- Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion
When I first picked up this excellent book, I was unsure whether it had anything new to teach me. Gunn's subject—the crystallization in the late 1940s and early 1950s of an alliance between (1) religious discourses about God and country (2) a permanent war economy linked to a policy of global military supremacy, and (3) extravagant pro-capitalism and anti-socialism in most non-military sectors of the economy—seems on first impression to be old hat for American Studies scholars, and Gunn tends to presuppose a consensus approach to US culture that has long been out of favor. Moreover, Gunn is not a conventional scholar of US history and religion; although he holds a Religious Studies Ph.D from Harvard, recently he has worked as a lawyer associated with the American Civil Liberties Union. Although he cites a solid mix of scholars, readers of this journal may sometimes find him thin on pre-1940s historical contexts and traditions of critiquing US empire. He does little to clarify how his stress on change in the 1940s intersects with a wider historiography, nor how his account of the role of religion within these changes differs from other scholarly treatments. Thus I initially wondered if Gunn had set out to reinvent the wheel.
I am happy to report that, in fact, the results are far more impressive. By approaching from a different angle than most scholars and concentrating on a new interpretation of primary sources (mainly journalistic coverage and government documents, some recently declassified), Gunn achieves a fresh and dynamic new interpretation of this crucial topic—an important intervention into ongoing debates.
After an introductory section, Gunn offers three strong chapters documenting the surging importance of civil religion, militarism, and capitalism in the decade after 1945. Using vivid examples, he dramatizes changes from an earlier historical baseline and the effects of these changes on cultural discourse and political-economic policy. For example, he shows how expectations of rapid military demobilization after 1945 (as happened after World War I) gave way to a permanent war economy, and how earlier religious voices promoting peace and moderate socialism (including a 1940s commission chaired by John Foster Dulles and a chapter in The Fundamentals) became marginalized in a frenzy of flag-waving, ostentatious public prayers, and Christian capitalism.
Importantly, Gunn offers two rich case studies to document the consequences of his themes. One chapter treats the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and another the rise and fall of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam. The Guatemala chapter brilliantly demonstrates how Gunn's themes intersect, and is written with a concreteness and rhetorical skill that would make it a fine introduction for students into critical thinking about news media. The Vietnam chapter is especially noteworthy for shining a light on the religious dimensions of Diem's rise to power. Diem was a protégé of Cardinal Spellman with a base among Vietnamese Catholics, and there was a strong Christian vs. Buddhist aspect to his government's failure. Meanwhile, religion was central to the discourse about the war inside the US—dramatized by such things as the lionization of Thomas Dooley as [End Page 182] the public face of US intervention and the way that the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, galvanized antiwar protest. Gunn makes it clear that religious aspects of anti-Communism in Vietnam—and also, by extension, in related places like Korea—deserve greater attention than most scholars have given them.
Tradeoffs are implicit in Gunn's method, as in any scholarly approach. His stress on the forging of a hegemonic coalition in the world of elite politics, economics, and media takes the focus off ongoing disagreements—before, during, and after the period in focus—as well as precedents on which his emerging coalition built. Some scholars will desire more attention to labor and working class history, compared to the usable past that Gunn highlights, as well as to...