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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2015

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This article uses new archival evidence and the growing literature on religion and the foreign relations of the United States to reinterpret the Peace Corps. The religious revival of the 1950s continued into the 1960s, and the Kennedy administration saw ‘spiritual values’ as part of the national interest. Church–state politics and Kennedy's public conception of the role of religion in foreign relations dictated that this aspect of the cold war would change in form. The Peace Corps should, in part, be seen as a continuation of the religious cold war, one that drew on the precedents of missionary and church-service organizations. The Corps was a counterpart to church groups working abroad, and hoped to subcontract much of its work to them. Kennedy hoped to work with religious groups in ecumenical fashion. As Catholic organizations were most visibly interested in receiving Corps funds, funding church groups proved politically unworkable, leading to church–state arguments that Kennedy wanted to avoid. The Kennedy administration struggled to separate the secular and the sacred, as confused definitions of ‘religion’ and a tough constitutional stance narrowed policy options. The Peace Corps fight shaped, and was shaped by, contemporary debates over church and state.

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For their assistance at various points in this project, I should like to thank Matthew Connelly, Ira Katznelson, David Reynolds, Daniel Cohen, Nathaniel Katz, Fr. Stephen Koeth, CSC, Tian Feng, Jeremy Allen, and especially Andrew Preston. I am grateful for the comments of two anonymous reviewers, for the questions of participants in a conference on ‘Religion in American life’ at King's College, London, and for financial help received from the Master and Tutors of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.


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7 Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing TP. et al., 330 US 1 (1947). The best introduction to ‘secular theology’ in the early 1960s remains Mehta, Ved, The new theologian (London, 1965)Google Scholar. See also van Buren, Paul M., The secular meaning of the gospel based on an analysis of its language (London, 1963)Google Scholar; Robinson, John A. T., Honest to God (London, 1963)Google Scholar; Cox, Harvey, The secular city: secularization and urbanization in theological perspective (London, 1966)Google Scholar, esp. p. 99, at which Kennedy has – happily – divested ‘his office of any sacral significance’.

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13 Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobbs, All you need is love: the Peace Corps and the spirit of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA, 1998)Google Scholar. This view is likely a function of Cobbs Hoffman's archival work. While she consulted only the Peace Corps files at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, this article relies on files held at National Archives II at College Park, MD.

14 ‘Letter to the president of the Senate and to the speaker of the House transmitting bill to strengthen the Peace Corps, 4 July 1963’, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1961–1963 (PPP), 1963 (Washington, DC, 1964), p. 555.

15 ‘Remarks to the National Advisory Council for the Peace Corps, 22 May 1961’, PPP, 1961 (Washington, DC, 1962), p. 391.

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18 ‘Truman says faith is best U. S. weapon’, New York Times, 25 Dec. 1950, p. 1.

19 ‘Patriotism and religion II’, Commonweal, 2 Sept. 1955, pp. 531–2.

20 ‘Assumption College, Worcester, Mass., 3 June 1955’, in John F. Kennedy pre-presidential papers, John F. Kennedy Library (JFKPPP), box 894.

21 Dulles was far more nuanced than the New Frontier gave him credit for. See Gaddis, John Lewis, The United States and the end of the cold war (New York, 1992), pp. 6586Google Scholar; Preston, Sword of the spirit, pp. 384–409, 440–6; Toulouse, Mark, The transformation of John Foster Dulles: from prophet of realism to priest of nationalism (Macon, 1985)Google Scholar; Inboden, Religion and American foreign policy, pp. 226–56.

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29 ‘Assumption College’. See also ‘Boston College commencement address, 13 June 1956’, JFKPPP, box 895; ‘Milton Seminary benefactor's day, Hilton, Massachusetts, 1 September 1957’, JFKPPP, box 898; ‘Iona College convocation, New Rochelle, New York, NY, 19 September 1957’, JFKPPP, box 895. By 1958, he had removed this line from his stock speech. See ‘150th anniversary of archbishop of Boston, Mass, 14 May 1958’, JFKPPP, box 901.

30 ‘Gridiron Club, Washington, D. C., 15 March 1958’, JFKPPP, box 900. On the revival itself, see esp. Herzog, Spiritual–industrial complex; Marty, Martin E., Modern American religion: under God, indivisible, 1941–1960 (Chicago, IL, 1996)Google Scholar; Schultz, Tri-faith America.

31 ‘National Conference of Christians and Jews Dinner, Chicago, 3 December 1957’, JFKPPP, box 899; ‘Pere Marquette Council of Knights of Columbus, South Boston, 12 January 1958’, JFKPPP, box 899. On the invention of ‘Judeo-Christianity’, see Silk, Mark, ‘Notes on the Judeo-Christian tradition in America’, American Quarterly, 36 (1984), pp. 6585CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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34 Maier, Thomas, The Kennedys: America's emerald kings (New York, NY, 2003)Google Scholar, p. 343.

