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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Cold War Religion

In the midst of mid-20th-century social upheavals in national American life and the threat of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, conservatives forged a new civil religion to unite the country in a way of life. President Eisenhower and his advisors recognized that the American people, long isolated by the Pacific and Atlantic, would not “choose to make the economic sacrifices needed to sustain the Cold War effort” [1]. Eisenhower believed that “only religious faith…had the power to restrain selfishness and enable people to get along together in a democracy” and preserve American exceptionalism in the face of the Cold War. He found an ally in evangelist Billy Graham. Graham believed the biblical prophecies regarding the Antichrist were being fulfilled in Russia. In his crusades, he invoked Communism as a threat to America’s way of life and urged Christians to make a decision for Christ against the Communist forces of evil [2]. The resulting identification with Christian faith and American exceptionalism resulted in a national evangelical-flavored civic religion [3]. Billy Graham’s rise in popularity and Eisenhower’s administration had the desired effect. The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was added to the currency [4].

In the 70s, Graham would later repent that “in my earlier days…I tended to identify the Kingdom of God with the American way of life” [5]. The American civic religion did, in fact, envision America as a Christian society. Graham’s desire to encourage Christians to engage their faith in public society was admirable, but it subtly neglected a core reality of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” [6]. By the 70s, evangelicals would be disheartened that America fell far short of the Kingdom of God.

[1] FitzGerald, Frances. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017. p. 182.

[2] Ibid. pp. 180-181.

[3] Ibid. p. 186.

[4] Ibid. p. 185.

[5] Quoted in FitzGerald, p. 257.

[6] John 18:36 NRSV.

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