Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Religious Right, United States

For the duration of the Cold War, few Americans were more staunchly anti-communist than members of the so-called Religious Right. Grounded in atheism, communism was anathema to conservative Christians, and they vigorously supported policies aimed at curbing the influence of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. At the height of the Cold War, numerous individuals and organizations associated with the Religious Right went even further, urging American policymakers to strike a death blow to so-called godless communism by mounting a preemptory military strike against the Soviet Union. Although this advice went unheeded, the Religious Right steadily gained influence in the United States throughout the Cold War, its arguments moving from the fringes of foreign policy debates into the forefront during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Even in the early years of the Cold War, conservative Christians such as Billy James Hargis took a harder line than most mainstream American anti-communists. Hargis, a fiery fundamentalist preacher, campaigned tirelessly against communism in the 1950s and 1960s, using his Christian Crusade as a platform to argue that the United States had to serve as a bulwark for Christianity against the godless doctrines emanating from Moscow. In one memorable effort to combat communism, Hargis masterminded the Bible Balloon Project, in which tens of thousands of balloons bearing Bibles and religious tracts were released from the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) and directed toward Eastern Europe.

Reverend Billy Graham, perhaps the most prominent and well-recognized conservative Christian of his era, loathed communism as well, denouncing it in a 1950 speech as both anti-God and anti-American. As with many members of the Religious Right, Graham viewed the struggle between Christianity and communism in apocalyptic terms, and he repeatedly used his pulpit to urge American leaders to be firm in their resolve against Moscow.

Although the Religious Right tends to be associated with Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church also played a role in the politics of anticommunism. Pope Pius XII was rabidly anti-communist, and the Catholic Church openly supported the anti-communist antics of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, himself a conservative Roman Catholic.

Believing that communism had to be obliterated and not simply contained, members of the Religious Right and other ultraconservatives rallied around Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Goldwater spectacularly failed to convince the American electorate that the country needed to adopt a more heavy-handed approach toward the Soviets, but his campaign energized conservative Christians and introduced them to Reagan, perhaps their most important political patron. Throughout his political career, Reagan addressed domestic and foreign policy issues with often simplistic and moralistic approaches that resonated with conservative Christians. After he gained the presidency in 1980, members of the Religious Right generally applauded his willingness to confront communism. Like Reagan, they believed that the Soviet Union was not simply a rival state but rather an evil empire bent on world domination and the eradication of Christianity.

Conservative Christians saw one of their own—the Pentecostal minister and broadcaster Pat Robertson—make a bid for the presidency in 1988. Articulating the views of many evangelicals, Robertson interpreted world events through the prism of biblical prophecy (particularly the passages in the Book of Revelation that foretell Armageddon). Even as the power of the Soviet Union waned, Robertson and like-minded members of the Religious Right issued apocalyptic warnings that Christendom was under siege by communism, the very same arguments made by their ideological forebears at the dawn of the Cold War.

Shawn Francis Peters


Further Reading
Martin, William. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books, 1996.
 

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