What is the focus of your current book project? What are the big questions that you are investigating and the main stories that you hope to tell in this book?
This book is tentatively titled, The Politics of Original Sin: Rethinking the World the Cold War Made. In broad strokes, it examines how the Cold War era continues to shape how we as Americans see ourselves and our place in the world, why this is a problem, and what we must do to fully move on from the Cold War.
The Cold War era taught us to see the world in starkly dualistic terms—America versus the Soviets, individualism versus collectivism, the goldy West versus godless communism—and filled us with a pervasive sense that world-ending nuclear war could break out at any moment. Theologically speaking, this pairs Manicheanism—i.e., the belief that the universe pits absolute good against absolute evil—and apocalypticism, i.e., the belief that the end of the world is nigh.
While Manichean and apocalyptic tendencies have historically been quite common in American public life, the Cold War was unique in how it fused them into an overarching worldview. Though politically speaking the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the underlying worldview persisted. Manichean and apocalyptic tendencies surged during the War on Terror, resurfaced with the MAGA movement, and came to a head during the January 6 insurrection.
Part of why we are so bitterly divided as a country is that we reflexively perpetuate the Cold War habit of seeing ourselves as locked in an existential battle with an irredeemable opponent over the soul of America. But instead of directing our energies toward an external foe, we have turned them inward, toward our fellow Americans.
Breaking these habits requires some theological perspective. Manichean approaches treat evil as an ontological category—that certain parts of the universe are inherently evil and thus, beyond redemption. But if God created the universe, as Christians believe, this would imply that God created evil—something that an all-good God would never do. From a Christian perspective, evil is not an ontological category, but a relational one: it is the product of broken relationships with God and one another. We are all complicit in this brokenness—as the apostle Paul put it, “all have sinned.” But Paul also insists that no relationship is outside of God’s power to repair and redeem. In other words, we are all in need of redemption and no one is beyond redemption.
Taking this relational understanding of evil to heart transforms how we approach the political sphere. It frees us to be honest about the moral stakes of a conflict without lapsing into the Manichean habit of pitting absolute good against absolute evil. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address epitomized this approach: he left no doubt about which side of the Civil War held the moral high ground. But he also saw the absurdity of seeing the conflict in absolutist Manichean terms: “they both read the same Bible, pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
Lincoln understood that we all stood under divine judgment and needed to be redeemed. On this basis, he held out hope that reconciliation could still happen on the other side of war if we proceeded “with malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Lincoln exemplified how to reframe what was widely viewed as a Manichean conflict in relational terms. My work exposes the Manichean logic underlying how we view contemporary conflicts and urges us to reframe these conflicts using a relational understanding of morality.
Can you give us a taste of something intriguing or unexpected that you have found in your work on this project so far?
In my research I’m always on the lookout for stories that capture just how deeply the Manichean approaches permeated American life during the Cold War era. Early on I came across the story of how on May 1, 1950, the citizens of Mosinee, Wisconsin staged what it would be like for a town in Middle America to “go behind the Iron Curtain for a day.” The participants went all-in—the town newspaper got printed on pink-tinged paper, the “communists” rounded up the mayor and religious leaders into a barbed wire enclosure, and the town held a parade with a sign that read, “religion is the opium of the people.” While the story vividly illustrates the paranoia of the early Cold War era, I couldn’t help but be charmed by the sincerity and enthusiasm of the townspeople. They were very, very committed to the bit!
The other anecdote that caught my eye: in the early days of nuclear testing, bombs were detonated in the Nevada desert. Enterprising locals would organize bomb-viewing parties as a tourist attraction. The visitors could then buy assorted nuclear bomb-themed kitsch in nearby Las Vegas. This dogged commitment to making a buck off of a nuclear bomb test captures something about the enterprising American spirit.
What are the broader questions that fascinate you in your reading, thinking, and writing?
Even in a society such as ours, where church/state separation is a bedrock principle, I’m fascinated by how porous the boundaries between theology and politics prove to be. This shows how the two are inextricably linked. Inasmuch as theology shapes how people see the world, it influences how they act in the world; it therefore always has a political component. Conversely, every political act grows out of a set of motivations and rationales that reveal a worldview with tacit theological assumptions. Understanding how theology and politics intermingle sharpens our ability to address the most pressing issues of our time effectively and responsibly.
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