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Book on U.S. politics wins Charles Taylor Prize

From a shortlist focused primarily on Canadian icons, a book about our ubiquitous neighbour to the south has taken this year’s Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. Cambridge University professor and Clare College fellow Andrew Preston was awarded the $25,000 prize on Monday for Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf Canada).

A scholar of American history and international relations, Preston told Q&Q that his book, which offers an account of U.S. leaders and their foreign policy decisions through the lens of religious convictions, is rare among American historical and political scholarship. While the connection between the U.S.’s cultural identity and religion is clearly pervasive, Preston said it wasn’t until his Yale University students began asking about the issue during the years of the Bush administration that he realized just how uncharted the scholarly territory was.

Although it had been thought that secularism would rise with globalization, in fact the opposite has occurred. We in the West might not like that “ we might want to take religion right out of politics, which is what a lot of countries have done. But the fact is religion is a part of politics in those countries, and we need to understand that or we’re not going to be able to understand global conflicts, said Preston.

Jury member and author Joseph Kertes said the jury unanimously decided on Preston’s book after just five minutes of talk. We think this is a landmark work, and I think Canadians are uniquely positioned to write a work like this because we’re voyeuristic. We’re objective, Kertes told Q&Q.

Having grown up a stone’s throw from the Canada-U.S. border in Brockville, Ontario, Preston said he grew up, like many Canadians, steeped in U.S. culture and politics. I think Canadians have an intuitive grasp of the United States and American culture and American politics, he said. I don’t know if [being Canadian] makes me more objective or less objective. I’m just an historian who goes to the sources and tries to be sensitive to the subject.

The other titles nominated for the prize were Carol Bishop-Gwyn’s The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca (Cormorant Books), Tim Cook’s Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada’s World Wars (Allen Lane Canada), Sandra Djwa’s Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page (McGill-Queen’s University Press), and Ross King’s Leonardo and The Last Supper (Bond Street Books). Each runner-up received $2,000.