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When the Soviet Union successfully obtained functioning nuclear weapon technology in 1949, the people of the world were forced to face the prospect of their potential annihilation should the US and USSR come into direct conflict. During the Cold War, the resurgence of domestic religious activity in the United States influenced the government’s portrayal of the conflict with the Soviet Union as moral and spiritual in nature. Although this reinvigorated religious activity was initially a shallow and vague form of Judeo-Christian civil religion, by the end of the Cold War the major domestic religious movements had evolved into groups like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. I argue that following World War II, religion served as one of many explanations as to why the United States and the Soviet Union were so opposed to each other, and also functioned as one of the many weapons in America’s arsenal for waging war. Moreover, while the domestic religious landscape of the United States influenced American foreign policy in a variety of ways, its influence was neither consistent nor predictable.
Although the religious dimension of the Cold War is often diminished, it is not insignificant. In fact, religion was part of the ideological conflict between the United States and Soviet Union. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party passed a number of laws that vastly curtailed the power of the Russian Orthodox Church. As Marxists, achieving the perfect communist state entailed ridding the former Russian Empire of religion and other institutions that distracted the proletariat. After the Great Terror of the late 1930s, the Soviet government successfully destroyed the majority of the institutional structure of the Russian Orthodox Church. In a change of heart that some scholars attribute to Stalin’s need to rally domestic support for World War II, in the fall of 1943 Stalin convened an official meeting with the four remaining Russian Orthodox bishops at the Kremlin, and granted the clergymen a number of concessions that contradicted the previous three decades of policy toward the church. Had religion been an insignificant component of the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev would not have denounced Stalin’s warming of relations with the church and reinstituted policies of militant atheism. Given the history of Soviets persecuting religious adherents, the USSR set itself up as the ideological opposite of the United States. While America’s founding documents purported the nation to be dedicated to freedom and the protection of civil liberties, the USSR made a point to suppress such things.
In addition to helping explain why the US fought the USSR in the Cold War, religion also functioned as another weapon in America’s arsenal, and was thus part of how the Cold War was fought. The early Cold War presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower set the precedent of describing the conflict in highly moral and religious terms. Truman, the first Cold War president, once told an audience “the international Communist movement… denies the existence of God… God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose.” At the highest levels of American government, some officials had a deeply felt conviction that religion was the missing link in US Cold War foreign policy. Among those who believed religion could be harnessed as America’s secret weapon for fighting the Cold War was Harry Truman, who proclaimed “religion alone has the answer to humanity’s twentieth century cry of despair.” The religious rhetoric employed by senior government officials, including multiple Cold War era presidents, was on some level a rallying tactic to curry favor for another period of costly wars. Rather than simply intervening in the civil wars of Korea and Vietnam, the nation’s leaders framed their actions as part of a moral responsibility to those in danger of being subjected to the militant atheism of communism.
It was not only presidents who were involved in the moralization of the Cold War. Religion was a vital factor in the formation of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram.” A devout Presbyterian, Kennan’s main conclusion in the “Long Telegram” was that the United States and Soviet Union held irreconcilable differences in the aims and values that made negotiation between the two superpowers impossible. Thus, with both negotiation and a military defeat of the USSR momentarily impossible, Kennan advanced the idea of containment as America’s best foreign policy option. In 1959, thirteen years after his infamous 1946 telegram from Moscow, in a public speech Kennan reiterated that he still saw communism as an “abomination to God,” and an “apocalyptic threat.”
NSC 68, one of the most important documents of the Cold War era, also shows evidence of America’s perception of the Cold War as a moral struggle. Rife with religious language, the document portrays America as a virtuous land of freedom and the Soviet Union as a nation subjecting its people to slavery. Early on, the authors write that the USSR, “unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own.” Conversely, the “fundamental purpose” of the United States was described as “to assure the integrity and vitality our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.” Although parts of the document read like a hortatory call to arms, it was not declassified for public consumption until 1975, suggesting that the oft-employed religious rhetoric of the early Cold War was not all empty rhetoric aimed at the public, but rather reflected the genuine faith of Americans at the highest levels of government.
Another religious element of NSC-68 and the general political discourse in America during the Cold War was the notion that the primary goal of communism was world domination, a goal that if accomplished, would spell the end of the western way of life Americans had grown accustomed to. While the world would not literally end if Marx’s global communist revolution came to fruition, American leaders often made it seem as if the world would in fact end. Although NSC-68 was a policy proposal, it included a number of vague references to the morals of the nation with no clear policy directives to achieve its stated objectives. On page 29, the authors wrote “we must make ourselves strong… in the way in which we affirm our values in the conduct of our national life.” The authors go on to say, “it is only by developing the moral and material strength of the free world that the Soviet regime will become convinced of the falsity of its assumptions.” While the proposals for strengthening the material part of the free world are clearly stated in the paper’s suggestion that the US government triple its defense spending, there is no direct guidance for the strengthening of the nation’s morals. Rather, the authors continually return to the importance of “moral strength,” but seem unsure of its place in an official policy report. Toward the end of the document, the authors conclude that “the only sure victory lies in the frustration of the Kremlin design by the steady development of the moral and material strength of the free world and its projection into the Soviet world in such a way as to bring about an internal change in the Soviet system.”
