God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America's Cold War (review)
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God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America's Cold War. By Jason W. Stevens. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 448. $39.95 cloth)

Jason Stevens's God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America's Cold War links a variety of Cold-War intellectual and cultural products to the theme of America's lost innocence. Stevens claims that this emphasis on America's lost innocence was the master narrative of the Cold-War era and an expression of countermodernism that advanced American nationalism and imperialism after World War II. In other words, Stevens argues that ubiquitous calls for Americans to "relinquish its illusions of innocence" (p. xi) by the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and numerous intellectuals, filmmakers, and novelists of the era actually served as a mechanism for "national self-acquittal" (p. 16), which soothed the conscience of Americans as [End Page 267] the country emerged as an aggressive superpower and the bearer of freedom for the world. For Stevens, this master narrative has become both liberal and conservative political orthodoxy and continues to sustain American imperialism, including recent actions in the Middle East.

While this important work expands our understanding of the consensual culture of post-World War II America, it ultimately simplifies the history of the Cold War and especially the thought and legacies of Stevens's two primary protagonists: Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham. Stevens may have found a common skepticism about both individual and national innocence among filmmakers, novelists, preachers, and psychologists, but he provides little of the context for why they may have reached those conclusions. After World War II, Americans lived in a genuinely anxious time, one filled with the memory and reality of economic uncertainty, massive and destabilizing suburban migration, the horrors of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb, the Korean War, and the spread of communism in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres.

These events receive barely a mention in Stevens's discussion of the end-of-innocence master narrative, a curious omission given that they influenced Niebuhr and Graham's criticisms of America's self image. For Niebuhr and Graham, the injustices and violence of midcentury affirmed the original-sin diagnosis of the great potential of humanity for inhumanity. On the basis of this shared attitude, Stevens characterizes both men as conventional cold warriors. But that judgment is too sweeping and in one crucial instance regarding Niebuhr it is based on faulty evidence. Stevens misreads a passage in Richard Fox's Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography and erroneously claims that Niebuhr supported the French Indochina war during the Eisenhower administration. Graham's anticommunism, meanwhile, evolved substantially from the 1950s to the 1970s, something left underdeveloped in Stevens's account. By characterizing them as typical cold warriors, moreover, Stevens has not departed from prevailing historical opinion as he seems to think but rather confirmed it. At least [End Page 268] since Fox's biography, historians and political scientists have noted a post-World War II conservative turn in Niebuhr. Graham has been rarely seen as anything other than an anti-communist crusader.

Stevens's simplified portrayal of Niebuhr and Graham is still more problematic when he faults them for the fact that "liberalism in American faith and politics is still suffering today" (p. 63). Indeed, for Stevens, Niebuhr eroded liberalism from within, failed to offer a robust alternative to Graham, and therefore "helped to pave the efforts of Graham and his ilk to rob Enlightenment reasoning of legitimacy so that they could carve out a greater sphere of action for God's servants to perfect for his glory and America's blessing" (p. 54). For his part, Graham, despite what Stevens notes as the evangelist's moderation of rhetoric, increased social message, and decreased political involvement by the 1970s, is nevertheless accountable for the emergence of the New Christian Right. On both counts, Stevens engages in a great-man theory of history: the actions of two men sealed the fate of liberalism and insured the development of the New Christian Right. At the same time, Stevens's insinuation that Niebuhr could have stopped Graham in his...


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