Andrew Preston has written an informative book on an unusual topic: religion and politics. It is long and detailed; 600 plus pages along with 200 more pages of bibliography, notes and index. Preston is committed to outlining the entwinement of religious belief and the foreign politics of the developing American Republic…despite the official doctrine of the separation of Church and state. Both religion and foreign policy have served to shape America, and yet few religious historians examine diplomacy whole just as few American diplomatic historians examine the influence of religion. This motivates Preston to examine the entwinement closely. Religion, notes Preston, is not the only influencing pattern, there are many others, but religion is critically important in foreign policy; and, “politics is central because it formed a bridge between popular religion and elite policy” (p.7). Preston asks, “Why should American policy makers care about religion?” Rhetorically he answers that the policy makers themselves grew up in religiously based environments and bring these learned attitudes to the public office. Thus he states, “…much of my task is therefore dedicated to recovering the lost dimensions and exposing the hidden depths of the individuals who made US Policy” (p.8).
From the outset in Colonial history along the N.A. seaboard, religious ideals and beliefs brought by extremist Puritans, merged with Whiggian Republicanism and became later reified as civil religion. A cluster of religious values were entwined with vivid religious imagery, which the Nation’s leaders, as virtual popes, could manipulate in appealing to Americans for support in fighting for liberty and freedom abroad. The colonist leaders used the Bible (Gen. 1:26-28 and Psalm 2: 6-8 specifically) to justify themselves as a chosen people in land chosen for them by God. This belief drove the quest for westward expansion in North America; and then after the Wars of Independence and of 1812, the new Republic formulated international policy since it could no longer rely on British protection for their now foreign trade relations. Preston describes the idealistic international attitudes of the Wilson era, suggesting that the pious captains of US industry saw no conflict between the gospel of wealth at home and the social gospel abroad (p. 271). The uplift of humanity worldwide would serve to protect American values and interests. Regarding the times of paranoia of world domination by communism and the Truman Doctrine, Preston notes that policy came from a sense of a clear antithesis of good and evil in a Cold War. “In Europe, the shield of faith could be used to defend against the growth of Communist ideology. In Eastern Europe the sword of the spirit could be wielded against communist regimes” (p. 432).
Political figures had generally been socialized and indoctrinated with literalism, dogmatically, in Biblical studies, and thus could vividly use Biblical imagery for political gain. “God the Lord of hosts was mighty in battle, and it was terrifying to fall into the hands of an angry God.” Preston writes that there was in America a fusion of patriotism and religious faith filtered through a Puritan frontier mentality and mythology, and this carried on in the populist republican American collective mind (p. 171). Preston concludes his book by indicating that President Obama, speaking on foreign policy, also knows how to appeal to this mind: “Obama’s rhetoric cast basic issues in Niebuhrian terms [Christian realism], using just force in an unjust world” (p.613). About the early Puritans’ efforts to rid the frontier of the evil specter of deadly reprisals from morally injured Aboriginals, Preston writes, that the Puritans believed that in order to achieve their holy ends, the use of unholy means were often required (p. 35). Preston notes also that if John Winthrop and his followers had not emigrated when they did in the civil unrest and its paranoia about supposed papal plots in late 1620’s, (or the Jamestown Episcopalians in 1606),“it is doubtful they would have carried with them such an intensely radical world view” (p. 34).
Preston does not write on US Canadian relations except for a brief mention of the loyalists and pacifists moving to Canada because of the revolutionary war against the King of England. He notes that at least 1/5 to 1/3 of the American population then emigrated due to their reluctance to fight, and their loyalty to Britain and the Anglican Church. Preston notes that most Anglicans at the time of the revolutionary war remained loyal to the Crown, and to the Bible which counselled them to obedience to their rulers; the Tories, Preston suggests, perhaps revealing some of his own subjective biases“…envisioned society in almost feudalistic terms, as an organic whole that prospered and suffered together regardless of an individual’s wealth or social standing. They had a communalistic view of society that was incompatible with the individualistic republicanism of Patriot ideology. Anarchy was the only substitute for deference to rulers; of the two Anglicans strongly preferred the stability assured by deference” (p. 82). Also migrating to Canada because of religious values were the rapidly growing Methodists, many being loyalists as well as pacifists. Migrating for similar reason were the Quakers, Mennonites and other smaller religious communities.
