Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Since World War II, the influence of evangelical Protestantism upon American politics has grown exponentially. In recent decades, evangelical voters have taken to the ballot box with particular focus on electing the person who would usher in Conservative judicial appointments and who would uphold faith-based freedoms (for Christians at least) and maintain conservative perspectives on culture wars issues (abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender bathrooms, etc.).
As a cultural historian, I believe that attention to religion and its influence upon society, culture, and politics is vital if we are going to understand U.S. history and politics. In our American History surveys, students are often perplexed by the stark political swing away from the FDR-Truman and Kennedy-Johnson era social reforms to the Nixonian, Reaganite, and Tea Party conservativism. In part, we explain this as reactions to the Civil Rights Movement and hippie culture as well as the negative impact of the war in Vietnam, but I have found that students really benefit from understanding the increased religiosity too. In my class on the cultural Cold War, which takes a comparative approach between the East and West, students learn more about the deep cultural distinction that Americans made between their evangelical and Catholic religiosity and the stark “Godless communism” of the Soviet Union and its satellites (as represented in the comic Treasure Chest above).
Students are often shocked to find that twentieth-century Americans were on the whole more “religious” than many of their ancestors. Church membership and adherence skyrocketed during the early Cold War with the growth of churches and megachurches as well as the transportation revolution that made expanded services possible. Likewise, by exploring the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and 1990s students have a better understanding of why the influence of the Grahams, Falwells, Copelands, and Robertsons remains strong inside white, Christian circles. The 2016 election will be another watershed moment for understanding evangelicals, but it is a little too early to fully comprehend its effects on the movement and their voting power. We will see what happens in the election in November.
Part of the joy of teaching history is trying to answer the question: how did we get here? Well, the influence of conservative Christianity upon American politics largely stems from the Cold War. At this point, I want to briefly focus in on terminology. Some scholars refer to the increase in religious adherence in the Cold War as the Third Great Awakening. Historians love a good pattern, and when there have been two previous Great Awakenings it makes some sense to carry on the tradition but this is problematic. The first two Great Awakenings were largely confined to the Protestant denominations, but the third was far more diverse. Religious adherence in the early Cold War increased not only amongst Protestants as usual, but also among Catholics and Jews. Further, it was not some frontier missionary development, but reached across class and urban and rural divides. The number of Americans confirmed (typically this means baptized) increased from 49 percent at the beginning of World War II to 69 percent in 1960. From there we see a decline as Cold War teenagers grew more ambivalent to adherence, the culture secularized, and as explorations of other world religions increased—particularly in cities. But the strength of the Cold War religious revival was palpable and expansive if evident in no other way than the media reach of Billy Graham’s Crusades and Bishop Fulton Sheen’s fifteen-year television run across different networks.
The religious boom did not happen in a vacuum. The popular Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr asserted that the rise in religious adherence was a response to the generational failures of secular alternatives to historic faiths. The experiences of global wars, a stark economic depression, and the growing knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust demonstrated the failures of liberalism, laissez-faire capitalism, fascism, and even Marxism. Historians like Mark Mazower have demonstrated how the world really was in flux in terms of lasting political and economic systems in the twentieth century, but for Niebuhr this wave of religiosity was about finding comfort in a modern world.
Niebuhr’s utility during the Cold War, however, was his anti-communism, which appealed far more to Republicans than his Christian Realism which advocated for humanistic social welfare approaches like those initiated by FDR. Religion as the antidote to communism was further espoused by the war-hero Republicans rand for President in 1954. Dwight David Eisenhower grew up in a home that was outside the mainstream of Protestantism (Mennonites turned Jehovah Witness), and as a result he was not actually baptized until after he became President. Since his wife Mamie was Presbyterian, he approached the pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., explained his religious upbringing, and requested that he be baptized into the faith. So, President Eisenhower was baptized on February 10, 1953 at the age of 62. He can be seen above with his spiritual adviser, Reverend Billy Graham. The two men became good friends before the Republican National Convention nominated the former general, and Eisenhower consulted Graham on platform issues as well as rhetoric in speeches.