35 John F. Kennedy to David O. McKay, 18 Mar. 1959, JFKPPP, box 965.

36 ‘Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah, 23 September 1960’, American Presidency Project, (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014).

37 ‘Kennedy finds formula for meeting 2 big issues’, Washington Post, 25 Sept. 1960, p. A17.

38 Sorensen, Kennedy, pp. 19–22 and passim; Richard Cardinal Cushing Oral History, Bishop John J. Wright Oral History, Ralph Dungan Oral History, and John Cogley Oral History, all Oral History Project, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

39 ‘TCS draft 2’, ‘The age of hate or the age of knowledge’, in ‘Address at University of California, Berkeley, 3/23/62’, Arthur M. Schlesinger personal papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, box WH-67.

40 NSC 68, ‘United States objectives and programs for national security’, 14 Apr. 1950, (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014).

41 Henry Kissinger to Theodore Sorensen, 9 Oct. 1961; ‘Unnamed draft 233’, [Paul Nitze] to Sorensen, undated; ‘Suggestions for presidential speech on foreign affairs’, undated, all in ‘North Carolina University, 10/12/61’, Theodore C. Sorensen personal papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, box 62.

42 Dean Rusk to Kennedy, 11 Nov. 1961 and Kennedy to U Chan Toon, 13 Nov. 1961, classified subject files, John F. Kennedy presidential papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, ME 3–8, box 18. The irony here was that Kennedy was being advised to send a message to the World Fellowship of Buddhists, even as his client Ngo Dinh Diem was trampling on Buddhist rights in South Vietnam.

43 ‘Religiosity and the Christian faith’, Christianity and Crisis, 24 Jan. 1955, pp. 185–6; ‘Religion in the campaign’, Commonweal, 12 Oct. 1956, pp. 35–6; ‘The religious revival’, Commonweal, 18 Jan. 1957, p. 407; ‘The uses of platitude’, Commonweal, 22 Feb. 1957, p. 535; ‘The president believes’, Christian Century, 12 Nov. 1958, p. 1294; ‘God and the cold war’, Commonweal, 8 Sept. 1961, pp. 483–4.

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45 ‘Piety in the sky’, Washington Post, 16 Feb. 1958, p. E4. The Post even quoted Nikita Khrushchev – approvingly – to make its point: ‘no one, using religion as a screen, should … utilize belief in God to the detriment of other peoples’.

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53 ‘A pilot study of American knowledge of and attitudes toward communism in Russia and in the United States’, ‘Harris Poll, 1/62’, Sorensen papers, box 54.

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62 ‘Presidential prayer breakfast, 2/9/61’, Sorensen papers, box 63; ‘Remarks at international Christian leadership dedication breakfast, 6 February 1961’, President's Office files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, box 34. Later speeches for the prayer breakfasts were written for Kennedy by both Sorensen and Brooks Hays, a Baptist aide.

63 ‘Remarks at the dedication breakfast of International Christian Leadership, Inc., 9 February 1961’, PPP, 1961, pp. 75–7.

64 John C. Bennett, ‘Religion and the cold war’, Christianity and Crisis, 6 Mar. 1961, p. 22.

65 ‘Remarks to the officers of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, 21 November 1961’, PPP, 1961, pp. 736–7.

66 Rusk to Kennedy, 11 Nov. 1961.

67 ‘Remarks at the 10th annual presidential prayer breakfast, 1 March 1962’, PPP, 1962 (Washington, DC, 1963), p. 175.

68 Ibid.


69 John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 11 Apr. 1963, (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014); ‘Address at the Boston College centennial ceremonies, 20 April 1963’, PPP, 1963, p. 336.

70 Logevall, Fredrik, ‘Politics and foreign relations’, Journal of American History, 95 (2009), pp. 1074–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar at p. 1077.

71 ‘Commencement address at University of Notre Dame, 4 June 1961’, Peace Corps Desk, Office the General Secretary, National Catholic Welfare Conference papers, Catholic University Archives (NCWC), box 193, folder 28. Shriver was quoting the Book of Apocalypse, 3:15–17.

72 Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, p. 52 and passim.

73 Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 184.

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76 ‘Remarks at a meeting with the headquarters staff of the Peace Corps, 14 June 1962’, PPP, 1962, p. 483.

77 ‘Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Cow Palace, San Francisco, 2 November 1960’, American Presidency Project, (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014).

78 Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘Acceptance speech for the renomination for the presidency’, 27 June 1936, American Presidency Project, (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014).

