It took historian Andrew Preston nearly 10 years to write Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, but his efforts did not go unnoticed. On Monday Preston won one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards: the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction.
Following the announcement that Preston’s book had won the C$25,000 prize, jury member and author Joseph Kertes told PW that the choice was a unanimous one for the three-person jury. Kertes noted that Preston had a fair amount of competition with 129 books submitted, and five titles shortlisted. He said that he and the two other judges--author/journalist Richard Gwyn and broadcast executive Suzanne Boyce--felt Preston's book was "a landmark work." In its citation, the jury praised Sword of the Spirit for being "fluently written, comprehensively researched and scrupulously balanced." Kertes added that the 832 page book is "well-worth reading cover to cover. I think it will be read 50 years from now."
Sword of the Spirit fills in what had been a large and surprising gap in academic research. Preston explained that while there have been scholars and authors who have written about the influence of religion on particular presidents, or in particular time periods, no one had published a comprehensive history.
Preston, who was born and raised in Ontario, currently teaches American history and international relations at Cambridge University, but he said the book began when he was teaching at Yale University in 2003. He said that during the build up to the Iraq War, when President Bush was using a lot of religious rhetoric to justify the country's foreign policy direction, his students asked him if there was a precedent for this; he didn't have an answer. "My students were perplexed by his use of religion, and they asked me where this came from… I didn’t have a good answer, so the book began as a way to answer their question.”
He added that the book had been favorably reviewed in both liberal and conservative media in the U.S., and had been well received in scholarly media as well. "That’s really gratifying because that’s the kind of balance I tried to strike," he said.
The other finalists for the prize were Carol Bishop-Gwyn for The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca (Cormorant Books); Tim Cook for Warlords: Borden MacKenzie King and Canada’s World Wars (Allen Lane/Penguin Group Canada); Sandra Djwa for Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page (McGill-Queen’s University Press); and Ross King for Leonardo and the Last Supper (Bond Street Books/Doubleday Canada).