American propaganda cast the Cold War as one of history’s great religious wars, between the godless and the God-fearing, between good and evil. It was a simplistic depiction that was supported and promoted in the highest echelons of government and by the leaders of America’s key institutions. During the course of the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, U.S.-Soviet rivalry was transformed from a traditional great power struggle into a morality play that drew on firmly entrenched notions rooted in the American past, above all American exceptionalism and its sense of mission. Truman made religion America’s ideological justification for abandoning America’s wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower used religion to persuade the world that America was a force for good in the international arena. The resulting anti-communist crusade was to have profound consequences for Christian America, contributing to both religious revival and religious repression in the early Cold War period. Over time it caused irrevocable alterations to America’s religious landscape. The anti-communist dynamic unleashed embraced anti-liberalism and was a factor in the rise of the Christian Right and the decline in America’s mainstream churches. In addition, the image of a godless and evil enemy dictated an irreconcilable conflict that precluded the very modes of diplomacy and discourse that might have helped avoid the worst excesses, costs, and consequences of the Cold War.
Sharon Erickson Nepstad
Religious groups in the United States have been active in the cause of peace, particularly in the 20th century. These groups come from a variety of traditions, such as progressive Catholicism, Reformed Judaism, mainline Protestantism, and the Historic Peace Churches (i.e., Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren). Under the broad umbrella of peace issues, religious movements have challenged U.S. foreign policies and intervention abroad, military training, the arms race, and conscription. The Cold War generated significant faith-based organizing. At the close of World War II, there was growing concern about the nuclear arms race. The use of atomic weapons raised serious moral questions, and some religious activists believed that the indiscriminate and immense destructive capacity of these weapons rendered the Just War tradition obsolete. Religious movements challenged the nuclear arms race through a variety of campaigns, including noncooperation with city drill practices, interfering with nuclear testing, and damaging weapons. The Vietnam War also spurred a significant mobilization within U.S. religious communities. Radical Catholic groups began interfering with the conscription process by burning draft cards and destroying Selective Service files. More moderate religious groups were also active, primarily in promoting amnesty for draft resisters and through stockholder challenges that pressured corporations to stop producing weaponry. The Cold War battles in Central America in the 1980s were another major focus for religious peace movements, who organized delegations of U.S. citizens to travel to the war zones of Nicaragua to document and impede counterrevolutionary attacks against citizens. They also developed national networks of resistance to contest U.S. funding of authoritarian states in El Salvador and Guatemala and the training of these nations’ militaries. As the 20th century came to a close, an initiative was launched within the Historic Peace Churches to train volunteers in the art of nonviolent action and then send them to conflict zones to work with oppressed groups facing potentially lethal repression. These religious peace movements challenged faith communities to reflect on their ethical obligations and political commitments during periods of war and militarization.
Michael P. DeJonge
Contemporary political theology often defines itself against Lutheran social ethics, which is portrayed as politically disengaged and overly deferential to state power. At the same time, contemporary political theology often embraces the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an exemplary political theologian. This incongruity is generally resolved by distancing Bonhoeffer from his tradition, at least on matters of political theology. But Bonhoeffer’s political theology was thoroughly Lutheran. Throughout the years of his political-theological engagement, from the Nazi rise to power in 1932–1933 to the drafting of Ethics and related writing in 1940–1943, he participated in ongoing conversations within Lutheran social ethics on the issues of, among others, the two kingdoms and the orders. In the process, he critically appropriated these elements of Lutheran thinking into an especially dynamic and christocentric framework that in turn informed his positions on various issues such as the church’s proclamation against the Nazi state and the ecumenical church’s witness for peace. Bonhoeffer is an example of Lutheran political theology, one that suggests the need to revise at least the more sweeping judgments about Lutheran theology as inherently incompatible with political engagement.
Martin Luther was a subject of the Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. His emergence as a reformer was made possible by the sponsorship he received in Wittenberg. He owed his survival to the protection afforded him by the Elector when Emperor Charles V outlawed him and ordered that the papal ban of excommunication be enforced in the empire. The audience to which Luther appealed was the general population of German Christians, both lay and ecclesiastical, who wanted a reform of the church and the reduction of the pope’s influence over it. That his appeal resonated so widely and so profoundly had much to do with a combination of crises that had developed in the empire from the 15th century. That his reform proposals resulted in the formation of a new church owed everything to the political structures of the empire. These facilitated the suppression of radical challenges to Luther’s position. They also thwarted every effort Charles V made over several decades to ensure that the empire remained Catholic. Lutheranism became entwined with the idea of German liberty; as a result, its survival was secured in the constitution of the empire, first in 1555 and then in 1648.
The United States has been uniquely God-centered among Western nations, and that includes its foreign policy. From George Washington to the present, all presidents and policymakers have had to consider God in varying degrees either for their domestic audience or because they believed in a version of Providential mission in the world. In the beginning, the new United States was filled with religious people whom the founders had to consider in crafting the founding documents. In time, the very idea of the United States became so entwined with the sense of the Divine that American civil religion dominated even the most secular acts of policymakers.