North American Churches and the Cold War

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Paul Mojzes
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     560 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For more than four decades, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated international affairs and domestic politics, society, and culture. The conflict—with apocalyptic overtones born of the ideological differences and military capabilities of the superpowers—took on religious dimensions for many Christians. Potential nuclear war, proxy wars and perceived Soviet expansionism in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, and religious persecution in the nations under atheistic communist leadership posed grave geopolitical as well as spiritual threats. North American Churches and the Cold War tackles the question of how churches in North America grappled with the tensions of the Cold War as well as how those tensions shaped the churches, and their relationships with one another, in return. This anthology is part of a larger international research project aimed at exploring the role that the global Christian community played during this key period of modern history. The editor, Paul Mojzes, indicates that the volume contributors are writing “primarily as Christians to Christians,” with the broad goal of gaining clarity about the past, clarity that contemporary Christians and Christian churches can apply to the ongoing national and international challenges that they confront in the present day (xiii, 7). 

In highlighting the diverse responses that Christian churches had to Soviet communism, US national security, the conflict in Vietnam, and other aspects of the Cold War, North American Churches and the Cold War provides fascinating insight into how religion and religious actors influence and are influenced by foreign policy and domestic politics. As with any edited volume, the chapters vary in quality, but this book is blessed with a tremendous number of standout contributions—far too many to highlight individually in the space allotted. The sections on Roman Catholic and Evangelical responses were particularly strong. In the former, chapters by Dianne Kirby, Michael Graziano, Todd Scribner, and Ray Haberski cover the full sweep of the Cold War, which lends helpful cohesion to the section.  For example, Kirby illuminates the conflicts that emerged in church-state relations and the “construction of an American anti-Communist religious identity” in the 1930s (243), while Graziano examines the relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Catholic church during the 1950s and 1960s to argue that “the intelligence community helped reimagine the place of Catholics in American culture” and “refashion[ed] Catholic distinctiveness as an asset in America’s Cold War arsenal” (258). Axel Schäfer’s piece provides a compelling overview of how white evangelical Protestants seized on the tensions of the Cold War to “assert themselves in American politics, society, and culture” (376). In the latter section, chapters on Christian nationalism, debates over nuclear weapons, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and the convergences and divergences between liberal and conservative evangelicals do much to reveal that, even within a major Christian tradition, responses to the Cold War varied and opportunities existed for collaboration. 

In addition to work from junior and senior scholars, the volume features chapters by church leaders who participated in the events that they recount. For example, Lois Wilson discusses the peace activism and ecumenical cooperation of Canadian churches, while Charles West shares his experiences as a delegate in East-West dialogues with marxist philosophers and church leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church. These and other chapters by church leaders allow readers to reflect on how Christians can shape—as West puts it—a “vision of community in a pluralistic world” (225). 

The book does have limitations, many of which are expected given the broad scope of the project. Alone, it would be challenging for an author to craft a narrative covering the various responses churches had to the Cold War. With multiple authors—some focusing on aspects of church leadership or political engagement—it is sometimes difficult identifying major unifying themes and tracing them throughout the book. Furthermore, the book would have benefited from a strong, direct contemplation of the lessons that the authors have drawn in their individual chapters (some addressed this, but not all). For the chapters that delve into one specific moment of political activism or one individual Christian leader within a national church, more time spent addressing the larger significance and implications of the topics would have brought greater thematic focus and narrative continuity to the volume, and thus to the major questions under consideration 

Additionally, though the book bills itself as a volume on North America, it focuses almost entirely on churches and faith communities in the United States. Of the six main sections, only one—consisting of six chapters—addresses Canadian Christians. The rest of the volume deals predominantly with US Christians, with four sections organized by faith tradition—mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and evangelical Protestant—and a final section on peace churches and peace activities. The editor notes that studies of Mexico will be part of the volume on Latin America. Despite the emphasis on the US, many of the volume’s contributors do address transnational connections between churches there and their counterparts abroad, which helps place American Christians in a welcome global context. Sadly, aside from one chapter on Black Protestantism, and a few mentions of African Americans and civil rights in a handful of other chapters, North American Churches and the Cold War does not delve deeply into the Cold War experiences of Latinx, Native American, Asian American, African American, or other non-white Christians, leaders, or churches. This is unfortunate, especially since some of the chapters have enough overlap with one another to lead the reader to wonder if another topical or thematic perspective might have brought more breadth to some of the sections.

