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Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith

British academic Andrew Preston offers a crisply written account of the historic intersection of religion and US foreign policy.

March 8, 2012

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy By Andrew Preston Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 832 pp

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Reviewed by Meredith Hindley for The Barnes & Noble Review

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In the fall of 1898, President William McKinley faced a dilemma. America's "splendid little war" had put an end to Spain's colonial rule in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. He knew that Puerto Rico and Guam would become US protectorates and Cuba nominally independent, but the fate of the Philippines remained a puzzle. Dissatisfied with the advice he received from both Republicans and Democrats, he turned to God. As McKinley told the story: "I walked the floor of White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my hands and knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night." Finally he had the answer: The United States would lay claim to the Philippines.

McKinley's faith helped him to resolve a foreign policy dilemma – and he's not the only president or politician to draw on religion when confronted with a diplomatic crisis or conundrum. Woodrow Wilson's vision for a new world order was grounded in the Christian principles of fellowship and love, tenets he learned in the Calvinist household of his youth. Harry Truman believed that American society could not function without the clear definitions of right and wrong that religion provided. His Baptist faith, along with the need to court the Jewish vote, led to US support for the establishment of Israel, against the advice of the State Department.

Historians of American foreign relations have been traditionally leery – and sometimes dismissive – of the notion that faith plays a serious role in these moments of decision. The intangible, personal nature of religion makes it hard to square with more realist considerations like troop numbers, nuclear capacity, and trade imbalances. But ignoring religion means excluding a vibrant aspect of American culture and denying that policymakers have spiritual lives. Over the past decade, historians have studied the intersection between religion and American diplomacy by looking at everything from missionaries as proselytizers of American values to campaigns for religious liberty abroad.

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