This post reviews T. Jeremy Gunn, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009).
Gunn, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief (among many other assignments), here constructs a fascinating if flawed argument that the Cold War led to the unique blend of Christianity, militarism, and capitalism that is now the dominant religion in the United States. First I’ll lay out his argument and then say why I think it’s flawed. What does all of this have to do with homeschooling? I think conservative Christian homeschoolers are perhaps the purest expression of the sort of religion Gunn is chronicling here–fiercely committed to the idea that the United States is (or was and should be again) a Christian and capitalist nation, and strongly pro-military. Why are so many conservative homeschoolers like this? Here’s Gunn’s explanation:
First, Gunn wants us to understand that prior to the Cold War, most Americans were far less committed to a strong and permanent military, to unfettered capitalism, and to incessant linkages between the United States of America and God.
He explains how typically, after a war, Americans were eager to demilitarize, fearing that a permanently strong military was a threat to civil democracy and that military service tended to corrupt young males by immersing them in a life of substance abuse, coarse behavior, and so on. Immediately following World War II it looked as if the usual pattern of quick demobilization would obtain, but then, in 1947, President Truman became convinced that the Soviet Union posed a serious threat to American interests and so advocated for, and received from Congress, massive increases in military expenditures for the sake of containing Communism around the world. From that time to the present the doctrine Gunn calls “military supremacy” has been at the core of the American religion.
Similarly, capitalism was in the early 20th century a sort of dirty word. Even free market advocates like President Hoover distanced themselves from the term. American populism was extremely suspicious of unfettered markets, associated as they were with an elite class of financiers and other blue-bloods. Keynesian economics dominated. But again, in 1947, the year after Keynes died, a group of libertarian economists including Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and George Stigler formed the Mount Pelerin Society, which linked free market economics to political and moral freedom, an argument which has steadily won more and more adherents, especially as government oversight of the economy was increasingly seen as similar to Soviet communism. Gunn calls this element of the American religion “capitalism as freedom.”
Finally, the Soviet threat led to an astonishing increase in the frequency of appeals by elected officials to Divine aid and sanction for U.S. policy. The trend began with Truman, again in 1947, who initiated a blitzkrieg of official days of prayer, invocations of God in public speeches, and so on. If the Soviet Union was Atheist, the United States must by definition be Theist. The 1950s saw the phrase “under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance (in 1954), “in God we Trust” added to paper money (1955) and declared the national motto (1956), a prayer room constructed in the Capitol building (1954), Ten Commandments monuments erected all across the nation (1955 and following), and many more public manifestations of what Gunn calls “Governmental Theism.” The country’s political rhetoric has never been the same. Politicians of all persuasions and parties ever after have soaked their speeches in God-talk.
For Gunn, the key moment that led to the transformation of the nation in the three ways just described came on March 12, 1947, when Truman delivered his “scare the hell out of them” speech demonizing the Soviet Union and initiating the Cold War. The term “Cold War” was coined a month later, and in July of that year Congress passed the National Security Act, which set the course for a massive and permanent military presence around the globe. The key point for Gunn is that the transformation of Americans’ self identity occurred “in reaction to a foreign ideology.” (24) Militarism, Capitalism, and Governmental Theism were not autochthonous American traditions but were inventions constructed in opposition to the Soviet Union’s Communism, Atheism, and Militarism.
There are two flaws in this view I think. First, Gunn here is doing for the Cold War what other historians have done for all the other major wars in American History. The historiography of each major conflict contains some variation of the “war as watershed” debate. Some historians see the war they’re writing about as a transforming moment that suddenly and dramatically altered American history. But every time such a claim is made, other historians come along and say, in effect, “not so fast! The changes you are describing go further back and had been emerging gradually for some time. The war only accelerated what was already happening.”
So the first flaw is that Gunn puts, I think, too much stress on one key moment or year. His 1947 argument is strongest for the military supremacy point. But it’s quite a stretch to see the Mount Pelerin Society’s formation in 1947 as profoundly influential. For a great treatment of just how marginal these libertarian economists were in the 1940s and for a good time thereafter see Brian Doherty’s excellent insider chronicle Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. Furthermore, a historian who wanted to argue that antipathy toward government management of the economy has a long history in this country would not have a difficult job finding anti-statist examples prior to 1947, from animus against Hamilton’s bank and other Federalist policies, to the response to Shay’s rebellion, to the failure of movements like the Bonus Army. Gunn is no doubt right to stress the growth of ideological libertarianism during the Cold War. I’m just saying that one could make a good case that this orientation has a longer history.
The second flaw concerns his argument about Government Theism. As with free market economics, one could argue that American government has long been in the business of establishing religion. What changed in the 1950s was not that a formerly a-religious public sector suddenly found God. What changed was the particular god that was invoked. American government in the 19th century tended to invoke a pan-Protestant god as a buttress against perceived threat from the “Catholic menace” represented by, before the Civil War, millions of Irish immigrants, and after the Civil War, millions more of Eastern European immigrants. By the 1950s, ironically, these Catholics had largely assimilated, as had American Jews, so that Eisenhower could appeal to a “Judeo-Christian” American tradition that in fact had never existed. Read this way the 1950s represents an expanding definition of acceptable piety, an opening up of the country to at least some non-Protestant faiths. Furthermore, and also ironically, it was frequently the Catholics who became the most outspoken advocates of connecting faith in God with American patriotism and anticommunist struggle. These are themes that Gunn simply misses. Of his three strands, I think he’s weakest when he tries to claim that public invocations of God after 1947 were a break with America’s past. Counter-examples are legion for all previous periods of American history.
Nevertheless, though I question the degree to which 1947 was a watershed moment that nearly overnight transformed America into a militaristic, capitalistic, Theistic nation, Gunn’s description of these three themes is in my view very helpful as an explanation of the real “Civil Religion” of the country.
Or at least of a portion of the country. A second volume could be written that might explain how the other half of the country tends to resent these tendencies and prefer dovish diplomacy (if not outright isolationism), governmental accountability for runaway capitalist excess, and tolerance for, in the words of President Obama, “citizens of all faiths and no faith.”
The strength of Gunn’s book is how he is able to connect these three themes into a convincing overarching outlook, an outlook that was no doubt solidified by the Cold War. Reading it helped me understand better why homeschoolers in the Gothard/Dobson/Phillips/HSLDA world tend not only to want America to have more Ten Commandment monuments but also tend to think of free market economics and a strong military as Christian policies despite what the New Testament teaches about greed and vengeance.
If I could make one final comment on the book it would be that Gunn enjoys reveling more than is necessary for his thesis in the ironies and hypocrisies of American foreign policy and governmental God-talk. Though the book is based on solid scholarship, it has a polemical edge to it, a muckraking tone that distracts the reader from the overarching argument. As a result, readers who disagree with Gunn’s politics will have an easier time dismissing the book as biased. This is in my view a pity, for his description of the three prongs of American civil religion and how the Cold War contributed to their synthesis and popularity is compelling. Stripped of its pejorative element, it provides a clear account of why it seems natural to so many Americans to equate Biblical Christianity with American nationalism, military might, and free market economics.