TORONTO - Andrew Preston's book about religion's powerful influence on U.S. politics was named the winner of the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction on Tuesday.
A clearly shocked Preston — a Brockville, Ont.-native who was wide-eyed with mouth agape as he took to the stage to receive the award — received a $25,000 cash prize for "Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy" (Knopf Canada).
The audience heard Preston was inspired by the subject while teaching at Yale University in the spring of 2003, in the run up to the Iraq war.
His students were "perplexed" at how strongly then-U.S. president George W. Bush was evoking his religion in supporting the war effort and asked Preston how common that was in American history.
Preston couldn't really answer the question, which spawned about nine years of research and writing for his book.
"When I began I had a lot of the assumptions that other people do about religion and American foreign policy and as I did more research I realized the story was much more complicated but complicated in interesting ways," said Preston, noting that religion is a powerful subject among both Republicans and Democrats.
"As (U.S. President Barack) Obama told his fellow Democrats who were complaining about religion being a part of politics ... he said without religion in politics you wouldn't have Martin Luther King, you wouldn't have had Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, you wouldn't have had a lot of great causes in American history."
The Charles Taylor Prize jury — chaired by Susanne Boyce, Richard Gwyn and Joseph Kertes — called Preston's book "fluently written, comprehensively researched and scrupulously balanced."
"Showing that the centrality of religion in American life is by no means unique to fundamentalists and neo-conservatives, this important work ... conveys Preston's originality and, indeed, his bravery," they wrote.
Preston said he believes the role of religion in influencing and shaping U.S. politics will evolve with time but is in no way near disappearing.
"On the left, on the right, religion is still a pretty powerful force. But America's changing, Obama's a symbol of that. He's a religious man himself but he comes from a different religious tradition than most of the foreign policy makers who I write about in my book," he said.
"The country's changing in really profound ways and I think religion will change with it but it'll still be there."
The other finalists for the prize were: Ottawa historian Tim Cook's "Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars" (Allen Lane); Vancouver-based Sandra Djwa's "Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page" (McGill-Queen's University); Saskatchewan-born Ross King's "Leonardo and The Last Supper" (Bond Street Books); and Carol Bishop-Gwyn of Toronto's "The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca" (Cormorant Books).
In all, 129 books submitted by 43 publishers were considered.