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the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A photograph of President Lyndon Baines Johnson with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, 1967.

Image courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (photo reference: A5351–13a).

articles > Was the Cold War driven...

Superpowers and periphery: a religious perspective

Dianne Kirby and Michael Mahadeo, School of History and International Affairs, University of Ulster

The ideological conflict between the superpowers reflected the essence of their struggle to present their respective governing principles for society and politics as facilitating the best social order of which man is capable. The global nature of their rivalry required powerful universal symbols, for which religion was by far the best provider – a factor that significantly advantaged the United States. The role of religion in the Cold War has but recently received serious scholarly attention. (1) The reason for its neglect can partly be accounted for by the influence of the 'secularisation thesis'. In his seminal 1969 book, The Social Reality of Religion, sociologist Peter Berger described the supposed decline in the importance of religion as 'a global phenomenon of modern societies' that becomes 'world-wide in the course of westernisation and modernisation'. (2) Following substantial empirical work, the 'secularisation thesis' has been rejected by sociologists. Berger himself now states not only that his thesis was 'essentially mistaken', but that religion may in fact be more important than ever. (3)

The Cold War was a power struggle in which two competing systems contested every facet of life, from governance and economics, to democracy and justice, to art and culture. There was one area, however, in which the United States believed it had a moral monopoly: religion. The rival powers both held to the principle of the separation of church and state, a point that Franklin Roosevelt had emphasised in his campaign to win public support for the Second World War alliance with the Soviet Union. (4) The Bolshevik decree of 1918 'on freedom of conscience and religious societies' went beyond that of the US in abolishing religious oaths and prayers at state functions. 'Free practice of religious customs' was theoretically safeguarded and it was claimed that the heterodox sects that had been persecuted under the Czarist government would have greater freedom. Church buildings used for worship were declared state property, but were provided to congregations free of rent.

Under the regime that Stalin gradually introduced, however, the free conflict of ideas, especially religion, became impossible. Lenin's distinctions between the attitude of the state, which should allow complete freedom of religion, and the revolutionary party, which must engage in ideological combat with religion, were blurred when the party became the vehicle of a privileged bureaucracy that had a monopoly of state power and refused to be contradicted by anyone in any sphere. (5) Although the March 1919 Communist party programme had warned against offending religious sentiments in order not to strengthen religious fanaticism, religious harassment and persecution marked the history of the post-revolutionary years. In 1940 the Russian Orthodox Church was on the verge of institutional elimination in Russia.

In contrast, church-state separation and religious freedom in post-revolutionary America had generated an entrepreneurial climate that fostered a multiplicity of worship styles and faith interpretations. The vitality of American religion gave rise to a 'God-intoxicated culture' (6) that, as Tocqueville observed, was 'mingled with . all the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives a peculiar force'. (7) America became a world power with a spiritually provincial people. While the defeat of Nazi tyranny began to rival and even surpass the Bolshevik Revolution as the most important legitimating event of the communist system, in America it strengthened the national self-perception of being an anointed nation, with a unique mission born of its righteousness.

During the Second World War religion demonstrated that it retained the ability to influence, lead and inspire. Stalin discovered that the Soviet attitude toward and treatment of religion had significantly weakened his regime, both easing Hitler's invasion and causing difficulties in securing allied support to repel it. (8) Religion became a crucial consideration in defeating Hitler, maintaining the wartime alliance, securing the territories newly incorporated into the Soviet sphere and in strategically spreading Soviet influence. Unable to eradicate religious faith and confronted with its power and persistence, a weakened Soviet Union had little option but to accommodate and work with it. In the Second World War, all the combatants vied for the allegiance of organised Christianity. (9) Its revived standing meant that, despite the aspirations of Christian leaders to reassert their spiritual authority and secure an independent voice in the corridors of power, in the subsequent Cold War struggle for power, religion became contested terrain, first east-west and then north-south. While the United States proved the most capable in mobilising Christianity, religion also afforded a voice to the marginalised and dispossessed, to the oppressed and poorer of the world's nations as the superpowers competed for their allegiance. Both superpowers knew that, for many peoples and societies, religion was more relevant and meaningful than democracy, a contested concept to which each side laid claim.

