Conversations: Andrew Preston

Last week, we reviewed Cambridge historian Andrew Preston’s very worthwhile new book on religion in American foreign policy, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith. In the book, Preston (left) addresses religion’s complex, but constant, role in American diplomacy from colonial times to the present. This week, Preston kindly agrees to answer some questions from CLR Forum. He discusses historians’ tendency to ignore the influence of religion, the place of “Christian republicanism”  and anti-Catholicism in American foreign policy, and the ways in which today’s secular human-rights campaigners echo the universalist notions of nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries. He also discusses the impact of post-War secularization, tensions between the religious right and religious left, and the place of religion in President Obama’s foreign policy.

CLR Forum: Andrew, you note that, although religion has greatly influenced the formation and execution of American foreign policy, most diplomatic histories neglect its role. Why do you think that is? Does the neglect reflect a realist approach that denies the importance of ideology in foreign relations generally or a failure of diplomatic historians to come to terms with religion in particular? 

Preston: It’s an impossible question to answer definitively, but I think the general neglect of religion reflects both the prevailing dominance of the realist approach and the fact that religion is still poorly understood, and even seen as strange and alien, by most academic historians of international relations and foreign policy. This is despite the cultural turn’s phenomenal impact on diplomatic history, which now avidly incorporates non-traditional categories of historical analysis such as race, gender, and post-modernism.

CLR Forum: An important theme in Sword of the Spirit is the impact on American foreign policy of what you call “Christian republicanism,” a unique “blend of Protestant theology and democratic politics.” According to this worldview, Christianity is compatible with political freedom; indeed, Christianity is the source of political freedom. How did this ideology develop, and how is it distinctively American?

Preston: I’m not sure it’s distinctively American, though its endurance in American political thought for several centuries is unique. But the ideology of Christian republicanism developed out of the English and Scottish Reformations, when Protestant reformers argued that anyone who put themselves between God and His people was distorting the course of Christianity—not just priests and bishops, but especially the monarchs who claimed a divine right of rule. This ideology then became adopted by partisans for American independence in the 1770s and ’80s.

CLR Forum: Your book makes clear that an antipathy toward Catholicism has had an important influence on American foreign policy. For example, you note that President William McKinley once declared, apparently without irony, that America must annex the already Catholic Philippines in order to “Christianize” them. Yet during and after World War II, Catholicism was assimilated to the “Christian republican” identity. In your view, what were the reasons for the change? 

Preston: Partly because American Catholics worked hard to assimilate into an American society that was dominated by Protestantism, and partly because the bases of American society shifted so that by the 1940s Protestant exceptionalism was no longer a legitimate basis for American national identity. The interesting story is how Catholics used foreign policy issues—particularly by supporting the Spanish-American War, the world wars, and the Cold War—to demonstrate their loyalty to America. At the tail end of this process, America’s crusade against Nazi intolerance in World War II delegitimized religious prejudice. JFK still faced anti-Catholic bigotry in the 1960 election, but it was already waning; and then his victory essentially killed it off.

CLR Forum: Sword of the Spirit shows that religion has had a complex influence on American foreign policy. Christian convictions have justified both isolationism and internationalism, sometimes in the thought of the same person, e.g., John Foster Dulles. Do you see these same tensions today? On what issues do the contemporary religious right and religious left disagree? On what issues do they agree? 

Preston: I think the religious right and left, and Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and others all agree that America should promote and protect basic universal human rights around the world. What is remarkable is the extent to which religious isolationism has more or less disappeared. Most religious communities agree that the United States should engage with the world to promote its ideals; they just disagree on how this should be done. Religious liberals are wary of military intervention, religious conservatives less so.

CLR Forum: Protestant missionaries were the first international human rights campaigners in American history. Of course, today’s human rights discourse is almost entirely secular. And yet you note that, just like the nineteenth-century missionaries, today’s secular human rights campaigners sometimes fail to recognize that their ideology is not really “universal.” Could you please elaborate on this? 

Preston: We often assume that because some things seem so abhorrent, revulsion for them must be universal. Yet often these practices are not only tolerated but embraced by other cultures. When Western reformers—be they yesteryear’s missionaries or today’s human rights NGOs—enter a foreign country and demand the cessation of certain practices, they are automatically engaging in a kind of cultural imperialism by changing local custom in the name of a universal ideal, even though the locals have never heard of this universal ideal. A good analogy would be between the anti-foot binding crusades by American missionaries to China in the late 19th century and anti-female circumcision campaigns by human rights advocates today. I happen to agree with the morality of both these causes, and I happen to find foot-binding and female circumcision morally repugnant, and I think most Westerners would agree with me. But putting our views into practice means obliterating local cultures around the world. The end result might be a more just world, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t practicing a kind of cultural imperialism by obliterating the local in favor of the universal. The irony is that many human rights campaigners today try to distinguish themselves from the supposedly aggressive missionaries of the past, but to me they seem more alike than different.

CLR Forum: You argue that things changed with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations – for the first time, religion became “a complication rather than a complement to foreign policy.” Why did that change occur, and what were the consequences? 

Preston: American society itself became more pluralistic, so basing foreign policy on Judeo-Christian exceptionalism was no longer all that straightforward. This was doubly true in a decolonizing world, in which the largely non-Christian “global south” gained a measure of power and influence. Back home, meanwhile, Americans were also becoming secularizing in two ways: one, many Americans were losing their religion entirely or turning to non-Judeo-Christian faiths; and two, more and more Americans were privatizing their religion to the extent that they were still believers but weren’t turning to faith to solve the nation’s (or world’s) social, cultural, or political problems. The result, for a time, was a more secular foreign policy. It had been easy for FDR or Truman or Eisenhower to base U.S. foreign policy on certain religious principles because most Americans agreed on what those principles meant, and most believed in them. But from the 1960s on, religion became more complicated and divisive, and thus less useful for presidents when they sought to explain or justify U.S. foreign policy.

CLR Forum: How would you assess the role of religion in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy and what do you predict for the future? 

Preston: Obama is often assumed to be either a Muslim or a secularist, and neither is true. By all accounts, including his own, he’s a deeply devout Christian who respects other faiths as well as people of no faith. In this sense, he has much in common with Franklin Roosevelt. And like FDR, Obama has put religious liberty at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, most notably in his June 2009 Cairo speech in which he argued that the path to peace lay in religious pluralism and mutual toleration and in which he deliberately widened the Judeo-Christian tradition to potentially encompass Islam as well. However, Obama has not yet backed up his soaring rhetoric with much in the way of actual foreign policies. So it’s a mixed record so far—but the most striking thing is that there is a record.

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