December 16, 2013

Christians, Cold War and Moral Discernment

David Swartz is a professor at Asbury College who identifies with the Anabaptist tradition. He has written an important and well-reviewed history of the Evangelical Left called Moral Minority. Last month I attended a lively session on this book at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

In a recent Patheos blog, Swartz writes about evangelicals around the world and their reaction to the global division between East and West blocs during the Cold War. It’s an interesting piece with which I have a few quibbles. He places Vietnam, North Korea and Syria in the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact, which actually included only East European countries. The other Soviet allies had separate arrangements.

Swartz says: “To counter Soviet influence, the U.S. assassinated an Iranian leader and installed a puppet government.” It’s not clear whom he’s referencing. Presumably he’s citing the 1953 counter coup in Iran that the U.S. and Britain supported to restore the Shah to power after he had been effectively booted by Prime Minister Mossaddegh. Anglo-American intelligence backed an Iranian general who arrested but did not assassinate Mossaddegh, who lived for another 14 years under house arrest, dying at almost age 85.

Whatever the Shah was, “puppet” is probably not an entirely accurate description of his relationship to the U.S. As recounted in the recent biography by Abbas Milani, the Shah was aligned with the U.S. but was not controlled by the U.S. He sometimes flirted with the Soviets, pursued domestic and economic policies not U.S. supported, and participated in the OPEC 1973 oil boycott against the U.S. The U.S. sometimes criticized his human rights abuses and increasingly autocratic ways over the years.
Ironically, the Islamist revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini that overthrew the Shah in 1979 celebrated the example of Mossaddegh’s defiance of the Shah. But Khomeini and other clerics in 1953 and actually supported the Shah’s return and Mossaddegh’s overthrow, fearing Mossaddegh was Soviet-aligned and anti-Islam.

Swartz writes of the post-war, post-colonialism period: “For dozens of newly independent states, independence never actually arrived as the United States and the Soviet Union carved up the world between them.” He implies a moral parallel between the Soviets and America in their alliances that is not factual. The Warsaw Pact was composed of East European regimes militarily imposed by the Soviet Army after World War II. NATO was composed of democracies, except for Portugal and, at times, Greece and Turkey. Swartz is focusing on the Third World of course, but even there it’s not a fair comparison. The Soviets supported Marxist-Leninist totalitarian regimes and movements, as in Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam, and later in Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique. The U.S. backed movements and regimes that opposed totalitarianism. But U.S. policy often required a choice between bad and worse. South Korea’s then authoritarian rule was far preferable to monstrous North Korea, for example. Old South Vietnam and pre-communist Cambodia and Laos were far from democratic but still much preferable to the horrors that later befell them after the Soviet-backed conquest.

Recalling “Marxist and capitalist imperialisms in an era of decolonization,” Swartz reports that “many non-American Christians felt beholden to neither” during the Cold War. He mentions “critiques of both Marxism and capitalism,” with some Christians in that era saying each “hindered human flourishing.” They didn’t like Soviet or Chinese Marxism. But they suggested that “American commitment to unfettered capitalism… impeded attention to social justice.”

It’s hard to know when America was so committed to “unfettered capitalism,” since the U.S. during the Cold War period constructed a mammoth regulatory and federal social welfare state that persuaded many conservatives of just the opposite. And while all human systems are by definition as sinful as the people involved, lumping Marxism, which is intrinsically dictatorial, in with capitalism, which is more conducive to liberty and human rights, is an unfortunate comparison that fortunately is more and more rare.

Swartz quotes a missionary lamenting evangelicals in the Cold War who defended “right-wing, totalitarian governments (like those of South Africa or Paraguay) on the grounds that they allow complete freedom to preach the gospel.” They proclaimed a Gospel that was “‘good news’ to oppressive regimes.” There’s some truth here, although the rightist dictatorships in mind were authoritarian rather than totalitarian, tormenting political opponents, but not imposing total control over every aspect of society as in the Soviet Union or Communist China. Rightist authoritarian regimes could be corrupt, brutal and murderous but were more indifferent towards the non-political, unlike totalitarians. Evangelicals and others functioned under General Pinochet’s Chile in ways impossible under Fidel Castro or Kim Il Sung.

What is missing in Swartz’s blog is any sense that there was a profound issue of justice at stake in the Cold War between one side that at least aspired to human rights and the other that had only contempt for them. It was a choice between flawed democracy and ruthless slavery to one party states. But he examines an important question. How should Christians morally choose among haphazard political options in a fallen world? The Cold War required difficult choices, with very high stakes. Today’s world is not so bifurcated but still requires moral discernment to advocate humane political systems with always imperfect instruments.

One Response to Christians, Cold War and Moral Discernment

  1. Jay Ferguson says:

    And he is at Asbury? This is a long way from that 70’s revival they always talk about.

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