One of the most disputed areas of Cold War historiography remains the allocation of responsibility for the disintegration of the wartime alliance. For Stalin, religion offered a potential bridge across the gulf that remained between him and his allies that could help facilitate better post-war relations. (10) However, from a Western religio-political perspective, Marxist atheism was the Achilles' heel of Soviet communism, which the West deliberately chose to portray as a fanatical pseudo-religion that only a superior spiritual force could defeat. For the Truman administration, religious faith was seen as key to inoculating whole populations against the 'virus' of communism, as being the most effective way to turn against communism the very masses to which, theoretically, it should most appeal. Not only were Stalin's overtures repudiated, President Truman sought to construct an international anti-communist religious front against the Soviet Union, a strategy all too reminiscent of Hitler's tactics. Truman ignored Roosevelt's considered policy of making religion a bridge between East and West and resurrected instead the pre-war Wilsonian strategy of using religion as a stick with which to beat the Soviet Union, as it had since 1917, and to demonise communism, as it had from the nineteenth century.

Truman invoked a universal tradition of harnessing the power of religion to the policy goals of the state. His Cold War rhetoric was a synthesis of nationalism and spiritualism in which he skilfully used symbols of transcendent values and of the nation's spiritual heritage to persuade Americans to abandon isolationism, embrace internationalism, accept world leadership and roll back communism. 'Liberation' from the communist yoke was implicit in the policy of containment formulated during the Truman era. Religion was a means by which to feed Stalin's paranoia and convey that theirs was an irreconcilable conflict. For domestic purposes, it served to consolidate support and discourage dissent from the Cold War consensus. Americans could not negotiate with a godless, and hence 'evil', state.

Truman knew that presenting foreign policy in a moral context both obscures and justifies it. He turned containment into a crusade in which US self-interest and self-assertion were identified with the will of God, capturing the imagination of an America in which Christianity became synonymous with Americanism. (11) America's allies were aware of the importance of ideological solidarity to the United States. They responded by presenting the basic division between their democracies and the totalitarian states as a conflict between religion and communism, formulating the basis for a theory of totalitarianism that raised the question of the structural similarities between National Socialism and Stalinism. (12) It provided a useful taxonomy of repressive regimes that justified the post-war switch from one enemy to another. Hitler's mobilisation of religion, as part of his 'crusade' against the USSR, was disregarded.

With its strategically placed spies, the Soviet Union was well aware of Western hostility. The West's appropriation of religion invoked Stalin's worst fears. The recent wartime experience had demonstrated that significant numbers of Soviet citizens would respond to religious appeals and turn against the regime. The ever-suspicious Soviets knew that religion remained the focus for dissent and were deeply disturbed by the West's use of religion. (13) Consequently, rather than eradicate religion, Soviet efforts were directed toward domesticating it within its sphere and rallying believers with socialist sympathies everywhere in its defence. The Soviet leadership could not, however, revert to the sort of historical alliance that existed between the church and regimes from which the communist revolution was meant to be a radical departure. Communism had its own internal legitimation that would be called into question should it seem to be seeking 'sacralisation'. An alliance with religion risked alienating communist adherents for whom religion remained a reactionary and anti-progressive force from which the masses had to be liberated. However domesticated, religion retained the potential to undermine, or at least compromise, communist power. The result was vacillating and contradictory policies toward a force that can be both a conservative defender of the status quo or a revolutionary, regime challenger.

Reflecting, perhaps, the most crucial element in the array of social and political forces that can mobilise popular sentiment for or against the established order, religion became a significant factor in the manifestations of Cold War rivalry in the developing world. The significant role accorded religion in the Cold War provided third world countries with an important vehicle through which to articulate their opposition to and dissatisfaction with first world intervention, plus overt and covert influences from the Soviet bloc. It allowed the underdeveloped world to use the developed world's own religious language and values to challenge the real or perceived oppressive and unjust outcomes that derived directly from first world policies. The most cogent example is, of course, the emergence of liberation theology, mainly manifested in Latin America, part of the periphery of the Western hemisphere and 'backyard' to the United States. It became, as a philosophical outlook, a significant force of left-leaning thought within the Christian, mainly Roman Catholic, communities across the Americas and Caribbean. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, this radical interpretation of the Gospel encouraged Christians openly to identify with the poor and to oppose all structures of hierarchy and oppression. It started as a critique of the church itself and the inadequacies of its response to injustice and inequality and the consequences for the immediate condition of the people of the Americas and Caribbean, especially those under the hegemony of the United States. In essence, it called for a programme of social renewal and a programme for renewing the church to meet historical challenges and the demands of the gospel. (14)

Such an orientation in the periphery attracted the attention of the superpowers. For the Soviet Union, it meant a view sympathetic to socialist ideas of social change. Although not pro-Soviet bloc, liberation theology was seen as part of the 'progressive forces' which the Soviets could engage in dialogue. That liberation theology was not overtly hostile to the Soviet Union was a crucial consideration because the Soviets wanted to break out of the Cold War containment imposed by the West. The appearance of empathetic trends of opinion in the periphery offered opportunities to seek influence, win new friends and open fissures in the cordon sanitaire surrounding them.

