Religion and US Empire Part 2

Today's guest post comes from Sylvester A. Johnson. Professor Johnson and Professor Tracy Leavelle are leading the Religion and US Empire Seminar, which includes both a working group and an AAR Seminar. Johnson's first post discussed the role of Christian fundamentalism in promoting a populist, mainstream embrace of US empire. In this post, he explains the linkage and resonance between US government approaches to engaging Communism and the broader religious imaginary of Christian nationalism.

The Refashioning of Christian Nationalism
Sylvester A. Johnson

In mainstream US media and the public imaginary, the specter of Communism was a fundamental threat that bore directly on national security, the prospect of whose annihilation seemed palpatable and immanent both on a mass scale and individually. During the Cold War years, the perceived threat of Communism exceeded all others in importance and uniqueness on a scale comparable to that commanded by terrorism in the twenty-first century. The grammar of theology, moreover, was at work in the discursive rendering of Communism among even secular US state officials and institutions. In its historic report to President Harry S Truman in April of 1950, for example, the National Security Council (NSC) argued that the Soviet Union, in contrast to any previous aspiring state hegemon, was rooted in "a new fanatic faith, anti-thetical to our own..." The Council insisted that the uniqueness of Communism lay prinicipally in an act of idolatry because the Kremlin deployed a perverted "faith" that rejected "submission to the will of God" in favor of "submission to the will of the system." As a result, "the system becomes God." In this way, the NSC proffered a theological rationale as part of its larger argument for a forward-deployed US military and an arms build-up that might dwarf the very aspirations of the Soviet Union. [1]

One should note that the NSC did not identify a specifically "Christian" or "fundamentalist" nature of US religion. Rather, the Council's theological claims presumed that freedom itself--as embodied by Western civilization and the US nation preeminently--was constitutive of American religious fidelity and genuine submission to god--"the God"--whose exclusive claim to the complete loyalties of humankind the Council set in juxtaposition to the Kremlin's putative ambitions for an unbound totalitarian regime. This was a cosmic, Manichean struggle. It is important to appreciate the full implications of this point. Once should not be led to think, in other words, that Protestant Christian fundamentalism or even Christian nationalism was the provenance of the anti-Communist "faith" espoused by secular institutions of the state. This was not at all the case. The issue, rather is resonance and intersection.

One might keep in mind, for instance, that during the height of the Cold War, the US Department of Justice viewed the Roman Catholic Church as an essential ally in the preservation of national security, depsite the strident anti-Catholicism that dominated public sentiment. [2] Since the summer of 1949, in fact, the papal office of the Catholic Church had repeatedly excommunicated Catholic parishioners (eventually excommunicating Fidel Castro) for supporting Communism, sympathizing with its ideals, or at times simply for reading periodicals like the Daily Worker.  This drew high praise from federal officials, who emphasized the religious implications of Communism. As one representative of New York City's St. Peter's Cathedral emphasized in the wake of the excommunications, Communism was no mere "philosophy" but "a practical religion--a religion without God." [3] In this context, mainstream US media companies even found positive regard for Islam in the Soviet Union. It was impossible, opined one editorial, for one to be a "good" Muslim and a "good Marxist," since Muslims were "not half-believers nor lip servers." Muslims, supposedly, were almost "uniformly devout" because Islam was no mere "profession of faith" but a "mode of life." [4]

The religious understanding of Communism and the security imperatives of US militarism spanned far and wide among US state officials. The intelligence division of the US Army, for instance, published a pamphlet in 1955 entitled "How to Spot a Communist." The document was meant to provide recruits a primer in vigilance and intervention against the nation's chief threat. The intelligence agency devoted roughly one-third of the content to religion, claiming that Communism filled an essentially religious void that army recruits should take notice of those who lacked a foundation in religious belief. This line of reasoning, which viewed Communism as an especially compelling system of belief for the religious vulnerable, had already been popularized by 1951. At that time, President Harry Truman created the Psychological Strategy Board, which included explicit emphasis on religion. The board claimed that Communism was not able to exist in a "spiritually healthy" world, so promoting religion figured as an important strategy for undermining Communism.

When US state officials, media corporations, and popular anti-Communist activists rendered Communism as as global threat of Soviet provenance, they normally did so by identifying it as a religious formation (inter alios), one who essential power and substance lay in the dual ability of Communism to act against religion (as an idyllic, beneficent force) and to act as religion (e.g., as an ontological, evil force at enmity with the divine). In doing so, they were not denying that Communism was a political, state-supported phenomenon. The point, rather, is to understand the simultaneity that inhered to Communism's plural constitution as conceived by US actors. The intersection of religion and empire, thus, obtained and manifested at multiple levels and registers. This is why it is important to discern the resonance and overlapping logics that rendered the political project of US empire coherent as a religious aim with profoundly religious consequences.

