God’s Era

Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 6

“God’s Era”

This is Part 6 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1.

Donald Trump was swept into office as the 45th president of the US on a wave of enthusiasm and nostalgia among many people for a time somewhere in the past when, they are convinced, America was Great in a way it isn’t now. The previous entry in this blog series explored just when that era might have been, and just what features about that era look so appealing to so many in hindsight.

It’s pretty obvious that the standard perception is that America was at the height of its greatness in world prestige, in economic prosperity, and in military might during the period from about 1950 up through the early (pre-Beatles) 1960s. And along with prestige, prosperity, and might, many are under the distinct conviction that society in general was a very much gentle and genteel “Happy Days” kind of era.

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The first episode of Happy Days was said to take place around 1955.

When “everyone liked Ike,”

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When Father Knew Best…

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When small towns were all like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry…

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When most young women dressed modestly like Debbie Reynolds playing “Tammy”

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Well, except for that one scene…

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And most young men were clean-cut like that nice Boone boy…

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And even a tough guy like The Fonz treated adults respectfully.

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Of course, a large proportion of the folks who are convinced this is what it was all like back in that era weren’t alive back then…but they can google pics of Pat Boone….

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Oh… not THAT one, though…

And they can watch episodes of Father Knows Best and Andy Griffith on Youtube so they can “know” what it was like.

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Or…think they know. Many of us who actually lived during that period… as adults, kids, or teens…have quite a different perspective on just how gentle and genteel it all was at the time, but that’s another discussion for another day.

As noted in the previous entry in this series, though, there is a significant proportion of those who voted for Donald Trump who are focused on another aspect of what they think made America Great during what they view as God’s Era. They are absolutely convinced it was a time when America was an openly and piously Christian Nation, with the majority of its citizens living out biblical values and reflecting the character of Jesus in the public square.

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Since they surely don’t see that now, they are convinced we need to Make America Christian Again like it was back in what they believe to have been God’s Golden Era, the gilded years of the 1950s up through about 1964.

 

And it certainly is possible to cherry-pick info on the Internet to back up that perspective.

After all, look at the themes of some of the blockbuster movies of the time.

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Yes, “bible-themed movies” weren’t something that only “Christian movie producers” made and distributed to primarily religious groups, like it is today. (Except for Mel Gibson…). They were literally a part of major Pop Culture.

And there were big-name religious figures who were more like the celebrity Pop Stars of today, capable of pulling huge audiences both in person and on TV.   Starting with evangelist Billy Graham.

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Born in 1918, Billy did his first gig as an evangelist at age 18, preaching at a service in a small church north of Tampa, Florida.

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As you can see from this 1936 photo taken of him on that day, and the poster below from a later evangelistic campaign the next year, Billy had the kind of wavy pompadour haircut and piercing eyes that made for teen rock-n-roll idols like Elvis and Fabian and Ricky Nelson two decades later in the mid-1950s! (There was even just a tiny bit of the “bad boy” in him in those earliest years…a year or two earlier than the photo above, he had been rejected for membership in a high school Christian youth group in his home area of North Carolina because he was considered too “worldly.”)

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I don’t doubt this made it a bit easier to get some teen girls to be more enthusiastic about going to revivals with their families than when balding, dumpy older guys were the featured attraction!

Not that Billy didn’t eventually become an effective, bombastic speaker, but his classic good looks were not ignored by public relations folks promoting his national efforts later on. After a particularly effective round of crusades in 1957, Paramount pictures was said to have offered a contract to Billy to star in motion pictures, (which he turned down.)

During the decade after his first foray in the pulpit in 1936, Billy gradually had more and more speaking opportunities throughout the country, got involved with Youth For Christ, and at age 30 served a stint as president of a small religious college in Minnesota. But outside of his usual religious circles his name was mostly unknown.

But then came 1949:

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 ON SEPTEMBER 25, 1949, ROUGHLY five thousand residents of Los Angeles huddled together downtown beneath a massive “canvas cathedral tent” at the corner of Washington and Hill. They had come to this place, in the shadow of the metropolitan courthouse, to hear an evangelical preacher tell them about a judgment that would be handed down by God rather than man. Only thirty years old and still largely unknown, Billy Graham nevertheless made a commanding impression as he strode onto the stage. Dressed sharply in a trim double-breasted suit with his wavy blond hair swept back, he set his square jaw and locked his eyes on the crowd. Drawing on the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the preacher told them that their so-called City of Angels shared many of the “wicked ways” of those infamous cities— sexual promiscuity, addictions to drink and “dope,” teenage delinquency, rampant crime— and it would inevitably share their fate of destruction unless its citizens repented and reformed.

