American Religion and the Architecture of Empire



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Today's guest post from Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University continues our discussion from October emanating from the new Religion and Empire group, headed up by Sylvester and Tracy Leavelle, and including several of our bloggers in the discussion.
American Religion and the Architecture of US Empire

Among the major shifts in twentieth century US religion was the movement of Christian fundamentalism from the margins to the center of national culture. Recent scholarship on this transformation ably demonstrates that the decades following the Scopes trial (a low-tide marker of fundamentalism’s public status) witnessed a ground-shift whereby Christian fundamentalism began to command the public meaning of the faith. By the time the civil rights movement had peaked in the mid-1960s, the legacy status of social gospel Christianity was firmly undone. The struggle over the public meaning of Christianity was largely fought between advocates of the social gospel, of which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was emblematic, and fundamentalists (represented by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Joseph H. Jackson) who were determined to reclaim Christianity from liberal theology. It was evident even then that fundamentalism had established the upper-hand in a battle that would have lasting significance for political religion in the US.[1]

Among the multiple factors in this triumph of fundamentalism was US empire. It is no accident that fundamentalism came of age during the era of the Cold War. This was the very time the US amassed its nuclear armament, implemented forward deployment of bases and weapons, and asserted multiple points of resistance (political, military, and economic) against the only other superpower that seemed to match its military might—the Soviet Union. Understanding the intersection of US empire and the tectonic shift that occurred in American Christianity provides an occasion to discern an important dimension of the architecture of US empire.

As a more militant form of American Christianity, borne out of a sense of besiegement by anti-Christian forces, fundamentalism easily absorbed and embraced the bromides of anti-Communism that defined the Cold War era. Communism was godless, so the reasoning went, but the US was a Christian nation. In this environment, the champions of fundamentalism were easy victors in the race to articulate an ultra-nationalist Christian identity that celebrated laissez-faire capitalism, rugged individualism, free markets, and the robust, forward-deployed militarism that was needed to defend these freedoms.

At the center of this movement was Billy Graham, a revivalist par excellence of international renown. Graham had been mediocre in his impact until 1949, when he launched a historic, eight-week revival that rocked Los Angeles and permanently transformed him from a marginal preacher to the most influential revivalist of the Cold War era. Rather serendipitously, just two days before Graham started his revival, US officials announced that the Soviet Union had successfully detonated an atomic bomb (weeks earlier). Strange as it may sound, Graham made the imperial struggle between the US and the Soviet Union central to his message. Warning that the city of Los Angeles was being targeted for a possible nuclear strike, he urged his audience to recognize that the nation needed Jesus to avert a global disaster. And he delicately but persuasively linked the geopolitics of the age to the question of a personal relationship with Jesus. From that moment, this strain of American Christianity became, among other things, a movement for religious nationalism. It was not the first time that Christian nationalism had operated at the center of public religion, but it was the first time the US had verged on the status of being unsurpassed in its global might.[2]

Christian fundamentalism was not merely being masked with a veneer of nationalism. Rather, membership in the political community of the West and particularly in the US body politic was being recoded through the meanings and aspirations of Christian fundamentalism. Within the context of a rapidly expanding security state (formalized with the National Security Act of 1947), McCarthyism, and the escalating repression of US citizens suspected of Communist affiliations, this Christian fundamentalism that was being forged within the crucible of imperial rationalities easily trumped its alternatives in the public square. Next to the social gospel and other forms of liberal Christian theology, fundamentalism easily won the day by promising to safeguard a putatively Christian America against the threat of annihilation by “godless Communism.” As an index of the times, one should recall the quick passage of legislation to insert “under God” (at President Eisenhower’s bidding in 1954) into the US pledge of allegiance and to print “In God We Trust” on all US currency (this had previously been reserved for metal coins) in 1955—US Congress went on to designate this as the national motto in 1956.[3]

So, how was this related to the architecture (the specific institutional structures and political formations) of US empire? And what was the nature of this architecture? It is to that issue I will turn in next month’s blog. So, stay tuned….




Randall Balmer, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (Baylor University Press, 2010); Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Michael Lienesch, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
[2] “Evangelist Opens Revival Crusade,” Los Angeles Times 26 September 1949. Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986). Michael G. Long, The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest Evangelist (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[3] Daniel K. Williams, God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2012). 

4 comments:

Mark T. Edwards at: December 17, 2013 at 10:54 AM said...

Great observations here, Sylvester--I look forward to seeing how fundamentalism inserted itself into the "architecture" of the Cold War American empire.

Two observations:

1. Use of the "fundamentalism" label might be problematic given that we still haven't settled the debate between Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden--between narrow use of the term to describe premillennial dispensationalists and Marsden's broader equation of fundamentalism with anti-modernism. This isn't that big a deal, as I see it; but I suspect scholars of fundamentalism and evangelicalism will push back and miss the bigger point about Christian nationalism's role in the American Century.

