Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 7
“Religion in American Life”
This is Part 7 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1.
The previous entry in this series, “God’s Era” focused on a couple of factors that cause nostalgic evangelical Christians of the present to look back fondly on the Happy Days of the 1950s and early 60s as a time when, they are convinced, America was not only “Great,” but openly and fervently “Christian.” There are two pieces of historic evidence that contribute to this view, that you can experience vicariously by googling photos and videos from that era:
- The Big Screens of the time often featured splendiferous bible-themed main-stream Hollywood motion pictures, such as The Robe (1953)…The Ten Commandments (1956)…
and Ben Hur(1959) …
- Two of the most popular celebrities of the time on the Small Screens in American homes were Christian “ministers”:Protestant Evangelist Billy Graham was regularly featured on TV live or in televised films, preaching in huge “Crusades.” A famous 16-week series of such meetings at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1957 racked up a total attendance of almost 2,400,000 people.
And Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J Sheen’s weekly televised Bible lessons on his Life is Worth Living show, peppered with well-delivered bits of humor and well-crafted, uplifting inspirational encouragement were so popular with a wide audience, they won him an Emmy in 1952 as “Most Outstanding Television Personality,” beating out Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, and Edward Murrow for the prize.
There are plenty of religious TV shows on television in modern times too, of course—but they are not on “prime time, network TV” as were Graham and Sheen’s shows back in the Happy Days era. They are now segregated into their own special-interest religious cable channels such as the Trinity Broadcasting Network, where they can be safely ignored by the general public.
And they feature religious celebrities and preachers who have a “style” quite different from Graham and Sheen!
They just don’t compare any more to That Old Time Religion in the early 1950s, when Sheen’s show on network TV was so popular with the general public that famous comedian Milton Berle would joke on his own TV show about Sheen as a rival for the laughs of the public…and not be totally joking!
And there are plenty of Christian-themed movies that play at theaters at times today…but not created by Hollywood studios. And not attended in general by large groups from “the public.” They are mostly produced and filmed by “in-house” Christian groups, and promoted in Christian circles as “family-friendly,” with their public relations people encouraging whole church congregations to get together and buy up blocks of tickets to distribute to members. And their “production values” don’t approach those of blockbuster Hollywood films such as the Star Wars films, in the way that The Ten Commandments (which won an Oscar for Best Film in 1957) matched non-religious films of the same era, like The King and I or Westside Story. The 2014 popular film (in Christian circles) God’s Not Dead was definitely no competition with that year’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
But of course TV shows and movies aren’t really enough to establish just how religious the man on the street may have been in the Happy Days era, to convince a skeptic that America was truly A Christian Nation back then. So what else might we look for? I do have some memories of my own to share about some aspects of the era, as I was in grade school and high school during the Heydays of the Happy Days.
I invite you to join me as we time travel to about… oh, 1956 or so, when I was in fifth grade.
That was about the year I first noticed THEM. The billboards. They seemed to spring up out of nowhere along streets and highways across the land. They often featured an illustration of a happy (white—always white) family of Mommy, Daddy, brother, sister, and baby, all with toothy grins, all decked out in their finest clothes. Daddy was often clutching Baby Brother. And Mommy, with her prim white “dress gloves,” was usually clutching a black book. Just like in THESE illustrations:
You knew right away what that black book was. The Big Bold Print on the billboard gave it away: “Attend the church of your choice next Sunday.” Of course. Mommy was carrying a Bible. (Not sure why, but I don’t EVER remember seeing an illustration in which Daddy carried a Bible…) And across the bottom of the billboard, in much smaller print, was the notice that this billboard was provided by something called “Religion In American Life.” You see, it wasn’t an “advertisement” put up by the local Baptist or Methodist church, trying to drum up business for their own congregation. It wasn’t even a “group ad” put up by the “local council of churches” in some town encouraging people to pick one of the in-town churches every week. Actually, that is something you DO see even to this day…a sign outside a town that lists all the churches in town, like this modern one below for Azusa, California.
But no, those 1950s signs weren’t local…they were part of an astonishingly prolific national campaign by something called “Religion in American Life,” and were a “generic” pitch to encourage everyone in the US to commit to church attendance. This campaign started in 1949 and continued on into the 1960s and even beyond. And it was no minor little effort.
In 1956 alone, the RIAL venture erected 5,412 billboards along major highways, with another 9,857 posters featured at bus, train, and railroad stations, and 59,590 ad cards highlighted inside buses, trains, subways, and streetcars. [Source: One Nation Under God book]
And the billboards and other transportation settings weren’t the only places where you saw such an announcement—on Saturday night at the local “movie palace” or the Drive-In Theater outside of town, during the intermission, in amongst the bouncy ads for the hotdogs and popcorn at the refreshment stand…
…would be an identical “public service announcement” projected on the Big Screen, with a cheerful booming voice reminding you again to “Attend the church of your choice next Sunday.”
Some theaters of that era even sent out monthly ads via the postal service that showed the movies that would be playing at that theater during the month. And as you’ll notice in the top left corner of this 1949 program for a theater in Nevada, such ads included a pitch for Church Attendance too!
