Review: God-Fearing and Free
Jason W. Stevens. God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America's Cold War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. 448 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-05555-1.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States and the ensuing “war on terror” has forced Americans to once again wrestle with the relationships between their military ventures and their public expressions of faith. It has also pushed scholars to think more deeply about the ways in which the United States has employed religion in past conflicts. In particular, scholars have been thoroughly reassessing the role of religion during the Cold War. Angela Lahr’s Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism (2007) focuses on the ways in which evangelicals’ doomsday scenarios fueled Cold War ideology; William Inboden’s Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960: The Soul of Containment (2010) analyzes the impact of Christianity on Truman and Eisenhower’s foreign policy; and Jonathan P. Herzog’s The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle Against Communism in the Early Cold War (2011) shows how Americans framed the fight against communism in religious terms.
The story of the United States’ pervasive deployment of religion in the Cold War is told again by Jason W. Stevens in his excellent God-Fearing and Free. He argues that in the two decades after World War II, “The American public, powered by a national religious revival, was purposefully disillusioned regarding the country’s mythical innocence and thus fortified for an epochal struggle with totalitarianism” and that “Americans represented both private and public life through a language of iniquity, guilt, and expiation that intentionally echoed the nation’s past religious awakenings” (vii). During this period, influential Americans sought to bury the theological modernism of the progressive era that had aimed to correlate “Christianity with the progressive elements in American society” (4). “Protestant countermodernists,” he explains, “(ranging from the neoorthodox to self-critical liberals to fundamentalists) argued that Christianity should testify against the world instead of accommodating it; Christians should recover the God of Judgment who stands over culture rather than pretend to find God in some dialectic of progress” (6). These countermodernists gave Americans a language with which to acknowledge their loss of innocence and then justify their actions in the Cold War.
To make these arguments, Stevens breaks his book into five sections of two chapters each. Each section takes a unique approach to interpreting the ways in which religion intersects with the Cold War. The first focuses on the ideas articulated by the nation’s most prominent theologians. Stevens sees numerous parallels between two major figures who have in the past been most often treated as opposites—Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr. Similar to Andrew Finstuen’s recent Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety (2009), Stevens shows how Niebuhr and Graham’s emphasis on sin helped frame Cold War ideas about national innocence and naivety. The second section of the book examines the ways in which Americans dealt with guilt. Here Stevens offers a thoughtful analysis of sources ranging from former communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers’ bestselling memoir Witness (1952) to McCarthyism as it was expressed and critiqued through film noir. The third section focuses on Americans’ struggles over mass culture and consumption. Here Stevens explores such sources as the play Inherit the Wind (1955) and then academic critiques of mass evangelism. The next section interrogates the integration of popular psychology and psychoanalysis with religion. Paul Tillich and Shirley Jackson serve as two of the many sources Stevens invokes in this discussion of Cold-War era therapeutic faith. The final section explores the work of “prophets” ranging from Flannery O’Connor to James Baldwin as they critiqued the United States’ Cold War strategies.
Ultimately, Stevens demonstrates how Americans’ acknowledgment of the nation’s loss of innocence in some ways made it easier to justify increasingly greater evils. Stevens concludes by applying his argument to the present: “In light of recent events” he writes, “we may take Jesus’ provocation—ye are liars, and the truth is not in you!—to tell us not simply to shed our innocence, but to put an end to ending our innocence. We must stop what has become a national ritual that functions as self-acquittal through self-accusation” (310).
One of the strengths of God-Fearing and Free is the wide-range of sources that Stevens uses to shape his argument, as well as the interdisciplinary approach he takes to understanding those sources. An English professor, Stevens draws on his own discipline as well as history and cultural studies to build his narrative. It is not often that an author can move comfortably from Whittaker Chambers to Night of the Hunter (1955) to Billy Graham to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
God-Fearing and Free is not a quick or easy read. It is an ambitious book that makes an ambitious argument. Although Stevens (and/or his editor) could have worked a little harder to reduce the jargon and make the text more readable, it is still well-worth the challenge. In sum, Stevens has written an important book that adds a new and significant dimension to a story that has important ramifications for American life today.