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Andrew Preston walks to the stage to be awarded the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, March 4 , 2013.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Politics beat out art on Monday as historian Andrew Preston, author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, won the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

Considered a long shot, the book on U.S. diplomacy by an expatriate Canadian at Cambridge University beat three books devoted to culture and one other on high politics to win the prize.

"This meant a lot to me both personally and professionally even before I won," Preston said on accepting the prize, adding that he was "completely blown away" to be named the winner at a ceremony in Toronto.

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Raised in Brockville, Ont., and trained as a historian at the University of Toronto, Preston currently teaches U.S. history at Clare College, Cambridge. Originally specializing in the Vietnam War, he began working on the vexing question of religion in U.S. politics on the eve of the second Iraq war, when he found himself unable to answer students' questions about its religious roots.

"It became much bigger than I ever anticipated," said Preston, 40. "The book just grew and grew and grew. I kept finding more and more I hadn't anticipated but couldn't leave out."

From conception to publication, he added, the book took more than nine years to write.

Although many other historians have noted the role played by religion in U.S. politics, none had previously "put together the whole history," according to Preston.

His conclusion: "Religion matters as much today as it did 200 years ago." And far from being a special preoccupation of conservatives and fundamentalists, he added, religion has also played a fundamental role in progressive politics in the United States.

Preston's win reflected a trend in this year's books that saw more Canadian writers taking on foreign material, according to prize judge Richard Gwyn. "There are now large numbers of Canadians at home in the wide world," Gwyn said.

Although not the richest award for non-fiction writing in Canada, the $25,000 Taylor Prize has accumulated considerable prestige since its inauguration in 2000. Governor-General David Johnston travelled to Toronto to help present the prize.

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Each year, it is given to "the author whose book best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception," according to the prize's administrators. It commemorates the late Charles Taylor, a former Globe and Mail correspondent and author of Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern.

Previous winners include Carol Shields, Richard Gwyn, Wayne Johnston and The Globe's Ian Brown.

The other finalists for the award this year were Carol Bishop-Gwyn of Toronto, nominated for The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca; former winner Tim Cook of Ottawa, named this year for Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars; and Vancouver's Sandra Djwa, nominated for Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page. Nominee Ross King of Oxford, England, who won this year's Governor-General's Award for Leonardo and The Last Supper, flew overnight from London and arrived in Toronto just in time to learn that his latest book had become his third to be nominated for the prize but not to win.

In addition to Gwyn, husband of nominee Carol Bishop-Gwyn, other jurors for the prize this year were author Joseph Kertes and Susanne Boyce. Each read a total of 129 books before announcing a short list of five titles and picking a winner.

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