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  • America's Spiritual-Industrial Complex and the Policy of Revival in the Early Cold War
  • Jonathan Herzog (bio)

From the wide halls of Congress to the serpentine corridors of the corporate bureaucracy, from the Cabinet Room to the boardroom, government and business leaders during the late 1940s and 1950s adopted a policy of religious revival in the name of national security and societal well-being. Its optimism was unmatched. But, then again, the early Cold War era was rife with projects on grand scales. This policy benefited from the dawning of a new American age, the time of the "other-directed" individual and the "organization man"—a time when, at least according to sociologists, the average citizen had devolved into a level of social malleability unthinkable in ages past.1 Similar partnerships had tamed the atom and delivered victory in history's most destructive war. Basking in the glow of this justified confidence, policymakers set their sights on the nation's religious economy.

For scholars interested in the influence of religion on American policymaking, few time periods are as rich in case studies. Between 1945 and 1960, religious concerns attained a rare degree of salience in the development and implementation of policy. There were specific legislative achievements, such as the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. But there were less visible, and as a consequence largely forgotten, policy adoptions regarding religion in the areas of foreign propaganda and psychological warfare, military training, state-sponsored or state-supported national faith drives, and public education.

For most of American history, government and corporate leaders were not in the business of religious revivals. To be sure, presidents periodically [End Page 337] called the citizenry to prayer, and many of the nation's industrial captains graced the pews of their local churches. But federal and corporate policy toward religion could long be categorized as one of general disengagement. As a result, American religious revivals typically were organic, democratic, sensitive to market forces, and, above all, innovative. From the preachers who fascinated Alexis de Tocqueville to the latest wave of evangelical leaders, revivals have regularly been movements from the bottom up—products of the world's foremost religious free market. Over time, a lack of government interference in the nation's religious economy created incentives for competition and theological originality.2

But this changed in the early Cold War. When Eisenhower coined the phrase "military industrial complex" in his 1961 valedictory, it would have been equally appropriate for him to mention the spiritual-industrial complex, whose policies helped shape public life and private worship during the previous decade. Like its more famous cousin, the spiritual-industrial complex was born of assumption and urgency. It was unique among other Cold War entities, standing athwart two worlds—one within the realm of policy decisions and the other within the realm of theological conjecture. It was the beneficiary of brassy state sanction and commercial talent. It was conceived in boardrooms rather than camp meetings, steered by Madison Avenue and Hollywood suits rather than traveling preachers, and measured with a statistical precision of which Charles Grandison Finney or Dwight Moody could only have dreamed. Its importance came not from the fact that for a brief time in the 1950s record numbers of Americans attended religious services but instead from those state and business interests who eagerly measured such statistics. In this case, the impulses of the "saved" were far less instructive than the motives of the "saviors."

What exactly was the spiritual-industrial complex? Most simply, it was the deliberate and carefully managed use of government rhetoric and corporate resources to stimulate a religious revival in the late 1940s and 1950s. More important, it signaled the drawing of a curious conclusion among American leaders: that secular institutions and beliefs alone were insufficient in meeting society's Cold War needs. American leaders built the spiritual-industrial complex to reendow religion with social, cultural, and political meaning. They formed an interlocking network of committees, organizations, and advisory boards, availing the vast resources of the American bureaucracy toward that end. They set out to create a religious citizenry that grounded material power in sacred wisdom and immunized itself to...


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pp. 337-365
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