Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America's Cold War
God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America's Cold War
Jason W. Stevens
Harvard University Press, 2010
448 pp., 53.00

Buy Now

Molly Worthen

God-Fearing and Free

"Countermodernism" and Cold War America.

Barack Obama, as quoted in a widely cited New York Times column by David Brooks, called Reinhold Niebuhr one of his "favorite philosophers." When Brooks asked Obama what he had learned from Niebuhr, he answered, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction." Obama is the most recent in a long line of liberal American leaders, ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Jimmy Carter, who have noted Niebuhr's influence in their attempt to do good in the midst of evil without, as Obama put it, "swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism." Yet to Jason Stevens, a professor of English at Harvard University, the traditional portrait of Niebuhr as the sad-eyed sage of the Cold War, a "courageously dissenting voice," is a hagiographic cliché that whitewashes his disregard for racial and socio-economic injustice and his apologies for "American imperialism." Reinhold Niebuhr, in short, was canonized for all the wrong reasons.

God-Fearing and Free is much more than a revisionist account of Niebuhr's influence. Stevens offers a cluster of intertwined arguments about the ethos of the early Cold War in America, and the relationship between that cultural mood and today's politics. In a wide-ranging study of the era's diverse approaches to questions of sin and evil, he finds both the origins of today's culture wars and the rationale underlying decades of "imperialistic" American foreign policy. And yet few politicians or policymakers grace these pages, despite the author's concern with the political dimensions of American intellectual life. Instead, in a daring display of interdisciplinary creativity, Stevens presents an array of figures rarely named in the same breath: Billy Graham and Lionel Trilling, Flannery O'Connor and James Baldwin, film noir directors and psychoanalysts. Their differences often ran deep, but all, Stevens argues, were "countermodernists." They disdained the previous generation's overconfidence in human goodness, a naïveté that fed the savage machines of 20th-century totalitarianism. Their "common language of mobile symbols, most especially original sin, innocence, and prophetic judgment," called on Americans to look evil in the face—although they did not always agree as to whether the worst devils lodged at home or abroad.

Stevens never explains what he means by his subtitle's nebulous term "spiritual." Although he includes several devout Christians, like Graham and O'Connor, for the most part he is not interested in matters of exclusive salvation or institutional worship, or in the New Age connotations that the word carries today. His strongest chapter, on the reception of modern psychoanalytical theory among American clergy, provides one vivid glimpse into how the era's intellectual trends shaped the average believer's ideas about redemption. But his strange omissions preclude a close look at more obvious places where ideas intersected with culture and geopolitics. If one "spiritual" factor indisputably influenced the worldviews of average Americans and the actions of political leaders, it was nuclear anxiety—yet the atom bomb and mutually assured destruction do not even appear in the index. This book is not about prayer, or fear of annihilation, but about brooding: the internal, humanward blame and absolution by which Cold War thinkers accounted for the malign principle in earthly life.

Billy Graham, of course, is no brooder. Yet Stevens casts him as an ally of Niebuhr, after a fashion. Both men were countermodernists who warned against liberals' trust in human innocence, perfectability, and the consecration of culture (here he shares some of the insights of Andrew Finstuen in his 2009 comparison of Niebuhr, Graham, and Paul Tillich, Original Sin and Everyday Protestants). In the contest to shape Americans' attitudes toward themselves and the world, Stevens believes, the revivalist and his "neofundamentalist" message of mission and covenant roundly defeated Niebuhr's more self-reflective vision. ("Neofundamentalist" is Stevens' term, and not a bad one.) Niebuhr, in this telling, was insufficiently radical. He was a defender of the establishment whose neglect of social inequality and cautious message of moral paradox offered no satisfying alternative to Graham's Manichaean vision of Communist evil and reborn American godliness. Stevens' Niebuhr is a servant of the intellectual élite whose failure to inspire the American public enabled Graham's ascent as the godfather of the Religious Right.

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."

Stevens focuses on the early Cold War, and does not examine intellectuals' engagement with the geopolitical events that may trouble him most, especially Vietnam. (He does not even mention the intellectual and policymaker to whom his charges of perfidious realism might apply most directly, Henry Kissinger.) But he appears to take for granted a highly debatable interpretation of America's foreign interventions. We learn in a footnote that he has adopted revisionist historian William Appleman Williams' account of Cold War international politics. Williams and other revisionist historians, building on Charles Beard's analysis of American history through the lens of economic determinism, have argued that the United States' imperialistic drive to expand foreign markets for American goods provoked and perpetuated the Cold War. The view of the Cold War that undergirds Stevens' critique, then, is an entirely materialist one that disregards questions of ideology or strategy as epiphenomenal. The very notion of Cold War "spirituality" becomes a callow distraction. If he realizes this contradiction, he does not address it.

Stevens has written a penetrating study of one significant theme in early Cold War intellectual life. The book's questionable political agenda and untethered arguments distract from his often impressive critical insights into thinkers and cultural forms who are rarely treated together. God-Fearing and Free demonstrates both the rewards and the pitfalls of intellectual history at its most intrepid and interdisciplinary.

Molly Worthen writes about American religion for Christianity Today and The New York Times magazine.

Most ReadMost Shared