Review of Philip E. Muehlenbeck, ed., Religion and the Cold War: A Global Perspective

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 2 (June 2013)

Review of Philip E. Muehlenbeck, ed., Religion and the Cold War: A Global Perspective, (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012), xxii + 314 Pp., ISBN 978-0-8265-1853-8.

By Matthew D. Hockenos, Skidmore College

Religion and the Cold War: A Global Perspective is a collection of essays that establishes not only that religion influenced Cold War disputes and policies in significant ways but more importantly that the Cold War was profoundly religious in nature. The very fact that the Cold War was not a “hot” war but rather a war between competing ideologies and systems of governance meant that victories were won not on the battlefield but rather by convincing peoples and states that life was better, freer, and more fulfilling on one side or the other of the Iron Curtain. Consequently, it was advantageous for Americans and West Europeans to contrast their devotion to Christian values and the free expression of religious belief with Communism’s repression of religion and spiritual bankruptcy. For the Western Allies, the Cold War was from the very start conceived of as both a war over religion and a religious war. Although this review will not address the global manifestations of the role of religion in the Cold War, one way that this collection breaks new ground is by expanding the traditional focus on the Christian Churches in Europe and America to examine some states affected by the Cold War in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, where Christianity was not always the dominant religion.

Muehlenbeck-ReligionThree essays from this collection that focus on the Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe and America will be of particular interest to CCHQ readers. In his essay, “The Western Allies, German Churches, and the Emerging Cold War in Germany, 1948-1952,” JonDavid Wyneken maintains that the political leaders in the US, Britain, the Soviet Union, and in East and West Germany paid close attention to the stance of German church leaders and at times shaped their policies with the churches in mind. At the end of WWII the German churches believed that they deserved a prominent role in postwar reconstruction and promoted themselves to the Allies as offering a faith-based alternative to the appeals of atheistic Communism. Although the Allies, especially the Americans, found this appealing, they refused to grant the churches the comprehensive role they desired and imposed harsh occupation and denazification programs in their zones of occupation. Church leaders voiced strong opposition to what they called “victors’ justice” and bemoaned that the Western Allies were just making Communism more appealing to a desperate and disgruntled population.

As the Cold War heated up American policy shifted its focus from punishing Germany to addressing the Communist threat in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. The Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and the Anglo-American response to the Berlin Blockade all made clear the West’s commitment to fighting Communism. Under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, Catholics in Germany, the vast majority of whom lived in the western zones, rallied behind the new anti-Communist policy and eventually embraced the division of Germany between East and West and the rearming of West Germany. Many Protestant leaders, however, undermined American objectives by refusing to offer their full endorsement of the anti-Communist policies of the West and instead advocated a dialogue between East and West. Distressed by the prospect dividing Protestant lands between two Germanies, they hoped to avoid or undo division and rearmament. Even a staunch anti-Communist like Bishop Dibelius of Berlin, who criticized Communist control of youth activities and political arrests of religious leaders, championed a less aggressive approach toward the East German state fearing reprisals against Protestants in the Eastern zone. He offered to mediate between Adenauer and Ulbricht but this never materialized.

Far more critical of the Allies were Protestants who gathered around the leadership of Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, and Gustav Heinemann. They earned the wrath of American policy makers because of their vocal opposition to Adenauer’s leadership, the division of Germany, and rearmament. They advocated neutrality and reunification. East German authorities and the USSR believed that they could use Niemöller’s soft stance on Communism to their advantage. The Western Allies worried that Niemöller and his colleagues had become dupes and sought to win over more conservative Protestants. The 1951 Protestant Kirchentag in Berlin heightened their concerns when Wilhelm Pieck, the East German president, gave a speech at its opening calling for unification. Adding fuel to the fire, Niemöller traveled to Moscow in January 1952 at the invitation of the Russian Orthodox patriarch. He said his visit was for ecumenical purposes and that he had undertaken the trip to promote peace through church channels. When he returned he reported on the vitality of Russian church life. Washington was not happy. Adenauer was furious. Bishop Meiser was apoplectic. One Bundestag member ridiculed Niemöller’s visit and called the Moscow patriarch “nothing more than Hitler’s Reichbischof Mueller.”

With the rejection of the Stalin Note by the Western Allies in the spring of 1952, the Russians and East Germans no longer needed to court the churches or cultivate Dibelius and Niemöller for publicity. The election of Eisenhower in 1953 and the crushing of the June 1953 East Berlin uprising just solidified the complete break between East and West and any chance that Germany would act as a bridge between the two sides as Niemöller had hoped. Wyneken concludes that, “Although this series of events ended any ability of the German churches to independently affect changes in East-West relations, the Western Allies continued to believe that both church bodies could still play a role in undermining Communism in East Germany.”

