Magazine April 30, 2012, Issue

Faith and Foreign Policy

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, by Andrew Preston (Knopf, 832 pp., $37.50)

There is no vocabulary in modern politics to describe the point at which the heavens touch the earth. Which is why Andrew Preston, when he was yet a graduate student at Yale in 2003, was puzzled that George W. Bush should guide his nation into war with Iraq by “consistently” framing “the crisis in terms of religion.” There were three possible explanations: First, Bush was simply “a premodern aberration in a postmodern world,” which would have brought all further discussion to a convenient end; or, second, Bush was merely manipulating the minds of the religion-and-gun-clingers to his own cynical political ends; or, third, he was the inheritor of some hermetic tradition in American foreign policy that laid out the goals of diplomacy according to the City of God rather than the City of Man. The problem for Preston as he examined the issue was that there existed a plentiful supply of historical writing that described the shaping of Americans’ domestic-policy conflicts within a religious framework, but there was no corresponding literature among the diplomatic historians.

It became Preston’s burden to prove that “religion played an important role in shaping American perceptions of the world, and in contributing to domestic debates on how the United States should engage with other nations.” In many respects, Preston has done his work well, in an opus of over 800 pages, with a bibliography of over 2,000 items and research in 36 different archives from Abilene to Geneva. And it comes as a relief that his book is not intended as a blandly reductionist account of how religion started strong in American diplomacy, among the old-time religious obsessives, but faded mercifully fast in the new age of secular Realpolitik.

At its best, Preston believes, religion has acted as the conscience of American foreign policy, supporting the urge to promote democracy and humanitarian intervention and criticizing the pursuit of mere national self-interest. It has also provided a large and easily mobilized constituency that will respond to efforts to frame diplomacy in religious terms. At its worst, religion has encouraged reckless forms of moral adventurism, a recklessness made all the easier because, for much of its existence, the U.S. has enjoyed what Preston calls “free security,” courtesy of two oceans. “Free security” has allowed popular religious pressures to override the cautions of more hard-headed American leaders, and allowed assorted religious crusaders to make demands for a level of perfectionism that could flourish only in an atmosphere where no immediate retaliation for such crusades was seriously expected.

The history (rather than the analysis) of these ideas is what consumes the vast bulk of Preston’s book, beginning with the asseverations of Protestant mission that accompanied the English colonists’ determination to make North America a theater in which “to trafficke” and “to conquer.” This errand into the wilderness endured some severe backtracking in America under the influence of the Enlightenment, but the American Enlightenment was still a “religious Enlightenment” in which “faith and modernity were two sides to the same coin.” Americans, in their new republic, may not have conducted their foreign relations with quite the same focus on the old Protestant cause, but they certainly allowed it to go forward in privatized form in the great Protestant missionary enthusiasm of the 19th century. Preston does not mean to say that “the American missionary enterprise” was “a straightforward handmaiden of empire,” but he wants us to understand that American diplomats trod very respectfully in the shadow of Protestant missions, if only because they still saw religion as a component of civilization itself.

#page#Preston finds a significant fork in the road after 1900, with American religion becoming split between religious liberals who had lost faith in a uniquely American mission and conservative millennialists who turned first Zionism and then anti-Communism into articles of foreign-policy faith. Even so, the relationship between religion and diplomacy remained “complicated and ambivalent.” Preston downplays just how liberal a Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson was, but still manages to show how even a milk-and-water Christianity of the Wilsonian sort surprised and dismayed cynical Europeans, and he is frank enough in his assessment of Franklin Roosevelt’s even thinner religion to say that it still managed to foster a lethal naïveté in FDR’s mind about the Soviet Union.

What Preston calls the Great Schism between religion and diplomacy really waited until the Sixties to bow in, when a “profound transformation” of attitudes robbed Protestantism of its dominance and gave secularism the cultural upper hand. The “wall of separation” between religion and diplomacy hardened as the domestic balance between church and state shifted, and diplomacy became so neutered of religious consciousness that a U.S. diplomat in Iran, caught flat-footed by the Islamic revolution in 1979, wailed uncomprehendingly, “Who ever took religion seriously anyway!”

