The Religious Language in U.S. Foreign Policy
Historian Andrew Preston first became interested in the overlap between religion and America’s foreign policy decisions while teaching an undergraduate class on American foreign policy in the days leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“My students took it for granted that [Osama] bin Laden would use extremist rhetoric, [but] they were more surprised by [President George W.] Bush’s use of religious imagery and religious rhetoric to explain American foreign policy,” Preston tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “And they asked me if this was unusual in American history, if presidents turned to religion very often. … I told them that I’d find out some more. I said that in general, I thought that religion didn’t play much of a role in U.S. foreign policy.”
But Preston says he wasn’t convinced of his own answer. He decided to research the topic further, only to find that historians had largely overlooked the relationship between religion and foreign policy throughout American history.
“And once I started looking at the documents, once I started looking for religion, it was everywhere,” he says. “And I thought, ‘This would be something I’d like to work on.’ “
The result is his book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, which traces how religious language has been invoked to support U.S. foreign policy decisions throughout the country’s history and up to the present day.
Preston explains, among other things, how Abraham Lincoln’s use of religious rhetoric during the Civil War helped influence later humanitarian missions, and how religious liberty was a major factor for Franklin Delano Roosevelt when thinking about the U.S. role in World War II.
Even before the country was founded, Preston says, early settlers used their religious doctrines to frame their thinking. The earliest settlers to the New World came looking for a haven from religious prosecution, but also wanted to protect their faith from opponents throughout Europe.
“At various points it looked like it might not survive,” he says. “So at various points, the [early settlers] wanted to bring the Protestant faith to the New World to keep it safe and let it grow.”
These people who founded Massachusetts, they were seeking religious liberty and they were complaining about the persecutions they suffered in England. And of course, the first thing they do when they get to Massachusetts is persecute others and persecute their religion.
- Andrew Preston
The Puritans ended up identifying the protection of their Protestant faith with their own physical security, he says.
“They believed that not only did they have to protect that idea to protect themselves, but they believed that they had to spread it,” he says. “And by spreading that idea, they would ensure its survival, ensure its prosperity, and then they would ensure their own survival. And this kind of exceptionalism has been fairly constant and continuous in American history.”
Preston points to the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — the group that would found the state of Massachusetts, which clearly states that its primary goal was to “incite the natives to the knowledge and obedience to the only true God and savior of mankind.”
“They had some strong ideas about their own faith and their own virtue and the virtue of their own faith,” he says. “These people who founded Massachusetts, they were seeking religious liberty and they were complaining about the persecutions they suffered in England. And of course, the first thing they do when they get to Massachusetts is persecute others and persecute their religion.”
Since its founding, Preston says, America has seen itself as “God’s chosen nation.”