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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