2. Christian nationalism in the 1940s and 1950s was not a possession of fundamentalists alone, but much of the mainline and ecumenical leadership also subscribed to a cosmopolitan formulation of Christian nationalism. Take the NCC's inaugural 1950s slogan, "the building of a Christian America in a Christian World." Or, take the mainline's general support for Billy Graham--support he actively courted at least through the 1957 meetings in NYC (See Mark Silk's Spiritual Politics or Thomas Berg's "Proclaiming Together" RAAC essay on this). To what extent the fundamentalists could draw from mainline and ecumenical forms of Christian nationalism is a subject worthy of more research. At the very least, we need to understand the long, bipartisan history of Christian nationalism in America. Michael Thompson of the University of Sydney and I are just beginning to develop an edited collection on the very subject.

Tom Van Dyke at: December 19, 2013 at 12:29 AM said...

Within the context of a rapidly expanding security state (formalized with the National Security Act of 1947), McCarthyism, and the escalating repression of US citizens suspected of Communist affiliations, this Christian fundamentalism that was being forged within the crucible of imperial rationalities easily trumped its alternatives in the public square.

The "context," presumably a link between McCarthyism and "fundamentalism," needs to be fleshed out a bit more. For instance, Joe McCarthy was Catholic, Roy Cohn Jewish. Anti-communism--even of the excessive kind--was quite ecumenical.

As for the attempt to limn a post-WWII fundamentalist movement with Billy Graham at its center, first we must note that in the 21st century, "fundamentalist" is a largely a pejorative and so the entire enterprise carries a color of condemnation, whether intended by the author or not.

If "godless Communism" requites scare quotes--for it was indeed godless--the central term of "fundamentalism" requires careful handling as well.

Reading this essay, some gentle readers might even get the impression that Dr. Johnson holds a rather Manichean animus against his subject.

Further, it's unwise to assess the history of postwar "conservatism" in a vacuum--instead of an "end of history" with the final defeat of those perpetually troublemaking Germans, the rise of the Soviet empire represented an even greater existential threat, not just a geo-political bad actor but a international ideology as well.

That Billy Graham launched himself into the stratosphere contemporaneously with the Soviets getting the bomb is a significant observation, and a great fulcrum for a thesis. That Sovietism was totalitarian, godless--"humanistic" if you will--is also part of the greater Judeo-Christian [for lack of a better term] West's battle with modernity. The Monkey Trial wasn't just about the Bible, it was about modernity's vision of man, explainable by biology alone, obviating if not abolishing teleology and metaphysics.

Jon Pahl at: December 20, 2013 at 6:58 AM said...

Thanks Sylvester, but to read the development of empire as an internecine Christian matter without attention to the mobility of religious discourses and practices (e.g., the dislocation and reattachment of Christian devotion to the state and military and markets) is to miss, in my mind, the most interesting part of the story, and to replicate the ghettoizing of "religion" that the secularist paradigm mandates--which then unleashes precisely the violent backlashes of so-called "fundamentalists" (and you need to talk to David Watt about the limits of that little bit of discourse)....

Sylvester Johnson at: January 9, 2014 at 3:55 PM said...

These are very helpful responses, ones with which I largely (but not entirely) agree. My discussion is not an argument for reductionism (to fundamentalism). Nor am I attempting to trivialize Christian nationalism. I am, rather, giving an account of how Christian nationalism underwent a particular shift through the expansive influence of fundamentalism. It might be helpful to keep in mind that fundamentalism was rebranded as evangelicalism by the mid-century (although this does not mean all self-identified evangelicals are fundamentalists). I am mapping fundamentalism with chief attention to the movement opposing Christian liberalism. No discussion of fundamentalism, at this point, will go uncontested (and I welcome the continued push-back), but I think it still merits scholarly discussion.

Of course multiple secular forces have contributed to populist imperialism. But so has Christian fundamentalism. And I have sought to discuss an important linkage that this movement shared with larger geopolitical interests, and to do so in the space of a brief blog post. It is my hope that non-reductionist accounts focusing on religion--which I understand to be already constituted in part by secular forms--can still emerge without being equated with ghettoizing religion.

On a different score, Communism was not a monolith. What the US state referred to as Communism included a range of anticolonial movements throughout the globe, in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (including the US). Latin America, in fact, was shaped by a robust Christian Communist movement (these were theists, in other words), which is just one reason why "godless Communism" is in quotes. This is why it is important to distinguish between secular Marxism and Communism--the former has necessarily enjoined a rejection of theism and institutional religion, but not necessarily the latter. There was never a monolithic, international threat of Communism. There were, however, scores of Communist-identified movements in multiple continents.

Thanks for this feedback. I welcome the continued, critical engagement.

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