Religion has been on the rise in America for decades—which strikes many as a shocking new development. To the contrary, Jason Stevens asserts, the rumors of the death of God were premature. Americans have always conducted their cultural life through religious symbols, never more so than during the Cold War. In God-Fearing and Free, Stevens discloses how the nation, on top of the world and torn between grandiose self-congratulation and doubt about the future, opened the way for a new master narrative. The book shows how the American public, powered by a national religious revival, was purposefully disillusioned regarding the country’s mythical innocence and fortified for an epochal struggle with totalitarianism.
Stevens reveals how the Augustinian doctrine of original sin was refurbished and then mobilized in a variety of cultural discourses that aimed to shore up democratic society against threats preying on the nation’s internal weaknesses. Suddenly, innocence no longer meant a clear conscience. Instead it became synonymous with totalitarian ideologies of the fascist right or the communist left, whose notions of perfectability were dangerously close to millenarian ideals at the heart of American Protestant tradition. As America became riddled with self-doubt, ruminations on the meaning of power and the future of the globe during the “American Century” renewed the impetus to religion.
Covering a wide selection of narrative and cultural forms, Stevens shows how writers, artists, and intellectuals, the devout as well as the nonreligious, disseminated the terms of this cultural dialogue, disputing, refining, and challenging it—effectively making the conservative case against modernity as liberals floundered.
[Stevens] has written a brilliant and original work of scholarship. God-Fearing and Free falls within the grand tradition of American studies. It is a robustly ambitious effort to explain American culture or the American character, as Stevens puts it... By stepping to the side of political economy, of right and left classically construed, Stevens has found a new angle of historical vision. His alertness to religious symbols and to the Christian resonance of modern American prose--one is tempted to say of modern American life--lends his book an uncommon profundity. Stevens never treats religion as a dry analogue to secularism. Instead, he illustrates an unending, enlivening dialogue between the secular and the religious in American culture, by looking deeply into important American texts...God-Fearing and Free is an important book that sheds new and unexpected light on the familiar postwar landscape. -- Michael Kimmage New Republic online 20110106 Students of literature and film, along with those interested in cultural studies and American religious history, will find this an important account of popular appropriation of religious themes. -- A.W. Klink Choice 20110401 The real strength of Stevens's study lies in his careful tracing of the themes of Protestant theological countermodernism (original sin, guilt, expiation) in Cold War film and literature...In charting the problematic afterlife of Niebuhr's thought, Stevens has written a study that the theologian couldn't help but admire. -- Anthony Domestico Commonweal 20111202