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date: 04 December 2020

American Evangelical Politics During the Cold Warfree

  • 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.

“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. . . . Especially is this meaningful as we regard today’s world. . . . [I]n this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”1

- President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the joint Congressional resolution that added the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance

Defining Evangelicalism and Politico-Religious Activism

Throughout the Cold War, religion became an important tool with which Americans interpreted foreign policy objectives and shaped their cultural identities on a world stage.2 For evangelical Christians, this created new avenues for access to power as they used Christian nationalism to renegotiate their relationship to the mainstream political culture. The post–World War II period was certainly not the first time that evangelicals had sought political influence. Prior to the Civil War, evangelical abolitionists used their religious beliefs to convince Americans of the sinfulness of slavery. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, American evangelicals, including many women who joined the largest women’s organization of the time—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—fought against “demon rum.” Evangelical politics during the Cold War was another chapter in a long history of religiously motivated activism. Since the Cold War blended nationalism with morality in an international context, however, postwar evangelicals who embraced patriotism as an extension of their faith crafted niches for themselves in the country’s political culture. They did not all agree on the nature of their political witness, as the often dueling “Religious Right” and “Evangelical Left” make clear, but many evangelicals during the Cold War came to agree that politics and religion could co-exist.

Scholars continue to wrestle with defining “evangelical,” and the meaning of the term has shifted over time. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), one of the leading evangelical ecumenical organizations founded in 1942, defines the term on its website using British historian David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral”: “conversionism,” the idea that believers make a decision (in what evangelicals call a “born-again experience”) to become a Christian; “activism,” the belief that followers should spread the gospel and apply their faith to their everyday lives, including fighting for social change; “biblicism,” the conviction that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christians; and “crucicentrism,” the principle that the focus of Christian faith is Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.3 Activism is especially useful when considering evangelicals and politics. The evangelical pursuit of power within the American political system to enact change has occurred with varying intensity since at least the 19th century, and evangelical political activism peaked during the Cold War.4 As World War II ended and the Cold War began, many evangelicals, called neo-evangelicals, sought to increase their contributions to mainstream culture and distinguish themselves from more insular, separationist fundamentalists. Neo-evangelicals sought social engagement to advance their religious worldview.5 This engagement took a variety of forms. There were grassroots efforts and social movements as well as leaders like evangelist Billy Graham and Harold J. Ockenga, the NAE’s first president. Many of the neo-evangelical institutions that played a role during the Cold War, the NAE and Fuller Theological Seminary to name a few, were also founded in the 1940s, the decade of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

The End of World War II and the Early Cold War: Rising Evangelical Political Engagement

The neo-evangelical move away from inward-looking fundamentalism and toward greater national political involvement corresponded with the beginning of the Cold War. When World War II ended after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945, the nuclear age created a theological avenue for evangelical political assimilation. As the atomic bomb raised apocalyptic fears of the possibility of global nuclear warfare, many evangelicals interpreted world events through an eschatological lens.6 They had long believed that prophetic scripture from the books of Daniel, Revelation, and others could help them interpret “signs of the times” indicating the events that would lead to the end of the world as they knew it. For many, the atomic bomb was one of those signs. While most evangelical commentators were careful to explain to followers that the scripture did not definitively link the atomic bomb to the end times, they still quoted from II Peter 3: “The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat.”7 As the nuclear age began, secular apocalypticism and evangelical eschatology (the study of the end times) mingled in a way that allowed evangelicals to offer Americans a way to make sense of the new age. Evangelicals who ascribed to premillennialism were particularly keen on interpreting atomic age and Cold War events as indications of biblical prophecy. Premillennialism is the Christian eschatological position that Jesus’ second coming to Earth will occur before a one-thousand-year period of peace (the millennium). While it is debated within the subculture, many also believe that the end-times plagues and disasters predicted in the Bible (the “great tribulation”) will take place before Jesus’ return. Throughout the Cold War, premillennials sought signs of Jesus’ second coming in Cold War developments, and the nuclear arms race seemed particularly relevant. For evangelicals, the Cold War gave the faithful theological and political stakes in the American political culture.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s book World Aflame (1965) dabbled in prophetic speculation about the atomic bomb, but the book primarily used the bomb as an analogy to describe the troubled world and to call people to repent.8 Graham became an evangelical phenomenon in the postwar years, and Americans named him among the most admired men throughout the Cold War.9 Graham rose to national fame when William Randolph Hearst urged his newspaper editors to increase their coverage of the evangelist’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade, as Hearst put it, to “puff Graham.”10 The year 1949 was a significant year for the Cold War, too. World War II tensions among the allies had crystalized into ideological and geopolitical Cold War divisions by the end of the 1940s. In 1948, evangelicals seized on another sign-of-the-times when the nation of Israel was founded, and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in Europe peaked when the Soviets blockaded access to West Berlin and the United States responded with an airlift that continued into 1949.11 The year 1949 also witnessed the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense pact and the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. In August 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device earlier than American officials had originally expected. Days after President Harry Truman announced the Soviet test, Graham referenced it in his first sermon of the Los Angeles crusade: “On Friday morning, the entire world was shocked, and all across Europe at this very hour, there is a stark, naked fear gripping the European people as they realize that war is much closer than they ever dreamed. That time is running out. That we are living on the threshold of the unknown.”12 Graham’s rise to fame coincided with the escalating Cold War conflict, and while Graham more often referenced the Cold War to call for repentance, he and other evangelicals also gained access to political leaders as they blended spiritual language with critique of the Soviet Union that complemented the interests of the American Cold War state.

