A senior lecturer in American history from Cambridge University presented a lecture on the BYU “book of the semester” which described the surprisingly large effect of religion on American foreign policy Feb. 11.
Andrew Preston commented on the good turnout for the BYU event, saying that his lectures to audiences with weaker religious convictions sometimes provoked indifference, criticism or even hostility.
“I’ve never been introduced with a prayer before,” Preston said from the library auditorium. “But I hope you don’t need divine inspiration to understand my lecture.”
Preston showed that although the interplay between religion and politics became national news after 9/11, faith had always played a role in American foreign policy. He said that scholars of American religion and foreign relations had largely ignored this connection because many scholars are uncomfortable researching faith.
“Two huge bodies of literature had grown up alongside one another without speaking to each other,” Preston said.
The “condescending” view of most historians toward religion led Preston to expect religious indifference or even hypocrisy from presidents. But he found that a steady pattern of more or less religiosity from presidents emerged. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama are a normal part of that pattern.
Preston described how his opinion on this issue had changed during research. At first he believed historians who said the religious influence had been small, but primary sources told a different story.
“Religious viewpoints pushed America in a more highly moralistic way than other countries,” Preston said.
Preston gave an example from the 19th century, when John Hays of the State Department told European governments to stop harassing Mormon missionaries.
“They actually changed local law in order to accommodate the American idea of religious liberty,” Preston said.
James Perkins attended Preston’s lecture after hearing about it in a history class on imperialism. The history major came prepared with a question about President William McKinley, who said he received revelation to takeover the Philippines. Preston confirmed that although past historians were skeptical, McKinley was a devout man who was serious when he made this claim.
Perkins said the time investment had been good.
“I think we’re an audience specifically sensitive to religion and politics,” he said.
Preston said he was impressed with several of the questions which were asked after the lecture. As a first-timer in Utah, he was also relieved not to have too many question specific to the LDS faith, a topic he has not researched thoroughly.
“I’ve noticed that at places where religion is more important there is more of an audience,” Preston said.
Cory Leonard, director of the Kennedy Center, selected Preston’s book, “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith,” as the winter “book of the semester.”
“We try to select an author and a topic that applies across different disciplines,” Leonard said.
The book is available at the BYU Bookstore.
A video-recording of the lecture is available on the Kennedy Center website at http://kennedy.byu.edu/archive/lecture.php?id=2811.