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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of faith

Religion in America is inadequately understood, and often deliberately misinterpreted.

Over the last decade, especially after 9/11 and the American response to it, the world has gradually begun to take cognisance of religion’s immutability in the American scheme of things.

In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre, a leading cleric in the Lutheran Church told the then President George Bush, “You are a servant of God called for such a time like this.” Bush’s response: “I accept the responsibility.” “I’m here for a reason, and this is going to be how we’re going to be judged,” Bush confided to his chief political adviser Karl Rove.

Recounting this episode, Andrew Preston in his Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith – Religion in American War and Diplomacy explains, “In deploying religion, Bush appealed to both the sword of the spirit and the shield of faith. He spoke of launching a “crusade” against Islamic terrorism, apparently unaware of the bitter historical memory of the medieval Christian Crusades that still lingered in the minds of Arabs...Bush blended the language of faith and nation to offer benediction to America’s mission in the world – a mission that intended peace even when it resorted to war.”

Preston’s book is an illuminating account of how religion has shaped the United States internally, and how it has been a key instrument in foreign policy. To outsiders, the ongoing debate about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, or the largely prevalent belief among a significant percentage of Americans that Obama is a Muslim would seem at odds with a country that has defined modernism and has done so in broadly secular terms. Preston’s book is invaluable aide in understanding this complexity. It’s anecdotal narrative makes for its breezy reading.

Reinhold Niebuhr and mainline Protestantism are subjects that require more than a cursory reading, but for the uninitiated, Preston’s book introduces both a complex man and a complex faith.

A passage:

“Long after the fighting had ended, Vietnam continued to serve a political purpose for those who had supported the war. In 1984, at the height of the conservative revival, Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist writer, commentator and coauthor of the spectacularly successful Left Behind novel series, repudiated the strategists and protestors who had all but ensured defeat. “Her failure to use military might in Vietnam was a national disgrace,” he said of a troubled nation then in throes of liberalism and secularism, “permitting the enslavement or murder of twenty million people.” Rus Walton, another fundamentalist writer and professional anticommunist, took a similar view: “What must the nations of the free world think of a country that spends the lives of 58,000 splendid young men and then gives up? Just quits and walks away and says, “Sorry fellas, it was all a mistake.’” During the war, the anti-Vietnam demonstrators, many of them led by ministers, priests, and rabbis, claimed the moral high ground. But the war’s defenders, the conservatives who would fuel the Religious Right, provided a vigorous counterargument that was also grounded in morality, albeit of a sterner kind. It was this moral vision that eventually triumphed and reoriented the normative bearings of US foreign policy. But before it could, its adherents first had to defeat the relativism and internationalism of their liberal adversaries. Then, in the years of Richard Nixon, they turned upon the government itself.”

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