For the United States, liberation theology simply confirmed the existence, and was but one more example of, the global 'communist conspiracy' to undermine American influence, this time in its own 'backyard'. From the Monroe Doctrine onwards, the United States was resistant to any external influence in Latin America and the Caribbean; nor would the United States allow indigenous challenges from within the countries of the region to its hegemony. In the cases of liberation theology becoming part of the ideology of national liberation and peasant movements against US backed regimes in Latin America, for example in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil and Colombia, it orchestrated both overt and covert action to discredit and, where possible, destroy this religious tendency. The United States presented containment as part of a crusade to defend Christianity and western civilisation from the encroaches of godless communism. However, where liberation theology was concerned, the United States showed itself entirely willing to subvert governments that included priests in their structures, as was the case with the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s.

The advent of liberation theology, the belief that God was on the side of the poor and the oppressed, had potentially adverse repercussions for America, from the demands of the black civil rights movement at home to those of the poor in its Latin American 'backyard'. When churchmen defended people's rights to basic needs, they implicitly became participants in a process of delegitimising the existing capitalist system. Vatican II meant in principle that the church had broken its ties with conservative regimes and had accepted the pluralism inherent in the modern world. Critics, however, charged that it remained supportive, at least tacitly, of the existing capitalist system, and particularly, the right-wing governments of Latin America, and their conservative social base and significant financial and political supporters of the church. Critics also pointed out that these regimes were oligarchic and presided over social relations in which the legacies of European colonialism remained stark, particularly as applied to the non-white population not descended from earlier European colonists.

In its campaign against liberation theology, the United States was aided not only by the ruthless right-wing dictatorships it maintained in power, but also by the Vatican, especially from 1979 with the papacy of the virulently anti-communist Polish pope, John Paul II. He opposed any 'infiltration' of Marxist ideas into Catholic doctrine, denouncing them as atheistic and putting material concerns before spiritual. He also was against any notion of class struggle, acknowledged as a vital factor by liberation theologians in the struggle of the poor for justice. (15) Latin American priests identified as being 'radical' for questioning the status quo or trying to organise peasants were marginalised within the church. They could be transferred to outlying communities where they would be rendered ineffective, or even threatened with excommunication if they defied church instructions. State action proved more brutal and could involve exile or even 'disappearance', torture and death, as was the case in Guatemala in the 1980s. (16)

Latin American Marxism was home-grown and was notable for its insistence that the people could be revolutionary and Christian, reflected in the Nicaraguan slogan: 'The Nicaraguan people are Christian and Sandinista.' As in the global religious Cold War, each side accused the other of using religion in the service of its own ideology. The terror unleashed by the US-supported contras was intrinsically about preventing the Nicaraguan government from achieving any success that might inspire potential Christian revolutionaries elsewhere on the continent to tackle their own repressive regimes. The contras were CIA progeny whose brutality and terrorist tactics are well documented. (17) Their crude violence was supplemented by large-scale CIA sabotage operations, plus open United States policies aimed at economic strangulation. The outrageousness of the Reagan administration's efforts to isolate and destroy the Nicaraguan revolution caused the US Congress to pass the Boland Amendment in 1984 to limit contra funding. In searching for alternative sources of support, the Reagan administration turned to private organisations, including the religious right. The aim of the terror was not only to discredit the revolution as unable to protect its people, but to provoke it into acts of repression, 'religious persecution' particularly, which could be used as evidence that it was inherently totalitarian, thus increasing and justifying internal and external opposition. (18)

Liberation theology was but one expression of a tendency discernible throughout organised Christianity, the trend, especially among young Christians, to identify with the poor and oppressed and hence with liberation struggles in the underdeveloped world. Inevitably, the churches being by and large inherently conservative institutions, there was a backlash against anything deemed to be leftist ideology. A major consequence was the strengthening of right-wing organisations and ideologies within Christianity. For some in the moderate mainstream, the rise of the right was seen to mirror that of the left, the main difference being the right's ability to 'exercise power and coercion far more effectively than their counterparts on the left ever did'. (19) Charles C. West, professor of Christian ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, posited that:

