William Inboden, Author, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment
Thinking in Public
January 24, 2013
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Dr. William Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and he’s also assistant professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He’s also a non-resident fellow with the German-Marshall Fund of the United States. Previously he served as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council at the White House. Dr. Inboden worked at the Department of State as a member of the policy planning staff and is special advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom. He’s worked as a staff member in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. He holds his Ph.D. and MA degrees in History from Yale University and his bachelorette from Stanford University.
He’s the author of the book, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment, and we’re about to have one of those conversations you can only have with someone who has immersed himself in this material with a rich background of his own personal experience.
Will, how did you find yourself attracted to the questions of what was missing in American foreign policy and its understanding during the Cold War?
Inboden: You know there were actually two separate strains that both led me to the questions that animate this book. The first was before starting graduate school in history at Yale, I worked on Capitol Hill for several years and I saw a number of members of Congress who had very strong personal faith commitments and those faith commitments seemed to shape their understanding of foreign policy. And I saw a lot of religious groups who were active on Capitol Hill trying to influence American foreign policy as well. And so that just put some questions in my mind if in what was then the present day religious motivations were shaping American foreign policy, was that also the case in the past. And then the second more historical line that shaped my set of questions that turned into this book was the perpetual puzzle, “Why was the Cold War fought?” Because we assume now in retrospect that there was an inevitability to the Cold War, but if we remember in 1945, at the end of World War II, the last thing that the American people or certainly the American Government wanted was yet another worldwide conflict. The world was just coming out of the worst carnage in human history and there was hopes for world peace from the United Nations, and the Soviet Union had been our ally in fighting against the Nazis, and so in the minds of most policy makers the last thing anyone wanted in 1945 was yet another global conflict. Yet within one to two years, 1946 or ’47, we find ourselves once again in this global stand-off against the Soviet Union in what became the Cold War. And so the historical puzzle of what caused that and when I looked at all of the prevailing historiography on the early Cold War, we saw all sorts of different suggestions of motivations, whether it was American desire to expand capitalism, whether it was Soviet’s desire to expand communism, whether it was just the stand-off between two great powers and the realist argument that great powers will inevitably conflict with each other, but what all those arguments seem to completely leave out was the religious factor. And, yet, as I looked through the public and private statements of most American leaders at the time, very much at the forefront of their minds was we’re got to resist Communism because it’s atheistic and, furthermore, a sense that God was calling the United States as a powerful nation to exercise its power responsibly in the world. So it’s those two different influences—the president day work on Capitol Hill and the historical question of what caused the Cold War—that caused me to dive into this book.
Mohler: Well the book is actually the product, of course, of your Ph.D. work at Yale University, and you write, just in terms of introducing this very significant project, that you came to this because as you looked at the consideration of the Cold War in contemporary-historical scholarship, there was one thing missing and that one thing was the theological or religious dimension of the Cold War. And so before we get to your argument about what was there, let me ask you: how could the entire field of scholarship miss something so significant?
Inboden: That was the real puzzle for me because, as you know, any time a graduate student starts on a dissertation the first thing you’re supposed to do is write on something that’s never been written about before. And my understanding was the early Cold War years there had been hundreds of books already produced on that and so I thought, “Will there really be anything else to say here?” But as I looked at all the excellent scholarship, none of it touched on religion in any significant way and, without impugning the motives of my fellow scholars out there, I did see that a lot of historians, at least at the time, approached religion with more of a hermeneutic of suspicion that there was a sense that any time a historical actor would claim religious motives that those can’t be the real motives; surely the real motives are more materialistic or hyper-ideological or some sort of psychological projection, but there was just a real reluctance by most historians to take religious actors in the past on their own terms. And, yet, as I read some of the primary source documents from most American leaders at the time I saw just these pervasive references to God and to faith and a sense of religious calling. An analogy I used is let’s say we found lots of presidential speeches and private correspondence saying things like, “We need to fight the Cold War because of capitalism and because we want to promote markets overseas,” well that would be catnip for a lot of historians. They’d say, “Aha, we knew it,” and they would take that at face value. Yet when religion was invoked there was more of a sense, “Well that just can’t be the real motivation. That can’t be a factor. Surely it’s something else.” And so I think there was that extra-hermeneutic of suspicion on the part of the historians that was in some ways blinding them to what seemed to me to be pretty self-evident and interesting motivations.
Mohler: We had some conversations back when you were doing this project at Yale and I remember those well, and when I went back to read the book in preparing for this conversation, I have to tell you there were still several things that shocked me. And one of them was the actual text of the National Security Council document known as NSC68 because when I look at it, I think most Americans living today would be hard-pressed to believe that the official governing document of the United States Government concerning the doctrine of atomic warfare was written in what can only be described as religious language.
Inboden: Yea this was stunning to me and I think what was especially telling about that document, which Cold War historians will tell you is one of the two or three most important documents for American Foreign Policy in the Cold War, that document was classified and was not even released publicly until the mid-70s. So for the more cynical scholars out there who would say, “Well sure American leaders would invoke God only to mobilize public opinion,” then when you say actually there’s a very important classified document that guided American foreign policy that was only supposed to be seen by policymakers at very top levels of government that is invoking faith and is warning against the materialistic, atheistic pretensions of the Soviet Union that should be at least be a clue that people really believed this; that the religious dimension really was an important, animating influence on American national security policy.
