Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism
Angela M. Lahr
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The Religious Right came to prominence in the early 1980s, but it was born during the early Cold War. Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, driven by a fierce opposition to communism, led evangelicals out of the political wilderness they'd inhabited since the Scopes trial and into a much more active engagement with the important issues of the day. How did the conservative evangelical culture move into the political mainstream? Angela Lahr seeks to answer this important question. She shows how evangelicals, who had felt marginalized by American culture, drew upon their eschatological belief in the Second Coming of Christ and a subsequent glorious millennium to find common cause with more mainstream Americans who also feared a a 'soon-coming end,' albeit from nuclear war.
In the early postwar climate of nuclear fear and anticommunism, the apocalyptic eschatology of premillennial dispensationalism embraced by many evangelicals meshed very well with the "secular apocalyptic" mood of a society equally terrified of the Bomb and of communism. She argues that the development of the bomb, the creation of the state of Israel, and the Cuban Missile Crisis combined with evangelical end-times theology to shape conservative evangelical political identity and to influence secular views. Millennial beliefs influenced evangelical interpretation of these events, repeatedly energized evangelical efforts, and helped evangelicals view themselves and be viewed by others as a vital and legitimate segment of American culture, even when it raised its voice in sharp criticism of aspects of that culture. Conservative Protestants were able to take advantage of this situation to carve out a new space for their subculture within the national arena. The greater legitimacy that evangelicals gained in the early Cold War provided the foundation of a power-base in the national political culture that the religious right would draw on in the late seventies and early eighties. The result, she demonstrates, was the alliance of religious and political conservatives that holds power today.
evangelicalism grew during the stormy years from the new Left to Carter and came more and more often into contact with the broader culture . . . the old evangelical consensus on conservative values in all aspects of life gave way to a spreading social and political diversity.’’11 With its alternative viewpoints, Sojourners proposed a new evangelical framework for understanding the world. The Sojourners Community and others like them presented opinions on foreign policy that differed markedly from
the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of the culture wars. The evolution of Cold War evangelical self- and national identity was an intellectual, institutional, relational, and political process that characterized individuals and groups as ‘‘evangelicals’’ and as ‘‘Americans.’’ Prophetic symbols not only helped establish religious meaning; when paired with a Cold War ethos, these sacred symbols also crafted a particular political worldview that empowered evangelicals in the mainstream United
deemed to prohibit the offering, reading from, or listening to prayers or biblical scriptures, if participation therein is on a voluntary basis, in any governmental or public school, institution, or place.’’ Celler began by acknowledging the thirty-ﬁve different forms of the prayer amendment: ‘‘Their number and variety attest to the widespread interest and the many schools of thought on this important subject.’’ The testimony and prepared statements that followed for eighteen days further
that clearly reﬂected the authors’ cultural biases. These descriptions were derived from the premise of cultural and religious superiority as demonstrated by a 1962 editorial in Biblical Missions: ‘‘Saved men will establish cultures in other lands that agree with the Word of God, which had so much to do with the shaping of our own culture in the early days of American colonization. Christ will not leaven a culture which has a heathen religion as its crystallizing nucleus.’’13 The author’s words
nationalism and for neglecting to emphasize the importance of social action. Accounts of the confrontation differ depending on the source. A PCCfriendly article contended that though Explo ofﬁcials appealed to Wallis’s group to ‘‘for Christ’s sake, please refrain from any more demonstrations,’’ PCC protestors continued their activities and their exhibition booth became one of the most popular and contentious.4 By contrast, Paul Eshleman associated the PCC with other ‘‘fractious’’ groups such as