But schisms are not necessarily permanent, and in the 1950s, anti-Communism had become a solvent of the harsh boundaries that once existed between Protestants and Catholics. A common urgency brought together Catholics (Joe McCarthy, William F. Buckley Jr., Fulton Sheen) and Protestant fundamentalists (Billy Graham, Carl McIntire) in a diplomatic popular front that could scarcely have been thinkable to John Winthrop, but that eventually proved very capable of putting religious considerations back onto the foreign-relations table. The result was a resurgence of religious debate on policy issues in the 1980s, characterized by the unconventional but devout Ronald Reagan and the Jesuit-educated William Casey. And, Preston adds, “the religious influence on American foreign relations continues.” It may not “always determine the direction of policy,” but it will be “an ever-present factor” to be reckoned with by policymakers.

And here lies the chief problem with this book — although not its only problem. As a history of religion and diplomacy, it is thorough, at times daring (especially in the connections it draws between 19th-century diplomacy and Protestant missions), but often pedestrian. Much of it takes us over territory in American religious history that is just religious, rather than diplomatic, and that is a good deal more historical than it is either religious or diplomatic. And much of it is simply a chronological narrative, rather than a continuing application of Preston’s opening promise to show how American religion served as a conscience, or played as a constituency, or degenerated into reckless diplomatic demagoguery.

Preston disappoints as well in the actors he chooses for the speaking roles. Let me say at once that I understand his dilemma: American religion is so vast a tapestry that even with 600-plus tightly printed pages of narrative at his disposal, a large amount of intellectual triage must take place. Even so, the voices we end up hearing are almost entirely those of the Protestant establishment. When they appear at all, conservative Protestant dissenters (McIntire, Billy James Hargis) are presented as the commanders of ominous armies of 20th-century night, heedless of the penalties American foreign relations would suffer if the country followed their foolhardy anti-Communism. But neither McIntire nor Hargis ever commanded more than the tiniest sliver of a following, nor is there any bright line connecting Harry Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel to the Scofield Reference Bible — a connection Preston suggests. (Ironically, the one Cold War president who proclaimed an interest in reading theologians as some form of guide to foreign policy was also the president who proved incapable of comprehending a religious insurrection in Iran in 1979.) As much as Preston wants to restore the religious fizz to foreign policy in the Cold War decades, the diplomacy of that era was not a debate between religious conservatives and secular liberals, but between secular liberals and secular more-liberals, with conservatives of all sorts relegated invisibly to the sidelines.

#page#But the book’s most frustrating aspect is the vague, and ultimately useless, language employed to describe religion as a “factor” in American diplomacy. What is a factor? What, exactly, does it mean for Preston to say that, “whether from the top down in the form of the personal piety of American leaders, or the bottom up in the form of pressure from religious groups and individuals,” religion was “an integral part of foreign relations”? If, after wading to the end of the book, all we can say about religion is that it is a force, a factor, an integral part of American diplomacy, without in some fashion showing how it provided specific intellectual defaults, or mapped out certain identifiable patterns of decision-making, then we have actually done nothing more than we do when we helplessly ascribe changes in historical events to trends, as though trends were small, furry animals that gambol about, making things happen.

What we want to understand here is causality, and causality is what keeps slipping through Preston’s fingers. What was it about George Kennan that moves Preston to describe him as a “Calvinist,” and what was it about Kennan’s Calvinism that inspired containment? What made John Foster Dulles a “spiritual diplomat,” when it’s not very clear from Preston’s description what religion Dulles espoused? The one moment in the history of American politics where a president quite frankly admitted that he had left a decision up to God, and the signs that God would give him, was Abraham Lincoln’s publication of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. That, of course, was not about foreign policy (although it had major foreign-policy implications), and merits little more than a paragraph in Preston’s account. Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation represents the closest we may ever come to an American solon’s formulating policy on the same basis as Joan of Arc.

Preston has given us a very good history of American religion and the religion of some very important American diplomats. But even after 600 pages, we still are at a loss to say what it is specifically about religion that impels diplomats and presidents to do this and not that. We would need, for instance, to hear a president or a chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee say that he has reviewed all the tables, charts, and reports, but cannot come to a final decision until he polls the leaders of American churches, or holds an all-night prayer vigil, or finds a specific direction (or prohibition) in Holy Writ. Ask yourself how likely we are to hear something like that in 2012, and you have a good measure of how blunt any swords of the spirit have become in our diplomacy, and how little faith has come to serve as our shield.

– Mr. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and director of the Civil War Studies Program, at Gettysburg College.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. 

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