Faith and Foreign Policy

Andrew Preston, author of the award-winning book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, on the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy.
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March 11, 2013
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Since 9/11, many have pointed to a "resurgence of religion" in the formulation, framing, and implementation of American foreign policy. But did religion ever really go away? Should we think of a close relationship between faith and foreign policy as the norm in American history, rather than the exception? In Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy,  Andrew Preston, senior lecturer in American history at Cambridge University and recent winner of the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction, searches the history of the United States for answers to these questions. OpenCanada asked Preston what inspired his search, and what he discovered along the way.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith begins and ends with your thoughts on the role of religion in the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. How important were the Bush years to your decision to write this book?

 It was George Bush in the 9/11 moment that inspired me to write the book. In the preface to the book, I am teaching a class at Yale, during the run-up to the Iraq war, and my students are asking me where religion comes from – they were surprised by the fact that George W. Bush was using a lot of religious rhetoric. And I was a little bit surprised by that too. When they asked me if using that type of rhetoric was normal, if that was something that all presidents had done, I didn’t know, which drew my attention to the topic.

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So 9/11 and the idea that Bush was bringing religion back into international relations or world politics motivated my first approach, but once I started doing research, I realized how totally misleading this idea is, because religion is not something that went away and then reappeared with Bush. The influence of religion is not confined to the use of religion to justify intervention or war  – it is (and has always been) much more diverse and complex.

You cut through that complexity to highlight several key drivers of religion's influence in foreign policy, including providentialism, the use of just force, and especially religious liberty. How has the quest for religious liberty manifested in different periods of American history?

The most important theme running through the whole book is probably religious liberty. And that’s not to say that the meaning of religious liberty has been consistent, or that it has been a constant in within the United States or abroad. A lot of policy makers tolerated violations of religious liberty abroad when they believed it was in the national interest to do so.

But the idea of religious liberty has very deep roots in both English and American political thought. In the United States, as the cliché goes, religious liberty is the first political right. The first two parts of the first amendment to the bill of rights are the establishment of free exercise clauses, and that’s not an accident. Agnostics, theists, and people like Thomas Jefferson ­– a man whom today we’d probably call an atheist – strongly defended religious liberty, because they believed that to protect religious liberty was to protect freedom of conscience, that religion and conscience went hand in hand. Religion was the source of conscience, stemming from the inner-most recesses of the human mind – if the state were allowed to interfere with the source of individual conscience, there would be no limit to its power.

Jefferson, and many others, thought you couldn’t legislate religion, for that was what Europe’s problem had been. They thought any attempt to control what people believed would lead to dangerously arbitrary government, conflict, and violence. Words to this effect can be found though the decades – Madison and Jefferson said it, Franklin Roosevelt said it, and almost everybody in between, right up to Obama.

The idea that wherever religious liberty is not protected, arbitrary rule will flourish, has been viewed by many American leaders as an indicator of how a country likely governs internally, and, by extension, how it will behave externally. Many American leaders have articulated this connection – that countries that do not respect religious liberty will suffer from violence at home, and that this will translate into a belligerent foreign policy. Religious liberty is the source of conscience, and democracy cannot flourish in a conscience-less society. So, you start to see where religious liberty fits into democratic peace theory, and the origins of the idea that the safest world for America would be one free from arbitrary concentrations of power, filled with democratic, religious liberty-respecting states.

This suspicion of concentrated, arbitrary power seems to have taken many forms, ranging from anti-Catholicism to anti-communism to anti-global governance institutions, such as the International Criminal Court.

That diversity in power sources is a good thing, and that arbitrary concentrations of power are dangerous, is a very Protestant idea and a very Reformation idea. The line I draw in the book is from the anti-Catholicism of the colonial period and the 19th century to anti-communism, because these are the big, supposedly monolithic concentrations of arbitrary power that many groups viewed through the lens of religion and faith.

The common beliefs that have underpinned foreign policy from the founding of America to the present come through strongly in your book, but so do the differences among those who hold those beliefs. The divisions – among religious groups, between sects within those groups, and even between religious leaders and their congregants, are as striking as their shared faith in god. Did your appreciation of the complexity of faith in America change while writing this book?

