The best history of religion books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about the history of religion and why they recommend each book.

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Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith

By Andrew Preston,

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

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.


Who am I?

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. 

God

By Reza Aslan,

Book cover of God: A Human History

Whether you are religious or not, whether you like it or not, religions and God/Gods have been a part of the human civilizations as far as we started documenting, writing, and recording history and perhaps even as far as we existed. To understand the part that religion played in our history and how it had and still could have a significant effect on how we perceive the world and reality in general, it may be crucial to understand the history of religions and how they originated. Raza Aslan gives a wonderful presentation on that in this book. 


Who am I?

Mahmoud Elsayed has always been interested in finding rational answers to the big existential questions. This could clearly be noticed in his writings and philosophy. He has also worked in various and somehow diverse fields of engineering and science which allowed him to smoothly, flexibly, and knowledgeably jump from a field of expertise to another in order to make his philosophical arguments comprehensive. 


I wrote...

The Bitter Truth of Reality: The route to skepticism and the case against objective reality

By Mahmoud Elsayed,

Book cover of The Bitter Truth of Reality: The route to skepticism and the case against objective reality

What is my book about?

Reality is the one word that describes everything we live in, everything we know, knew, and will. It represents time, space, and all the other possible dimensions. But what exactly is reality? In his book, The Bitter Truth of Reality, author Mahmoud Elsayed attempts to answer this complex query by taking a journey through physics, biology, human anatomy, history, philosophy, and even religions. Hopefully, by the end of this book, the reader will find an answer to this question that sits at the top of the existential questions list.

Faking Liberties

By Jolyon Baraka Thomas,

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

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.


Who am I?

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. 

The Confessions

By Saint Augustine, Maria Boulding (translator),

Book cover of The Confessions

Saint Augustine's autobiography is, simply, one of the most remarkable and influential books ever written. To start with, it is a terrific tale. Augustine's evolution from a restless, pear-pilfering child, to an ambitious and tempestuous teen, and then a thoughtful and searching adult desperate to find his way (and foil his mother's plans for him) is one almost any reader can relate to. Moreover, in the process of examining his own halting progress toward faith, Augustine more or less invented a new form of "selfhood." For anyone interested in medieval Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, or European thought, it all starts with Augustine.

Who am I?

I was raised in a Jewish but completely secular family, with no religious traditions or affiliations. Perhaps because religion was so exotic, I have always found it fascinating. In college, I gravitated toward topics in medieval religion, which crystallized the strangeness of an era both earthy and intensely devout. I wanted to understand why an Anglo-Saxon monk sitting in a cold monastery in northern England cared so much about biblical history. Or how Saint Bernard could so relentlessly hound a fellow monk over a scholarly treatise, yet also work energetically to protect Jews from violence. I can't say I'll ever fully comprehend the force of religion, but I love trying.


I wrote...

Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography

By Sara Lipton,

Book cover of Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography

What is my book about?

In Dark Mirror I ask a simple question: why did Jews become such powerful and poisonous symbols in medieval art?

The straggly beard, the hooked nose, the bag of coins, and gaudy apparel―the artists of medieval Christendom had no shortage of virulent symbols for identifying Jews. Yet, hateful as these depictions were, the story they tell is not as simple as you might think. I argue that anti-Jewish visual stereotypes were neither an inevitable outgrowth of Christian theology nor a simple reflection of medieval prejudices. In fact, Christians used depictions of Jews to think about their own faith, culture, and perception. Changes in the way Christians viewed themselves and the physical world drove the depiction of Jews from benign, if exoticized, figures connoting ancient wisdom to increasingly vicious portrayals inspired by (and designed to provoke) fear and hostility. 

Epic Encounters

By Melani McAlister,

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

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…


Who am I?

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. 

A Peaceful Conquest

By Cara Lea Burnidge,

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

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…


Who am I?

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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