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Purity and Danger

IN A LETTER to the Vatican in 1947, Harry Truman characterized the United States as a “Christian nation.” For Truman this was likely a statement of fact, an obvious description of what America was and would long remain. For Jonathan Herzog, Truman’s phrase explicates an entire epoch in American politics. The title of his book, The Spiritual-Industrial Complex, inverts Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about a military-industrial complex, suggesting instead a fusion of governmental power and religious zeal.

Herzog does not begin his analysis with the early Cold War but with “the thrust of American secularization between 1900 and 1945.” For those skeptical about such secularization, the Cold War came as a relief, a chance to reaffirm publicly the American people’s good faith. The affirmation had multiple tributaries. Foreign policy architects needed something to counter the Soviet mystique and to add cultural heat to their cold strategic calculations. Businesses were skilled at creating a “new demand for religion,” enlisting the arts of advertisement and public relations in an ancient cause. The vast majority of Americans have “always believed in God,” Herzog writes, and were therefore receptive to a top-down campaign that intoned the threat of communism by celebrating Christian virtue.

In the late 1940s and throughout the ’50s, elites from business, politics, media, and the military—in tandem with their popular audience—blurred the line between a secular and a religious state. If the impulse for constructing this ideological complex was internal and peculiarly American, the complex itself mandated an outward projection of Christian energy. Herzog argues that the United States was “the world’s great champion of religion” in this era, seeking like-minded allies wherever they could be found.

Then John F. Kennedy disrupted the spiritual-industrial complex. Not only did he mute a religious rhetoric that had become reflexive for postwar American presidents, he also presided over “the swiftest and most surprising period of judicial secularism in American history.” And Herzog sees another storyline after Kennedy. Evangelical Christians, beginning to gather influence, aligned an ideal of the Christian nation with “modern political conservatism.” Ronald Reagan may have been “reading from an old script” when he labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” but the partisan nature of his words, coupled with the partisan nature of their reception, was not old at all. Reagan’s Christian conservatism found its echo, louder and more strident, in the presidency of George W. Bush.

The Spiritual-Industrial Complex is a useful book, an evidence-driven meditation on religion and politics in the American vein. Herzog analyzes an overreach implicit to the spiritual-industrial complex: it resonated with old aspirations in American Protestantism and clashed with the secular preconditions of the American constitution. But the enormous scope of Herzog’s short book opens it to a variety of critical questions. The first concerns its old-fashioned method. Recent scholarship has accented the interaction between American foreign policy and the world it aspires to shape, while Herzog seems insistent on examining American diplomatic history through a purely American lens.

The Vietnam War is the one international episode that attracts Herzog’s sustained attention, and he rightly links Washington’s affection for Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s ill-fated Catholic President, to religious folly of one kind or another. Here Herzog could have traversed a wider historical canvas, examining, for example, the Cold War relationship between South Korea and the United States. Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, was a Protestant with many ties to American missionary activities in Asia, ties that fit him perfectly into America’s spiritualized foreign policy. Less intrinsically dramatic perhaps than the Vietnam War, such trans-national Christian allegiances carry real historical relevance.

In Western Europe, the rise of Christian Democracy also coincided with the evolution of the “spiritual-industrial complex” in the United States. Faith-based anti-communism played well on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s, and its constituent elements—government, media, intellect, and pulpit all tending in the same ideological direction—were not unique to the United States. Konrad Adenauer was (with qualifications) a theological-political analogue to Dwight Eisenhower: both Adenauer and Eisenhower saw Christianity as a crucial counterweight to Soviet communism and as a self-evident political factor within their respective countries. Herzog’s spiritual-industrial complex could be broadened conceptually from an American project to a project encompassing the West, a centuries-old construct to which Christianity was never peripheral.

Dissident movements in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union constitute another missed international connection for Herzog’s argument. Truman and Eisenhower would have been thrilled to know of John Paul II. The constellation of anti-communism, Christianity, and nationalism that failed to materialize in South Vietnam later flourished in the Solidarity movement in Poland, sending political-religious ripples across Eastern Europe and Russia. To these constituencies America’s Christian anti-communism was a meaningful legacy. It was so meaningful to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the greatest dissident of them all, that he came to America in the hope of seeing Christendom’s guardian angel first-hand. (He found, to his horror, an America debased by materialism and godlessness).  

Herzog’s national narrative concludes with an America at odds with itself. Kennedy’s studied secularism would produce blue America, and the spiritual-industrial complex, once denied its hegemony over the mainstream, would shade into red on the electoral map. Truman’s cliché was transformed into Bill O’Reilly’s fighting words. For Herzog, the break-up of the spiritual-industrial complex is mirrored in the appearance of the Christian Right, whose missionary tones are not at all unprecedented in American foreign policy. Their modern origins lie, ironically, in a bipartisan initiative of the 1940s and ’50s. Though Herzog’s narrative is persuasive, it has the ring of history written backwards—from George W. Bush to Truman, as it were.

The content of Herzog’s book could be made to serve a more compressed, less intuitive narrative. To instill its claims in the body politic, the spiritual-industrial complex consolidated a formidable propaganda arsenal: America was not merely mighty, it proclaimed, America was mighty because it was good, and it was good because it was close to God. Proof of America’s democratic goodness was the evil of its enemy, the inheritor of fascism’s totalitarian sin. Hitler had been followed by Stalin and then by the somewhat farcical—if erratic and still dangerous—Khrushchev. A line of morally perfervid patriotism runs straight from World War II to the Cold War.

This patriotic line was massively propagandized, and the propaganda itself was absorbed by the youth of the 1950s and early ’60s, who were trained to love America’s rectitude more than its national interest. This generation came of age in the late ’60s, its moral ardor a continuation of an earlier impulse and an expression of rage at the unnatural distance between America and goodness. Vietnam mattered, to this generation, not because it confirmed a timeless story of American empire but because it was perceived as a wrong turn, a deviation from what the country, in its well-intentioned purity, truly was. Without avid propaganda in their background, proponents of ’60s radicalism might have been less preoccupied with innocence (lost and hoped for) and less enamored of good-versus-evil dichotomies. Their language might have been less moral, less utopian, and more political. The spiritual-industrial complex was large and ambitious enough to have a few bracingly unintended consequences.

Michael Kimmage is an associate professor of history at the Catholic University of America. His most recent book, In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy, is forthcoming with Stanford University Press.