If Niemöller’s refusal to condemn Communism and to endorse the Christian West in the early years of the Cold War caused headaches for many of his church colleagues, they could be grateful that they did not have Hewlett Johnson the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral as a colleague. David Ayers’ essay, “Hewlett Johnson: Britain’s Red Dean and the Cold War,” describes Johnson as an ardent Communist who failed completely to grasp the true nature of Communism despite the growing list of well-documented crimes and atrocities carried out by Stalin and other Communist leaders. Although he never joined the British Communist Party, he repeatedly praised Stalin and believed that Communism was the practical realization of Christianity.

Appointed Dean (not Archbishop) of Canterbury in 1931 by Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, Johnson could not be fired and remained in the position of relative importance until 1963 when he retired at the age of 89. His colleagues in the Anglican Church frequently tried to oust him from his position but he always refused to resign.

Communist countries understood his usefulness in improving the image of Communism and invited him frequently to dinners and public events. He was a popular and frequent contributor in the public sphere in England and America, where spoke to large audiences on the affinity between Communism and Christianity. He praised Stalin’s anti-racism, nationalist policy, and the 1936 constitution, which Johnson called, “the most liberal the world has yet seen.” He ignored any reports that mentioned Stalin’s reign of terror and he claimed that religion could be practiced relatively freely in the USSR and Eastern Bloc. He also defended the Left’s attacks on the Church by arguing that the Church was sometimes on the wrong side.  Foreigners often confused his position as dean with that of the archbishop and so thought he was speaking on behalf of the Anglican Church.

When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 and Russia became England’s ally, Johnson was in great demand as a speaker and was able to say, “I told you so” to his many critics. His position was further boosted by Stalin’s friendly overtures to the Orthodox Church in 1943, when Stalin restored the Moscow Patriarchate. Johnson went to Moscow in May 1945 to celebrate Russia’s victory.

Like Niemöller, he tried to foster good relations between East and West after the war. But unlike Niemöller, Johnson made patently absurd claims about Communism and sided unapologetically every time with Communist regimes. Although Niemöller was sometimes referred to as “Germany’s Red Dean,” the two men had very little in common. In contrast to Niemöller, Johnson’s thought progressed very little in his lifetime and had very little influence on the Cold War strategy of either the Anglican Church or the British Government. From the time of the Russian Revolution until his death in 1966 his loyalty to Moscow never wavered. Ayer’s concludes, “He essentially regarded religious freedom as secondary to the progression toward Communism.”

Jonathan P. Herzog’s essay, “From Sermon to Strategy: Religious Influence on the Formation and Implementation of US Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War,” makes the case most convincingly that religion was central to Cold War strategy, at least for the United States. He begins his excellent essay with the anecdote of the US in 1953 launching 1000’s of balloons bearing Bible verses over the skies of Eastern Europe with the hope that oppressed Eastern Europeans would find some solace from the verses or perhaps even inspire some to rebel against their Communist oppressors. Although two fundamentalist Protestant radio preachers conceived the project, it was the recently inaugurated President Eisenhower who rescued the project from the trashcans of the State Department and gave the project his authorization. Although the balloon project seems small and insignificant, it demonstrates the extent to which the president had come to view the religious struggle between East and West as an integral part of the Cold War. As Herzog argues, with Eisenhower’s imprimatur, “the balloons became less the half-backed notion of two evangelists and more the long arm of US foreign policy.”

Herzog shows how it was religious leaders from various denominations who first interpreted Communism as a type of religion. In the 1930s church leaders from Cardinal Spellman to Billy Graham, “portrayed Communism as a spiritual threat and bemoaned the secularization sapping US society of its sacred vigor.” Communism was an “arch-heresy” that had its own missionaries, theologians, songs, and faith.

Policy makers such as George Kennan, Paul Nitze and John Foster Dulles as well as presidents Truman and Eisenhower were thoroughly convinced by this reasoning. They picked up on the narrative created by religious leaders and portrayed the Cold War as a war between the Godless and Satanic Communists and the God-fearing and God-loving Americans. Various policies, strategies, and tactics were developed to translate this belief into foreign policy. As early as January 1946 position papers were circulated within the security community that viewed the USSR as a nation with a Messianic goal that held great appeal for people suffering the effects of a devastating war. Nitze in 1950 maintained that the Soviets were “animated by a fanatical faith.” In this “perverted faith” Communist society “becomes God, and submission to the will of God becomes submission to the will of the system.” Truman’s Psychological Strategy Board declared that, “The potentialities of religion as an instrument for combating Communism are universally tremendous.” And Eisenhower campaigned on the belief that, “our battle against Communism is a fight between anti-God and a belief in the almighty?”

Herzog concludes that alongside the military-industrial complex created by Truman and Eisenhower there was a “religious-industrial complex” that consisted of “a fusion of religious ideas, national resources, and state policy.”