It was in this context that Christian fundamentalism defined the problem of national security in terms of restoring a lost Christian past. By this account, liberalism--along with its attending threats like secular humanism--was culpable in leading the nation astray from its true Christian past. [5] Fundamentalism promised to bring it back. One of the pivotal institutional expressions of this trend was the Moral Majority, a national organization that Jerry Falwell established in 1979. This movement adopted as its mission the aim of "Saving the Soul of America," the very same motto the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been using for over twenty years to promote its activist aims rooted in the social gospel tradition. Communism, moreover, fueled the broad appeal of fundamentalism, which in turn was reshaping the deep texture of Christian nationalism. Fundamentalism, of course, did not create Christian nationalism. Rather, by the 1960s, fundamentalism had refashioned a pre-existing Christian nationalism by amplifying a consensus or expansive sentiment that the secure future of the nation (its political identity and its vitality as a Western civilization) depended on defeating Christian liberalism and particularly the social gospel, which was rendered as spiritually weak and lacking authentic religious substance. This trend equally evident in regard to liberation theology, which took root with a strong Third World presence. Given the discourse of Communism as a threat to the freedom to be religious (read "authentically Christian"), this intensification of fundamentalist zeal easily equated the promotion of fundamentalism with the defense of the right to be religious. The ensuing narrative or etiology proposed that authentic (i.e. fundamentalist) Christianity was besieged.

By the 1970s and 1980s, a broad-based Christian nationalism was functioning as an exceptionally efficacious matrix for espousing free market absolution as simultaneously a fundamental of the Christian, a sine qua non of US American identity, and the touchstone of capitalism (an essential core of Western civilization). The consequences of this became remarkably clear in Latin America. As Greg Grandin has correctly observed, US empire achieved a moral force of remarkable scale. This is striking in light of the sheer brutality and murderous policies that characterized, for instance, Ronald Reagan's deployment of the CIA to disrupt and control Latin American states like Nicaragua and Guatemala. [6] The years of the Reagan administration were marked by an explicit religious promotion of market absolutism. Of further importance was the broad mobilization of Christian nationalism to advance the ability of the US to control, through military and other means, a global array of polities and regions.

The success of the US in managing democracy and controlling Latin American states was directly tied to vigorous alliances between the US government and a range of US Christian nationalists who operated in Latin America to propagate a message of Christian gospel distinctly opposed to liberation theology and the anticolonial struggles of the rebels fighting against military dictatorships. Virginia Garrard-Burnett's study of religion and genocide in Guatemala is just one of many reminders that militarism and US imperial strategies became inextricably wed in the twentieth century precisely because Cold War politics thrived partly on religious claims about the stakes of freedom, capital, and security. [7]

In my next post, I will turn attention to the elemental structures of US empire, attempting to explain its specific architecture accounting for why the very status of the US as an empire is rooted in its specific architecture and the political ideologies that have defined the periods of its formation.

[1] "NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (April 14, 1950): A Report to the President Pursuant to the President's Directive of January 31, 1950."
[2] Steve Rosswurm, The FBI and the Catholic Church, 1935-1962 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).
[3] David Priestland, The Red Flag: A History of Communism (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 294. "Communism Held Godless Religion: Catholic Supporters Apostates, Priest Says in Explaining Ban on Red Publication," New York Times, 25 July 1949.
[4] "Communism and Islalm," New York Times, 19 June 1949.
[5] David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 255-58.
[6] See Greg Grandin, Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 6-8.
[7] Virgina Garrard-Burnett, Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efrain Rios Montt, 1982-1983 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).


Tom Van Dyke said…
Cool post, Mr. Johnson.

I don't see this one come up very often. In fact, I'm thinking practically never. I ran across it quite accidentally one day:

"I don't think we put enough stress on the necessity of implanting in the child's mind the moral code under which we live.

The fundamental basis of this Nation's law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don't think we emphasize that enough these days.

If we don't have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state."

Now, I think the theology's rather specious, but it's a great piece our theo-political American history.

--Harry Truman, "Address Before the Attorney General's Conference on Law Enforcement Problems,"
--February 15, 1950

And if I may, these days this sort of thing is routinely labeled "conservative" or "right-wing." But Harry Truman would take a swing at anybody who slandered him so. This all needs a bit of sorting out.