Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith

By Andrew Preston

Everyone in the demon-haunted and priest-ridden Europe of the fourteenth century believed in God. There were no atheists in the Middle Ages. And despite the papacy’s temporary residence (or captivity) in Avignon, there was still only the one true church.

That said, not everyone behaved themselves as good Christians. Much of Europe, for example, was subject to the depredations of free companies of brigands who basically raped and pillaged at will. Nevertheless, even these bands of bullies were not without some religious scruples. As Barbara Tuchman writes in A Distant Mirror:

One chain still held: the necessity of absolution. Fear of dying without it was so ingrained that ghosts were believed to be the souls of the unshriven who had returned to see absolution for their sins in life. No matter how far the brigands had separated themselves from other rules, they insisted on the formula if not the substance of forgiveness.

And so when one confederation of toughs approached Avignon, the Pope attempted at first to dismiss them with the threat of excommunication. This didn’t work. The brigands, on their way to pillage Granada (a sanctioned adventure in rapine, as the place was occupied by the Moors), wanted absolution, having for ten years “committed many misdeeds in the realm of France.” Indeed, as one cardinal put it to the Pope, they had “committed all the evil that one could do and more than one could tell.”

And one other thing (it was tacked on to their demands almost “by the way”): they wanted cash. 200,000 francs, to be exact.

Absolution was easy; the ransom was another story. But the brigands wouldn’t budge. In the end, this wasn’t about the fate of their immortal souls. Tuchman’s “chain” wasn’t holding. As the company leader, Bertrand du Guesclin, explained, “there are many here who care little for absolution; they would rather have the money.” And in the end they got it.

I like that threateningly vague “there are many here.” Including Bertrand du Guesclin himself? You be the judge.

The story is little more than a footnote in Tuchman’s chronicle of a calamitous century, but it nicely illustrates an important historical law: Money talks, bullshit walks. And as the provenance of the story indicates, there’s nothing “modern” or “cynical” about such a formulation of where faith falls in the pecking order of human motivation. Even in the famously united Christendom of the Middle Ages, a civilization thick with superstition and ever-present fears of eternal hellfire, people kept their sense of priorities.

I mention all this because Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith deals squarely with the nexus between faith and realpolitik, seeking to explain how religion has influenced and shaped the foreign policy and wars of the United States from the Jamestown colonists down to the present day. And when it comes to such a subject one is faced with the gap between what we know historical actors actually did and the reasons they gave for it at the time. How do we separate the rhetoric from the reality? If, as Preston asserts, “ideals and interests” have “driven American war and diplomacy” since the seventeenth century, where do we draw the line between them? Are we being modern or cynical to attribute the driving force to be self-interest? Our medieval anecdote suggests otherwise. And what if self-interest is one’s religion?

It seems to me that there’s a rather simple test for determining the sincerity of one’s beliefs as applied to one’s actions. Actions taken that are clearly against one’s own, or the national self-interest can justifiably be seen as expressive of genuinely held ideals. I would provide examples, but they are in short supply, even in a volume as long and detailed as this. On the other hand, finding Biblical authority for self-interested if not downright mercenary foreign policy (and it’s worth remembering that the Bible can be found to authorize anything) is a strategy I think we should be skeptical of. When Samuel Purchas wrote in 1620 that seizing Native land was sanctioned because Genesis says that land only belongs to those who cultivate it for permanent settlement, we can mutter “righteous humbug” and turn the page. Or consider Preston’s summary of Queen Anne’s War: “Religion was not a cause but a condition that shaped the war’s contours and meaning; faith did not provide the spark that set war alight but the wood that fueled its burning.” Does this not suggest, inadvertently or unconsciously, a religion-as-propaganda model? Religion not as a cause for war, but as a force that “shaped” its meaning and fueled its burning?