Mohler: Now, by the way, even as it seems that many historians missed the importance of this dimension, Joseph Stalin didn’t. I love the anecdote with which you begin the book; the admonition that Stalin gave to Andrei Gromyko when he assigned him to be the Soviet ambassador to the United States.
Inboden: Yea, when I came across this anecdote in another Soviet ambassador’s memoirs I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’ve found the introduction for the book here.” For your listeners, the anecdote is that when Stalin assigned Gromyko to be his ambassador to the US, the main instruction Stalin gave Gromyko was he wanted him to attend church every Sunday in the US. And that may sound strange to us since we know that Stalin and Gromyko were atheist, but Stalin told Gromyko, “If you want to understand America, if you want to understand the values of the United States and the motivations of the American people, you have to go to church every Sunday.” So I thought that was just deliciously revealing
Mohler: Oh I should say. Now the cover of your book by Cambridge University Press has four figures on it and they are juxtaposed in terms of this cover and they are Harry Truman, Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dwight Eisenhower. And you look at this and you could say well those are four of the most significant and influential figures in America or actually for the world stage of the second half of the twentieth century, but you’re arguing that something far more profound actually links them together. What is that?
Inboden: The reason I chose those four figures is they for as diverse as they were—you know, a democrat and a republican; an evangelical Protestant Billy Graham and then a liberal Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr—they together shared this spiritual-theological worldview that the Cold War was a religious war, that the United States had a divine calling to engage in it, and that the Soviet Union was a threatening adversary, not just because of its totalitarianism, but because of its atheism.
Mohler: When I read Nancy Gibb’s book, The President’s Club, late last year, and you may recall that she wrote that book about the political lives of former presidents, one of the things that is most striking in that is how much Truman disliked Eisenhower and how much Eisenhower disliked Truman. And, yet, by the time you finish your book, it’s clear, in terms of their foreign policy and their understanding of how faith functioned in terms of America’s foreign policy in the Cold War, there’s an amazing continuity.
Inboden: Yea there really is and an initial clue for me to look for that was, you know, diplomatic historians pointed out the paradox that Eisenhower in the 1952 campaign had largely campaigned against Truman’s foreign policies, saying, “Truman’s been a bad foreign policy president. He’s got us bogged down in this war in Korea. He’s pursuing this containment policy that is acquiescing in Soviet domination.” Yet, once Eisenhower becomes president, he essentially pursues a lot of the main strategic principles of the Truman foreign policy. So mindful of that dynamic, I was intrigued to see that a very similar thing took place with the civil-religious dimension of the Cold War that Eisenhower, even though he had very little time for Truman and a lot of contempt for Truman, essentially adopted the civil-religious framework that Truman had created and Eisenhower further expanded and institutionalized it. So there’s a lot more continuity between the two even though neither would have wanted to admit it at the time.
Mohler: In terms of your book, I think one of the things that would surprise many American evangelicals today and perhaps would be even more shocking to more secular Americans is the extent to which the Protestant mainstream, and especially the elite in American mainline Protestantism in the second half of the twentieth century, had a foreign policy. They were deeply invested in foreign policy. Foreign policy was very much a part of their concern and of their political activism. Kind of spell that out for us and show us the contours of American Protestantism, especially at the level of the leadership in the last half of the twentieth century.
Inboden: Sure, yea, this was also as you know a very prominent theme in the book and what really seemed to be taking place is at the end of World War II most American Protestant leaders, especially mainline Protestants, their overriding proclamation was foreign policy. They thought that the American Allied victory in World War II had finally given an opportunity for ushering in their own eschatological vision of a post-millennial peace here on the earth through the United Nations, through American power and American benevolence. It’s really this utopian vision. And this was also the zenith, I think, of the American Protestant establishment’s cultural influence in the United States as well. You know, church attendance is getting to record highs. This is when the United States really is culturally a Protestant nation. But very soon thereafter disputes arise within the American Protestant leadership over precisely what that foreign policy should be. Some of them wanted peace and harmony and coexistence with the Soviet Union and to abolish all atomic weapons; others, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, even though they shared the liberal theology of mainline Protestantism, took a more conservative or assertive line on foreign policy, saying, “No; communism really is a threat. The United States needs to maintain its atomic weapons and forcefully confront the Soviets.” Then in the midst of that, as you well know, is when neo-evangelicalism comes on the scene and almost becomes this third verse within the pantheon of American Protestantism.
Mohler: But before we get there, there was a major divide on the mainline Protestant side; between those who were more idealists and those who were realists. And that becomes also, I would say, an ongoing issue that reflected the same kind of split on the secular side in government.
Inboden: Yea this is really interesting how some of these ecclesiastical divisions mirror the foreign policy divisions that go on within government because a number of the mainline Protestants bodies, especially the National Council of Churches and some of its subdivisions and denominational heads, took, again, a much more what we might call liberal line on foreign policy and this was partly driven by their theological convictions and a fairly low view of sin, a low view of national identity, and a very idealistic hope for really almost a utopia to come in through the United Nations. And so the last thing they wanted was another conflict. Related to this also was most of these leaders certainly weren’t communist themselves, but they were not as critical of the Soviet Union and of Soviet Communism. They regarded it as maybe unfortunate or distasteful, but they appreciated when they saw some of communism’s efforts to bring in social justice. They were less critical of Soviet Communism whereas other liberal Protestants, particularly led by Reinhold Niebuhr who had a somewhat higher view of sin, at least in a corporate sense, and a somewhat more confident belief in American exceptionalism, said, “No; communism is very bad. This is a false idol; it needs to be confronted. We’ll never be able to have a utopia in the world. The United States is necessary, but flawed. Let’s not put too many hopes in the United Nations. Let’s support a robust American national security posture and let’s try to win this Cold War.” So it was a real divide that was most manifestly a political divide that had those theological undertones.
