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Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, by Andrew Preston

President Obama and his family pray during Easter services at Allen Chapel AME Church in Washington on April 4, 2010.

White House

"One who follows the teachings of Christ," as Ambrose Bierce defined a Christian, "insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin." The epithet echoes across Andrew Preston's masterful history of religion and religiosity, faith and fetish in American foreign policy.

There has been a sense of paradox in a United States ostensibly secular, proudly founded on freedom of religion, yet sanctimonious in relations with the world. The quandary was a misreading of national character. As Preston shows, the conviction of "exceptional virtue," that the U.S. was invariably pursuing "God's own cause" in a benighted world, has been as American as apple pie and payoffs.

So entwined has religion been in Washington's reasons of state – inspiration, justification, ritual cover – that there was never policy-making confusion between America's interests and the deity's, notwithstanding unappreciative victims worldwide.

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A Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge, who also taught at the University of Victoria, Preston is author of a telling study of debacle, The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC and Vietnam, and co-editor of the insightful Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977. He represents a new generation writing beyond the cant of foreign affairs discourse in the U.S., where history, to extend Clausewitz, is the continuation of politics by other means.

But not even that accomplishment quite prepared the ground for the majesty of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, 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 him 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 U.S. 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, and often how effortless and frighteningly earnest it was.

Looking through the prism of faith yields rich new perspectives: Despite the origin of colonies as a refuge from religious persecution, despite worldly realism, how divided the Founders were over a sectarian foreign policy. Presidencies frame the battle. The prudence of a George Washington or Thomas Jefferson had little chance against a zeal for the new nation's God-given free-booting.

The saga continues with Abraham Lincoln's divinely inspired Civil War, the necessarily Christian, usefully genocidal settlement of the West, and perhaps most famously, in William McKinley's 1898 prowl of the White House, down on his knees until God finally tells him to take the Philippines, albeit apparently without instruction in the savage suppression of insurgency and corrupting colonial occupation.

Imperialism always has nagging slips in divine guidance. There is Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian preacher well familiar with maps of the Middle East, but like the rest of his countrymen, abysmally ignorant of the people of the region falling under Western rule after 1918 and soon to a province of American power. Inspiration rarely comes with sensibility or knowledge of the Other to whom America is so clearly an exception.

Preston is at his best tracing the DNA of religion through the Second World War and the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. There is Franklin Roosevelt as vestryman and prayerful policy-maker, Jimmy Carter more hard-eyed than either his foes or benign posterity would have him, Ronald Reagan stunningly self-righteous yet with saving self-confidence, Barack Obama of more soothing if muscular Protestantism. "How many divisions has he got?" Stalin asked contemptuously about the Pope. How many divisions has Reinhold Niebuhr got? Ten, at last count.

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Beneath presidents troop policy-makers we only thought we knew. The freshly seen are epitomized by pious John Foster Dulles with his anti-communist moralism. Not least, there is George Kennan, the father of cold war containment whose religious world view Preston finds more apt than conventional Kennan biographers.

Could it have been otherwise for a people so steeped in faith as a comfort in their conquest of a continent, then as part of the self-congratulation for their truly exceptional wealth and achievements, and finally to justify a grasp and behaviour never dreamt of?

Preston's brilliant account of the omnipresent religious lobbies, from early special pleaders to missionary interventionists to Washington's current submission to the Israel lobby, leaves the troubling issue of whether a sectarian strain was not locked deep within U.S. democracy, whether to deny Americans' pretense as an ultimate chosen people was to deny their own will, the logic of power.

But then this chronicle shows, too, the power of knowledge, that the crude American jihad of recent years, so glaring in the Republican presidential primary campaign, was not inevitable. If the struggle between authentic idealism and ignorance has been so long unequal, a different sword and shield are still possible. It is Preston's gift to inform that choice.

Roger Morris is an award-winning historian whose Between the Graves: America, Afghanistan and the Politics of Intervention, is forthcoming.

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