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A Modernist Christian Nationalist: John Wilsey on John Foster Dulles’s Faith

Today I am interviewing John D. Wilsey, associate professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author most recently of God’s Cold Warrior: The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles (Eerdmans, 2021).

[TK] Many readers may have heard of John Foster Dulles, but might not remember exactly who he was. Tell us why Dulles was important, and what led you to write a religious biography of him.

[JDW] Fame and influence are fickle, and John Foster Dulles is a salient example of how fickle they are. During the 1950s, his was a household name. As Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state from 1953 to 1959, Dulles was at the center of every diplomatic issue during the early years of the Cold War. He was mourned the world over when he died from abdominal cancer in May 1959. But largely because of American diplomatic and military failures in the Caribbean, Middle East, and Southeast Asia, Americans soured on Dulles. By the 1990s, Americans had just forgotten him.

But Dulles remains significant for our times, because he both contributed to, and was himself a product of, a civil religious awakening of the 1950s. Americans saw themselves in a Manichean struggle of good against evil against the Soviet Union during the 1950s, and Dulles was the epitome of an early Cold Warrior. Dulles represents a Christian nationalism of the 1950s, one that takes its shape in the context of American diplomacy between the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

You note that for Dulles, “Christianity’s essence is operational rather than theological.” What did that mean for him in practice?

Dulles grew up as a Presbyterian pastor’s son in turn-of-the-century North County New York. His father, Allen Macy Dulles, was a liberal theologian trained at the University of Leipzig and Hamilton College. He stressed the ethical teachings of Jesus in his preaching, teaching, and writing, and debunked conservative doctrines. Dulles adopted his father’s understanding of Christianity as an essentially ethical religion, and this was clear in his stress on the liberal concept of “Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of Man” during his involvement with the Federal Council of Churches during the 1940s.

As Dulles considered America’s place in the world at the beginning of the Cold War, he articulated the significance of “moral law” as a diplomatic frame of reference. In his understanding, the universe was a moral system. Nature exhibited precepts of moral law, and one could find wisdom from nature in human interactions, from the local to the global level. In that regard, Christianity was less a set of abstract and outdated dogmatic orthodoxies, and more an active faith, animated by Christ’s teachings on loving one’s neighbor, doing to others as one would have done to oneself, and sacrificing one’s own interests for the good of the whole. These teachings required ongoing action, abiding vigilance, and creative innovation as circumstances changed. Dulles liked to say that peace must be waged, the same as war. This was how Dulles conceived of Christianity as active, not passive; ethical, not theological.

Dulles took a leading role in modernist and anti-fundamentalist advocacy in the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s. Yet his own faith seems to have become diluted, at least until he participated in an ecumenical Christian conference in Oxford in 1937. Where do you think his beliefs stood on the eve of World War II?

As a child, Dulles exhibited signs of piety in memorizing Scripture and hymns, and in involvement with church outreach ministries. But when he went to Princeton in 1904, Dulles did not attend church regularly. As his career took off in the 1910s and ‘20s, he did serve as an elder at Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, but he resigned because he enjoyed recreational activities near his home in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York. By the mid-1930s, Dulles rarely attended church.

Dulles did not consider Christianity to be relevant to the world’s challenges after World War I. He said he had been a “nominal Christian” during the years prior to attending the Oxford Conference in 1937. Prior to that conference, Dulles came to the conclusion that Christianity had “gone soft,” and allowed itself to be divided by trivial issues such that it could make no substantial contribution to human good. But the conference changed his mind. He noted that Christians came to Oxford from all over the globe. They brought with them unique denominational identities and convictions. And yet they put their differences aside and came to agreement on solving the problems challenging all of humanity. Dulles left the conference a changed man. For the rest of his life, he strenuously argued that Christian churches were indispensable to a peaceful world order.

In spite of Dulles’s modernism, after World War II he increasingly embraced American civil religion and staunch anti-Communism in ways that seemed similar to fundamentalist and evangelical leaders such as Billy Graham. Was Dulles a sort of modernist Christian nationalist?

The answer is definitely yes. Dulles is an example of a particular kind of American Christian nationalism that arose during World War I. This Christian nationalism emerged from progressive figures like Woodrow Wilson. Wilsonian Christian nationalism was idealistic, committed to something often called “Christian civilization,” and animated by a sense of American Christian duty and mission to the world.

It is commonly accepted that Dulles went through a change in his perspective on the moral law between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Mark Toulouse, in his brilliant religious biography of Dulles entitled The Transformation of John Foster Dulles, argues that Dulles went from being a “prophet of realism” to a “priest of nationalism.” Toulouse wrote that Dulles essentially abandoned his commitment to international cooperation and a peaceful world order by shifting his emphasis from the moral law to national security.

I take a different view. It is true that Dulles underwent a change between 1945 and 1950. But I think Toulouse errs by referring to this change as a “transformation” because Dulles’s perspective did not change that radically. His use of the moral law continued to be fundamental, but he looked at Communists as having declared war against the moral law. For that reason, Dulles thought that the Communists had to be neutralized as a threat to a peaceful world order, because they were a threat to moral law itself. As the most Christian nation in the world, the United States possessed a divine mandate to lead the free nations against Communism. Material weapons like bullets and bombs would help deter Communist aggression, but weapons emerging from religion—spiritual ideas—would ultimately bring victory.

At the beginning of the book, you talk about manifesting Christian generosity in interactions with people of the past. Why do you think that’s important to remember when dealing with someone such as Dulles?

It isn’t our place to judge John Foster Dulles. That doesn’t mean we can’t critically evaluate his choices and the impact of those choices. We’re not moral relativists when it comes to historical analyses. But we are not in a position to pronounce a judgment on Dulles, because like him, our perspective is limited. We don’t have all the answers. And future generations will evaluate our choices, too. How will we want our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to write about us? I hope we would want them to tell the truth about our lives, in all their complexity.

Historians are to be truth tellers above all, not judges. Dulles was a human being, just like us. He was flawed in profound ways, just like us. He made decisions that resulted in great good; he also made choices that were terribly unwise and had tragic consequences—like insisting that Americans could succeed in Vietnam where the French had failed. He can’t come back and explain himself. He can’t hear our imprecations against him. He can’t repent of his sins or change his ways. He can’t fix his mistakes. And he can’t receive praise or appreciation. One day, we will lie silent in the grave. We do well to heed the wisdom that comes from considering Dulles’s life, that our times are in God’s hands. Our calling is to be faithful to how He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.

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