The National Catholic Review
James M. O’Toole

For the most part, academic historians stay in the tight little boxes of their own specialties. They may teach broad survey courses, but the world they know best is usually a much smaller one. An expert on military maneuvers in the Civil War does not know nearly as much about, say, economic policy during the New Deal or the role of women in the civil rights movement. Scholars brave enough—and capable enough—to jump the fences of historical subdisciplines and to cover long sweeps of time are rare, and their work is thus all the more valuable.

Andrew Preston, a Canadian teaching at Cambridge University in England, is just that kind of scholar, combining two different fields: the history of religion and the history of the United State’s foreign relations. The question, as he frames it at the outset of his book, is not whether religion affected the way America defined its role in the world, but how. The book is a staggering achievement, both in size (600 pages of text, another 150 of footnotes and bibliography) and in scope (from European “discovery” of North America to Barack Obama). More than likely, few but specialists will read every, or nearly every, word, but the richness of coverage will inform anyone seeking to understand how these two subjects intertwined throughout our history.

A familiar cast of characters is here, leaders and policy makers who framed their actions in expressly religious terms: in the 20th century alone, figures like Woodrow Wilson, John Foster Dulles and Jimmy Carter; and in the 21st, George W. Bush. But there are also many less obvious touchstones for the interplay of faith and policy as the nation looked outward. George Washington, for instance, not the deist often described, was only conventionally religious. Still, his firm belief in a providential God who “intervened in the world on behalf of the righteous and the virtuous” was transmitted to succeeding generations who were sure they knew who the righteous and virtuous were and who were only too willing to give that God a helping hand.

Abraham Lincoln, a formidable lay theologian—read the Second Inaugural Address if you doubt that—was necessarily more absorbed in domestic than international concerns during his presidency. But his notion of the United States as “the last best hope of earth” was applied as easily on foreign shores as here.

Nor were presidents the only voices in this chorus. Thousands of missionaries went abroad to spread the Christian faith, simultaneously bringing “civilization” to Filipinos, Chinese and others, confident that civilization had reached its high point in the free market of American Protestantism. God, said a senator (a Congregationalist deacon) from Connecticut during the Spanish American War, was using the conflict to promote “the spread of liberty, education, social order, and Christianity.” Where church and state had similar interests, so much the better.

American Catholics sometimes had a harder time reconciling their faith with national mission. They might well have been expected to sit out any “Protestant Crusade” where the enemy (Mexico in 1846, Spain in 1898) was a predominantly Catholic country. But they were eager to perform the mental gymnastics, often welcoming such conflicts as a chance to show skeptical nativists just how patriotic they were, even if they did attend a slightly suspicious church on Sundays. This often uncritical patriotism, perhaps best expressed by such figures as New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, would be countered by other Catholic voices that proved more “prophetic”: the Berrigan brothers and their colleagues, for example, in anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 70s. Possibly the first young man to burn his draft card publicly was a member of the Catholic Worker; another worker protested by self-immolation on the steps of the United Nations. Readers of this magazine will also be pleased to see a recovery of the work of Robert Drinan, S.J., on behalf of Soviet Jews during his decade in Congress.

Preston’s command of all this is surefooted. Any quibbles would be self-serving exercises of the “look at what I know” variety. As noted, the research is exhaustive—and perhaps for the author himself exhausting: three dozen archives, countless obscure government publications (I cannot seem to find my copy of the weekly dispatches, 1941-45, from the British embassy in Washington) and a full roster of specialized monographs by other scholars.

Moreover, he writes smoothly, so nonspecialists will get caught up in the story. His ability to encapsulate a personality or a movement in a few words is very impressive. Many readers will no doubt dive in selectively to find out about one specific episode or historical figure; those who do will look up 20 pages later, having continued to read about others as well, simply because that is where the ideas and the prose so easily led them. To describe a book as encyclopedic is not always a compliment, but this one deserves that praise. Those who shape American foreign relations in the future—and that, of course, includes all citizens—will learn much from the past recounted here that they can apply to the task.

James M. O’Toole holds the Clough Millennium Chair in History at Boston College.