As historian Raymond Haberski has written, “the era since 1945 has witnessed a merging of American promise and power to pose a potent civil religion” that blended political ideals with belief in God’s blessing for the country.13 Early Cold War leaders’ religious worldviews augmented the strategic, geopolitical, economic, and ideological considerations that influenced American policymakers, and William Inboden has also argued that religion influenced how the United States fought the Cold War, seeking to encourage interfaith partnerships against communism and to support religious leaders in the Communist Bloc, among other tactics.14 The Voice of America broadcast religious programming, and American propaganda touted religious liberty as an important component of the American way of life.15 Evangelicals contributed to a long-standing narrative of providential destiny and American exceptionalism that took on special meaning during the Cold War when the country’s main foe embraced a political-economic philosophy that rejected the divine: “godless communism.” Cold War tensions strengthened when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. Evangelicals joined other Protestant institutions in early support of the Truman administration.16 Billy Graham, to cite one example, backed Truman in the beginning even though he later criticized Truman’s policies in Korea, lending support to General Douglas MacArthur, who openly criticized the president for not going far enough to defeat the North (and was later relieved of his command).17

Evangelical nationalism during the Korean War can be partly explained by the subculture’s embrace of anticommunism in the early years of the Cold War. As the Korean War waged abroad in the early 1950s, the Second Red Scare shaped the United States at home. Government advocates of anticommunism, including J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), created before World War II in 1938; and the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy used religious language to denounce atheistic communism abroad and at home while defining the United States as a god-fearing nation. As historian Jonathan P. Herzog explains it, Cold War anticommunism had created a narrative in which “the religious could not be Communists, but even more important, the irreligious could not be true Americans.”18 Evangelicals became more politically relevant in this cultural environment, and they actively participated in condemning communism as a system that was oppositional to god and country. Australian-born evangelical Fred C. Schwartz and his popular Christian Anti-Communist Crusade was an example of one way that anticommunism could craft an American identity in which evangelicals could thrive—one that linked faith and politics. Demonizing communism was common among more moderate evangelicals such as Graham, who almost always used it in his sermons to emphasize personal conversion, and more extreme anticommunists like fundamentalist Carl McIntire.19 As Schwarz put it in his 1960 book You Can Trust the Communists (to Be Communists), “Emerging from its lair of godless materialism, dressed in garments of science, communism seduces the young and utilizes their perverted religious enthusiasm to conquer to the world.”20 As the ideological Cold War conflict that emerged around the world adopted a spiritual component, evangelicals who embraced the anticommunist culture in the United States increased the pace of their politicization.

The Cold War Order Established: Evangelicals and the American Way of Life

By the time of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency (1953–1961), the Cold War order had solidified into a Manichean, us-versus-them world. The “American way of life,” used to both promote the United States’ Cold War position and to draw a contrast between the United States and the USSR, was thoroughly religious. Advocates of the American way of life touted the American creed of democracy, self-government, and the bill of rights, but they also described Americans as a godly people, which stood in stark contrast to Karl Marx’s views of religion as “opium of the people.” Though some have suggested that polls and membership numbers about religious attendance and affiliation are inexact and perhaps exaggerated, data from religious groups in the 1950s suggest that membership increased by over 30 percent by the end of the decade.21 Sociologist Will Herberg’s classic 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew acknowledged a “turn to religion,” arguing that “American religion and American society would seem to be so closely interrelated as to make it virtually impossible to understand either without reference to the other.”22 Herberg’s study emphasized commonalities among three religious traditions: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, and the revival of a vague religiosity during the Cold War papered over divisions in the interest of presenting a unified front against the Soviet Union. Even President Eisenhower famously remarked that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”23