79 Haefele, Mark H., ‘Walt Rostow's stages of economic growth: ideas and action’, in Engerman, David C., Gilman, Nils, Haefele, Mark H., and Latham, Michael E., eds., Staging growth: modernization, development, and the global cold war (Amherst, MA, 2003), p. 93.Google Scholar

80 ‘Remarks in Bonn at the signing of a charter establishing the German Peace Corps, 24 June 1963’, PPP, 1963, p. 503.

81 ‘Statement by the president upon signing order establishing the Peace Corps, 1 March 1961’, PPP, 1961, p.135.

82 Newsweek, 10 July 1961, qu. in Rice, The bold experiment, p. 257.

83 Rice, The bold experiment, pp. 51–73; Cobbs Hoffman, All you need is love, pp. 48–51.

84 Secretary of state to ambassadors, 25 Mar. 1963, ‘Peace Corps, 4/63–12/63’, national security files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, box 283.

85 A vital distinction here is that between ‘missionary’ organizations and ‘church service’ or ‘voluntary’ organizations. In the first case, the prime aim is conversion to Christianity. In the second, members of the organizations serve their faiths through service, charity, and aid paid for by congregations and donations. Explicit proselytizing is not involved.

86 ‘Statement by the President … 1 March 1961’, p. 136.

87 ‘Special Message to the Congress on the Peace Corps, 1 March 1961’, PPP, 1961, pp. 143–6.

88 ‘Peace Corps director reaffirms intention to make full use of private and religious aid groups’, 22 June 1961, NCWC, box 194, folder 11.

89 Schäfer, Axel, Piety and public funding: evangelicals and the state in modern America (Philadelphia, PA, 2013), p. 33Google Scholar.

90 Pope John XXIII, Mater et magistra, 15 May 1961, (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014).

91 Gertrude Califano to Patrick Kennedy, 16 May 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 1; Gertrude Califano to O. Mahoney, 6 Oct. 1961, NWCW, box 193, folder 6.

92 John F. McCarthy to Mrs James Lockett, 27 July 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 3.

93 Bishop Edward Swanstrom to mission directors, ‘Peace Corps: projects’, 25 Apr. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 1; ‘Conversation with Mr. Tony Schulte, Peace Corps’, 28 Apr. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 1.

94 Peace Corps meeting, American Council, 1 May 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 1.

95 Zimmermann, Jonathan, Whose America? Culture wars in the public schools (Cambridge, MA, 2002)Google Scholar; Schultz, Tri-faith America, pp. 118–37; Sorensen, Kennedy, pp. 357–65.

96 Morris B. Abram to Warren W. Wiggins, 25 Apr. 1961, Office of General Counsel, subject files, 1961–80, PC, box 4.

97 Robert Melina to Sister Mary Angela, 9 June 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 2.

98 ‘Peace Corps meeting, American Council’, 1 May 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 1.

99 Melina to Swanstrom, 19 May 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 2.

100 Melina to Swanstrom, 8 Sept. 1961, NWCW, box 194, folder 4; Melina to Msgr McCarthy, 27 Oct. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 6.

101 Melina to McCarthy, 27 Oct. 1961; Nan Tucker McEvoy to William Haddad, 10 Oct. 1961, Office of the General Counsel, PC, box 4.

102 ‘Peace Corps ties pose church issue’, New York Times, 19 June 1961, pp. 1, 12.

103 ‘Any church role in Corps decried’, New York Times, 21 June 1961, p. 17. On the American Jewish Congress's role in the 1950s, see Schultz, Tri-faith America, pp. 105–6, 129–36, 166–72.

104 ‘Agents of the Peace Corps’, Washington Post, 22 June 1961, p. A22.

105 ‘Hearings before the Committee of Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, on H. R. 7500, “A bill to provide for a Peace Corps”’, 11 and 15 Aug. 1961 (Washington, DC, 1961), pp. 115–29 at pp. 116, 118. Despite his admiration for Kennedy (the result of assiduous courting by Sorensen), Blanshard had already expressed worry about the use of ‘sectarian’ agencies to distribute aid. See Blanshard, Paul, God and man in Washington (Boston, MA, 1960), pp. 30–1Google Scholar.

106 ‘Senate Corps hearing debates church role’, Washington Post, 23 June 1961, p. A6.

107 ‘Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, on S.2000, “A bill to provide for a Peace Corps”’, 22 and 23 June 1961 (Washington, DC, 1961), pp. 24, 31, 34–5.

108 Ibid., pp. 114–17, 146–53, 156–61, 163–7.


109 Ibid., pp. 117–24.


110 Ibid., pp. 135, 137.


111 ‘A secular Peace Corps’, New York Times, 3 July 1961, p. 14.