In many ways, Graham’s sermon that day was a preacher’s perennial, a warning of God’s wrath and a call for penitence. But his message took on unusual urgency because of an event then dominating the news. Just two days earlier, Americans had learned that the Soviet Union now had the atomic bomb.  The energetic young Graham seized on the headlines to make the Armageddon foretold in the New Testament seem imminent. “Communism,” he thundered, “has decided against God, against Christ, against the Bible, and against all religion. Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life— communism is a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.” He urged his audience to get religion not simply for their own salvation but for the salvation of their city and country. Without “an old-fashioned revival,” he warned, “we cannot last!”

A virtual unknown when he began this “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” evangelistic campaign, the charismatic preacher rode the rising wave of nuclear anxiety to national prominence. Initial reports in the Hearst papers and wire services were soon followed by longer, glowing stories in Time, Life, and Newsweek. With crowds soon swarming to the outdoor revival, Graham had to extend his stay from the original three weeks to eight in all. When the Los Angeles revival finally came to a close in November 1949, organizers reported that a total of 350,000 people had attended. And Billy Graham had transformed himself into a rising star: a servant of God ready to fight the Cold War.  [Source: Kruse, Kevin. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America]

What happened to turn a relatively small little crowd of 5,000 in a huge city, into 350,000?

Word that Hollywood celebrities were “stepping forward to receive Christ” reached publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who sent a two-word telegram to every editor in his newspaper chain: “Puff Graham.” [In newspaper parlance, a “puff piece” was/is an article or report based on exaggerated praise. Thus to “puff” someone was to inflate their importance in the minds of readers with glowing reports about them.]

Graham told The Times in 2004 that he learned about it from two of Hearst’s sons. They believed their father came to the 1949 revival in his wheelchair and in disguise, accompanied by his longtime mistress, actress Marion Davies. Hearst’s intervention prompted the revival to run eight weeks — five weeks longer than planned. Hearst died less than two years later.

“I never met him and I never corresponded with him,” Graham said. “I should have written him and thanked him.” [2007 LA Times article]

Indeed he should have. What had evidently been missing from Graham’s repertoire was Big Time Public Relations.

Obviously, it didn’t take long for the national publicity to affect the “tone” of the “advertising materials” for the Crusade.  Check out this dinky little first ad in the local papers for the “giant rally” to start September 25.

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Now check out the ad splashed over the papers five weeks later.

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The revival was supposed to last just three weeks, and at first it seemed like it would be. “In the beginning, the crusade did not fare well,” says Wacker. “The attendance was mediocre. Graham and his associates became discouraged.”

Like any good preacher, Graham prayed for something to happen. Hoping for divine intervention, he kept his tent pitched for one more week.

The fourth week, Graham walked into his tent to find a sea of journalists. “Reporters started writing down his comments and he was astonished. He was a very young man at this point, he was a man in his early 30s,” says Wacker. “Bulbs are popping and these reporters are taking notes. And he asked naturally, what’s happened here. ‘why are you writing down everything I’m saying?’ And one of the reporters said to him: ‘You have been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.’”

… Hearst was the owner of a newspaper empire, and all-around media mogul. He had apparently told his reporters to start writing articles about Graham’s L.A. gathering.

“And almost immediately the Los Angeles Times, which Hearst did not own picked it up – the story. In a few days Time magazine picked it up, then LIFE Magazine,” Wacker says. The story even reached audiences in Europe and Asia.

All this press attention attracted scores of gawkers, many of whom came out of pure curiosity. But the crowds continued to build. Wacker describes it as a sort of truck stop mentality. “If there are a lot of cars parked outside, a lot of trucks – this must be good. The press presented this as a landmark in the history of American revivalism.”

Soon a space that could seat 3,000 was expanded to accommodate 9,000. On one occasion, it was estimated that another 15,000 people stood outside listening.

… And what of the man at the center of all this attention? Well, the content of Graham’s sermons wasn’t very different from what many others preached at the time. It hit all of the familiar notes of revival preaching — troubles of the world, personal issues, salvation.