Like Truman, Eisenhower used religion to define the Cold War, as did his chief foreign policy advisor, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.24 While promoting the United States as a country that acknowledged a “Supreme Being” tended to present an ecumenical front during the period, it also blurred deep divisions between religious groups. The turbulent American evangelical Protestant relationship with Catholicism evolved during the Cold War. Evangelical suspicion of what many believed to be growing Catholic political influence reflected older fears embodied by 19th-century anti-Catholic nativism. When Truman sought to create an ecumenical religious front against communism, there was some pushback against Myron C. Taylor’s appointment as a presidential envoy to the Vatican, a position Taylor had held during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration as well. Dianne Kirby has pointed out that in the early years of the Cold War Protestants not only feared that stronger connections between the United States and the Holy See might lead to the promotion of Catholic interests but that they might also suck the country into a war with the Soviet Union.25 During the 1960 presidential election, many evangelicals opposed John F. Kennedy’s candidacy because of his Catholicism, claiming that Kennedy’s allegiance to the pope would compromise American sovereignty. While evangelical anti-Catholicism continued, anticommunism formed the basis of a strained alliance between the two groups. Like Billy Graham, American Catholic leaders incorporated anticommunism into their ministries. Fulton J. Sheen took his blend of warnings about communism and spiritual guidance to television in Life Is Worth Living in the 1950s.26 Later, conservative Catholics led by the National Review’s William Buckley wielded anticommunist criticism against priests and bishops they believed had embraced leftist causes in the 1960s.27 While conservative evangelicals and Catholics embraced much of the anticommunist consensus alongside each other rather than together, by the latter decades of the Cold War, the conservative anticommunist alliance had evolved into a culture-wars partnership, especially as conservative Catholics and evangelicals joined forces against feminism and abortion.

Cold War “situational ecumenicism” occurred at the same time the lines between church and state were becoming more indistinct, contributing to the mainstreaming of the evangelical worldview in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, the words “under God” had been added to the pledge of allegiance and the motto “in God we trust” was placed on American currency.28 As the government embraced religion, so did evangelicals learn “to stop worrying and love the state,” as historian Axel Schäfer has put it.29 Paradoxically, evangelicals like Graham consistently condemned the excesses and sinfulness of postwar American society, calling for national repentance. Evangelical nationalism was not unlimited, and throughout the Cold War believers evaluated the extent to which the actions of the American state advanced or hindered their faith community.30 At the same time, government officials’ religious rhetoric made it easier for evangelicals to unofficially partner with the state in promoting an idealized version of a vision of the United States as a godly, “redeemer nation.”31

It was in the same decade that the Cold War consensus peaked that a movement arose to challenge some assumptions of the American way of life: the civil rights movement. Even though the civil rights movement had begun long before the postwar period, its ability to reach a national audience increased in the 1950s and the 1960s, in part because of the Cold War context. As Mary L. Dudziak and others have shown, the Cold War had contrary effects on the movement for racial equality after World War II. On one hand, anticommunists hurled accusations at civil rights activists, which sometimes undermined their cause. On the other, civil rights organizations effectively used Cold War rhetoric to highlight the gap between American Cold War propaganda and the reality of inequality.32 Evangelical participation in the movement was largely race-dependent, echoing Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that “11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.”33 While African American churches were at the center of the civil rights movement, white evangelicals were more ambivalent.34 Historically black churches provided traditions, music, leaders, and participants for the movement, and they served as sites of organization and even violence, as was the case in 1963 when a bomb killed four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The black freedom movement drew on a prophetic religious faith. Many interpreted it as a religious revival as much as a social and political movement, and church attendance rose when ministers like Ralph Abernathy recruited non-churchgoers in Montgomery pool halls to attend planning meetings for the Montgomery bus boycott, for example.35

