U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Resisting America’s Spiritual Weapons

Francsican HabitI am finishing up a book on how Franciscans in the U.S. communicated with Americans through various media. In a chapter on radio and television programs, I write quite a bit about one particular effort called The Hour of St. Francis. Based in Los Angeles with financial support from Third Order Franciscans (or secular Catholics who pledged to live by values inspired St. Francis of Assisi), The Hour used Hollywood talent on a popular radio show and later to make a series of half-hour television episodes. You can listen to some of the radio shows here: The Hour. The programs were heard on hundreds of radio stations across the U.S. and so we can assume they were heard by hundreds of thousands of people. Scripts for the episodes were sent out to hundreds of listeners who requested them. Thus these episodes present an interesting question: do they constitute a body of thought that sits somewhere in between theology and lived religion?

One of the more interesting episodes was entitled “Welcome Home, Soldier.” Jack Webb who starred in the famous television show Dragnet, narrated a story about a disabled war veteran who comes back to his country following deployment to the Korean War. In the program notes for the episode, radio stations were to tell listeners that the message of the story was to ask this soldier and all soldiers for forgiveness. “We, even more than the enemy, are responsible for what has happened to you,” Webb intoned. The episode itself, though, voiced a much broader critique. It unfolded as letter read by Webb to Private Thomas T. Williams, a soldier who lost parts of both arms and legs from frostbite because he had to crawl across a frozen lake after being wounded in battle during the Korean War. The script casts Williams as “an idea…a symbol. You’re our conscience and our pride.” Webb states that while Americans love to revere the Unknown Soldier they need to face the known soldier, the one who will never again walk, drive a car, jump a fence, or “hold his girl in his arms.” Korea, the script argues, made clear the sum of society’s mistakes being made in “conference rooms and business offices to houses in restricted residential districts to the slums.” Williams was the product, so said the script’s author, of a society too callous to care about the poor and too racist to see contradiction of denying a black man the right to eat with white people but American enough to die for them in Korea. The episode concluded with a meditation on sacrifice. Williams reflected the kind of unselfish sacrifice that made the death of Jesus transcend place, time, and the individual. Just as those who bore witness Jesus’s death shared a collective guild, so too did Americans bear responsibility for the fate of men such as Williams. Among the last voices in the episode is a mother who says: “Am I going to let this happen to my boy?” The episode ends with a plea for peace.[1]

In the context of recent historiography on this period, the episode also raised a question about the role religion played in understanding the meaning of sacrifice in the Cold War. The historical context surrounding the story of Thomas Williams suggests that most Americans believed in the struggle against an international communist enemy even if most Americans also came to rue the war—by 1953 a majority of Americans in polls disapproved of the war. The Korean War influenced Harry Truman’s decision not to run for president in 1952 just as it pushed Dwight Eisenhower to make a run, promising to “go to Korea” to bring an end to the war. Eisenhower made a religious interpretation of the nation in the wake of the Korean War central to his presidency. In late 1952, the president-elect made his infamous statement that “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” While the meaning of that statement has been endlessly probed for its implications regarding the separation of church and state, Eisenhower made clear to a radio audience in 1954 that in a time of war, at least, “there are no atheists in foxholes…in a time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for new courage and peace of mind.” In the spring of 1954, the Eighty-third Congress approved adding the words “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance; in 1955 it passed a law requiring the statement “In God We Trust” included on all U.S. coins and currency; and in 1956, Congress made that statement the nation’s official motto, replacing the more communitarian E pluribus unum.[2]

On the face of it, the Korean War pushed Americans closer to God in new ways and so one might interpret the episode by imagining that America finally looked inward and faced its sinful nature. Jason Stevens argues in his recent book God-Fearing and Free that “America’s image at mid-twentieth century was becoming a chastened adult’s, his visage weathered by the sight of Europe, no longer so far-off, its blight forcing the once callow youth to look inward for his own sin.” Unlike the episode about Thomas Williams, though, Stevens observes that the collective guilt created by the evils of war transformed America’s role as a biblical agent. “His innocence,” referring to a chastened, matured America, “would no longer identify the nation with the revelation of Christ, as the second Adam, Adam reborn from History, but with the outgrown illusions of a purity never possessed. Adam was now a tragic hero bearing History as his cross.”[3] Indeed other scholars also see the period around the Korean War as the hardening or coarsening of an American theology, using religion’s “spiritual weapons” in the cold war and fostering an acceptance of technocratic expertise to grapple and largely make peace with materialism and the darkness of human nature.[4]

And yet, The Hour of St. Francis connected in no uncertain terms the collective guilt shared by all Americans for the sacrifices that Thomas Williams and other soldiers had made to the crucifixion of Christ—the Korean War neither redeemed American faith in its struggle against communism nor stripped the nation of its innocence, but rather revealed an unsettling truth about making appeals to a God that sacrificed his only son. When the mother in the episode asks whether she would let her son go to war, the script does not question her patriotism nor does it implicate her as a communist-sympathizer, but rather it relates her honest reflection to a wholesale questioning of the kind of society that treats its sons as sacrifices. A sacrifice for what, the program appeared to ask. For the materialism that created gross disparities of wealth or for a racism that divided people who were equal in war but unequal in peace? Unlike the war-hardened theologies and uses of religion that characterized America’s spiritual cold war, The Hour offered a reminder that religious judgment also posed a profound challenge to war.[5]

[1] Ibid., Series V, #28.

[2] Haberski, God and War, 37-39.

[3] Jason W. Stevens, God-Fearing and Free: A Spiritual History of America’s Cold War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 8.

[4] See T. Jeremy Gunn, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (Westport: Praeger, 2009), 8; Eugene McCarraher, Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 89-119.

[5] The best, most comprehensive book on debates over images and meanings of those images of soldiers as sacrifices is Jonathan H. Ebel, G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), especially 1-24.