Military might a 'national religion' in the US

By April Bogle
February 24, 2009

When President Barack Obama said during his campaign that "the United States must maintain a military that is second to none," he was echoing what has become a common refrain among candidates of both parties since the late 1940s, says Emory University's T. Jeremy Gunn.

Gunn's new book, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (Praeger, 2009), explores how after World War II Americans developed a trinity that has become a national religion with a stance that says:

• the United States should have a military second to none even in peacetime;

• government officials should adopt laws praising God; and

• "capitalism means freedom."

Gunn, a senior fellow at Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), says this 'trinity' was forged by the Cold War and arose in reaction to both the imagined and real dangers posed by the Soviet Union and communism.

He researched Spiritual Weapons for four years as part of the CSLR's research project on Religion and Human Rights, reviewing reams of declassified government documents and press reports dating back to the 1940s.

"My original intent was to write about how religion has influenced foreign policy, but I ended up discovering instead how American foreign policy shaped Americans' understanding about religion," says Gunn, who also directs the American Civil Liberties Union Programme on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Gunn traces the sea-change to President Harry Truman's famous 1947 speech to Congress, in which he asked for funds to aid Greece and Turkey in their fight against "communist insurgencies."

Truman argued for a foreign policy that came to be known as the Truman Doctrine - that the "free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedom and if we falter in our leadership we may endanger the peace of the world and... surely the welfare of this nation."

The battle between "good" (America and her allies) and "evil" (the Soviet Union and communism) became cast as "a battle of faith against atheism, and religious liberty against religious persecution," Gunn writes.

This reassertion of America as a religious nation led in quick succession to the rise of popular preacher and presidential advisor Billy Graham (1949), the first Presidential Prayer Breakfast (1953), inserting "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance (1954), the spate of "Ten Commandments" monuments (1955), placing "In God we Trust" on paper money (1955) and making it the national motto (1956), and other political - and very public - government declarations about God and religion.

T. Jeremy Gunn notes President Dwight Eisenhower's public comments about adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. The new law, Eisenhower said, reaffirmed the "transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or war."

Referencing President Abraham Lincoln's famous Civil War quote, "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side..." Gunn says of the post-World War II era, "There is a lot of conviction that God is on our side, and very little questioning if we are on God's side."

Spiritual Weapons does not offer an external critique of American foreign policy. Rather, it lets the words and actions of leaders - both Democrats and Republicans - speak for themselves, revealing how Americans created a new world view and then, in turn, were seduced by their own creation, the author says.


(c) The Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University ( The center is home to scholars and forums on the religious dimensions of law, politics, and society - including the influence of the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam on public institutions.

With thanks to April Bogle at CSLR.

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