Andrew Preston was awarded the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-fiction on March 4 in Toronto. Maclean’s interviewed Preston as part of a five-part series with the nominees. The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing.
Andrew Preston, 39, did not set out to study the role of religion in America’s relations with the outside world. The Toronto-born historian, who now teaches at the University of Cambridge, is a specialist in U.S. foreign policy. He was teaching at Yale University in 2003 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when he found himself unable to answer his students’ questions about president George W. Bush’s use of religious rhetoric in justifying the forthcoming war. Not only did Preston have no answers, he recalls, “few of my fellow historians did either.” So he set out to write the book that would provide them, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, shortlisted for this year’s Charles Taylor Prize.
Preston found plenty to surprise him. Most foreigners are, naturally, far more familiar with the way religion has acted as a sword in American history, providing motive, justification and rhetoric—think The Battle Hymn of the Republic—for continental expansion and, later, overseas war. When Preston began his research he thought the sword would turn out to have dominated the shield—the powerful religious influence always present in American isolationism and international peace efforts. Not at all, he concluded: “the shield was actually not just equal to the sword but more prominent until recently, right up to the Cold War, in fact.” The Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928, in which nations renounced the pursuit of war, was an “idealistic American initiative, and religious groups were key in pushing for it.”
Then there was the extraordinary inclusiveness of what the historian came to see as America’s civic religion, best epitomized by president Abraham Lincoln. Rebelling against “the hard-shelled Baptist beliefs” of his parents, Lincoln was the next thing to an atheist in his early years. But he became “increasingly and more conventionally spiritual,” in the crucible of the Civil War, Preston says, coming, like many of his countrymen, to believe that God was preserving the union for a purpose. That war cemented what would become the U.S.’s articles of faith: the duty of humanitarian intervention and America as God’s chosen nation.
Drawn from militant Calvinist principles, the civic faith was more broadly Protestant by Lincoln’s time, and grew to incorporate Catholicism, Judaism and even Mormonism by the Cold War years. That inclusivity reached a peak of sorts when president-elect Dwight Eisenhower declared in late 1952 that the American form of government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief, and I don’t care what it is.” Now, Preston notes, the American civic religion may be broadening further, reaching even beyond non-Western faiths like Islam: “Barack Obama was the first president to ever mention people without faith in his inaugural address.”
The House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., February 1846. Two weeks shy of his 79th birthday, Congressman John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts sat quietly as debate roared around him. Ostensibly the issue was the Oregon Country, a huge territory on the Pacific coast that stretched for nearly a thousand miles from the northern boundary of California to the southern fringe of Russian Alaska. Both Great Britain and the United States laid claim to Oregon, but until then neither country had been willing to run the risk of war to assert its exclusive sovereignty. By the 1840s, however, Americans were gripped by expansionist fever and guided by a belief in their God-given manifest destiny to conquer and settle the entire North American continent. Texas, annexed the year before, was the first step, Oregon the next; the territory between Texas and the Pacific, then part of Mexico, would follow after. Few disputed expansionism in the abstract. But in the real world, expansion raised an uncomfortable question: where the flag went, would slavery follow? The Pacific Northwest was obviously unsuitable for plantation agriculture, and thus economically infeasible for slavery. Still, Southerners worried that annexing Oregon, and its several future states, would empower the antislavery North by providing it with allies—and more crucially, votes—in Congress. With its rich soil and natural harbours, Northerners wanted Oregon as farmland and a gateway to Asia, but they also wanted it to offset the acquisition of slave-holding Texas. The debate over Oregon, in other words, was actually a debate over slavery.
In frail health, Adams watched as Southerners who had pushed through the annexation of Texas called for moderation on Oregon, while Northerners did the opposite. As an opponent of slavery and an ardent nationalist, Adams knew he would vote to give the President, James K. Polk, authority to push America’s claims to Oregon to the brink of war. But to protect his failing health, he had also vowed not to participate in the increasingly heated exchanges on the House floor. Yet as a former president himself, and as the secretary of state who had agreed to disagree with the British and postpone settlement of the Oregon controversy 20 years before, how could he not? This at least was the opinion of Thomas Butler King, Congressman from Georgia, who challenged Adams to defend his record, past and present. “This direct call from Mr. King,” Adams recorded in his diary, “I could not resist.”
America’s claim to all of Oregon, Adams responded, “is clear and unquestionable.” After another exchange with King, Adams asked the House clerk if he could read aloud three pieces of evidence supporting this bold claim. The first was the Book of Genesis, specifically chapter 1, verses 26-28, in which God created Adam and Eve in his own image and gave them, and their descendants, “dominion . . . over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” These passages from Genesis, Adams explained after the clerk finished reading, provided “the foundation not only of our title to Oregon, but the foundation of all human title to all human possessions.” But if Genesis applied universally, it hardly explained whether Britain or America was the worthier claimant to Oregon. So Adams asked the clerk to read his next piece of evidence, the eighth verse of the second psalm: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Now, Adams instructed the clerk, “turn back a verse or two, and you will see to whom it is said He would give them.” Though most of those present knew exactly what the second psalm contained, the clerk continued reading before a hushed House:
6. Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Zion.
7. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee.
8. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
In case they needed it, Adams reminded his colleagues that “the speaker of this promise was God Almighty, and the person to whom the promise was made was Jesus Christ.” Because Americans were God’s chosen people, a notion Adams took very seriously, their claim to earth’s dominion came directly from Jesus. After this bit of drama, the third piece of evidence—Matthew 28:18-20, which enjoined the godly to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations”—was superfluous, and Adams refrained from asking the clerk to read it aloud as well. The British did not want to civilize and Christianize the land. Instead, they wanted “to keep it in a savage and barbarous state for her hunters—for the benefit of the Hudson Bay Company for hunting.” For Adams, “therein consists the difference between her claims and our claims. We claim that country—for what? To make the wilderness blossom as the rose, to establish laws, to increase, multiply, and subdue the earth, which we are commanded to do by the first behest of God Almighty.” Congressman Adams could not have been clearer: while the United States had God on its side, Great Britain did not.
Excerpted from Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith by Andrew Preston. Copyright © 2012. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.