What set Graham apart was his presence. And his delivery. He was tall, handsome, and commanding. His voice boomed at a lightning clip. Wacker says that stenographers clocked his preaching at 240 words a minute.

“He did that deliberately because he thought that successful newscasters spoke very very rapidly. He was animated. He paced the platform and one account he often paced a full mile in the course of the sermon. And then the gestures. A flurry of gestures with his fists, hitting into the plumb of his hand, fingers stabbing outward, the crouching of the knees.” One reporter even wrote that he had the energy of a coiled panther.

Billy Graham was often compared to another Billy, famous former-baseball-player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday. A half century earlier, Sunday wowed crowds with his enthusiastic gestures.

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Graham was just a tiny bit less flamboyant and bombastic than Sunday…but came pretty close at times, as you can see in this photo from his Youth For Christ days!

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His sermons were also peppered with appearances from figures — sure to play well in glitzy L.A. Radio personalities, actresses and athletes appeared to testify to the power of Graham’s message. And this was also conscious, says Wacker. “The word of the satisfied customer to put it in marketing terms. And he understood that this was more powerful than technical theological apologetic.”

All this gave the press yet another story to tell. Newspapers across the country, and around the world, were fascinated by the fascination with Graham.

The revival was originally slotted for a three-week run, but it lasted for two months. By the end of November 1949, Graham was an international commodity.

… “So the question is why? Why did Hearst give him this attention? Hearst was not known to be a particularly religious man and he was not known to be an evangelical figure like Graham.” The truth, he says, is that no one really knows why Hearst turned his attention to Billy Graham.

But nothing in American history happens in a vacuum. Wacker thinks all the attention was actually a response to bigger, international forces.

Two days before the revival started, the Soviets had successfully exploded an atomic bomb and Harry Truman announced this. And by all accounts people were frightened to know that this nation possessed nuclear weapons and could inflict terrible damage upon Americans.”

About a week later, communists, led by Mao Zedong, toppled the Chinese government. These were both themes that Graham pounded in his eight week revival.

In sermon titled, “What’s Wrong with the World?” he shouted about weapons the Soviets were developing and their shadowy networks. “We’re told today about death rays– as far as the light can penetrate it will burn everything under the penetrating ray of that light. And we’re told that there are more subversive forces in Los Angeles than any city in America. Your own mayor told me that just the other day in his office. And I’ll tell you, if there was ever an hour that Los Angeles needs to come to its knees before God it’s the crisis now in which we live in.”

Hearst was a smart newsman. He no doubt recognized the value of a really good story. A story about frightening times, the individual sitting in that tent, and of course, God.

It’s a story that has always been a part of Billy Graham’s sermons. But Los Angeles 1949 was a moment where that story was particularly compelling.

And Graham was talented enough to ride that wave. [Article: Kissed by Hearst, backstoryradio.org]

Billy rode that wave within weeks right on into the Fabulous Fifties, where he became a perennial household name, with huge crusades all across the land, often broadcast on network television in prime time slots. One of the most memorable was his New York City Crusade of 1957. It was held in Madison Square Garden, a venue that had a capacity of over 18,000 people…who would usually be there for sporting events like world championship boxing matches.  Such as this “Fight of the Century” that had been held there in October 1951.

boxing

In 1957, you might say it was to be the venue of Billy’s challenge to the demons of New York city for the souls of its citizens.

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It began at Madison Square Garden on May 15, and original plans had been for a two-week engagement.  But the response was so overwhelming that on June 3 the organizers decided to extend it. And extend it they did. It ultimately lasted 16 weeks. During the 110 day period, there were 100 services held. Total attendance was reported to have been 2,397,400, with 61,148 reported to have walked down the aisle to “make a decision for Christ.” [God in the Garden (1957 documentary book)]

Actually, that seems like a pretty small percentage of the total…were the rest just “unrepentant sinners” who were unpersuaded by Graham’s rhetoric? I think that highly unlikely. The reality was, I’m pretty sure, that by 1957 Billy was such a Christian superstar that the lion’s share of the huge crowds who came out to see him were already committed Christians, most of them likely attending “the church of their choice” most Sundays.

I think that they were there for much the same reason that high school students attend pep rallies for their sports teams…to show support for the efforts of “one of their own.” And soak in the excitement of being at such a splendiferous event! After all, a Billy Graham Crusade had top notch musicians and soloists (including George Beverly Shea singing How Great Thou Art), and huge choirs, so it was no doubt an exhilarating experience! Here’s a tiny taste of what that was like, with Cliff Barrows introducing Shea.