Mohler: In terms of the theological layout here, one of the things that you make very clear in your book is that American foreign policy adopted a theology of sorts. And, as a matter of fact, in one haunting line in your book you say it was a theology that Americans would have been shocked to have understood was developed in the White House.
Inboden: Yea this was also very interesting from the political side that American presidents, especially Truman and Eisenhower, but also other leaders such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles because they saw the Cold War as a religious conflict. They wanted to mobilize the religious Americans behind this. And, yet, they found it very frustrating that American Protestants especially were so divided amongst each other and could not unite behind the American Cold War platform and so the related dimension of this is Truman and Eisenhower wanted to make this Cold War theology more religiously inclusive. They especially wanted to bring Catholics and Jews in. This is where Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew comes out of this milieu. And so Truman and Eisenhower realized we just can’t work for these church groups because they’re bickering with each other too much and so we are going to, as American Presidents, take it on ourselves to craft a new civil religion that believes in God, that believes in some sense of divine providence, that believes that human rights and freedoms are endowed by a Creator. It’s essentially the same natural theology you find at the American founding. It’s doctrinally minimalist. It certainly would not embrace a lot of the particular orthodox confessions of creedal Christianity, but it’s more accessible to Americans of different faiths. And so the White House kind of creates its own new civil religion for these purposes in the Cold War.
Mohler: So in order to get American ready for the challenge of the Cold War and in order to make clear, not only internally, but quite clearly in public the distinctions between the American Project and the threat of communism, especially Soviet Communism, a form of civil religion was explicitly preached and communicated by the American Government and by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. And, in one sense, I guess you could say it was the basic distinction between what Truman called “godless communism” and what you acknowledge as really a banal Protestant Christianity.
Inboden: Yea, exactly. Even though for people of very strong religious faith and, as you know, I certainly consider myself a very committed, practicing Christian, this civil religion is going to appear to us as very watered-down and banal, but just thinking of it as a historical matter, it was still very different from the materialism and atheism that the Soviet Union was pushing. And so as a historical factor, as a factor in foreign policy, there was some amount of teeth to this civil religion, and, by and large, the American people, for the most part, seemed to be on board with it as well. This reflected their own understanding of their nation’s role in the world and why they also objected to communism.
Mohler: Well I think American evangelicals when they hear the term “civil religion” know they’re supposed to respond to it with kind of an allergic horror because we recognize that it is not authentic biblical Christianity. At the same time, I think we have to acknowledge the incredible social utility of civil religion and, in one sense, the indispensability of it to the American Experiment. But I think even Americans who understand that, even evangelicals who know that American leaders do talk this way, they’d be shocked by the kind of language used by American presidents. In fact, as an example, you go back to October 27, 1941, in a radio address given by President Roosevelt when he said—speaking of the Nazi threat—he said, “In the place of the churches of our civilization there is to be set up an international Nazi church; a church which would be served by orators sent out by the Nazi government. In the place of the Bible, the words of Mein Kampf will be imposed and enforced as holy writ, and in the place of the cross of Christ, would be put two symbols: the swastika and the naked sword. A god of blood and iron will take the place of the God of love and mercy.” That may be civil religion, but that is theological content—inescapably so.
Inboden: Yea, and it’s all the more remarkable that it’s coming from President Franklin Roosevelt, who we usually don’t think of as someone using such categories. As a thought experiment it might be fun to read that quote at a conference of scholars some time, but not tell anyone who it came from and ask, “Who do you think said this?” And they’ll say, “Was that Billy Graham or Carl McIntire?” “No; that was President Franklin Roosevelt.” So even our presidents during this era, most of whom would not have been conservative evangelical Protestants in our understanding of the term theologically, they did have, I think, some perceptive insights into some of the theological content of the conflict. I guess we could say these minimal beliefs they had were certainly at a minimum ones that conservative evangelicals such as us could embrace. We would just go much further in our own doctrinal particulars, but things such as God created the world, that there is a divine authorship to history, that human rights and freedoms are endowed by our Creator, that because we are created in God’s image that state should not be an idol the way that Soviet Communism was making the state. Those things as theological tenants I think we could certainly affirm.
Mohler: Even when it comes to the range of political and current issues, many people would just assume that if you look at foreign policy, you’re looking at the one dimension that is least likely to have theological content and theological engagement. Will Inboden’s work points to the falsity of that assumption and to the fact that not only was foreign policy richly theological, that theology came from the White House of all places. Meaning that the intersection of faith and politics, of theology and current events, even of foreign policy in the Cold War, is far more than meets the eye and, in the case of America’s political memory, a great deal more than most Americans either remember or ever knew.
This is not one of the major points of your book, but it’s necessary to the content of your book. It is nonetheless something that I think would be shocking, again, to many contemporary readers and, that is, the influence of mainline Protestant leaders in the highest echelons of the American government. And when we talk about the Protestant mainstream, we often forget just how mainstream it was, how mainline the influence was, how major theologians were regular visitors into the halls of power in Washington, and how many of the denominations that have been in theological collapse and numerical decline for the better part of the last 20 or 30 years, even more if you go back to the end of World War II, they were in the driver’s seat of American Christianity.