112 Rice, The bold experiment, p. 121.

113 Memorandum of conversation, 7 July 1961, Office of the Director, PC, box 19.

114 ‘The religious policies of the Peace Corps’, 10 July 1961, Office of the General Counsel, PC, box 4.

115 Derek Singer to Shriver, 13 July 1961, Office of the General Counsel, PC, box 4.

116 Everson v. Board; McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 US 203 (1948); Zorach v. Clauson, 343 US 306 (1952); Engel v. Vitale, 370 US 421 (1962); Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 US 203 (1963).

117 Hamburger, Philip, Separation of church and state (Cambridge, MA, 2002), pp. 449–78Google Scholar; McGreevy, John T., Catholicism and American freedom: a history (New York, NY, 2003), pp. 166–87Google Scholar.

118 Bill Moyers to Shriver, 13 July 1961, Office of General Counsel, PC, box 4.

119 Supplement to ‘Director's staff meeting’, 13 July 1961, Office of the Director, PC, box 19.

120 Note, 14 July 1961, Office of the Director, PC, box 19.

121 Msgr McCarthy to Joseph Stewart, 27 July 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 3.

122 Melina to Elliot J. Hymans, 22 Sept. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 5; Califano to Melina, 5 Oct. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 6; Melina to James D. Noel, 7 Sept. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 5; ‘Notes on Peace Corps meeting at American Council’, 10 Oct. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 6.

123 Swanstrom to Hymans, 14 Nov. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 7.

124 ‘Minutes of meeting of Peace Corps Committee of American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service, Inc., 8 November 1961’, Office of the General Counsel, PC, box 4.

125 Swanstrom to Shriver, 6 Dec. 1961, NCWC, box 194, folder 1.

126 Shriver to Swanstrom, 8 Dec. 1961, NCWC, box 194, folder 1.

127 ‘Private Voluntary Agencies Conference, Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, 15 December 1961’, Office of General Counsel, PC, box 4; Melina to Swanstrom, 18 Dec. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 8.

128 ‘Shriver backs bar on missionary aid’, New York Times, 16 Dec. 1961, p. 28.

129 Schäfer, Piety and public funding, p. 33.

130 ‘Principles governing the church's relationship to government and/or secular agencies’, 7–8 June 1961, papers of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America, Presbyterian Historical Society, Record Group 4 (NCC), box 28, folder 12; ‘Minutes of meeting of NCC Peace Corps Committee, Interchurch Center, New York’, 21 Sept. 1961, NCC, box 28, folder 12.

131 ‘Statement on the Peace Corps’, 11 Oct. 1961, NCC, box 28, folder 12.

132 R. H. Edwin Espy to members and consultants of the Peace Corps Committee, 27 Oct. 1961, NCC, box 28, folder 12.

133 Geren to Espy, 20 Oct. 1961, NCC, box 28, folder 12.

134 ‘Church Council sets up office for liaison with Peace Corps’, New York Times, 5 Jan. 1962, p. 11; ‘Peace Corps liaison’, Washington Post, 7 Jan. 1962, p. E4.

135 ‘Shriver backs bar on missionary aid’, New York Times, 16 Dec. 1961.

136 Swanstrom to Horst U. Grabs, 25 Aug. 1961, NCWC, box 193, folder 4.

137 ‘Catholics train own peace corps’, New York Times, 21 Sept. 1961, p. 3.

138 Richard Cardinal Cushing to Shriver, 31 Jan. 1962, R. Sargent Shriver personal papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, box 12.

139 Hollinger, ‘The “secularization” question’, p. 137.

140 ‘Is the Peace Corps compromising on the religious issue?’ Christianity Today, 18 Jan 1963, p. 25.

141 Alford Carleton to Kennedy, 12 June 1961, Office of the General Counsel, PC, Box 4.

142 Here Shriver unconsciously repeated Kennedy's views from 1955, when Kennedy had attacked those who believed that church and state were ‘separated by a rather hazy and frequently meaningless and inconsistent line’, even that ‘government and religion’ served ‘wholly different ends’. See ‘North Shore United Church Canvass Banquet, 17 Nov 1955’, JFKPPP, box 894.

143 ‘Fordham University commencement, 12 June 1963’, Shriver papers, box 19; ‘Shriver Exhorts 1,502 at Fordham’, New York Times, 13 June 1963, p. 22.

144 Draft, undated (shortly after John XXIII's death), Shriver papers, box 12.

145 ‘Commencement address at American University, June 10, 1963’, (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014); ‘Pope John XXIII's New Pentecost’, TIME, 4 Jan. 1963,,9171,829723,00.html (last accessed 20 Nov. 2014).

146 Fischer, Making them like us, pp. 88–9.

147 Niebuhr, Pious and secular America, p. 10.

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