19 December 2011

American Christianity and Communism during the Second Red Scare

Today, I read an interesting post on another blog regarding Conrad Hilton and anti-communism.  Most people think hotels or Paris Hilton's wealthy ancestor when they think of Conrad Hilton.  Most people do not recognize that he was an ardent Catholic who saw religion in general and Christianity in particular as a bulwark against communism.

In the post-World War II era, Christianity saw a huge boom, with perhaps more church members per capita than at any time in American history.  This was also the age of fervent anti-communism with Joseph McCarthy and his infamous lists and the HUAC hearings against anyone who happened to be even remotely related to communism.  If you even read Marx you were suspect and might lose your job.  Robin Hood even found itself on the anti-communist version of the Index of Prohibited Books because it advocated that communist idea of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

The increase in religious sentiment in America during the 1940s and 1950s brings up an interesting question.  Was this Christianity more pro-Jesus or pro-America?  While Christianity and America are by no means mutually exclusive, some people seem to equate the mission of America and the mission of Christianity as one and the same.  I tend to view this as a danger, because America has at times been on the wrong side of issues (Indian policy and slavery are a couple of obvious examples far enough in the past not to engender a major political debate).  If Christians equate America's mission with that of Christianity, they are likely to unquestioningly stand by if something similar came across the radar in the future.  This subject is something that really interests me.  People have written quite a bit on the topic since the appearance of Robert Bellah's essay on American civil religion.  Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation traces this idea through the Civil War, showing how people came to kill based upon the idea that they were doing God's will (both sides had somewhat similar rhetoric).  This book really challenged my thinking, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.  The intro to Stout has a synopsis of Bellah's argument.

Is this viewpoint still as prevalent as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, or is America becoming so secularized that it does not matter?  Only time will tell.  I think both extremes can be dangerous.  Without a moral compass, people do bad things.  People can also think they are doing God's will and do bad things.  Neither is a good thing.

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