Despite his late entry to more established religion, Eisenhower truly believed in the social and cultural power of American Christianity as an effective tool to combat the spread of communism across the globe. He understood that America’s religious fervor and multi-confessional identity was unique compared to much of Europe along with exporting our culture and consumerism would be the best ways to fight an ideological and emotional war for “hearts and minds.” In contrast, the Soviets openly denounced religion, mandated state atheism, and even used their space program to demonstrate there was no God above (see the Soviet poster celebrating their arrival in space). Atheism, scientific advancement, and celebrations of unity and diversity (particularly ethnic and racial harmony and class solidarity) were the main tools in the Soviet tool-belt for this period.
Eisenhower’s religious beliefs were not a shallow vehicle for power though. He opened his Inauguration with a prayer that he wrote himself and the parade was literally led by God’s own float, which was pulled by a jeep. As President, he also took deep interest in the American Legion’s Back to God campaign, which fused together religion and patriotism to a surprisingly lasting effect. This resulted in the establishment of the Congressional Prayer Room and National Prayer Breakfast as well as alterations to the pledge and national motto to include the phrases “Under God” and “In God We Trust.” During this period many historians refer to as the “consensus,” the Legion and other organizations shifted the culture of public life by holding prayers before school functions, citing the pledge, and playing the national anthem before sporting events. The Legion’s relationship with Code Hollywood and the omnipresent power of the Catholic Church also resulted in a proliferation of Biblical epics in the 1950s. These included Old Testament films like Samson and Delilah (1949), The Prodigal (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956) and New Testament and Early Christianity films like Quo Vadis (1951), Salome (1953), The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959). These were incredibly expensive films to produce, but they were also guaranteed box-office successes. Religion was everywhere in Cold War America from the White House to bungalow lined streets.
In future posts I will explore some of these Cold War films more as well as touch on Cold War Catholicism, which was vital enough to result in the election of an Irish-Catholic John Fitzgerald Kennedy instead of Eisenhower’s Cold Warrior Vice President, Richard M. Nixon. But for now, I will give you a taste by exploring one of the stranger but vehemently anticommunism films of the period: the space odyssey Red Planet Mars.
This 1952 film marries concerns about Soviets and lingering Nazis with a healthy skepticism of science before offering the ultimate triumph to religion. In scenes ironically reminiscent of early Soviet space adventures, a group of American astronomers are watching Mars taking note of rapid new developments. To their great shock, there must be intelligent beings on the red planet! In a rather brazen acknowledgment of Operation Paperclip and the former Nazis who were behind our own space program, the scientists use stolen Nazi technology through a special hydrogen-powered transmitter to contact the Martians. The scientists are excited to receive a response, but they soon learn that, compared to Earth, Mars is a relative utopia with a managed socialist economy and a society without needs or worries. Even atomic energy, one of the early major concerns of the Cold War, has been peacefully harnessed without threats of nuclear annihilation. Thus, the “all is lost” moment of the film arrives. Western capitalism begins a global tailspin after the news of this space utopia spreads, and it does so much to the delight of the Soviets who delight in what they learn about their Red Planet comrades. More communications from Mars arrive, however, suggesting that Earth’s nuclear worries are because of the sinful nature of mankind and their rebellion against God’s teachings. As a result of these new communiques, a great revival spreads rapidly across the Earth including in the Soviet Union. The film ends with a twist though—it is the dastardly Nazi who is toying with the Americans and Soviets. The Nazi scientist who developed they communications transmitter is feeding Soviet and American propaganda to the world as reported communications with Martians, but before the scientist can leak his tricks to the world he is killed by a hydrogen explosion in the lab. The last garbled message is reportedly from God who noticed the outbreak of revival and peace and proclaimed “Well done, my good and faithful servants.” I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am to find this film did not win an Oscar… but it does provide insight into Cold War mindsets and perhaps shocking honesty regarding the Nazi links to our space program and the prevalent use of propaganda on both sides.
Decades after the end of the Cold War, Christianity still has a strong presence in American culture through the sermons of megachurch pastor Joel Osteen and the latest Kirk Cameron or Mel Gibson film. Likewise, Paula White is quite different from Billy Graham, but President Trump maintains a spiritual adviser like Eisenhower chose to do and frequently plays to the evangelical base. Toward the end of his first term, Eisenhower was speaking to a group of businessmen and stressed the importance of religion (Christianity no doubt), freedom, and prosperity in maintaining America’s presence abroad. This rhetoric still resonates with a significant proportion of our voting population today.