Constructing "Godless Communism": Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954-1960

By Aiello, Thomas | Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Constructing "Godless Communism": Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954-1960


Aiello, Thomas, Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood


James W. Fifield, minister of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, recalled in 1954 that a man once speaking with John Dewey commented, "Mr. Dewey, I don't see how you can believe all this collectivist thinking and all these collectivist things and still call yourself a Christian," to which Dewey responded, "I don't" (Fifield 51). Although Dewey eschewed religious supernaturalism, he embraced a pragmatic vision that allowed any new experience in hopes that it could make the world somehow better. He argued for social improvement, so long as, on the way, it not become detrimental to the concept of freedom or personal liberty. "It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name 'God'," wrote Dewey in his 1934 treatise A Common Faith (Dewey 51).

Conservative thinkers twenty years later, however, remained skeptical of Dewey's pragmatic educational models, increasingly concerned that they prepared American children for globalization. Pragmatism left little room for the idea of a preordained universe, and globalization signaled the possibility of economic and political ties to nations neither capitalist nor religious. Mid-twentieth century America clung to the Manifest Destiny of earlier generations, claiming a superiority and godliness diametrically opposed to Communist claims of superiority and godlessness. American religiosity tempered and shaped American anti-communism, creating the pervasive sentiment that the United States engaged in a religious battle with a religious foe, rather than a political battle with a collectivist answer to capitalism. This American pietism shaped the American character. It defined Americanism. But a definition of Americanism that categorically included religious belief dispossessed a disbelieving minority in a nation whose First Amendment had consistently been interpreted as offering freedom of and from religion.

Throughout the nation's history, majority opinion tended to substitute for truth - such was the nature of democracy. An outspoken and proactive electorate ensured that prevailing public opinion essentially became the American Way. That public's opinions were subjective perceptions spread through the media outlets of cultural discourse. National images and patriotic feelings necessarily tainted any decision maker's self-perception, as well as his or her received image of a presumed national foe. The American perception of the Soviet Union in the 1950s found a base in atheism, totalitarianism, and communism. It fostered a public belief that no nation could positively engage with a counterpart perceived by so many as evil. Popular Christianity became the zenith of popular culture. 1.

That counterpart survived throughout the 1950s and 60s, ensuring that the domestic discourse would turn primarily on U.S.-Soviet relations. Internal security would be paramount. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its search for potentially subversive individuals and organizations in 1938, and by 1954, the Congressional interrogators reached the zenith of their power. In the Senate, the Government Operations Committee, chaired by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, expanded its investigative scope from simple concern with government waste. The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hunted Communist infiltration in the executive branch, stretching the limits of its authority and eventually culminating in McCarthy's 1954 Congressional censure (Ritchie xiii). That censure and the continued inquiries of the House Un-American Activities Committee only heightened a popular paranoia steadily accumulating throughout the first post-war decade. There was a clear enemy, and Communists became scapegoats for American trepidation. American Christianity throughout the Cold War decade pitted itself as both the primary target of Communist annihilation and the most effective weapon against the atheistic scourge.

American claims that Communist philosophy was fundamentally atheistic had obvious merit. …

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