The University of Southampton

HIST6099 Religion and Public Life in Cold War America

Module Overview

The United States has been described as simultaneously the most religious and the most secular country on earth. The module explores the role that religion played in American politics and public life during the Cold War. How did American policy-makers, trying to use religion as a mobilizing agent during the early Cold War, negotiate deeply-rooted divisions between Protestants and Catholics? How did American Protestants respond to the 1960 Presidential campaign of a Catholic candidate, John F. Kennedy? Why, for many American Protestants by the early 1970s, did the threat of secularization come to appear a greater threat than the Vatican? In particular, what was the effect of the rise of conservative evangelicalism upon the ability of religion and religious values to shape political discourse and public policy?

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Introduce you to constitutional, theoretical and historical debates about the role of religion in American public life during the cold war era • Facilitate your research into particular aspects of ‘public/civil religion’ and/or church- state relations using primary resources

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The fluidity of the constitutional church-state framework in the cold-war era
  • The secularization thesis and its critics
  • The notion of ‘civil religion’ and its critics
  • The role played by religious institutions and grassroots actors in transforming the place of religion in the American public sphere over the cold war era
  • Recent new approaches to the ‘religion problem’ in modern American history
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Critically evaluate the merits and demerits of the secularization thesis, particularly its applicability to Cold War America
  • Assess the utility of the notion of ‘civil religion’ in explaining the role of religion in American public life in the cold war era
  • Conceptualize the changing relations between religion and politics across the cold war era
  • Read, digest and critically assess a range of complex texts and sources
  • Identify and summarize a set of key themes across a range of reading
  • Succinctly communicate your ideas orally and in writing
  • Frame and complete a coherent essay project which uses research in primary sources to develop a commentary on conceptual, constitutional and historical debates.


This module examines the changing role of religion in American public life from the start of the Cold War to the emergence of the New Christian Right. It will begin by exploring the constitutional church-state framework and the scope that it provided for a vibrant religious marketplace in the United States. It will examine the attitudes of the Protestant (mainline and evangelical) and Catholic churches, and of Jewish- Americans, to the church-state issue in the 1940s and 1950s. It will consider the merits of the secularization thesis as applied to Cold War America, and also explore Robert Bellah’s conception of an American ‘civil religion’. The module will go on to explore the increasing presence of evangelical churches and preachers in American public life – particularly in political life and the military - from the 1950s to the 1970s. It will consider the constitutional controversies surrounding school prayer and the teaching of evolution/creationism. Finally, it will address public attitudes towards atheism and atheists.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • The identification of core readings • Seminar discussion • Individual tutorials Learning activities include • Preparing and delivering presentations • Participation in seminar discussions • Individual study and research

Independent Study130
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America. 

Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. 

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. 

God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. 

American Evangelicals and the US Military 1942-1993. 

The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. 

Robert Bellah (1967). ‘Civil Religion in America,’ Daedalus. 

Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. 

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. 

With God on our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. 

The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. 

The Wall of Separation: The Constitutional Politics of Church and State. 


Assessment Strategy

Assessments designed to provide informal, on-module feedback ? Feedback on oral presentations (by both peers and instructors). These will be group presentations, geared around research into five journals/web resources on a chosen topic.


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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