The Cold War re-shapes 40's/50's Unitarian Universalism (2 of many)

Three historical developments re-shaped the Unitarian and Universalist churches of the 1940's and 1950's.

One: the Cold War.

As part of the Cold War, powerful business and political leaders sought to “Christianize” the United States of America — as an ideological counter to Godless Communism.

Kevin Kruse, a professor of History at Princeton, has written a very interesting book, called “Under God” and it is the story of how powerful forces in the USA sought to promote religiosity and public piety in the late 40’s and 50’s.

Here are some highlights of that effort: in the early 1950’s, the phrase “One Nation Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” was inscribed on our currency. Political and Business leaders met in well-publicized prayer breakfasts, not only at the national level, but in every major city. The National Advertising Council ran radio, TV and billboards urging everyone to attend a worship service at the house of worship of their choice every week. Church attendance peaked in 1959. 

During the 1950's, Billy Graham became "America's pastor," as the public face of Christianity moved toward evangelicalism. Dwight Eisenhower, a Presbyterian, associated himself with Graham. Ina sign of the times, Eisenhower defeated the last Unitarian to run for the US Presidency, Adlai Stevenson. Decisively. Twice.

At the same time, because of the Cold War, the government promoted scientific knowledge and technical education, much of it in State colleges and Universities across the country. 

Despite growing public piety and church attendance, a significant portion of the educated population was moving away from the proclamations of organized religion. Disbelief, skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism were growing, a counter current to the religious culture of the day.

Unitarianism and Universalism were the point where the social pressure to go to church and religious skepticism could co-exist. It was the church where you didn't have to believe, where humanism was an acceptable religious position. It was during this era when the Fellowship Movement established an institutional presence for liberal religion across the country, often in college towns. 

Much of U or U public ministry during this time was in the defense of the separation of church and state. Their fear was the power of the Roman Catholic church. My father, who served a small Unitarian church in Providence, RI, in the early 1950's, was involved a city-wide controversy over a proposal to release public school students from their classes to attend religious education classes at their church. A small coalition of Unitarians and Jews opposed the idea. 

It was in this time that, it seems to me, that Liberal Religion began to take on a self-perception that it was counter-cultural. The cultural mainstream was religiously orthodox; Liberal Religion was a refuge from that orthodox hegemony, a center of resistance to an orthodoxy that was aggressively seeking to establish hegemony over the culture. Of course, that self-perception of being resistant is quite limited. It was compromised by intellectual elitism, and by economic privilege, and by the cultural hubris of the New England Yankees from whom religious liberalism is descended.

Please Comment: When do you think Religious Liberals began to think of themselves as cultural outsiders in the USA? Does that perception allow us to think that we are not complicit in the institutions of oppression: white supremacy, patriarchy, class exploitation? 

The Cold War influenced U/Uism in other ways, as well. Most obvious was the controversy over Steven Fritchman, which was the way that the postwar purge of the Communists from liberal organizations showed up in Unitarianism. What was the long-range significance of that? 


  1. Jane Robert's Paul8:16 PM

    I grew up a U, born in '47. It was hard to grow up surrounded by Catholics on Chicago's south side. I heard the local parish priest called unitarians The Devil from the pulpit. Catholic kids were excused from Chicago Public Schools every Wednesday afternoon to go to catichism! It would have been nice if there had been more of us. It did give me a lifelong appreciation of being in a minority though.


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