly different objectives, and Preston makes this clear in the title of his book. “Sword of the Spirit” refers to the use of religion to justify going to war, and to mobilise support for military engagements. “Shield of Faith” evokes the reverse, seeing the essence of Christianity as peacemaking – a position whose advocates have often found themselves criticising their government at just those moments when it was most uncomfortable to do so.
The amount of information in this book is impressive, but Andrew Preston succeeds in conveying it in a fluid, gripping narrative that is a pleasure to read. No dry historical text, the book is peppered with fascinating quotes, personality sketches, and stories that surprise and edify. People of diverse religious persuasions and none will benefit from this portrait of a nation.
Indeed, one need not be an American to find the stories interesting: the reinterpretation of religion and its role in politics is a subject relevant far beyond American shores.
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, by Andrew Preston. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 613 pages.
Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University.