The best books on the history of religion in U.S. foreign relations

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an associate professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, where I teach courses on modern United States history, U.S. foreign relations, and public history, direct our minor in museum studies, and direct the Mellon Initiative for Undergraduate Research in the Arts and Humanities. I am particularly interested in how domestic culture, ideology, and values have informed how the United States has engaged with the world around it. My recent work has explored the influence of conservative religious groups in foreign affairs, and I’m at work on a new book about national security and the congressional debates that unfolded over foreign aid after World War II.


I wrote...

To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations

By Lauren Turek,

Book cover of To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations

What is my book about?

My book tells the story of how and why politically-conservative evangelical groups in the United States became powerful as a foreign policy lobby by the 1980s. It starts off in the late 1960s and 1970s, explaining how the economic and cultural transformations of those decades, such as decolonization, globalization, and shifts in the dynamics of the Cold War, coincided with evangelical Christian anxieties about the state of global missionary work to create a new foreign policy consciousness within this group.

The book then traces how these (predominantly) white, politically-conservative evangelicals translated this consciousness into foreign policy advocacy that shaped U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, Guatemala, South Africa, and other Cold War hotspots. It also reveals that as part of their activism, they helped to develop a conservative agenda for U.S. human rights policies that focused very narrowly on the promotion of religious freedom abroad. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy

Lauren Turek Why did I love this book?

This is a magisterial work and the perfect starting point for anyone interested in learning about how religious beliefs and religions of all types have played a role in U.S. foreign policy since the colonial era. It is an incredibly comprehensive and deeply researched book, but do not let its heft deter you—Preston is a skilled narrator and you will find yourself immediately immersed in and absorbed by the stories he shares. His ability to illuminate the links between religion and the core ideas that have guided the U.S. engagement with the world over the past four hundred years is a truly impressive achievement.

By Andrew Preston,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
Finalist for the Cundhill Prize in History

A richly detailed, profoundly engrossing story of how religion has influenced American foreign relations, told through the stories of the men and women—from presidents to preachers—who have plotted the country’s course in the world.
 
Ever since John Winthrop argued that the Puritans’ new home would be “a city upon a hill,” Americans’ role in the world has been shaped by their belief that God has something special in mind for them. But this is a story that historians have mostly ignored. Now, in the…


Book cover of Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945

Lauren Turek Why did I love this book?

McAlister’s book is one I return to time and again because it so beautifully illustrates that U.S. foreign relations history is bigger and broader than just the story of policymaking. McAlister is an expert at dissecting and explaining American culture, particularly religious culture. In this stimulating read, she uses films, television shows, and other media as key texts that reveal how post-World War II Americans portrayed and understood the Middle East—and what those portrayals can tell us about the United States’ vision for itself as a global power during the Cold War. In so doing, she reminds us of how much events abroad can shape and reshape political culture at home. Her chapter on the 1967 Arab-Israeli War also highlights how conceptions of the Middle East played into domestic racial and religious tensions at home, particularly between American Jews and African Americans, while her chapter on the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis highlights the Christian nationalist rhetoric that pervaded U.S. news coverage.

By Melani McAlister,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Epic Encounters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Epic Encounters" examines how popular culture has shaped the ways Americans define their 'interests' in the Middle East. In this innovative book - now brought up-to-date to include 9/11 and the Iraq war - Melani McAlister argues that U.S. foreign policy, while grounded in material and military realities, is also developed in a cultural context. American understandings of the region are framed by narratives that draw on religious belief, news media accounts, and popular culture. This remarkable and pathbreaking book skillfully weaves lively and accessible readings of film, media, and music with a rigorous analysis of U.S. foreign policy, race…


Book cover of Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

Lauren Turek Why did I love this book?

In this absolutely fascinating read, Thomas deftly explodes the myth that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan during the post-World War II occupation. The first part of the book explores pre-war notions of religious freedom in both countries and the second part looks at the various misunderstandings that ensued as the United States sought to impose its conception of religious freedom on Japan. Thomas offers a skilled reading of religious culture in both countries and ably explains the outcomes of U.S. occupation policies.

By Jolyon Baraka Thomas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Faking Liberties as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Religious freedom is a founding tenet of the United States, and it has frequently been used to justify policies towards other nations. Such was the case in 1945 when Americans occupied Japan following World War II. Though the Japanese constitution had guaranteed freedom of religion since 1889, the United States declared that protection faulty, and when the occupation ended in 1952, they claimed to have successfully replaced it with "real" religious freedom.

Through a fresh analysis of pre-war Japanese law, Jolyon Baraka Thomas demonstrates that the occupiers' triumphant narrative obscured salient Japanese political debates about religious freedom. Indeed, Thomas reveals…


Book cover of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations

Lauren Turek Why did I love this book?

Much of the focus in news media and the popular imagination about evangelicals and foreign policy centers on Israel, with many pundits and scholars alike emphasizing the centrality of apocalyptic end-times prophecies to the development of conservative Christian support for Israel. Hummel’s exceptionally researched and beautifully written book provides much-needed nuance to this often one-dimensional narrative. His careful reading of U.S. and Israeli sources sheds new light on the emergence of evangelical Christian Zionism after 1948 and its many permutations throughout the decades that followed. This is a crucial read for understanding the complexities and religious dynamics of modern U.S.-Israeli relations.

By Daniel G. Hummel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Covenant Brothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Weaving together the stories of activists, American Jewish leaders, and Israeli officials in the wake of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Covenant Brothers portrays the dramatic rise of evangelical Christian Zionism as it gained prominence in American politics, Israeli diplomacy, and international relations after World War II. According to Daniel G. Hummel, conventional depictions of the Christian Zionist movement-the organized political and religious effort by conservative Protestants to support the state of Israel-focus too much on American evangelical apocalyptic fascination with the Jewish people. Hummel emphasizes instead the institutional, international, interreligious, and intergenerational efforts on the…


Book cover of A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order

Lauren Turek Why did I love this book?

Although there is no shortage of books on the 28th president and his foreign policy—we even use “Wilsonian” as a shorthand for the embrace of idealism, liberal internationalism, and democratic capitalism in U.S. foreign relations—Burnidge’s work offers an exceptional exploration of how religion and religious ideas informed Wilson’s approach to world affairs. She sets her chronicle of Wilson’s life and spiritual development within the context of the broader religious history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and weaves in expert analysis of the relationship between Wilson’s Christianity, race, and racism in that era. This provides a compelling foundation for her discussion of the Protestant beliefs that shaped Wilsonian internationalism during World War I and beyond. Engrossing, revealing, and extraordinarily smart, this is a key book for those interested in Wilson, World War I, and the global Progressive Era, not to mention the underpinnings of liberal internationalism.

By Cara Lea Burnidge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Peaceful Conquest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A century after his presidency, Woodrow Wilson remains one of the most compelling and complicated figures ever to occupy the Oval Office. A political outsider, Wilson brought to the presidency a distinctive, strongly held worldview, built on powerful religious traditions that informed his idea of America and its place in the world. With A Peaceful Conquest, Cara Lea Burnidge presents the most detailed analysis yet of how Wilson's religious beliefs affected his vision of American foreign policy, with repercussions that lasted into the Cold War and beyond. Framing Wilson's intellectual development in relationship to the national religious landscape, and paying…


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By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

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What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


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