The white evangelical response to the civil rights movement was mixed. Even editors of the popular evangelical magazine founded in 1956, Christianity Today, were split. Associate editor Frank Gaebelein participated, but Billy Graham’s father-in-law and founding editor L. Nelson Bell opposed Christians seeking to “force social contracts.” Graham did desegregate his crusades in the 1950s, but active participation and support was slow and quiet.36 As late as the early 1970s, African American evangelist Tom Skinner was urging his white counterparts to consider the social responsibilities of the born-again.37 In a 1970 address at the Urbana 70 Student Missions Conference, Skinner told his audience, “Make no bones about it: the difficulty in coming to grips with the evangelical message of Jesus Christ in the black community is the fact that most evangelicals in this country who say that Christ is the answer will also go back to their suburban communities and vote for law-and-order candidates who will keep the system the way it is.”38 In 1976, the Internal Revenue Service revoked Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status, arguing that the school’s policies were racially discriminatory.39 The civil rights movement revealed the cracks in the Cold War religious consensus in the United States. Those who sought to fully realize the promises of the American creed could also point out how ungodly racial inequality was in a country claiming to fight a godly Cold War. Whereas anti-Soviet propaganda made use of religion, the United States proved susceptible to accusations of racial discrimination by its Cold War foes. The lukewarm response of many white evangelical leaders to questions of racial justice, both in terms of the black freedom movement and the broader civil rights movement, stood in contrast to their criticism of the country’s Cold War enemies.

The Cold War Climax and World Missions: Evangelicals Interpret the Cold War Narrative

Assimilation into the mainstream political culture in the early Cold War paved the way for evangelicals to help shape the American Cold War narrative, both in response to Cold War events and as missionary representatives of the United States around the world. In October 1962, Cold War tension peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Evangelicals, like Americans of other faiths, followed the daily coverage of the standoff after President John F. Kennedy announced the American quarantine of Cuba in response to Soviet missile installations there. There were diverse responses to the moment of crisis, but many participated in days of prayer and prepared for the worst. Some ministers did preach sermons meant to interpret the events with an eschatological lens on Sunday, October 28, in the middle of the crisis.40 Billy Graham, preaching in Argentina at the time, was not subtle: “Now the four horses of the apocalypse are preparing for action. The eventual showdown that is now on the horizon is inevitable.”41 Even though nuclear war was avoided, the crisis escalated fears that such a disaster could happen at any time. Secular apocalypticism, as evidenced in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to cite one example, shared with evangelicals the belief that the world could end unexpectedly.42 Believers offered spiritual explanations of events like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Perhaps aside from Billy Graham, whose popularity, influence with Cold War presidents, and campaigns around the world made him internationally recognized, evangelical missionaries were in the best position to shape the Cold War narrative for their communities back home. Evangelicals accepted the authority of missionary accounts of places around the world, and—at the same time—missionaries carried with them not only their Christian positions but also their assumptions about the world role of the United States. Evangelical missionaries, like their mainline Protestant counterparts, frequently weighed in on American foreign policy decisions during the Cold War. After communist Mao Zedong’s victory in the Chinese Civil War at the end of 1949, evangelicals like Graham criticized the Truman administration for failing to support the Chinese Nationalist Party leader and Christian Chiang Kai-shek.43 China had long been important to mainline, fundamentalist, and evangelical Protestant missionaries, and Graham’s critique echoed that of the “China Lobby,” a broad network of supporters of nationalist China that included Walter H. Judd, former missionary to China and representative from Minnesota.44 The outbreak of the Korean War also gave evangelical missionaries a chance to work to save souls and to apply their faith to more earthly matters. In 1950, evangelical missions and relief organization World Vision was founded by Bob Pierce, who had been moved by a Youth for Christ trip to East Asia. Pierce’s efforts to spread Christianity, provide aid to the suffering, and oppose communism reflected well the combined objectives of many evangelical missionaries during the Cold War.45

Evangelism is a central tenet of evangelicals’ faith, so evangelical missionaries were ready representatives of the American way of life abroad while providing information about the rest of the world to believers in the pews back home. They spread American values and ideals as well as Christianity, but, as Melani McAlister has shown, even though evangelical missionaries “did serve as agents or background support for the United States, . . . there was no simple, unilateral endorsement for American military power or US policy per se.”46 In one example, the NAE and other evangelical denominations joined with the National Council of Churches (NCC), the ecumenical organization that evangelicals frequently opposed on political and other matters, to petition the federal government to allow exceptions for missionaries to its policy against sending American currency into Cuba.47 While evangelical nationalism certainly advanced the American Cold War narrative, missionary networks reinforced a worldview in which evangelicals were part of a global community at the same time.48 The paradox reveals the complexities of the relationship between religion and power during the Cold War.