They too are anti-institutional, thereby denying their responsibility to the church in any of its visible forms or teachings except their own. They attack and undermine all established church bodies while they try to capture Christian groups or local churches. They appear as mass movements, but tightly controlled from the top. They reject fellowship or correction from fellow Christians who disagree with them, often to the point of using the word 'Christian' only as a cover for their own political agenda. All of these are ideologically driven power play, like those on the left in earlier days, but far better organised and financed. (20)

Rather than the rise of the Christian right mirroring that of the Christian left of an earlier generation, it resembles far more the rise of political Islam. Both were beneficiaries of direct US support. Above all, however, both were beneficiaries of America's defeat of the left and of progressive forces more generally, at home initially and subsequently throughout the bulk of the globe. The rise of republican, progressive Arab nationalism in the 1950s under the charismatic leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, plus its subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union, prompted the United States to encourage conservative, anti-communist Islamic forces. Under US orchestration, supported by Saudi Arabia, Islamic fundamentalism became the main ideological tool of the anti-communist and anti-nationalist struggle in the Middle East. In 1962 the Egyptian National Charter embraced 'socialism' combined with Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism. The Saudi monarchy responded in the same year by founding the Muslim World League, which, with CIA backing, promoted reactionary Islam to counter populist nationalism. (21) The use of Islam as a counter in the Middle East to Soviet moves and the influence of the radical, secular forces aligned with the left, prevented first Carter and then Reagan from effectively addressing the rise of Islamic movements in the 1970s and 1980s. Viewing Islam through the prism of Cold War anti-communism, even after the Islamic revolution in Iran, the United States failed to appreciate the complex and universalist message of political Islam.

Although American policies toward Islamic movements and states revealed a deep residue of ambivalence, skepticism and mistrust, the shared hostility to the 'godless Soviets' led America to minimise differences and emphasise the fight against their common foe. As a consequence, US policy-makers failed to understand the complexity and power of political Islam. Although the Iranian Revolution demonstrated that Islam was not a dependable ally, the United States remained wedded to the view that third world nationalism was a Soviet tool and political Islam an ally to be used against pro-Soviet nationalist leaders. The United States supported the Society of Muslim Brothers, for example, against Nasser in Egypt. The assumption that Islam would provide a local buffer against secular nationalism was shared by conservative Arab regimes and Israel, which allowed Hamas to operate unhindered during the first intifada. (22)

The US mindset that viewed religion as a crucial Cold War asset meant that the significance of the Islamic revolution in Iran was insufficiently appreciated, while the significance of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was unduly exaggerated. The advantages of playing the Islamic card remained key to White House calculations in the discussions following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. The Polish-American, virulently anti-communist and anti-Russian national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, saw an opportunity to export a composite ideology of nationalism and Islam to the Muslim majority Central Asian republics with a view to destroying the Soviet system.

Before the Afghan War, right-wing Islamism was an ideological tendency with small and scattered numbers. Out of power, it had neither the aspiration of drawing strength from popular organisation nor the possibility of marshalling strength from any alternative source: 'The Reagan administration rescued right-wing Islamism from this historical cul-de-sac.' (23) The Afghan War was cast as an international jihad, bringing together volunteers from Muslim populations all over the world. There was some circumspection within official circles about the potential of Islam to become divisive and anti-Western, but not enough to forego the opportunity to inflict the pain and humiliation that the US had suffered in Vietnam onto its Soviet rival in Afghanistan. The 'blowback' led directly to the War on Terror.

In the early Cold War the United States, the world's leading secular power, and the Vatican, the world's leading spiritual power, feared a combination of Marxism and religion with its potential appeal to the impoverished masses in the periphery. (24) Certainly the Soviet Union recognised and sought to manipulate the power of religion for its own ends. However, neither it nor its allies in the developing world were ever a match for the United States and its allies in the realm of religion. From the perspective of the 'religious' Cold War, the periphery might have temporarily seemed to influence the course of the Cold War, but the United States was the superpower par excellence in the religious sphere. With the help of its religious and secular allies, it was well able to contain both liberation theology and the Soviet Union. Moreover, in the popular mind, religion is widely perceived to have had a leading role in the demise of the Soviet bloc: Christianity in Poland and Islam in Afghanistan.