Throughout Sword of the Spirit Preston struggles valiantly to give the devout (and almost everyone we meet is described as devout), or (a gentler designation) the “not insincere,” their due. A good example can be seen in William McKinley’s decision to hold on to the Philippines as an American colony (a first step toward imperialism that would have bloody consequences), after praying to “Almighty God for light and guidance” on the matter. It’s worth quoting Preston at length here because the pattern, not just of ideals vs. interest but in Preston’s presentation of their interaction – is typical of what we see repeated throughout the book:

It is a familiar episode in American diplomatic history, and a much derided one. For Akira Iriye and most other historians, McKinley’s moment of divine inspiration rings false. Given the stakes involved – the Philippines as independent nation or colony? America as republic or empire? – few take him at his word. Historians have instead portrayed his faith-based decision as one marked by “incongruity and frivolousness,” “superficiality,” and a “lack of sincerity.” McKinley, Iriye and others assume, could not possibly have meant what he said. Surely other factors, based on power or trade or imperial glory, must have been at work. Religion was little more than high-minded cover for more hardheaded motives.
Or so it would seem. To modern historians whose worldview is not framed by religious faith, McKinley’s decision to seek guidance through prayer is incomprehensible. But to McKinley himself, it made perfect sense; indeed, it would have been so natural, so intuitive, that he probably did not even pause to think whether it was incongruous or frivolous. And whether one disapproves of his ultimate decision to annex the Philippines, it was extremely unlikely that McKinley acted superficially or insincerely. In fact, given his personal history, the scene he related to the Methodist missionaries [of praying for guidance] was the most likely one possible. His decision to seek guidance and solace through prayer was perfectly consistent with his religious faith and political ideology. It would have been odd, and totally uncharacteristic of the man, had McKinley not prayed to God for guidance.

“No doubt McKinley had other factors in mind when he decided to make the Philippines an American colony,” Preston later avers, “but religious values gave him the strongest incentive.” I disagree. Religious values gave him the most comfortable justification (or handiest fig leaf) for his own choice of action. This isn’t to say McKinley was not a religious man, but just that in terms of foreign policy religious values had no final role in his decision. That would be to assume that God really did answer his prayers for guidance and spoke to him directly. Which, perhaps because my own worldview is not framed by religious faith, is something I cannot accept. McKinley may have been in doubt as to what to do, and he may have prayed for guidance, but in the end he decided on annexation.

Of course, after the fact religion could always be pressed into service to clothe self interest in benevolent ideals. To repeat my two basic points: (1) religion can be used to justify any course of action; (2) a truly faith-based decision can only safely be assumed in a situation where the decision maker was clearly acting against what he knew at the time was his or the nation’s best interests.

Over time, ideals and interests merged. This, I think, is what Alexis de Tocqueville meant when he wrote that “Next to each religion is a political opinion that is joined to it by affinity.” “Allow the human mind to follow its tendencies and it will regulate political society and the divine city in a uniform manner; it will seek, if I dare say it, to harmonize the earth with Heaven.”

Only Tocqueville’s order, I would argue, needs to be reversed in the American example: harmonizing Heaven with the earth. America created a God in its own image. Time and again Preston insists on how “devout” American presidents have been despite their having almost no interest whatsoever in either the niceties or the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. Were they cynical then? No, but their faith was one that had perfectly merged with their politics, until all that was left was politics. There’s was a “civic religion” or some variety of “Christian realism.” Its articles of faith include human rights (defined in a very slippery way), democracy, and free markets. And none of that is meant ironically. It was actually Jerry Falwell who declared that “the free enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs,” but what American president in the twentieth century would have (publicly) disagreed?

“No matter what their ideology or party affiliation,” Preston concludes, “to some extent almost all presidents framed and justified their foreign policies in religious terms.” Indeed (and again one notes an inadvertent affirmation of the religion-as-propaganda model). But those religious terms, at least for the past century, were essentially borrowed political terms. The American religion, in a nutshell, is America. It has its holy places, its holy-days, and even its own set of scripture. The union of ideals and interests was less a merger than a hostile or friendly takeover of the former by the latter. Preston adverts to this in his analysis of how, in the second half of the twentieth century, “the empowerment of the state at the expense of the church . . . led to religious identification being determined more by political issues rather than the other way around.” But in fact something similar was already happening in colonial times. In America religion has always been made to serve political ends, a process that can be seen most clearly in religion’s adoption of political doctrines as articles of faith. The counter-argument, that American politics has served religious ends, is far harder to make.

Review first published online June 10, 2013.

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