The Vietnam War, Evangelical Divisions, and the Beginning of the Culture Wars

American involvement in Vietnam divided the American population after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress authorized President Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war. While evangelicals’ Cold War nationalism influenced many to support the war, there was a small but vocal Evangelical Left that expressed opposition. Evangelicals were active participants in the culture wars that began in the long sixties, but their community was not monolithic on the divisive political, social, and cultural issues of the period. It was evangelical conservatism, though, that was most effective in associating its religious perspective with the political position of the Religious Right by the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s.

As the antiwar movement grew by the late 1960s, there were scattered incidents of evangelical dissent as well. Some college students participated in rallies at their evangelical institutions, protesting racism, sexism, and the Vietnam War. In Chicago, Jim Wallis and other divinity students there founded the People’s Christian Coalition, a progressive evangelical group that was later renamed Sojourners. Evangelical progressive Ron Sider created Evangelicals for McGovern in 1972 to support the antiwar position of Democrat candidate for president George McGovern.49 Sider also founded Evangelicals for Social Action a year later, after the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern was drafted. Over Thanksgiving in 1973, Sider, Wallis, evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry, and others met to complete the document.50 A defining statement of the Evangelical Left position, the Chicago Declaration affirmed the belief in “the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God,” but it also condemned Christian inaction on racial justice and “challenge[d] the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might—a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad.”51

While the Evangelical Left grew as the American Cold War position wavered in Vietnam, it was not as effective in the community as the alarm conservatives raised over what they perceived to be eroding nationalism and an increasingly permissive society. The culture wars heated up in the 1970s, and many conservative evangelicals reacted against the feminist and gay rights movements by claiming that they opposed the biblical view of family. Beverly LaHaye, wife of evangelical pastor and author Tim LaHaye, founded Concerned Women for America in 1979. According to the organization’s website, LaHaye formed the group after watching a Barbara Walters’s interview with Betty Friedan, the women’s rights leader who helped establish the National Organization for Women (NOW) and whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique invigorated the feminist movement in the 1960s and the 1970s.52 Concerned Women for America joined other conservative groups, most notably Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA, to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment.53 Their position was that families needed to return to the Bible and follow what they interpreted as its recipe for proper godly, familial relationships. For many conservative evangelical women, that meant embracing their roles as wives and mothers.54 The conservative evangelical backlash against feminism also included opposition to abortion and the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the end of the 1970s.55 In 1979, evangelical writer Francis Schaeffer, best known among born-again Christians at the time for his Swiss retreat L’Abri, teamed up with evangelical doctor C. Everett Koop (who Ronald Reagan later nominated to be surgeon general) to highlight abortion and advance the pro-life position in their documentary series Whatever Happened to the Human Race?56 Conservative evangelical family politics extended to challenge gay rights by the end of the 1970s as well. Gospel singer Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign opposed a Florida ordinance that banned hiring discrimination based on sexual orientation, to cite one example.57 By the end of the 1970s, evangelicals were increasingly recognized on the American political scene. In 1976, born-again Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States, but conservative evangelicals would reject Carter as too liberal and eventually rally behind Ronald Reagan instead. The long sixties witnessed a divided country that was somewhat mirrored in the evangelical community with the emergence of the Evangelical Left. Conservative evangelicals, however, would be more successful in integrating into mainstream politics, with a backlash against the progressivism of the New Left. As the country in the 1970s pursued détente, a lessening of tensions with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, conservative evangelical cold warriors became cultural warriors. Ronald Reagan’s presidency would witness a renewal of the evangelical cold warrior alongside the cultural warrior.

The Cold War Renewed: The Reagan Years and the Religious Right

In 1982, the NAE’s “Save the Family” resolution reflected the Religious Right’s culture wars position by lamenting trends that the organization argued were undermining the biblical family. It was necessary, it argued to “restore biblical family values to the home. We believe this is not only desirable, but essential if our nation is to survive.” During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, conservative evangelicals had become part of a conservative coalition.58 Political groups that made up the Religious Right became household names. Baptist minister Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, founded in 1979, and psychologist James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, which aired its first broadcast in 1977, were joined by the Family Research Council and televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition by the end of the 1980s. They mobilized born-again believers, engaged in political campaigns, and cultivated “networks of power” as the Religious Right matured in the decade before the end of the Cold War.59