Those critiques aside, this volume is an important and welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship on religion and the Cold War. The contributions succeed in capturing many of the key dynamics of the Christian experience during the Cold War and, unlike many recent works on religion and foreign policy or politics, this book does not focus on just one expression of Christianity. The inclusion of the section on Eastern Orthodox Christianity is particularly novel and necessary. Taken as a whole, this volume presents a wide-ranging—if at times impressionistic—picture of the deep divides that existed within North American churches about the nature of the Cold War and the threats it posed to faith communities as well as to the nations of Canada and the United States. As the conclusion notes, the US churches in particular “took impressive advantage of the rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the US Constitution,” with some seeking to bridge the “East-West divide” while others voiced support for strident anti-communism and a muscular response to the Soviet Union (564). These decisions had repercussions at home, notably in political power lost and gained for mainline and evangelical Protestants respectively (565). In elucidating these developments, North American Churches and the Cold War provides a unique and exciting contribution to our understanding of this period in global history and its aftereffects, many of which we are still living with today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lauren F. Turek is Assistant Professor of History at Trinity University.

Date of Review: 
March 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Mojzes is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and coeditor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His previous books include Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the Twentieth Century.


Paul Mojzes

Professor Lauren Turek did what some reviewers frequently do, namely look at a concrete finished book and lament the absence of what was not in the finished content. She is more than fair in that she grasped accurately and appreciatively many of the chapters by the more than 30 contributors of this book of nearly 600 pp.  She points out that the book is part of a larger global project in which Christian scholars and readers from many parts of theworld were to assess the impact of the Cold War upon the Christian community. A few smaller regional groups did publish their findings but our American Christian Churches and the Cold War by far the most comprehensive product so far. 

The challenge was in starting, researching, coordinating, and accomplishing this work. A small group of no more than a dozen ecumenically oriented American Christians responded to the invitation by the Finnish churchman Risto Lehtonen.  At our occasional consultations we first intended an encyclopedic, i.e. comprehensive approach and began looking for sources of funding that would enable us to do the task systematically that might culminate in several series of workshop for the future authors where some common approaches and cross fertilization of ideas might take place.  The hard reality which we sadly faced is that we were unable to raise any funds and that we had no institutional base from which to coordinate the approach. We almost abandoned the effort at several junctures but ultimately concluded that in the era of electronic communication we may be able to pull it off.  So, we were forced to give up the comprehensive approach which Professor Turek notes as a deficit and work with those scholars who accepted our invitation.  Many rejected us from the outset, many fell off along the way (even at the very end of the project). Since at first we could not obtain any Canadian input I was lucky to get help from Professor Jim Christie, who cheerfully prevailed on his many contacts in Canada to submit chapters, though even here we were unable to get the cooperation of any Canadian Catholics or evangelicals. Based on our many efforts to provide diversity I can say that I have absolutely no regret for not being more diverse than we ended up being after many years of effort. It also became clear that other church leaders and scholars should deal with the many unexplored aspects of this topic; perhaps a follow-up "NAC/Cold War, 2.0" that would include the reviewer’s suggestions can be researched and published. But for such an effort we were equally unsuccessful to obtain financial support.  

Professor Turek stated that the book “would have benefitted from a strong direct contemplation of lessons” but I believe that Professor James Christie did so in his chapter  “Snapshots from the Northern Front: Canadian Church Experience during the Cold War” as did Professor David Little in the section “Lessons Learned” entitled “American Christians and the Cold War.” Both of these are long evaluative chapters of the experiences that might guide us in the present or future. My impression is that during the current crises of a “new cold war” or what former Ambassador Michael McFaul calls “Hot Peace” with Russia and China and the conflict with radical Islam our churches appear not to have profited from their previous experience. Perhaps they might benefit from our book if they were to become aware of it.


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