With this brain drain of Tories from the American scene, there was little challenge to the emerging confluence of Whig Patriot ideology and radical Calvinist Puritanism which would lay the foundations for the American mind. The Federalist influence would be eliminated after the war of 1812. Religious Revivalism with its practices of fear-mongering and the use of apocalyptic and demonological imagery, (papal plots), contributed to mobilizing Americans for the revolutionary war and the wars to follow. Preston identifies this new emerging world view as built upon a version ofan older English version characterized by: 1) Hostility to external sources of concentrated power. 2) Fiercely protective of individual liberty. 3) An exceptionalist belief that nowhere else did such freedoms exist. 4) Driven by an unbending, crusading sense of righteous morality (p. 59). John Locke’s liberal theory of government combined with Puritan covenant theology reasoned that since the King had broken the covenant obligations of the social contract; the Patriots were justified, duty bound, in claiming their independence. Leaders of necessity needed to be pure and virtuous believers. Puritans, Preston finds, had turned just war theory onto its head; they saw it more as necessary, than evil, and thus just. War was seen as millennial necessity fueled by visceral apocalyptic fears and a desire to preserve American values…to do good by fighting evil. Preston reviews the personal history, the speeches and the foreign policy of all the presidents from Washington to Obama, and discovers that, though changes have occurred in history, at the core libertarian values and holy war rhetoric continues to play a large part in shaping foreign policy in America. One big change occurred in the 1950sduring the cold war when there was a switch from religion shaping foreign policy, to where now politics began shaping religious values; the religious right emerged in the 1970’s (third revival?).
Reading this book as a Canadian, I recognize a visceral inclination to be anti-American; but with some reflection realize that it is easy to be critical of others while ignoring the camel in my own eye. What does Preston’s research and insights teach us as Canadians; certainly not to provide more ammunition to tear apart their ideology? This book is a good read with good insights to “listen to,” and the book contains much that can assist us in gaining insight into our own Canadian collective “mind” or worldview. Perhaps in the last generation we too have borrowed some libertarian and adversarial, political habits and we are sporting Whiggian republican politics in Ottawa; Red Tories are not in abundance and populist public opinion supports libertarian economics and a law and order justice agenda. Perhaps we can look into the significance of the role that religion-politics has played in Canadian history and how that is affecting our own internal and foreign policy.
It has been a generation since George Grant wrote, Lament for a Nation, appealing to Canadians not to follow the American liberal way of so-called “freedom” from Eternal values. Despite a more pluralistic-multi-cultural society from the outset of our colonial history, Canadians cannot cease to have respectful and meaningful dialogue involving religiously inspired values in the public arena. As Preston’s book suggests, it is virtually impossible to keep personal religious values from impacting public policy; perfect functionalist separation and neutrality is impossible. Dialogue with, and influence on, the state regarding foreign policy should be inclusive, intelligent, avoiding cleverly devised historical-religious myths. We should be able to have respectful dialogue about partisan issues in the church for collective insight and for concern and action for the common good. Or has the doctrine of the separation of church and state led to a separation of religion and political intelligence, (by this I also mean Emotional intelligence)? There is certainly room for dialogue after Prime Minister Harper’s recent State visit to Israel and Palestine. Respectful relations between Israel and Palestine are crucial, as are other foreign policy issues especially after Canada’s entry into mid-east tensions. Policy must arise from an intelligent public political dialogue, but a dialogue that is inclusive of matured values of the heart, and for the Christian, the core heart values are those of justice in love, peace, and reconciliation. Peace is not forthcoming in a system that polarizes into camps of them, and us, or, into good guys, and bad guys, franchised and disenfranchised; social categorization results in social distance. International justice cannot arise from western greed for markets, nor from paternalism or triumphalism based on a subjectively derived religious-political mythology. As disputants, to declare a war on each other’s position is not necessary, but with a contemplative eye of faith we can recognize Common Grace, common humanity, common ground, and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. We need not be adversarial, nor passively avoiding conflict, while acting as agonistic democratic agents, actively and humbly working for solutions for good relationships, for peace and reconciliation, nationally and internationally.
Henk Smidstra, Jan. 2014.