Inboden: Yea, this really was the Protestant establishment in full-force, not only in terms of the cultural cache it had, but, as you said, a real force in the quarters of power. I mean, the heads of Protestant denominations were regularly meeting with senators, with the Secretary of State, with the President himself, and these were not just photo-ops and happy handshakes for the political purposes; these were in-depth, behind-the-scenes meetings and discussions on what should the American foreign policy be. So it was really, really remarkable. I think one figure who especially exemplifies this was Edward Elson, who was the pastor of National Presbyterian, President Eisenhower’s church, and, as you may recall from the book, Eisenhower at one point commissions his pastor, Edward Elson, to do about a month of quite, secret-shuttle diplomacy throughout the Middle East, meeting with the King of Saudi Arabia, with heads of state in the Middle East, trying to line-up these different Arab nations on the side of the United States in the Cold War. So usually a president will send his secretary of state or a national security advisor for those kinds of missions, but President Eisenhower sent his pastor.
Mohler: Yea, I have to tell you just as a personal anecdote that the first time I visited Washington, DC, I was a nine-year-old boy, and went to visit Congressman Paul Rogers, who was my Florida Congressman. And I can still remember sitting there with my parents and he gave me a collection of prayers by Edward Elson, delivered when he was chaplain of the Senate. I still have that book in my library, signed by Paul Rogers and Edward Elson. There’s a figure from history coming alive all of the sudden, and he was the man who actually baptized Dwight David Eisenhower into Christianity when Eisenhower was a president, the only president to be baptized while in office.
Inboden: Yea, that in itself was a really remarkable story, and I’ll tell you one anecdote related to Eisenhower’s baptism that I didn’t put into the book. I wish I would have, but when I was going through the papers at the Eisenhower library, the papers related to Eisenhower’s membership in National Presbyterian, I came across this fascinating exchange of letters between Reverend Elson and President Eisenhower where when Eisenhower told Elson, “Reverend Elson, I’d like to become a member of National Presbyterian,” the two things that Elson told Eisenhower were, “Mr. President, we’d love to have you, but you’ll need to be baptized and you’ll need to attend a five-hour membership class that we require of everybody who wants to join National Presbyterian.” And Eisenhower, to his credit, participated in that class, sat through a five-hour—I think they had to do a couple sessions—membership class before he was allowed to join the church. And I think—to shift into a normative mode here for a second—I think that’s a pretty compelling picture of the most powerful person in the world still submitting to the authority of a local church and still making the time to sit through a membership class.
Mohler: Absolutely—again, an insight that would shock many people, in terms of the contemporary political context. I want to ask you about some individuals because even as you tell a narrative and do some just incredible political and intellectual analysis in your book, the people are so central to the story. So let me just throw out a few and I want to ask you to talk about them: John Foster Dulles.
Inboden: Dulles, again, a fascinating and often really misunderstood figure in American history. He came from a long line of both Presbyterian clergy and missionaries and also diplomats. And those two strains come together in him where he had a—again, theologically he’s a very liberal Protestant but is still a very active one. He was also a member of National Presbyterian, as was President Eisenhower. And before becoming secretary of state, Dulles has been an active leader in the National Council of Churches, helping to design their plan for the United States, doing a lot of ecumenical work with Protestant leaders in Europe and then the United States. And he was earlier seen as just this purely lofty, idealistic Protestant and so once he becomes secretary of state and adopts a fairly stern line against communism, both rhetorically and in his policies, it was very upsetting to some of his former clerical colleagues in the National Council of Churches who thought that he had gone off the reservation, had abandoned the old faith. And yet for him I argue there’s a real continuity there; that Dulles always had a strong spiritual sense of his calling of what he thought America’s role in the world was. It’s just that once he took the office of secretary of state he had to apply more diplomatic teeth to that and it was less appealing to some of his former colleagues in the church bureaucracy.
Mohler: So let’s talk about John Foster Dulles and the fact that you didn’t in your book indicate one thing I was just sure was going to show up somewhere, and that is even as you tell the story that the one thing that united mainline and evangelical Christians in terms of this period was great antipathy to the Roman Catholic Church and fear of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and both determined to influence foreign policy to try to limit the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, somehow failed to mention that John Foster Dulles, one of the architects of that policy, United States Secretary of State, ended up with a son who became a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
Inboden: Yea, Avery Dulles. That was one of those things that looking back if I were to rewrite the book I think it would have been a great anecdote to spend some more time on because I did come across some real interesting correspondence between John Foster Dulles and his son Avery when Avery had converted, I believe it was while he was an undergrad at Harvard, and this caused some real consternation in the family because in the public lines to be a Dulles was to be a Presbyterian, almost in the way that these days to be a Kennedy is to be a Catholic. And so for a Dulles like Avery Dulles to convert to Catholicism then to join the priesthood was a real shock to the system.
Mohler: You can add to that: and to become a Jesuit.
Inboden: Yea and to become a Jesuit, that’s right. But my understanding is that there was reconciliation between father and son that it did not turn into an irreparable breech there, which for familial relations I think is an appreciative thing.
