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Fri Mar 16 15:25:47 UTC 2012
The Religious Language In U.S. Foreign Policy
Listen to the Story
Fresh Air from WHYY <http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/>
[19 min 57 sec]
[image: Historian Andrew Preston says George Washington, Thomas Jefferson
and Alexander Hamilton were not religious themselves but did see religion
as a source of morality.]
Enlarge Three Lions/Getty Images
Historian Andrew Preston says George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and
Alexander Hamilton were not religious themselves but did see religion as a
source of morality.
March 15, 2012
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.
[image: Sword of the Spirit, Shield of
Sword Of The Spirit, Shield Of
Religion In American War And Diplomacy
by Andrew Preston<http://www.npr.org/books/authors/147191965/andrew-preston>
"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
"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
"It is a very powerful strand," he says. "Part of it comes from the
Protestant faith that some of the first colonists brought over with them: a
Calvinistic belief in providence that God had a plan for people, that God
had chosen people and that Americans were one of those peoples — they were
God's instrument on Earth to do good and to rid the world of evil."
Preston says he thinks this belief still exists in the country today.
"I think a lot of Americans believe that, and I think it provides a very
strong motivation for people calling for America to act the way it does in
the world," he says. "You can see it in the rhetoric around quite a few
wars. You could see it in the rhetoric in George W. Bush's language in
justifying the war in Iraq. Whether that decision was right or wrong ... I
don't take a stand on that, but that sort of idea — that America is chosen
... was all over Bush's rhetoric. But Bush was certainly not an aberration
in American history. He was actually quite typical."
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