American Evangelical Politics During the Cold War
- Angela LahrAngela LahrDepartment of History, Westminster College
During the decades of the Cold War, belief and power blended in ways that better integrated Protestant evangelicals into the mainstream American political culture. As the nuclear age corresponded with the early Cold War, evangelicals offered an eschatological narrative to help make sense of what appeared to many to be an increasingly dangerous world. At the same time, the post–World War II anticommunism that developed during the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower made room for evangelical interpretations that supported their good-versus-evil rhetoric. Evangelist Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders consistently referenced Cold War events and promoted Christian nationalism while at the same time calling on Americans to turn to God and away from sin. Evangelical missionaries, who had long interpreted the world for fellow believers in the pews back home, were agents advocating for American values abroad, but they also weighed in on American foreign policy matters in sometimes unexpected ways. By the time the Cold War world order had fully emerged in the 1950s, cold warriors were fighting the geopolitical battle for influence in part by promoting an “American way of life” that included religion, allowing evangelicals to help shape the Cold War consensus. White evangelicals were more ambivalent about supporting the civil rights movement that challenged the inclusivity of that consensus, even though civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. made the case for civil rights using moral and spiritual arguments that were familiar to evangelicalism. As the long sixties brought divisions within the country over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and the women’s rights movement, evangelicals participated in the political discussions that captivated the country and were divided themselves. By the 1970s, conservative evangelicals helped to create the Religious Right, and a small group of liberal evangelicals began to contest it. The Religious Right would be more successful, however, in defining political evangelicalism as the culture wars extended into the 1980s. Conservative evangelicalism matured during the Reagan years and become an important part of the conservative coalition. Even as the Cold War ended, the political networks and organizations that evangelicals formed in the second half of the 20th century, both conservative and progressive, have continued to influence evangelicals’ political participation.