Historians of the Cold War have consistently noted Reagan’s different approaches to the Soviet Union: one marked by more militant anticommunism and a more conciliatory approach that led to his willingness to negotiate with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in his second term. The religious influences, including evangelical ones, on Reagan’s views begin to explain this seeming dichotomy, since Reagan’s spiritual beliefs both helped to inspire his anti-Soviet zeal and to motivate his desire to curb the nuclear arms race.60 By the end of the 1970s, détente had failed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and President Reagan’s Cold War rhetoric in his first term reflected early Cold War denunciations of the Soviet Union. Best-known is his description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in a 1983 speech: “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire . . .”61 This address was given at an NAE convention, and it signified the increasing importance of evangelicals in the conservative coalition. While the comment with the famous phrase was made to influence the group’s discussions on the arms race, the longer speech confirmed conservative evangelical political positions that had evolved since the beginning of the Cold War. Reagan insisted that the country was founded as a nation committed to seeking God’s blessings, the kind of religious nationalism that evangelicals in the early Cold War had used to better integrate into the political mainstream: “Well, I’m pleased to be here today with you who are keeping America great by keeping her good. Only through your work and prayers and those of millions of others can we hope to survive this perilous century and keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.”62 Reagan moved on to address culture-wars issues close to conservative evangelical hearts by touting his support for an amendment allowing prayer in public schools and weighing in on the abortion issue while also extolling a “great spiritual awakening in America.” Full of religious tones, the president’s speech concluded by portraying the country’s Cold War mission as a religious one. “While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”63 Reagan’s rhetorical support for conservative evangelical “family values” politics coupled with his embrace of a morality-infused anticommunism during his first term won over conservative evangelicals.

As Reagan’s reference to the nuclear freeze movement in his “evil empire” speech indicates, the post-détente escalation of Cold War tensions in the early 1980s led to a renewed debate over the nuclear arms race accompanied by another rise of secular apocalypticism that blended with continued speculation about biblical prophecy. Americans concerned about the militant Cold War rhetoric rallied against nuclear weapons; read books like journalist Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982); and watched doomsday-themed films that included The Day After, which told the story of Kansans in the midst of a nuclear war. ABC broadcasted the film on November 20, 1983.64 At the same time, evangelicals continued to consume eschatological commentary that contextualized world politics. Twenty-eight million copies of premillennialist writer Hal Lindsey’s bestselling book The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) were in print by 1990, and a film version appeared in 1977. In his book The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey predicted that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.”65 As had been the case in the postwar period, the Cold War and nuclear arms race had stimulated a national conservation into which evangelicals could offer their theological perspectives.

President Reagan himself was a student of Christian eschatology and the Book of Revelation. This concerned some critics, who objected to his references to Armageddon, as when he speculated in 1980 that “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon” on The PTL Club, for example.66 As historian Andrew Preston has noted, though, Reagan feared the events described in Revelation. When tensions peaked in 1983 after the Soviets shot down a South Korean passenger plane and after the Soviets misconstrued NATO military exercises (“Able Archer”) and mobilized in response, Reagan began to look for ways to cool the nuclear arms race.67 After a series of summit meetings with Gorbachev, the two leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, the first agreement that went beyond limiting nuclear arsenals to reducing them. Within two years, communist governments in Eastern Europe would fall, and the Soviet Union would dissolve by December 1991. By the end of the Cold War, evangelicals had redefined their place in the country’s political culture. The Reagan years witnessed the maturation of conservative evangelicalism and the Religious Right. The political networks and positions honed during the decades when nationalism and anticommunism crafted a modern evangelical political identity would continue beyond the end of the Cold War international order.

Political Evangelicalism Beyond the Cold War

The end of the Cold War prompted some prophetic recalculating for those evangelicals who had read signs of the end into Cold War geopolitics. Even during the nuclear age, though, evangelical leaders (with some exceptions) were careful to avoid setting dates for the end of the world, emphasizing the ambiguity of eschatological scripture. Even so, events that included the Persian Gulf War at the end of the Cold War and the increasing threat of transnational terrorism in the early 21st century continued to intrigue prophecy watchers. Some speculated that Saddam Hussein was the antichrist, and the first book of the popular Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins was published in 1995—after the end of the Cold War.68 Not even the Soviet Union’s end in 1991 could squash speculation that Russia was destined to play a role as a nefarious force in the end times.69

Evangelical prophecy persisted but evolved following the Cold War, and other political inclinations shaped by the Cold War also endured beyond the early 1990s. Evangelical nationalism continues to influence how believers perceive the relationship with the state. The culture wars have ebbed and flowed over the years, but they remain a defining feature of evangelical political activism and participation. This was clear as conservative evangelicals voted against same-sex marriage in the 2004 elections and in their role in the new culture wars that have escalated since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Indeed, historian John Fea has argued that the “political playbook” that the Religious Right put together during the Cold War continues to explain evangelical politics in the Trump era.70

