International Conflict, Faith, and Foes in the 20th Century: American Christian Laity and the Creation of a Common Enemy

AHA Session 117
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Gramercy (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
L.D. Burnett, Collin College
K. Scott Culpepper, Dordt University

Session Abstract

Throughout the twentieth century, international conflicts have evoked fervent patriotism among many Americans and stirred passionate feelings of disdain toward perceived enemies. Christianity played a crucial role in identifying opponents in these global clashes, casting them as irredeemable adversaries and justifying particularly harsh treatment or even torture. Faith helped to characterize enemies as not only threats to the nation but also dangers to entire faith traditions. By doing so, an appeal to Christianity could unite U.S. Christians, and particularly laypeople, in a common fight.

This panel situates U.S.-based Christians within a global context, examining how Christianity helped American Christian laity to rally and sustain opposition to their perceived enemies. It does so by highlighting two discrete sites of engagement between U.S.-based Christians and global foes—South Africa and Vietnam—and one more universal and pervasive threat—global communism. It asks how Christianity influenced alliances and identified opponents in key international conflicts throughout the twentieth century.

Klumpp begins at the turn of the twentieth century as the Second Boer War in South Africa roiled a collection of rural communities in the American Midwest. Sharing a Dutch Calvinist heritage with the Boers, these rural communities developed a virulent hatred of the British. He demonstrates how an affiliation with the same Christian tradition created bonds between groups that had shared little contact for nearly a century and united communities from throughout the globe against a common enemy.

Koerselman moves forward in the twentieth century through her study of evangelical Christian youth during the early years of the Cold War. An examination of speeches written by postwar youth as part of the Southern Baptist Convention-sponsored Speaker’s Tournament reveals a thoughtful spectrum of well-crafted opinions by evangelical American youth. Postwar youth expressed their anxieties over the global threat of communism and believed that American exceptionalism, missionizing, and peace activism in a world of nuclear weapons would defeat communism.

Cajka concludes with his study of the lived religious experiences of soldiers fighting during the Vietnam War. He specifically examines how religious formation shaped all aspects of military life in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. He considers the interplay between the clear anti-Communist Christian formation soldiers experienced in the 1950s and how perceptions of and behavior toward enemies created through such formation changed in the midst of the lived experiences of war.

In each of these international conflicts, Christianity helped to identify a common enemy and mobilize Christians in a fight against these foes. This panel demonstrates Christianity’s ability to create enemies for individuals, particular Christian traditions, and even broader groups like U.S. evangelicals. It highlights how perceived threats to their faith could rally Christians against the forces of secularism, Communists in Vietnam, or even other Christians. In each of these instances and at each of these levels of analysis, Christianity played a crucial role in creating a common enemy and rallying American Christian laity to the fight, both at home and abroad.

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