Global Christianity and the Cold War

The following is an excerpt from Global Faith, Worldly Power: Evangelical Internationalism and U.S. Empire edited by John Corrigan, Melani McAlister, Axel R. Schäfer.

Global Christianity and the Cold War

The military and economic footprint of the U.S. abroad expanded rapidly after World War II. The growth of evangelical mission and humanitarian aid activities needs to be viewed in this context. The neo-evangelical movement—networked through organizations such as Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, and the National Association of Evangelicals—came to believe that evangelicals must have a different, more cosmopolitan profile. These evangelicals remained deeply conservative on many issues but saw themselves as a vanguard of the believers who would challenge the presumption that theological conservatives were uninterested in the world.

One of the first international agenda items for the neo-evangelical movement was a quick and enthusiastic embrace of anti-communism, which evangelicals saw as linked not only to American nationalism but also to support for Christianity abroad. After Mao Zedong’s 1949 victory in the Chinese civil war, China had forced missionaries out. The “loss” of China shaped a great deal of how Americans viewed the likely fate of Christianity under communist rule. After North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, white evangelicals strongly supported Harry Truman’s decision to send troops to the Korean Peninsula (although some criticized the president for not being tough enough on communism overall). As Billy Graham put it in 1953, “Either Communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and the anti-Christ.” Those to the right of the neo-evangelicals, such as Christian Crusade founder Billy James Hargis, went even further. Hargis was known to open his fundraising letters with “Dear Patriots Whose Children and Grandchildren Are Being Threatened by Communism.” As Gene Zubovich analyzes in his essay, U.S. evangelicals were deeply invested in forms of Christian nationalism, developed both in opposition to the ecumenical movement’s investment in Christian globalism and in concert with a vision of the United States as having a special role to play in forwarding Christ’s kingdom. This nationalism, Zubovich writes, built on a “long tradition of conceiving of nation-states as sanctified entities, with the United States standing above all others.” All of this put evangelicals and fundamentalists generally in line with the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy in this era, as U.S. policy makers’ statements—and Voice of America broadcasts—promoted religious freedom as being at the heart of the American way of life, and communism as its antithesis.

World War II not only paved the way for U.S. global supremacy and the Cold War standoff but also ushered in the end of European empires. Americans in general were clear beneficiaries of this process of decolonization. This was true at the broad level of American state power: the United States expanded its political, economic, and cultural reach in tandem with the pullback of European empires and the rise of national independence in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Indeed, American policy makers often justified the expansion of U.S. political and economic power on the basis of the nation’s supposedly non-colonial history. (Of course, that self-image strategically ignored the history of U.S. destruction of Native peoples, westward expansion, appropriation of Mexican territory, and the multiple extra-continental expansions and colonial occupation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other territories.) U.S. policy makers’ methods of nationalist expansion during the Cold War did not (for the most part) involve occupying vast territories or growing a territorial empire along the lines of Europe. Instead, U.S. strategies included a far-reaching network of military bases, a close alliance between corporations and U.S. state politics, a willingness to intervene militarily and install friendly governments, and the promotion of American popular culture as a form of soft power.

U.S. evangelicals also specifically benefited from decolonization. They correctly believed that people in newly independent nations might be more open to their missionary efforts than to those of European missionaries because, as Americans, they were not generally identified with European colonial powers. Thus, in a number of cases, U.S. evangelicals triumphantly argued that the end of empire was ultimately good for the cause of Christ. The authors of Missions in Crisis—a book by two former missionaries that was handed out to every attendee at the 1961 conference of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—argued that “the pent-up frustrations and resentments of the past that have been locked up in the breasts of the exploited, underprivileged masses of mankind have at last reached a boiling point.” But the crisis brought opportunity; if Americans would heed the clarion call of anti-colonial foment, they might reach the world with the gospel.

John Corrigan is Lucius Moody Bristol Distinguished Professor of Religion, professor of history, and Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University.  

Melani McAlister is professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University.  

Axel R. Schäfer is professor of U.S. history at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at the University of Mainz, Germany.