In the 21st century, evangelical politics demonstrate both continuity, as the relevancy of Cold War developments illustrate, and change, since evangelicals continue to wrestle with ways their understanding of their faith can help them make sense of an evolving world. As the emergence of the Evangelical Left makes clear, even during the Cold War evangelicals were far from a monolithic political group. Progressive evangelicals in the 21st century have increasingly called attention to environmental issues and “creation care,” and even the NAE released “An Urgent Call to Action” on the environment in 2007.71 A controversial move, the statement was rejected by conservative evangelical leaders, but the issue remains one that divides born-again believers with the existence of campaigns like the Evangelical Climate Initiative.72 Evangelical feminist groups offer alternative born-again voices on social issues as well. Christian Feminism Today began as part of the movement that established Evangelicals for Social Action in the 1970s. According to their website, “We value the gifts God has given every individual and have long advocated for the full equality of women and LGBTQ people in church and society.”73 Early 21st-century polls have even suggested that support for same-sex marriage is changing, especially among younger evangelicals.74

Progressive evangelical causes alongside conservative evangelicalism reveals divisions within the community. Divisions also existed during the Cold War. Whatever the positions, though, the political networks established during the Cold War continue to affect how evangelical voices participate in the national political culture. The Cold War helped to mainstream their voices.

Review of the Literature

When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976 as a born-again candidate, evangelical politics attracted national attention. Conservative evangelicals who rejected Carter’s liberal politics and worked to solidify the Religious Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s also raised curiosity about the community, and it was the Cold War years that witnessed a wave of scholarship that examined the role evangelicals have played in the history of the country. One of the most influential studies from the period was George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925. Marsden’s book explained the fundamentalist and evangelical movement, and it analyzed the movement’s relationship to mainstream American culture at the turn of the 20th century.75 Studies about evangelicalism and the broader culture, partly inspired by Marsden, have dominated the scholarly literature since then. More recent comprehensive studies of the evangelical tradition in the 20th century are illustrative. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism argues that modern evangelicals interpreted their world using religious lenses that were crafted by ideas about the world’s end. They developed “a language and an ideology through which to frame their relationships to the rest of the world.”76 Frances Fitzgerald’s study The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America focuses on the various ways that American born-again Christians have worked to influence the country.77

The Cold War is often a center-point in histories of evangelical political integration. Even newer studies that have begun to analyze conservative evangelical support for Donald Trump often look to the history of born-again Christians during the Cold War years for insight.78 Part of the reason for this was the success of the Religious Right in the last decades of the 20th century, and the origins of the Religious Right make up a well-trodden and significant part of the historiography of Cold War evangelical politics. In addition to those histories, though, scholars have examined both the ways in which evangelical leaders and organizations crafted political connections as well as how evangelical grassroots efforts stimulated political involvement for believers.

Since the end of the 20th century, influenced by the “cultural turn,” scholars of diplomatic history have paid more attention to religion. Andrew Preston’s expansive synthesis Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy has done much to demonstrate the relevancy of religion to foreign relations in the history of the United States.79 Studies that focus on religion and the Cold War more specifically also analyze the nexus between religious ideology and power politics.80 Jonathan P. Herzog’s The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle against Communism in the Early Cold War argues that American political leaders mobilized rhetoric, institutions, and ideas both to fight the Cold War and to stimulate a spiritual revival.81 Evangelicals who established political networks during the Cold War feature prominently in these accounts. In Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960: The Soul of Containment, William Inboden focuses his attention on the influence of the “mainline Protestantism of elite leaders,” but he also acknowledges how evangelical and mainline Protestants “shared with many of their political leaders a common conviction that the Cold War was a religious conflict.”82 Scholars note evangelist Billy Graham’s access to presidential administrations throughout the period, but works that cover evangelical politics in the second half of the 20th century tend to highlight the early Cold War period, especially the Truman and Eisenhower years, and Ronald Reagan’s terms in the 1980s. Those were the periods when conservative evangelicals were most successful at leveraging their anticommunism to promote the notion that the United States was a Christian, even a chosen, nation. Historian Kevin M. Kruse has argued that the origins of the country’s religious identity are best placed in the anti–New Deal politics of the 1930s and the 1940s that warned against the increasing power of the state, but Kruse also acknowledges that a “new conflation of faith, freedom, and free enterprise then moved to center stage in the 1950s under Eisenhower’s watch.”83 As Axel R. Schäfer has shown, the Cold War years actually highlighted an ambivalent evangelical relationship with the state as evangelicals increasingly benefitted from public funding opportunities, even while evangelicals who were part of the Religious Right promoted free enterprise.84