Mohler: But you know a lot of people just can’t imagine a time when the American political elite would be such a small group of a few families and represented, for instance, by relatively few schools. And you certainly have that demonstrated in your book; it’s implicit in virtually every chapter. But you not only had John Foster Dulles as secretary of state, you had his brother Allen Dulles as the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, you had John Foster Dulles having two relatively close relatives who would have also both been the United States Secretary of State, and you look at that and you realize this is a different America than we know now. There has been huge democratization of American political culture. I think that must be kind of tantamount to a second Jacksonian age from the time you depict in this book.
Inboden: I think that’s a very vocative way to put it, “a second Jacksonian age,” because at the time in these decades pretty much every member of the American leadership in Washington had attended, most of them had gone to Groton for High School and had gone to Harvard or Yale or Princeton for their schooling. They had done their summer vacations together. They had known each other for generations. They worked at the same Wall Street investment banking for Manhattan law firms. The entire axis of influence in leadership of the United States was really confined to that Boston-New York-Washington, DC quarter and to a few select educational institutions.
Mohler: And I think the other thing you also deal with implicitly here is the fact that it was a Protestant establishment. It was an almost unilaterally Protestant establishment. You do have some figures such as Morgenthau showing up in terms of Jewish representation, but when you look at someone like Joseph Kennedy as a Roman Catholic appointed to the Court of St. James as the American ambassador to Great Britain, you really are looking at an exception.
Inboden: Oh yea. Kennedy and then the one other exception who proves the rule are James Forrestal, the very troubled first secretary of defense was also a Roman Catholic and he had a number of personal demons to go along with his genius, but arguably—I don’t want to over determine this—but one of those might have been a sense of never quite fitting in in-part because of his Catholicism. And as you also alluded earlier but was a real revelation to me in doing the historical research is for all of the theological differences at which were considerable between evangelical Protestants and liberal Protestants, the one thing that they did seem to agree on was this anti-Catholicism. They didn’t want the Catholics running the country. This was, of course, pre-Vatican II and when there was still a sense that, I think an unfair one, but that Catholics can’t really be good, loyal American citizens; that they’re going to be taking their orders from the Pope. You might recall the anecdote from the book that I thought was revealing was when there was the internal memos from a couple of leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1951 or ’52 when McCarthy was first coming to the floor and the questions was, “What do we make of this McCarthy guy?” The answer came back, “Well it’s mixed. On the one hand, the good news is he seems to be going after communists in the state department, but he’s replacing those communists with Catholics and that’s just about as bad.”
Mohler: But you know I have to push back just a little bit and say that the reason many Protestants believed that a Roman Catholic would owe his primary allegiance to the Pope is because that was not coincidentally the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
Inboden: Yes this is where looking back we have to be very careful not to apply our own 21st century lens in the understanding of how things are today and expect people to have that same understanding in the ‘40s and ‘50s because, I just mentioned, this was pre-Vatican II. This was before the Catholic Church had really made its peace with democracy, with some semblance of religious liberty, and so the magisterial teaching at the time did pose some difficult questions for citizenship.
Mohler: Absolutely. That’s a different conversation, but one I think is nonetheless relevant because when you read your book you realize these people understood a very different Catholicism, even as they represented a very different Protestantism than exists today. For instance, someone else that doesn’t show up in your book but could have, I’m sure, and fully understand that—and this is a massive work of scholarship—but every work implies another one that needs to be done. And so there would be an interesting story to be told of how Roman Catholics did enter this strain and now, in terms of neo-conservative thought, have been central to American foreign policy ever since at least the 1970s. And you’d have to bring in a figure such as John Courtney Murray, who on the Catholic side was just as influential as Niebuhr was on the Protestant side.
Inboden: Yea, and, as you said, I do wish I would have had more time especially to explore Murray because the only real Catholic leaders who do pop up in the book are Bishop Fulton Sheen and then of course Cardinal Spellman and that’s because they were so much more active explicitly in the Cold War politics of the day and because American presidents saw them as useful figures both for courting the Catholic vote and for mobilizing Catholic anti-communism. But the really interesting intellectual work at the time, of course, is being done by John Courtney Murray and then if we were to do a volume two of the book going into the ’60s and ‘70s, we could then trace some of those strains in the life and thought of people like Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak and some of the early neo-conservatives.
Mohler: I have to tell you when I read a book like yours, Will, one of the things I look for is something I’ve never encountered before and that would be for me reading your book chapter five. How in the world did I miss Senator H. Alexander Smith? What an incredible figure and I just have to ask you to tell his story because it also brings in one of the least, I think, understood but most important movements of the late 20th century and that was moral rearmament.