When I began the book, I had only a limited sense of the complexity … It’s sort of like before you have a baby. You know in theory what that entails, but you don’t really grasp it until it happens and you become a parent. I didn’t really appreciate the scope and depth of the complexity. It took almost 10 years to see the book through to completion, and one of the reasons for that is because of the diversity and complexity of influences that exist.

I think one of the reasons scholars under-appreciate the role of religion in foreign policy is that they acknowledge a religious influence in American foreign policy, but they assume that it stems from one particular strand. The assumption that that is what religious influence was – a single stream of thought that could be used to justify intervention – made it easy to say, “OK, we’ve done that, we’ve considered the religious side of things.” But when you get into the diversity – and I don't mean just accounting for the diversity by going through all the different denominations and the factions within the denominations, clergy versus laity, clergy and laity, etc., you struggle to come up with a simple answer. If it’s so diverse, then what is the influence of religion over foreign policy? How can something that’s so endlessly diverse have an influence? How can we speak of “a” religious influence? I wrestled with that for a long time.

Did you find yourself at the end with a sense of how one might start to think of religious influence in a systematic way? Or a better sense of how one could isolate religion as a factor in a particular foreign policy case study?

I think if I had to generalize over the whole of American history, I would say the religion's influence has been mostly Protestant. Protestant beliefs have been the norm that Catholics and Jews have had to conform to. But if you take a particular historical case, Vietnam for example, it depends on the actors and the ideas and the policies of the period. So, it would depend on who the influential policy-makers were, who the influential religious figures were, how they interacted, what’s going on from the bottom-up versus top-down. Drawing helpful conclusions requires being sensitive to particular contexts. You couldn’t just say, “Oh, there is a religious influence and it works in the same way, whether it’s the 1920s or the 1960s or today.”

The title “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith” encapsulates the different ways religion can serve as a foreign policy tool. Has there been an American leader who effectively combined the sword and the shield to achieve their foreign policy goals?

Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan are the two who immediately spring to mind. I’ve always been an admirer of FDR, despite his habit for duplicity and dishonesty. But I think he very effectively used religion and religious values. He used them sincerely, but in a highly instrumental way – as a means to explain global crisis to the American people, to formulate a response, and to implement it… Religion certainly isn’t the whole of the story, but it's a part. FDR used religion to help get America through a struggle, to justify and fight a war, to fashion the post-war order, and to maintain morale throughout.

As for Reagan, well, it took me awhile to make sense of Reagan – maybe I haven’t, even after writing a chapter on him. I quote Jack Matlock in the chapter on Reagan as saying something like people thought there were two Reagans but really there was just one. Regan was incredibly aggressive in some senses, and yet in his mind, his objective was to end the Cold War.

But we shouldn't assume that he knew how it was going to end, and that he didn't get very lucky. Reagan wanted a new relationship with the Soviet Union, on American terms, just as Gorbachev came along.

Regan has his first private meeting with Gorbachev in the White House two years into his presidency to talk about the Pentecostals who were holed up in the U.S. embassy in Moscow. This is really the moment when the new relationship began. But shortly after, Reagan gave a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals and called the Soviet Union an "evil empire". That’s probably the sharpest example to me of the sword of the spirit and the shield of the faith working together.

The papal succession is encouraging debate over the Vatican's role in international relations. How does the Vatican's role today compare to during the Cold War? What influence do you think the next pope will exert over American foreign policy?

Well, the Vatican's importance has changed since the Cold War because the Catholic Church has become less important to the United States. Simply put, this is because of the nature of the current global struggle and where that struggle is located – it’s not centered in Europe anymore, and it’s not really about religion. Pius XII and John Paul II were very influential during the Cold War, and Vatican II had a huge impact in so many ways. I think that will be an incredibly fruitful avenue of research in terms of understanding the importance of the Vatican to the Cold War and international relations. Today, I think amount of influence depends on who the next pope is and where he comes from – an African or Latin American pope could create a new dynamic. Regardless of who is chosen, the world has changed and the issues we’re facing are changing, and so the relationship between the Vatican and the United States has grown more complex. The needs of each side are not as synchronized as they were during the Cold War.