President Eisenhower also recognized the role that the domestic flourishing of religion could play in the nation’s struggle with its Cold War foe. In public statements, Eisenhower often portrayed his country’s conflict with the Soviet Union as a crusade of sorts, once asking “what is our battle against communism if it is not a fight between anti-God and a belief in the Almighty?” Eisenhower used religious rhetoric to describe America and its people to draw a clear distinction between the US and the USSR. He firmly believed that democracy “has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith,” and repeatedly referred to communism as “godless.” While he was in office, Congress passed legislation making “In God We Trust” the national motto, and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. After signing the legislation that made the addition to the Pledge of Allegiance official, Eisenhower remarked “from this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty.” Furthermore, he described the modification of the pledge as a method to “constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource.” It is important to note that these advancements for the Judeo-Christian American civil religion came at a time when forced prayer and Bible reading were still legal components of public school curriculum. Not until the 1962 landmark Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale was school prayer ruled unconstitutional, and school-sponsored Bible reading was not declared unconstitutional until the following year in Abington School District v. Schempp. Thus, although the Constitution mandated the separation of church and state, it was not until the 1960s that the state’s appropriation of religious rhetoric to foster a strengthened civil religion for the Cold War was successfully challenged.
One of the main figures involved in creating the religious rhetoric of the Cold War was the evangelist Billy Graham. Although Graham had been well-known in the evangelical community for quite some time, it was not until his 1949 Los Angeles crusade that Graham gained national recognition. Capitalizing on the Soviet’s recent acquisition of nuclear weapons and Mao’s Communist Party’s victory in China, Graham painted a grim picture of the world’s future lest his American audience took up his call to crusade against the evil empire of the USSR. Graham admonished the American people that “Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life- Communism is a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.” With his unique blend of Christianity, anticommunism, and fervent patriotism, Billy Graham became one of the central figures in harnessing domestic political opinion and directing it towards the foreign policy of combatting communism.
While opposed to the state-sponsored atheism of the Soviet Union, not every Soviet citizen complied, and many continued to practice their religion, even if it had to be done in private. In connection with the state-sponsored humanitarian aid to Soviet countries, the American people expressed concern about the condition of Christians in Russia throughout the Cold War. A 1994 government report by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), titled “CSCE To Examine Repression Against Evangelicals in the Former Soviet Union” found that “although state sponsored atheism and religious repression has, apparently, ended in many ways, many religious minorities still find themselves at a tremendous disadvantage.” Of particular concern to the report was the continued murders of religious people after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian-American Institute for Adaptation wanted press coverage of those murders in the media in the US and Russia, and turned to the US government for help. Additionally, the report included a list of two years’ worth of “martyrs.” This source indicates that a substantial public interest existed among the US population in helping Christians in the Soviet Union, despite the extreme tension that existed between the governments of the two nations during the Cold War. It also demonstrates that relations between the US and USSR were not always black and white.
Furthermore, the Cold War deployment of religion as a weapon against “godless communism” solidified the Judeo-Christian alliance that had been absent for so long. Following WWII, Truman famously reached out to Pope Pius XII to secure his help in fighting communism. Beyond the simple religious rhetoric of the nation’s leaders, the leaders took steps to forge a new American civil religion that was inclusive of those from Judeo-Christian traditions and aggressively opposed to communism. Truman noted that “minor, and even major, differences in how we choose to worship God strike me as being of relatively little importance in the face of an aggressive foe threatening to destroy all freedom of worship.” Worried about the secularization that came with increased modernization, religious leaders and their communities overwhelming embraced the Cold War inspired religious revivals sweeping across the nation. Yet, as the Cold War progressed, the government’s endorsement of Christianity shifted to a more general and ambiguous endorsement of religion in general.
Perhaps the most significant faith-based initiative of US foreign policy during the Cold War was the recognition of the state of Israel in 1948. The case of Israel, more than any other state, demonstrates the impossibility of cleanly separating religion and politics. Home to the holiest sites of the three Abrahamic religions, the land now belonging to the Israeli state has been highly contested for centuries. When President Truman decided to extend diplomatic recognition to the newly formed Israeli state, he did so without the support of many of the high-ranking officials he appointed to the State Department. Yet, Truman’s personal faith and the overwhelming domestic support for the Israeli state sparked by the religious revivals following WWII led him to recognize Israel anyway. On the other hand, President Eisenhower, also a religious man, was skeptical of allying his administration with the Israeli cause. Despite the shared faith of these two US presidents, they reached vastly different conclusions regarding how to deal with Israel during the Cold War. Therefore, while religion was certainly a factor in a number of foreign policy initiatives during the Cold War, its influence was varied, and did not always lead to similar policy decisions among those of a shared faith. Both men openly admitted to the influence of their faith on their respective policies, but in the context of the Cold War, with a constantly shifting domestic religious landscape, and a myriad of ways any single decision could go, religion influenced foreign policy, but not in any predictable way.
Given America’s history of operating as if God Himself anointed the nation for a special mission, the role religion played in the Cold War is not all that surprising. By calling the American people to fight in a religious crusade against the Soviet Union, the US government could maintain domestic support and justify the extreme lengths necessary to continue to wage the lengthy Cold War. John Foster Dulles said the American people could make the “most significant demonstration” of their resolve against the Soviets “at the religious level.” That the Cold War evolved into a religious affair for people around the globe is not surprising given that it raised questions about the nature of human existence. People around the globe found themselves in a position where humankind could cease to exist due to the actions of other humans. Religion of any variety provided answers to the existential questions people had about life and death during the Cold War era. Moreover, because a direct “hot war” with the USSR would risk the annihilation of life on earth, religion became an alternative avenue along with culture through which to fight the Cold War.
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