Inboden: Yea, absolutely, but there is so much that can be said there. Let me mention a couple things first. One is if there are any history graduate students listening to this podcast looking for a dissertation topic, I just did a chapter on Senator Smith, but a think an entire dissertation could be written on him. His diaries are still there in the Princeton archives. So a wonderful anecdote on how I came across this guy. During my first year of graduate school, I was house and dog sitting for a professor and the electricity went out in the house and the next door neighbor was John Lewis Gaddis, the Cold War historian and one of my dissertation advisors. And so Professor Gaddis came over to me at the darkened house and said, “Hey, well why don’t you come stay with me tonight so you don’t have to read by candlelight.” And so we start chatting and Professor Gaddis said, “Tell me how the dissertation thinking is coming,” (and this was the earlier stages). “Well I wanted to do something on religion in American Cold War policy but I’m still figuring out what would be some good case studies.” Professor Gaddis said, “Hold on a minute,” he runs up to his attic, and comes down a few minutes later and he hands me this faded yellow binder with some crinkly papers in it, and I opened it. He said, “Back in the 1970s when I was working on another book, I came across this prayer journal of Senator Alexander Smith from New Jersey in the Princeton archives. I was just baffled by this; I didn’t know what to make of it, so I never wrote on it, but I made some copies of it and you should really explore it.” And so that’s what turned me onto it. So, for your listeners, moral rearmament was this fascinating, kind of spiritual-political movement that’s height was really at mid-century. It had started by an American liberal Lutheran minister, Frank Buchman, who had done some time at Oxford and wanted to form prayer groups of different emerging student leaders who he hoped could help bring new morality into business, new morality into politics. Theologically it’s very slippery and elusive, and you see a lot of different flavors in it. But in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he’s very influential on Capitol Hill and one of the exercises that MRA, to use the acronym, would encourage senators and members of Congress to do is to have “quite time” every morning. And this is, I think as far as I can tell, where the phrase “quite time” first comes from, where they would just be quiet for about a half hour and listen and wait for what they would think was guidance from God. And then Senator Smith would dutifully write down in his prayer journal every day what he thought the guidance from God was that he was receiving, and it could be things as mundane as, “stop smoking so many cigars,” or “be more patient towards my wife,” or it could be things like, “we really need to increase our aid packets for Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists as they’re fighting against the Communists in the Chinese Civil War.” And so it was the most methodologically direct connection I’ve been able to find between religious belief and practice and direct foreign policy outcomes.
Mohler: You are a good writer, but the very best sentence in your book, I believe, is the first sentence of chapter five. I’m going to read it back to you. You write, “Senator H. Alexander Smith began December 3, 1948, in the same way that he began every other day: he rose early, washed, dressed, ate breakfast, and waited to hear from God.”
Inboden: I appreciate your highlighting that sentence. That was a fun one to write because as a historian I always want to have some amount of sympathy to the people I’m writing about to at least let them tell their stories on their own terms and so having spent weeks and weeks reading all of his prayer journals, you start to get a sense for what he does every morning when he wakes up and how he approaches life. So I at least even if on my own personal theological commitments would be pretty different from some of the fuzziness of MRA, I wanted to at least be fair to Senator Smith and make sure his story could be told.
Mohler: Well you tell his story really well and I think many Americans, for instance, don’t know the ties between the Bachmanites, as they were known, and moral rearmament, and, for instance, Alcoholics Anonymous. In other words, this is a vast cultural movement in America.
Inboden: Oh it really was, and another one I don’t really get into in the book, but Up With People comes out of moral rearmament, which was especially predominate in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Mohler: One of the other most shocking aspects of your book was the extent to which Truman, on the one hand, to a lesser extent, and Eisenhower, to an even great extent, inserted himself into Christian discussions, denominational deliberations, and such things as the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches in order to create a massive anti-communist wave.
Inboden: Yea this was, again, really extraordinary for anyone who is interested in the relationship between religion and politics. When President Truman decides that as one of his central tenants of his Cold War policy that he wants to create a broad coalition of religious believers and especially religious leaders from around the world who will be united in standing against communism, he decides that the newly formed World Council of Churches would be a great vehicle for this. And so he and his emissary to the Vatican, Myron Taylor, try very strenuously, months and months of arm-twisting diplomacy, to get the World Council of Churches to invite delegates from the Vatican, and the World Council of Churches is very resistant to this. And eventually Kerry Sedaye saying, “No; we are a Protestant organization. We’re going to allow a couple of representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church, but that’s it, and they’re only going to be there as observers.” So to those sort of intrusions by political leaders into the internal matters of religious bodies was really revealing about what Truman and Eisenhower saw as the spiritual stakes of the Cold War and their frustrations with religious organizations for not getting on board more. Another example was when Truman and his emissary Myron Taylor tried to get involved in the succession of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. I mean, they are essentially trying to pick the new leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church because the Kremlin had its preferred candidate, someone who would be closer to the Russian Orthodox Church than the Communist line, and then the Americans had their preferred candidate, a Greek-Orthodox patriarch who they thought would be much more anti-communist. And some of the documents on what exactly transpired there are still classified—I couldn’t get them de-classified—but connecting the dots it does seem that the American efforts won out and the more anti-communist patriarch was installed.
Mohler: Let’s talk about the evangelical side for just a moment because when the evangelical showed up trying to get to a White House meeting, the White House didn’t even know what an evangelical was and had to ask the library of Congress to do some research to find out who these evangelicals were.
Inboden: Yea, President Eisenhower especially and a lot of his administration was staffed with active liberal Protestants, and they either didn’t know what an evangelical was or didn’t like evangelicals and so they’d have to ask the Library of Congress, “Who are these people?” The word that comes back is essentially something like, “Well they’re fundamentalists, but a little more sophisticated than that, but they’re effectively still fundamentalists.” And, meanwhile, the National Association of Evangelicals was doing its best to gain entrée to the halls of power in the ways that the National Council of Churches had for decades.
Mohler: But, Will, let’s be honest here. Either the reality or your presentation of many of these early evangelical engagements don’t look very flattering to evangelicals in terms of their basic understanding of foreign policy.
