Religion - The cold war and the fifth great awakening




World War II catalyzed the revival evangelical Christians had been praying for since the 1920s. Like its four predecessors, this fifth Great Awakening reshaped religious life in unanticipated ways and influenced the relationship between faith and foreign affairs. Three aspects of the revival stand out. First, while modernist churches stagnated, theologically conservative Protestantism flourished, with Billy Graham leading one branch of the movement from fundamentalism toward a less separatist and less strident "evangelicalism." Second, Catholics grew more assertive and (especially after the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965) more cosmopolitan. Third, the bulk of the awakening coincided with the Cold War, which officials from the White House on down described as a spiritual battle against "godless communism."

The relationship between Cold War faith and foreign policy is often misconstrued in ways comparable to clichés about the Wilson era. Once again, standard accounts render the religious beliefs of policymakers in caricature and postulate an unambiguous sense of mission from John Winthrop to John Foster Dulles. Despite his image as a Puritan avenger, Dulles himself was a theologically liberal Presbyterian who began in the 1930s to use the Federal Council of Churches as a convenient forum for publicizing his foreign policy prescriptions. Insofar as he became a dogmatic cold warrior by the time he was named secretary of state in 1953, Dulles was moved by Republican partisanship rather than religious doctrine.

Unlike Dulles, Reinhold Niebuhr applied serious religious ideas to foreign policy. Yet Niebuhr's image as the premier theologian of the Cold War needs refinement. In Niebuhr's view, because human beings are fallible and sinful (at least in a metaphorical sense), even their best actions fall short of altruism and yield ironic results. This "neo-orthodox" worldview is consistent with any number of conflicting positions on foreign policy. Indeed, without changing his theology, Niebuhr had moved from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation to the interventionist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. In The Irony of American History (1952), he sounded more reflective than the typical Cold War ideologist. Applying neo-orthodox premises, he warned the United States against international arrogance and described communism and American capitalism as arising from the same "ethos" of egotism. Niebuhr was less dispassionate in dayto-day polemics against those whose skepticism about the Cold War exceeded his own. Moreover, valued for his intellectual reputation rather than his ideas, Niebuhr had no discernible impact while serving as a State Department consultant.

Religious interest groups, rather than serious religious ideas, did affect foreign policy. Yet here, too, we must beware of exaggerating their influence or their uniformity. For instance, while many in the missionary movement lobbied on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese civil war, others initially hoped to arrange a modus vivendi with the communists. Although a remarkable mobilization by American Jews nudged President Harry S. Truman toward quick recognition of Israel in 1948, prominent Reform Jews organized the American Council for Judaism to lobby against a full-fledged Jewish state.

The Catholic role in the Cold War especially needs to be extricated from folklore. Certainly priests, nuns, and lay leaders mobilized against international communism, particularly after Soviet satellites suppressed Catholicism in Eastern Europe. Yet, following a long tradition, non-Catholics overstated the church's power and understated the autonomy of its adherents. When Catholics joined in urging Italians to vote against communism in 1948, they were advancing Truman administration policy rather than vice versa. And contrary to legend, Cardinal Francis Spellman was not responsible for Ngo Dinh Diem's appointment as prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam.

On balance, international events between Pearl Harbor and the mid-1960s fostered increased tolerance as well as surface religious consensus. Partly as a reaction against Nazi genocide, anti-Semitism began a steady decline in the late 1940s. Ubiquitous invocations of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" not only legitimated Judaism, but also minimized differences within Christianity. Nonetheless, division and animosity persisted beneath the rhetorical conventions. The National Council of Churches, which superseded the Federal Council in 1950, appeared to be the authoritative voice of Protestantism, yet its leaders barely noticed the extraordinary revival among theological conservatives.

The tension between Catholics and Protestants was harder to ignore. Most clashes concerned such domestic questions as birth control and federal aid to education, but foreign policy was involved too. Yielding to Protestant complaints, Truman in 1951 abandoned his attempt to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the country's best-known Catholic politician during the early 1950s, provoked even greater controversy. Although their attitudes ranged from pride to disgust, Catholics disproportionately considered McCarthy an admirable anticommunist. His zeal furthered the rapprochement between the Catholic and Protestant political right begun during the 1930s. Conversely, prominent liberal Protestants considered McCarthy the latest personification of Catholic authoritarianism; some chided the church for failing to condemn him. Ironically, such attacks reinforced defensiveness among Catholics struggling to break out of their insularity. In 1960, John F. Kennedy proved that a cosmopolitan Catholic could be elected president. Equally important to his victory, however, Kennedy combined secular urbanity with wartime heroism and public commitment to winning the Cold War.

