Mark Edwards teaches American history and politics at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has published numerous articles, including in Diplomatic History, Religion and American Culture, and Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions. His first book, The Right of the Protestant Left, is due out with Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. He is currently at work on a related project, The Christian Origins of the American Century: A Life of Francis Pickens Miller. Welcome to Mark!
by Mark Edwards
The Last Temptation of Christ (1953) is communist subversion. A President follows “God’s Float” into office. Security analysts begin to stockpile WMRs (Weapons of Mass Re-enchantment). Creation Science videos become mandatory viewing for over 200,000 GIs. Twenty-five million Americans pledge a dollar apiece to build a “Freedom Bell” for West Berlin. Radio-vangelists from Mars (the “red” planet, no less!) spark a global Christian groundswell, culminating in the collapse of the Communist bloc. These stories and more are contained in Jonathan P. Herzog’s study, The Spiritual-Industrial Complex (2011). The simple pleasure of the read notwithstanding, the real strength here is Herzog’s situating of Christian anticommunism within public and private institutions. While the narrative of 1950s spiritual revival is a familiar one, no one has yet offered an empirical explanation for it. Herzog shows convincingly how a myriad of elites manufactured civil religious consent as a “bulwarks” as well as battering rams against “secularism,” the firstfruits of international communism (8).
Herzog offers and carries through on at least two arguments. First, he argues that the post-World War II revival was the result of series of undercover policy decisions. While state and security personnel did draw upon earlier theological analyses of communism as a demonic faith, the Christianization of the burgeoning Military-Industrial Complex (Herzog focuses mainly on Christian influences) was nevertheless “conceived in boardrooms rather than camp meetings” (7). Herzog’s recovery of U. S. Information Agency (USIA) propaganda, the Fort Knox experiment in universal military training, and the joint government/business Religion in American Life (RIAL) ad campaign, among other richly detailed examples, more than justify his central claim and imagery. He notes the paradox of a Christian crusade sustained by secular agencies (12). Second, Herzog argues that the treasure trove of Jesus Junk produced by the Spiritual-Industrial Complex weakened public Protestantism in the long run. This claim is less well developed than the first. All the same, Herzog has led me to think about how the Supreme Court decisions against school prayer and Bible reading were consistent the Court’s earlier attack on the perceived excesses of the McCarran and McCarthy scares.
Herzog’s thoughts on secularization possibly constitute a third argument. At first, I felt the author was introducing unwarranted abstraction into his otherwise impressive empirical account. However, it was refreshing to find someone finally drawing upon the insights of Christian Smith’s collaborative project, The Secular Revolution (2003). As Herzog notes, Smith understands secularization as a product of inter-group struggles for influence (10). One implication of this theory is that the religious right isn’t paranoid since “secular humanists” really are out to get them. As Herzog ably demonstrates, though, Smith’s work places future study of secularization squarely in the hands of the historian. The very existence of the Spiritual-Industrial Complex proves that secularization is not an irreversible process but rather a time and place specific phenomenon. Conversely, “sacralization” (Stark’s and Finke’s term for the “reendowment of religion with perceived political, social, economic, or intellectual value”) can also be constructed and deconstructed through collective human effort (11). It is hard to see what the materialism displayed during the Nixon-Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate” (1959) had to do with nuking the Spiritual-Industrial Complex, especially since celebrations of American abundance (“better fed than red”) had been crucial ingredients in anticommunism since Herbert Hoover. Still, Herzog’s revisioning of secularization does ask us to set aside our typical condescension towards 1950s “faith in faith.” Christian containment culture was remarkably sincere if also quite fragile.
Herzog’s book joins a number of wonderful recent works on postwar public religion, including (but certainly not limited to) Angela Lahr’s Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares (2007), Andrew Finstuen’s Original Sin and Everyday Protestants (2009), Jason Stevens’s God-Fearing and Free (2010), Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt toSunbelt (2010), and Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America (2011). Taken together, the net effect is to unsettle each other’s studies. For instance, would Herzog’s Complex have become operative if it were not for the prior mainstreaming of premillennialism by Lahr’s evangelicals? Or did mass-produced belief in the American Way of Life enjoy stronger sales than did fears of the apocalypse? Similarly, what was the relationship between self-made re-sacralization and Protestant American anxiety, as explored respectively and respectfully by Finstuen and Stevens? To what extent does Dochuk (as well as Steven Miller) force Herzog to admit that the Spiritual-Industrial Complex was a negotiation between “plain folk” believers, their preachers, and a spiritual power elite? This is especially relevant since Herzog draws heavily upon Dochuk and Lahr when making his final claim that the Complex helped coalesce the postwar New Right. Or, does Herzog’s evidence suggest that Dochuk (and Bethany Moreton, for that matter) rages against Thomas Frank in vain? Finally, is the notion of an inclusive, monolithic Spiritual-Industrial Complex all that helpful given Kevin Schultz’s admirably nuanced narrative of religious-conflict-within-thin-consensus? Certainly, my intent is not to blacklist any of these books. Far from it; the questions arising from them beg for a fuller historiographical essay.
As a point of minor criticism, I did search Herzog’s work in vain for diversities of Christian anticommunism. Herzog discusses the National Association of Evangelicals, but the much larger National Council of Churches is not mentioned. The World Council of Churches is misleadingly referenced as a mouthpiece for Eisenhower, Dulles, and the USIA. Herzog is obviously aware of the World Council’s early commitment to superpower “co-existence,” yet his approach leaves the impression of a religious conformity to Washington-Whitehall priorities that rarely existed. Those shortcomings are part of a larger neglect of liberal anticommunism in general. Does it really matter that Christian Americans used the Cold War differently, some to roll back New Deal social rights and others to advance them? Probably. At the very least, we need to remember that J. Vernon McGee and Carl McIntire are not America (yet).
Of course, Herzog’s intent was to establish the common institutional origins and nature of the 1950s religious revival, not explore its every political economic consequence. In that purpose, Herzog has more than succeeded. The Spiritual-Industrial Complex should be ideal for sparking undergraduate and graduate interest in a nation with the soul of a predator drone.