Inboden: Yea just as a historical matter the early neo-evangelicals, we could say, were probably much more sophisticated in their theology than they were in their foreign policy. This is partly because culturally they were outsiders. There were very few evangelicals who were active in foreign policy positions, in contrast to our earlier discussion about the protestant establishment which really did dominate the state department. Partly because evangelicalism, as a relatively new movement that is distinguishing itself from fundamentalism on the one side and then from liberal Protestantism on the other side, was still forming a political identity, but here’s where I have to say I found Carl Henry especially intriguing because just about every early issue of Christianity Today from its beginning in the mid-1950s, Dr. Henry is writing editorials about foreign policy. And he had a more sophisticated understanding of foreign policy than I think a lot of other evangelical leaders did and was in so many other ways really at the cutting edge there.
Mohler: Well they also understood they were sitting on the seismic fault line of a massive worldview conflict. You go back to the very first issue of Christianity Today, funded we have to admit by J. Howard Pugh, at least in part, to confront the communist menace, the very first editorial of what became the flagship periodical of American evangelicalism by Paul Henry was entitled, “The Fragility of Freedom in the West.”
Inboden: Yea that said it all to me. The fact that the first editorial in the flagship journal is a foreign policy editorial essentially and then for a journal founded on theological lines was very revealing about the entire milieu that they were operating in. And that’s where as Dr. Henry started to find his editorial voice more and do a lot to form the evangelical-political conscience, if you will, he had some pretty sophisticated insights on foreign policy, had a fairly sophisticated critique of some of what he saw as the weaknesses and inadequacies of the United Nations. And he, of course, was very firmly anti-communist, but it rarely descended into jingoism. He saw the need for a nuclear deterrence, but was certainly not very belligerent about that. He also had a strong sense of what a mushroom-cloud apocalypse could look like, so he’s appreciated rightly in evangelical history for so many other influences, but I think we can look back and see him as, in contrast to some of his compatriots, one of the early sophisticated foreign policy thinkers in evangelicalism as well.
Mohler: Well he was to such an extent a mentor to me and I feel in order to say more about the sophistication of his thought and, frankly, the independence of his thought on this issue, it’s not unfair to say that his departure against his own will from the editorship of Christianity Today was at least in part because of the nuances and sophistication of his political engagement and, specifically, his understanding of foreign policy.
Inboden: Yeah, and I think we saw an early foreshadowing of that. You may recall the letter I report on in the book where J. Howard Pugh, the main benefactor of Christianity Today, wrote that letter to Billy Graham in 1955 or ’56 expressing his worry that, “Is Carl Henry pink?” The slur at the time for many—is he soft on communism; is he a Communist sympathizer? Of course, Billy Graham strongly defends Dr. Henry, saying, “No; he’s certainly not Pink.” But even there, there were some of the pressures from J. Howard Pugh who was very constructive in a lot of ways but took maybe more of a crude approach to some of these foreign policy questions and did not appreciate Dr. Henry’s subtlety.
Mohler: Well as someone who’s followed J. Howard Pugh fairly closely and for some different reasons, in terms of his own understanding, I think it’s fair to say that he had a nearly Manichean worldview in which capitalism and freedom were on one side and communism and atheism were on the other side, and he really didn’t have any shades of gray in between the two. And Henry did understand some shades of gray. He saw some problems with some forms of capitalism and, as he said about communism, it’s not wrong in its promises; it’s idolatrous in its belief that it can deliver.
Inboden: Yea, exactly. J. Howard Pugh was much more Manichean and just had very little time for even appreciating some of the sophistications that Dr. Henry was bringing there. And I think part of that came from Dr. Henry’s own very strong doctrine of sin and knowing that even if one may be largely on the right side on geo-political conflict, it doesn’t mean that one is perfect.
Mohler: Just a couple of other questions I have to ask you. You deal with this explicitly in your book, but it would deserve to be an entirely different project and, as we’re giving advice to doctoral students, here’s another one to go after: American Christian and, in particular, Protestant foreign missions and foreign policy. There’s an incredible linkage going on there, and just to mention one name that represents that link it would be none other than Billy Graham’s father-in-law, Nelson Bell.
Inboden: Absolutely, and a number of other figures such as Walter Judd as well. But, yeah, Nelson Bell, growing up in China, being a China missionary himself, and then returning to the United States to help run Christianity Today magazine and throwing himself into a lot of the early debates over Cold War foreign policy. And particularly bringing his insights from the mission field there, saying, “I know what communism looks like. We saw some of the early Maoist rebels in China and they are bad news, and it’s not in the United States’ interests to let China be taken over by communism,” (as it eventually was).
Mohler: You know when I look at your book I come to the last chapter and it leads me to want to ask you a final question in terms of the narrative you tell. What is the take-home right now? What should be right now the on-going intellectual concern of American evangelical Christians thinking about the very issues that you raise in this very important work?
Inboden: Do you mean the intellectual concern as far as contemporary American foreign policy or more as a matter of thinking about scholarship?
Mohler: Thinking about today; thinking about the challenges that we face in a very complex world with terms such as asymmetrical warfare replacing this, with the challenge of Islam. Just thinking about American evangelicals for whom foreign policy and America’s engagement with the world can be a rather abstract and somewhat distant concern. What would be your advice to today’s generation of American evangelicals?