The next two decades revealed both the fragility of Cold War orthodoxy and the superficiality of the domestic religious consensus. Indeed, the collapse of the former during the Vietnam War hastened the deterioration of the latter. American escalation in 1965 not only reinvigorated the pacifist remnant that had survived World War II; in addition, between 1965 and 1970 roughly 170,000 draft registrants applied for conscientious objector status. In contrast to the Korean "police action," mainstream religious figures opposed the war. In 1966 prominent liberal Protestants and Jews took the lead in founding Clergy and Layman Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), a nondenominational coalition whose arguments against escalation usually echoed those of secular doves. Members ranged from chastened cold warrior Reinhold Niebuhr to African-American social gospeler Martin Luther King, Jr. Ultimately, the Vietnam conflict widened the split between Protestant theological liberals and conservatives. Most evangelicals and fundamentalists either stood aloof from this worldly issue or supported American policy.

For the first time, numerous Catholics remained part of a peace movement after the United States entered a war. Indeed, the radical priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan became vivid symbols of nonviolent resistance for doves and hawks of all faiths. In 1968, when Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy sought the Democratic presidential nomination as antiwar candidates, only strict fundamentalists worried about their Catholicism. In 1971 the bishops reversed their earlier endorsement of the war to advocate a "speedy" peace.

The Catholic left remained active following the war. By 1970 roughly half of all American Catholic missionaries served in Latin America, where many joined local clergy in opposing brutal dictatorships. Some of these priests and nuns—along with a few bishops—became proponents of "liberation theology," whose advocates adapted Marxist analysis and urged the church to champion the Third World poor.

Clearly, many Catholic liberals now felt sufficiently secure to risk accusations of disloyalty. Yet ironies abounded. These allegations often came from within their own church. Reversing the historical pattern, working-class Catholics pushed rightward by the turmoil of the 1960s often thought their priests too liberal. Liberals themselves came face to face with questions that had perplexed Protestants earlier in the century—for example, whether anyone should be converted from an ancestral religion. Finally, Catholics looked increasingly American to the rest of the country because they, too, were obviously divided among themselves.

In 1976 the two major political parties nominated the most devout pair of presidential candidates since McKinley and Bryan. Both Episcopalian Gerald Ford and Baptist Jimmy Carter considered themselves "born again" Christians. A competent lay theologian, Carter stands out as the only modern president whose foreign policy was affected by serious religious ideas. Simply put, he took to heart Niebuhr's warning against national egotism. Thus, within limits set by prevailing Cold War assumptions, Carter was distinctive in his calls for national humility, wariness of military intervention, and respect for poor and nonwhite countries. For a growing number of his constituents, stunned by the lost Vietnam War and wary of Soviet exploitation of détente, humility seemed a source of the country's diplomatic problems.

Many of Carter's harshest critics were moved by religious concerns. After helping him defeat Ford, evangelical voters discovered that Carter was theologically, culturally, and politically more liberal than they had thought. By 1979 clergy were organizing a militant minority of theological conservatives into a "new Christian right." Interested primarily in domestic issues, they routinely adopted the foreign policy prescriptions of staunch Republican cold warriors, with one important twist: the strong belief that Israel deserved special protection because it fulfilled the Biblical prophecy that Jews would regather in the Holy Land on the eve of Jesus's return. This philo-Semitic interpretation of Scripture was one aspect of the new Christian right that actually was new.

A Jewish political right began to form at roughly the same time, with deep concerns about foreign policy. As early as 1967, some Jews had begun to reconsider their political alliances when Protestant and Catholic liberals sharply criticized Israel's attack on Egypt. Then, Soviet limits on the emigration of Jews seemed to illustrate the failure of détente. Despite initial misgivings, Jewish groups rallied behind the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which in 1974 denied most-favored-nation trade status to communist countries restricting emigration. Carter not only continued détente, but also pushed Israel harder than Egypt during the peace negotiations of 1978 and 1979. By that point, prominent Jewish intellectuals were helping to formulate an influential "neoconservative" critique of détente in general and Carter's diplomacy in particular. Losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter received only 45 percent of the Jewish vote.

Reagan never wavered in his conviction that God blessed America. Nor did he doubt the nation's mission—or his own—to end the Cold War by bringing down the Soviet "evil empire." A Protestant with a Catholic father and eclectic religious interests, he was well suited to manage a religious coalition as complex as Franklin Roosevelt's. In addition to moderate Protestants, the Republican base since the 1850s, his backers included Jewish neoconservatives as well as evangelicals and fundamentalists on the right. Furthermore, Reagan was the first Republican to win the Catholic vote twice.

Despite Reagan's frequent denunciations of communist evil before evangelical audiences, Catholics played a larger role in his Cold War diplomacy. No Catholic was more important in this respect than Pope John Paul II. The pope and the president coordinated efforts to weaken communism in Eastern Europe; their tactics ranged from public denunciations to covert Central Intelligence Agency funding of the anticommunist underground via the Vatican. When Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the papacy in 1984, Protestant theological conservatives in his coalition barely complained.

