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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Andrew Preston

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

Why 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.


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

By Melani McAlister

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

Why 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.


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Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

By Jolyon Baraka Thomas

Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

Why 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.


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

By Daniel G. Hummel

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

Why 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.


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

By Cara Lea Burnidge

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

Why 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.


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