Inboden: Well I appreciate the question and, of course, there’s always the risk of being too self-referential about other work, but if I can mention another article I just published related to this question, it’s in the journal Fides et Historia, the journal for Christian historians (the current issue). And in that article I wrote a review essay on Andrew Preston’s new book, Surveying American Religion and Foreign Policy for Four Hundred Years, and at the end of the essay I try to offer a few normative reflections on how evangelicals might think about foreign policy. I start by wanting to situate foreign policy in the framework of God’s creation and our mandate to cultivate the creation and say that in some ways a lot of the day-to-day work of foreign policy is really an international sense of making the trains run on time, making sure that the scaffolding of the international system—trade routes, trade agreements, diplomatic agreements, peace treaties between nations—making sure that those are preserved so that, in the words of the New Testament, we can live peaceful and quite lives under just rulers. But there also is an irreducibly moral component that with the scriptural admonitions that we are to be pursuing justice with our understanding of human liberty grounded in human dignity as creatures created in the image of God, I do think that for American evangelicals having ownership over our democratic nation’s foreign policy that it can be appropriate to look for ways for American power and American resources to help extend principles of justice and liberty, especially against oppression. But I always have to immediately follow that with putting on my Niebuhrian hat here for a moment of saying we need to caution ourselves against utopianism; that American foreign policy will not leverage the Second Coming, will not usher in any sort of millennial eschaton; that original sin is going to be a consistent reality of the world we live, and we can perhaps accomplish approximate justice in trying to live faithfully in our foreign policy, but should never delude ourselves that any sort of political action, especially foreign policy, can leverage the kingdom of God.
Mohler: Well said, and thanks for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Inboden: Well thank you. It’s been a pleasure. I really appreciated the chance to discuss these things.
Mohler: I was thrilled to have that conversation with William Inboden at the University of Texas in Austin. And, of course, we talked about his book, Religion and American Foreign Policy, but what really makes the conversation with Will Inboden very interesting is the fact that here is a convictional Christian who was at the center of policy planning for the National Security Council, who has been in the prominent and most elevated conversations about foreign policy in the realm of government and at the United States State Department, and now is at the University of Texas as a faculty member. We’re talking about a man who has lived these issues and also, in terms of his doctoral work at Yale University, took a very scholarship approach to understanding these issues. But as the conversation with Will Inboden makes very clear, this isn’t just about the past; it’s never just about American history; it’s very much about the current intellectual responsibility of American evangelicals.
The story of American Christianity in the second half of the 20th century is largely one of conflict and decline. If you look at mainline Protestantism, you look at those massive denominations—the United Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, especially the Episcopal Church, and so many others—the Congregationalists—what you see is a declining cultural influence, so much so that by the time you reach the end of the 20th century they are largely marginalized in terms of American public life, but not when it comes to the end of the second world war and to that period we now know as the Cold War. When you look at that period of American life the mainline Protestant denominations were very much in the driver’s seat. Not only, as it turns out, of American Protestantism, but also of American foreign policy to a considerable extent. And you’re looking also at two presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower, who played roles on the world stage that can hardly be exaggerated, in terms of the 20th century, but whose interest and theistic concerns are largely unknown and may even have been largely assumed by the people who worked most closely with them. But now with so many documents from the National Security Council and the highest levels of government being declassified after the end of the Cold War what becomes very apparent is the fact that theology was at the center of it and, as Will Inboden argues in his book, Americans had little idea that that theology actually originated, of all places, in the White House.
One of the things this work by Will Inboden underlines is the fact that theology is always present in a worldview in one way or another. Some theology, good or bad, healthy, orthodox or unorthodox, for that matter, in terms of theology, it can be of any number of variants, but questions of ultimate concern of the existence of God, of worldview conflicts between theism and atheism, all these things have a great deal to do with the actual decisions being made of government, not only in terms of domestic affairs, but also of foreign policy. And when it comes to an explicit theological analysis the distinction between the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr and, for instance, the very different biblical realism of the National Association of Evangelicals points to an overlay of common concerns, but also a very sophisticated and urgently important divide over some of the most basic issues of theology that turned out by implication also to be issues of foreign policy.
There are all kinds of things to be considered here. The absence of an eschatology means that this world is all that you can have is concern and, therefore, Reinhold Niebuhr had no great hope on the other side of his realism. It was simply a matter of political life doing the best it can in order to ameliorate and alleviate problems, but with very little hope of anything long term that would be much better than what came in the past. On the other hand, you have the over-blown expectations of the secular utopians, and, in response to that, American evangelicals need to realize that many of the issues being debated in the Cold War are the very issues we’re debating today. Then again, there are some crucial distinctions. The main conflict, in terms of American foreign policy today, is not so much between godless atheism of the Soviet Union; that is now not so much a potent force. The atheism of, for instance, Communist China may be official, but it is hardly a major worldview threat in terms of the global scene. Rather, it’s another form of theism that now forms the main challenge and that being the challenge of Islam. A very different political context, a very different global challenge, but one that makes it exceedingly clear what was perhaps less clear to Americans during the Cold War. Theology matters, and regardless of who is sitting in the White House that president is inescapably a theologian. We are indebted to Will Inboden for making clear how that works.
Thanks again to my guest William Inboden for thinking with me today. Before I close, I want to direct your attention to my new book, The Conviction to Lead. My concern is to develop effective leaders who have more than administrative skill, who develop more than mere vision. Leaders need to be able to change the hearts and minds of those they lead. In other words, they need to develop the conviction to lead.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.