Cooperation across denominational lines also marked the opposition to Reagan's foreign policy. The grassroots movement to hold nuclear arsenals at their current levels—the "nuclear freeze"—became a powerful symbolic challenge to the administration's military buildup during the early 1980s. Advocates of the freeze included veteran pacifists in FOR and AFSC, theological liberals in Clergy and Laity Concerned (as CALCAV was renamed after the Vietnam War), and half of the Catholic bishops. Catholics were particularly active in providing humanitarian aid and opposing military intervention in Central America. Victims of rightist "death squads" in the El Salvador civil war included missionary nuns. While the U.S. Catholic Conference urged peace talks between the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels, numerous parishes assisted refugees who reached the United States. These actions were particularly impressive because Pope John Paul II gave de facto support to Reagan's anticommunist intervention in Central America.

By the 1990s the Cold War had ended but the effects of the fifth Great Awakening continued to be felt. In numbers, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics (as Pentecostals increasingly called themselves) constituted the religious mainstream. To an unprecedented degree, theological liberalism and conservatism correlated respectively with political liberalism and conservatism. Conservatives especially sponsored a resurgence of overseas missions; fifty thousand Americans lived abroad as missionaries or representatives of faith-based humanitarian organizations, often working closely with strong indigenous churches. To some extent the dream of the earliest missionaries had come true. At the end of the 1990s, there were 258 million Christians in Africa and 317 million in Asia.

Although references to the Judeo-Christian tradition lingered, use of this phrase to describe American religious life was even more problematic than during the 1950s. Significant numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists came to the United States after immigration law was liberalized in 1965. Astute political leaders took notice. President Carter denied any animosity toward Islam during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980; President George H. W. Bush stressed the same point during the war against Iraq in 1991. Moreover, the appearance of yet another "new immigration" reinforced the American identity of those Catholics and Jews descended from earlier immigrants.

As Israel became both more secure and less central to their own identity, American Jews no longer felt obliged to defend all Israeli foreign policy. From the time President Carter negotiated the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, the United States served as primary mediator in what was called (with undue optimism) the Middle East "peace process." The Oslo Accords signed at the White House in 1993 established a quasi-independent Palestinian National Authority in territory contested by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. As with Protestants and Catholics, Jewish approaches to foreign policy increasingly correlated with their religious beliefs. While Conservative and Reform Jews overwhelmingly endorsed negotiations in general and the Oslo agreements in particular, Orthodox Jews were skeptical or hostile. In 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton prodded the Israelis at the Wye River negotiations to surrender more disputed territory to the Palestine Authority. Once again, Conservative and Reform Jews responded favorably while Orthodox Jews joined Israeli hawks in opposition. Like Protestants and Catholics, Jews were now openly divided on a foreign policy issue.

The expansion of missionary activity overseas may have stirred increased persecution of Christian minorities around the world. Religious conservatives had no doubts about it and sought legislation mandating a diplomatic response. Humanitarian motives aside, these activists hoped to keep evangelicals and fundamentalists politically involved in the post–Cold War era. Furthermore, recalling the impact of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, they thought religious freedom could be used to undermine Chinese communism. Still wary of imposing Christianity on non-Christian cultures, liberals hesitated to join the campaign. Even so, in 1997 and 1998, 100,000 Protestant and Catholic congregations sponsored annual days of prayer to "shatter the silence" about persecution. Ultimately, a broad coalition extending beyond the ranks of Christians and Jews supported the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which passed Congress unanimously in 1998. The IRFA established an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, a comparable position in the National Security Council, and an independent commission to monitor persecution.

Both the breadth of the coalition and the constitutional ban on preferential treatment of any religion required officials to concern themselves with small sects as well as large denominations, and with minor harassment as well as with serious violations of human rights. For instance, the commission's reports criticized European democracies for treating Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Scientologists (products respectively of the second, fourth, and fifth Great Awakenings) as second-class faiths. The chief concern, however, was the arrest, torture, or killing of believers, usually Christians but sometimes Muslims, too, in communist states and Islamic republics. American government responses ranged from public denunciations to behind-the-scenes diplomacy. No country attracted greater attention than the People's Republic of China, which persecuted both the Falun Gong, an indigenous mystical religion, and Christian churches unwilling to register with the government. Religious activists, including some Protestant liberals and the Catholic bishops, joined the unsuccessful campaign to deny China permanent normal trade relations status. Indeed, despite the passage of the IRFA, American policy toward religious persecution abroad in the early twenty-first century resembled that of the early nineteenth century: a mixture of popular protest and diplomatic inquiries without direct economic or military intervention.

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