Though I have yet to view a single episode of PBS’ five part series “God in America,” I have been catching comments here and there which suggest it is worth watching. My avoidance to date is born of studied tedium — how much Cotton Mather and Ken Burns can one take in a lifetime?
Our correspondent at The Economist recently reported on the fifth episode, “Soul of a Nation,” which examines the fusion of Billy Graham’s evangelism with Cold War politics:
I had long understood that popular affirmation of Christian religious identity was an explicit part of the American government’s strategy for combating the sinister influence of atheistic communism. But I hadn’t known that Billy Graham goaded President Eisenhower into getting baptised while in office, that Eisenhower led the charge to insert “under God” into the “Pledge of Allegiance”, or that “In God We Trust” didn’t become the official United States motto until Eisenhower signed a 1956 congressional resolution.
Nor did I know that Billy Graham had been launched onto the national stage because of his resolute anti-communism. Impressed by the charismatic young evangelist’s fiery anti-communist message, press baron William Randolph Hearst commanded the overseers of his influential national network of propaganda broadsheets to “Puff Graham.”
As is apparent to anyone who watches Fox News or reads the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch has ably picked up where William Randolph Hearst left off. Remarkably, our UK reporter sees this as a revelation:
Before yesterday it had never occurred to me that America’s distinctive brand of evangelical conservatism—its peculiar marriage of mythic American nationalism with a personal, emotionally intense relationship with Jesus Christ—is not an entirely bottom-up phenomenon, but is to some extent the creation of Eisenhower-era government propaganda and the PR heft of William Randolph Hearst.
Ironically it was Eisenhower who warned against the power and dominance of the American military-industrial complex, which might better be rendered as the military-industrial-religious complex. With the end of the Cold War, that complex sorely needed new threats and enemies — something or someone to maintain elevated spending levels and galvanize the faithful.
Though they had to wait a few years, during which time defense spending was stagnant and church attendance flat, it took less than a decade to identify the new apocalyptic threat around which the fearful could rally. Enter Osama bin Laden and his small band of criminals, who have provided that complex with just what it needed. So here we are, mired in yet another state of perpetual crisis that keeps the military-industrial-religious machine humming right along.
It all brings to mind Marx’s prescient quip from the Brumaire: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”