The rise of politicised, right-wing fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam can be, at least in part, attributed to the US appropriation of religion as a Cold War weapon. Either a Christian or an Islamic regime envisioned by the proponents of religious government would prove too demanding for most people, but the Cold War provided a climate in which politico-religious movements could flourish owing to the utopian visions promised and the privileged place accorded religion by the dominant superpower. The national liberation movements that flourished in the twentieth century were largely articulated and led by secular intellectuals and politicians. However, in the context of the 'religious' Cold War, they had little choice but to emulate leaders in the developed world in exploiting the mass appeal and cultural resonance of religious symbols as legitimating devices.

The Cold War empowerment of religion, the defeat of communism and the crushing of the left, combined with the failure of liberal-democratic capitalist globalisation to create a more just world, allowed political-religion to offer an alternative for those dissatisfied with the emergent post-Cold War order. This has proven the case for many in both centre and periphery, as witnessed by the rise of militant Islam in the periphery and the Christian right in the heartlands of the Cold War victor.

  1. Religion and the Cold War , ed. D. Kirby (Basingstoke, 2003). Back to (1)
  2. The Social Reality of Religion, ed. P. Berger (1969), p. 113. Back to (2)
  3. The Desecularizisation of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. P. Berger (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999), p. 2. Back to (3)
  4. Press conference no. 771, 30 Sep. 1941, Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York, 1972), vol. 18, 187–88. Back to (4)
  5. V. I. Lenin, On Religion (New York, 1935), p. 18. Back to (5)
  6. R. B. Fowler and A. D. Hertzke, Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture and Strategic Choices (Colorado, 1995), p. 11. Back to (6)
  7. Alexis de Tocqueville, quoted in Paul N. Siegel, The Meek and Militant: Religion and Power Across the World (1986), p. 126. Back to (7)
  8. D. Kirby, 'Anglican-Orthodox relations and the religious rehabilitation of the Soviet regime during the Second World War', Revue d'Histoire Ecclésiastique, 96.1–2 (2001), 101–23; S. M. Miner, Stalin's Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941–1945 (Chapel Hill, 2003). Back to (8)
  9. D. Kirby, 'The Church of England and 'religions division' during the Second World War: church-state relations and the Anglo-Soviet alliance', Electronic Journal of International History, 1.1 (2000). Back to (9)
  10. I. Deutscher, Stalin (Harmondsworth, 1972), pp. 506–7. Back to (10)
  11. M. Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II (New York, 1988), pp. 96–7. Back to (11)
  12. A similar process is reflected in the term 'Islamo-fascism', which is otherwise essentially meaningless. Back to (12)
  13. D. Kirby, 'The Cold War, the hegemony of the United States and the golden age of Christian democracy', in World Christianities: c.1914–c.2000, ed. Hugh McLeod (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 285–303. Back to (13)
  14. Rosino Gibellini, The Liberation Theology Debate (1986), p. 92. Back to (14)
  15. François Houtart, 'Religion and anti-communism: the case of the Catholic Church', in Socialist Register, ed. R. Miliband, J. Saville, M. Liebman (1984), p. 352. Back to (15)
  16. Jean-Marie Simon, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (1987), p. 77. Back to (16)
  17. See CIA training manual for contras published in 1985, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare (New York, 1985). Back to (17)
  18. P. Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in the Central American Revolutions (1984). Back to (18)
  19. Charles C. West in the foreword to R. Lehtonen, Story of a Storm: The Ecumenical Student Movement in the Turmoil of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), p. xvii. Back to (19)
  20. West, p. xvii. Back to (20)
  21. Gilbert Achar, The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Order (New York, 2002), pp. 36–7. Back to (21)
  22. Dilip Hiro, War Without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response (New York, 2002), p. 210. Back to (22)
  23. M. Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslin (New York, 2004), pp. 129–30. Back to (23)
  24. D. Kirby, 'The Cold War, the Hegemony of the United States and the Golden Age of Christian Democracy'. Back to (24)

Dianne Kirby and Michael Mahadeo are part of the European Forum on Religion and Politics in Contemporary History, a research network composed of historians and others whose work focuses on the political role of religion from 1945 to the present day. It is in the process of developing an electronic network for the exchange of information and ideas. It also arranges regular discussion meetings. Both are participants in the Anglo-American Conference of Historians on 'Religion and Politics', to be held at the Institute of Historical Research in London, 5–7 July 2006. Kirby is author of Church, State and Propaganda (Hull, 1999) and editor of Religion and the Cold War (Basingstoke, 2003).

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