And seeing Billy in person using his gift of rhetoric to move the huge crowd was no doubt exciting. You can check out that huge crowd in the short newsreel clip below.

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Average daily attendance inside the Garden during the 16 weeks was reported to have been 17,828.

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A single additional service, held at the Yankee Stadium in July in record-breaking 90+ degree heat, was attended by 100,000 people, the largest crowd in the Stadium’s history.

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All 67,000 seats were filled, as was all standing room including the entire outfield, and an estimated 20,000 had to be turned away.  (Side tidbit…the largest previous attendance at the stadium had been in 1950—92,000 for a Jehovah’s Witnesses rally!)

 

During fourteen of the Saturday nights during the Crusade, the proceedings were telecast coast to coast on ABC TV, with an estimated 96,000,000 people having viewed one or more of the broadcasts by the end of the series.

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Billy finished up the Crusade on September 11, OUTSIDE Madison Square Garden, with a rally in Times Square that was jammed with an estimated 125,000 people.

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Yes, when 21st century folks look back at photos and news stories and video clips of Billy Graham’s amazing appeal in the 1950s, it is easy to assume they are evidence that the nation in that era was a very, very religious place.

And not just for the Protestants who were excited about Billy Graham!
Roman Catholic Americans had their own superstar, not at big public rallies like Billy’s, but onscreen on network television. In fact, the first use of the term “televangelist” seems to have been in a TIME magazine article from April, 1952. TIME used it to describe Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, in the title of the cover article: “Bishop Fulton J Sheen: the first “Televangelist.”

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Sheen had just won an Emmy award two months earlier for “Most Outstanding Television Personality” for his appearances on his weekly TV show “Life is Worth Living.” He beat out Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, and Edward R Murrow for that Emmy!

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Fulton J Sheen was a parish priest and college professor in the late 1920s when he started his broadcasting career with a night time radio program, The Catholic Hour.

In 1951 he began a weekly television program on the DuMont Television Network titled Life Is Worth Living. Filmed at the Adelphi Theatre in New York City, the program consisted of the unpaid Sheen simply speaking in front of a live audience without a script or cue cards, occasionally using a chalkboard.

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The show, scheduled in a graveyard slot on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m., was not expected to challenge the ratings giants Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, but did surprisingly well. Berle, known to many early television viewers as “Uncle Miltie” and for using ancient vaudeville material, joked about Sheen, “He uses old material, too”, and observed that “[i]f I’m going to be eased off the top by anyone, it’s better that I lose to the One for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.” Sheen responded in jest that maybe people should start calling him “Uncle Fultie”.

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Life and Time magazine ran feature stories on Bishop Sheen. The number of stations carrying Life Is Worth Living jumped from three to fifteen in less than two months. There was fan mail that flowed in at a rate of 8,500 letters per week. There were four times as many requests for tickets as could be fulfilled. Admiral [manufacturer of radios and TVs], the sponsor, paid the production costs in return for a one-minute commercial at the opening of the show and another minute at the close. [Wiki article, Fulton J Sheen]

From the 1952 Time article:

“He’s terrific,” says a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, which produces Bishop Sheen’s program. “We get four times as many requests for tickets as we can fill. We turn down a lot of requests that sound as if they might come from girls’ schools. We don’t want any squealing. First thing you know, he’d turn into a clerical Sinatra. [“Clerical” is a term for “clergy,” such as Catholic priests.]

At first we were worried about the show. You know, a half hour of just talking, just standing there looking at the cameras. After all, people have double chins and all that sort of thing. But not he. He’s telegenic. He’s wonderful. The gestures, the timing, the voice. If he came out in a barrel and read the telephone book, they’d love him.”

 

Yes, looking at the Big Screens at the theaters of America and the Little Screens in homes of America in the 1950s and early 1960s, it would be understandable that some folks might assume that such in-your-face religious content would be evidence that the culture at large was characterized by religious zeal, and that the country itself was particularly piously Christian.

Of course, that’s pretty limited evidence. The next entry in this series will examine some other factors which seem to inspire Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows (along with a lot of other “evangelical Christians”), who want America To Be Christian Again, to want to restore the America of that supposedly Golden Era.

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Click to read the next entry in this series…

Religion in American Life

 

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