God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America's Cold War
Jason W. Stevens
Harvard University Press, 2010
448 pp., $45.50
God-Fearing and Free
This argument is provocative but unconvincing. Stevens' misleading generalizations—particularly the monolithic presentation of evangelicalism—and unsubstantiated suggestions of causality will frustrate most historians. To attribute the eventual political radicalization of conservative evangelicals to the intellectual clash between Christian Realism and Graham's neofundamentalism glosses over the internal dynamics of evangelicalism, and neglects the same socio-economic factors that Stevens blames Niebuhr for ignoring. But he has not written a social history of American evangelicalism, and in a book so sweeping and ambitious, ordinarily these would be petty complaints. His basic claim that the culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s had something to do with the cultural dynamics of the 1950s is certainly true, and consistent with the current vogue for pushing the "origins of the culture wars" ever further from the rise of the Moral Majority. (Barry Hankins and Daniel Williams have recently urged us to find the roots of today's tensions in the 1920s: see Hankins' Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today's Culture Wars; and Williams' God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.) The trouble is that Stevens' abstract and allusive description of Niebuhr and Graham embodies the broader flaws in his book—and the questions that his method inadvertently poses about how scholars should chronicle the history of ideas.
The book is a learned but highly theoretical intellectual history that floats above the realms on which it passes its sternest judgment, foreign policy and domestic politics. Stevens occasionally discusses the political and social dynamics of the early Cold War, though often out of sight, in a few discursive footnotes. God-Fearing and Free is an oddly bloodless account of an era that Stevens implies was unjustly bloody. Close readings of films and novels occupy entire chapters, with only the briefest pause to link their authors or ideas to concrete historical contexts. Some of Stevens' best, if overly detailed, analysis comes in his chapters on Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, and James Baldwin, "counterhegemonic," "prophetic" voices that laid bare racial, gender, and social inequalities and dissented from the narratives of Niebuhr and the Old Left. But even a highly motivated reader will struggle to connect his assessment of the "synergy of talent and available discursive formations in which some ideas and modes of expression became stanchions of the Cold War's master narrative" with real life. Yes, intellectual history is, by definition, somewhat abstract. "Smoking guns"—proof that, for instance, Niebuhr's Irony of American History was on Eisenhower's bedside table when the CIA overthrew the Guatemalan government in 1954—are as rare as unicorns. However, Stevens might have showed us more than just a handful of echoes and parallels between Cold War politics and his "master narrative" of the "end of innocence."
The more serious problem is that Stevens' abstract approach disguises his own ideological perspective, which he makes clear only in his conclusion and footnotes. Implicit in his indictment of the Cold War thinkers who disappoint him—the Old Left who were ashamed of Communism and embarrassed by the New Left; the Neo-Orthodox who abetted the rise of "neofundamentalism" through their failure of nerve—is the specter of "imperialist" American foreign policy from East Asia to Iraq. He sees the Old Left's belated condemnation of the Soviet regime they once supported as a self-exonerating sleight of hand: "Since Communism was not a callous choice against good, but the fruit of innocence, in which sin was the perversion of good, its evil had an ambiguous continuity with virtue. Thus, reformed liberals could cover themselves in guilt while also extenuating their moral lapse."
This is interesting. Their guilt, in other words, lay in being too innocent, in appreciating Niebuhr's dark vision of human nature too late. The scales fell from their eyes, and they seconded the words of Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene's The Quiet American: "Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. You can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them." These Cold War liberals now believed that the dangers of political utopianism, whether fascist or communist, justified—indeed, required—moral concessions and collateral damage as Washington sought to roll back Communist influence. To Stevens, this realist excuse for the harm that American policies cause in the world has produced a long-running myth that still pardons injustice. "We do not need any more urging to ward off our national innocence, accept our responsibility, and face hard, tragic facts," he writes, "especially when this same logic has been mobilized in recent times to support American imperialism in the Middle East …. We must stop what has become a national ritual that functions as self-acquittal through self-accusation."