Billy Graham, the NAE, and other evangelical organizations’ growing political influence has not been the only evangelical political development that has attracted scholars’ attention. Some have also noted the born-again grassroots movements active during the decades of the Cold War that have shaped evangelical politics from the “bottom-up” as well as from the “top-down.” One example is Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. Eileen Luhr’s Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture explores young born-again Christians in the late 20th century, and scholarship on the culture wars has shown how believers have utilized their faith to defend political causes.85 As Melani McAlister has recently argued, missionary experiences also led some evangelicals to place themselves in a global Christian community that sometimes challenged the Cold War national narrative.86 While Billy Graham frequently met with presidents, evangelicals in the pews were using their religious and political voices in their own diverse ways.

The extensive scholarship on the Religious Right has revealed ways that evangelical powerbrokers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson encouraged conservative grassroots believers to act by the end of the 1970s and into the Reagan years. Sociologists, political scientists, religious scholars, and historians have analyzed the movement and its history, debating its origins, character, and impact.87 Historian Leo Ribuffo’s The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War made the case in the early 1980s that extremist conservatives prior to and following World War II had more ties to the American mainstream than had been considered at the time.88 While Ribuffo’s book focused on far right extremists, distinguishing between the “old” and “new” Christian Right, it also argued for more serious (and less dismissive) studies of conservatism. Examinations of the history of the Religious Right that followed frequently traced the movement retreating from active involvement in the American political culture in the 1920s only to reemerge as the Religious Right after the Vietnam War, partly—as the “backlash thesis” maintains—because conservative evangelicals and their counterparts in other religious groups rejected what they believed to be the permissive culture and expanding state power of the long sixties. Studies such as Schäfer’s have challenged this narrative, both in questioning the degree to which fundamentalists withdrew politically before the Cold War and the assumptions of the backlash thesis.89 Another historiographical debate addresses roots. Many scholars trace the origins of the Religious Right to the early Cold War, but others have suggested that the movement’s beginnings go back further.90

While the rise and political power of the Religious Right has generated much scholarly attention, there have been fewer studies on the Cold War origins of modern progressive evangelicalism.91 If recent polls suggesting that younger evangelicals hold different views on issues including same-sex marriage hold up, such analyses will be increasingly relevant to understanding that aspect of 21st-century evangelicalism. More research on evangelical responses to Cold War developments outside of the early Cold War and the 1980s should also be encouraged. How did evangelicals respond to détente, for example? Did the end of the Cold War affect worldviews? Continuing debates about religion, national identity, and the prominence of evangelical politics during the Cold War would benefit from fresh angles that ask these kinds of questions.

Primary Sources

Researchers interested in primary sources on the Cold War will find a few digital collections to be a useful starting point. The Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project Digital Archive provides access to hundreds of global Cold War resources, and Yale Law School’s Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy includes a wide variety of documents that cover the Cold War as well as other periods. In addition to the sources available in the presidential libraries of Cold War presidents, researchers may find federal government records at the National Archives and those cataloged in the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volumes found on the Department of State website. The American Presidency Project, hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara, is another useful resource.

Denominational archives provide valuable insight into churches identifying as evangelical. See, for example, the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives. Ecumenical collections can also be found at the Billy Graham Center Archives. National Association of Evangelical (NAE) records are housed at Wheaton College.

Further Reading

  • Balmer, Randall. The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010.
  • Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.
  • Dochuk, Darren. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.
  • Dupont, Carolyn Renée. Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.
  • Gasaway, Brantley W. Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Hart, D. G. That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
  • Hartman, Andrew. A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Herberg, Will. Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. New York: Doubleday, 1955.
  • Herzog, Jonathan P. The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle against Communism in the Early Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
  • Inboden, William. Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960: The Soul of Containment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Kirby, Dianne, ed. Religion and the Cold War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Kruse, Kevin M. One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
  • Lahr, Angela M. Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Martin, William C. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books, 1996.
  • McAlister, Melani. The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Preston, Andrew. Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. New York: Anchor Books, 2012.
  • Ribuffo, Leo P. The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.
  • Schäfer, Axel R. Piety and Public Funding: Evangelicals and the State in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
  • Sutton, Matthew Avery. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Swartz, David R. Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
  • Wacker, Grant. America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Wilcox, Clyde, and Carin Robinson. Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Williams, Daniel K. God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.