I’m pretty sure lots of folks in my Baby Boomer generation are convinced by their vague memories of this widespread “advertising campaign” of that era that it was evidence that the Christian Religion was deeply enmeshed in American society of the time, with the Values of biblical Christianity front and center in the minds of most citizens.
Another memory that might reinforce that perspective…when Cecil B Demille was getting ready to release his blockbuster Ten Commandments movie in 1956, he found the perfect “advance advertisement” idea. The national Fraternal Order of Eagles clubs had for some time had a project in which they widely distributed plaques that featured the Ten Commandments, for display in courthouses, businesses, homes and elsewhere. DeMille contacted the Eagles organization and offered to help them in a much more ambitious project…he suggested they create and distribute large granite monument versions of the Ten Commandments, sort of like the tablets that Charlton Heston carried down the mountain in the film, to be placed in public venues such as courthouse lawns across the land. And he promised to back their efforts with his own publicity machine, including sending stars from the movie to the installation ceremonies. The Eagles (which, by the way, were an organization started by theater owners in the late 1800s, and made up during their early years almost entirely of members of the theater world such as actors, playwrights, and stage hands!) jumped at the opportunity.
Records are not clear on exactly how many such monuments the Eagles donated and installed in major locations across the land. But the lowest figure I’ve seen was at least 100–other sources claim maybe up to 2,000. They kept up the practice long after the Heston/Brynner movie was long gone from theaters.
Many still exist to today…and some have even played a part in the modern Supreme Court debates over such displays on government property. For instance, one such monument had been donated to the Oklahoma state government, for installation on the congressional grounds in Oklahoma City. Somehow, it never got erected, and was misplaced. Reading of this in 2008, an Oklahoma congressman pressured successfully for a duplicate to be made and installed there.
One item of interest about this particular “replacement” monument…it wasn’t REALLY a replica of the original, even though it may seem so. See if you can tell the difference in the two pics below, other than the fact of the roman numerals used on one. The one on the left is the engraved wording from one of the original 1956 monuments. The one on the right is the Oklahoma City modern monument.
Did you spot the insertion in the modern version?
When I committed the Ten Commandments to memory many years ago, I remember very distinctly that the Fourth Commandment was the command to “remember the Sabbath Day.” So I was startled today to be taking a closer look at the original Eagles monuments and see that the Sabbath command was labeled as being Number III. And I remembered that Number IX ought to be “Thou shalt not bear false witness…” but on the monuments, that is number VIII.
The Commandments on the Oklahoma monument don’t HAVE any numerals next to them. So it was a bit difficult to spot immediately that there is a distinct difference between that version and the 1956 version. And then it dawned on me.
I had committed the Commandments to memory in their “Protestant” version, but became aware quite a few years ago that Roman Catholic children memorize a slightly different version…a version that leaves out the “thou shalt not”…regarding “graven (carved) images.” For kind of obvious reasons…it could lead to a bit of cognitive dissonance in Catholic kids when they walk into the average Roman Catholic church.
Obviously there are a lot of carved images around. Mind you, Roman Catholicism has explanations for why the use of these particular graven/carved images are NOT what the Thou Shalt Not from Mt. Sinai was talking about. But those explanations are kind of complex, and would take quite a bit of effort to sort it all out for “religious beginners” like new converts or young children. So it’s not surprising that they just avoid the problem by juggling Commandment lists a bit. The graven image commandment that is Number II in Protestant lists is just left out, and to keep the total at 10, the Protestant Number X (about not coveting) is divided into two separate commandments. Number IX forbids coveting your neighbor’s house. Number X forbids coveting his wife or…ahem…any of his OTHER possessions. (This obvious connection making the wife seem like a “possession” along with servants and animals and other things that a man would “own” seems to me to be a bit of a problematic issue to discuss with kids too, but that’s another issue for another day…)
Anyway, it’s obvious that the 1956 monuments deliberately featured the Roman Catholic version of the Commandments. This is no surprise when you find out that the Fraternal Order of Eagles leader who created the Ten Commandment outreach in the first place, Judge E. J. Ruegemer from Minnesota, was a devout Catholic. It’s equally no surprise that once many Protestants caught on where the version came from, they requested their OWN version be on any monuments they accepted from the Eagles in the future, such as this one below. It was presented by the Eagles in 1961 to the government of Texas, to be displayed at the state capitol in Austin.
This Austin monument was at the center of a “separation of church and state” US Supreme Court battle in 2005. The conclusion of the Court at that time was that its display on public property was not unconstitutional.
The Oklahoma City monument didn’t survive a similar challenge in 2012. The case challenging it didn’t make its way all the way to the US Supreme Court, but was settled instead by the State Supreme Court, as seen in this June 2015 news report.
An Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that the Ten Commandments monument must be removed from the state Capitol grounds touched off a storm of protests Tuesday with several lawmakers calling for the impeachment of the seven justices who supported the decision.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt [yes, THAT Scott Pruitt, the one now EPA director under Donald Trump] said he believes the court “got it wrong” and he plans to ask for a rehearing. At the very least, that will delay removal of the monument. [Source]
To the chagrin of Pruitt and others, in the November 2016 election, the voters of Oklahoma rejected a proposed change to the State Constitution that would have attempted to force the return of the monument. Undaunted, 2017 sees the fight continued, as described in this January 26, 2017 article:
Another year at the capitol means another fight brewing over the state’s most controversial statue.
Newly elected Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair) wants voters to have another chance to bring the Ten Commandments monument back to capitol grounds.
“Oklahomans want to be able to display the Ten Commandments,” Bergstrom told NewsChannel 4. “I think it is on peoples’ minds, and I think it is something we can fix pretty easily.” [Source]
With Trump—and Pruitt—now in power on the Federal level, and with all of Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows no doubt jumping on this bandwagon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the DeMille-inspired monument being installed again in Oklahoma City soon. (Since Charlton Heston died in 2008, I guess Moses won’t be available for THAT dedication ceremony, though. Maybe The Donald will show up instead…)
As you can see, since Ten Commandments monuments were going up all over the land and religious Public Service Announcements were swamping billboards and movie screens back in the 1950s, it’s easy for some people to “remember” the America of those Happy Days as a particularly pious land. And there is another related factor that many old-timers may remember from the era too, that might reinforce the concept in their minds—you can see reminders of it on the “collectible postcard” sections of Ebay. That’s where you can find many samples of “church postcards” of the 1950s/early 60s. For even though the RIAL folks were using movie screens and billboards to cheerily remind families to go to church this COMING week, the churches themselves sometimes used a much “harder sell” when individuals DIDN’T show up LAST week.
The sell employed even more “strong arm tactics” if the slacker who had been missing Sunday School or church for several weeks was in danger of not showing up for that all-important “Rally Day”!
My nuclear family never belonged to a particular church during my grade school and high school years…the only time I remember going “as a family” to church services was that annual pilgrimage that MANY folks of that time made—for Easter Sunday. Mother and I would get pretty new spring dresses and flowery hats for the occasion, Dad would put on a suit and tie for the only time in most years I ever saw him dress “formally.” And then after our token appearance at church, we’d go out for an Easter Dinner at a restaurant, something we seldom did any other time of the year other than on road trips.
Over the years I occasionally attended a variety of churches as a guest with more religious friends or extended family members, but usually just for a short time, never long enough to get on some “church roll” that would trigger notice that I was “missing.” So I never got any of those postcards.
I was, however, victim of an even more personalized Guilt Trip imposed regularly on myself and many of my classmates by my third grade public school teacher in Dayton, Ohio during the 1954-55 school year. Here are my classmates and me with her and our grade school principal/Dwight Eisenhower Lookalike.
(That’s me in the third row from the front, third student from the left.)
Every Monday morning for quite some time during that year, after we stood and saluted the US Flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance, and sat down at our desks, Teacher would request every child who had attended church and/or Sunday School the day before to rise again and stand by their desks, to be honored and admired and respected by all us little wretches who hadn’t done our religious duty that weekend. Now that I’ve read up on the RIAL movement, I’m almost suspicious she may been a RIAL Operative! (To this day I can’t figure how she got around in her mind the fact that there were at least five children in the class who were…Jewish.)
Many modern evangelicals seem to think that during the days of my youth “God was in the schools” in a way He isn’t now. They seem convinced that all or most schools back then had “bible readings” that instructed children in the way of the Lord and kept them on a straight and narrow path. And that most kids took part in—or at least listened attentively to—“school prayers.” Which somehow kept them “close to God” during their school day and fortified them for being Good Boys and Girls in their neighborhoods and homes after school.
And they are likewise convinced that now that schools don’t have such prayers and Bible readings, God has somehow been “thrown out of schools,” and that accounts for why children and teens are naughty and rebellious now. I am absolutely convinced that a majority of evangelical Christians who voted for Donald Trump did so in the belief that somehow he would be able to unilaterally “make schools Christian again” like they were when America was Great in those Happy Days.
They are now eagerly waiting for him to return prayer and Bible reading to public schools, and thus Save the Children. And maybe, as part of his infrastructure plans for the US, he will even commission new RIAL billboards to be constructed along the highways of the land, admonishing everyone to Attend the Church of Their Choice this coming week. After all, one of his FIRST campaign promises in October 2015 was that under his administration everyone WOULD be required to say “Merry Christmas” in every store in America! No more of this “Happy Holidays” nonsense. Hear it from his own lips in this clip.
Yes, as The Donald exclaimed in that famous speech:
I will tell you–I’m a good Christian, okay? Remember that!
And I told you about Christmas. And I guarantee, if I become president, we’re gonna be saying “Merry Christmas” at every store. We’re not going to be doing – Every store. Every store.
The “Happy Holiday” – you can leave that over in the corner. ‘Happy Holiday,’ everybody. Enjoy it. But I’m saying “Merry Christmas”to whoever the hell wants to hear it!’
Although, of course, two months later when he sent out his own personal Christmas cards…he must have decided that whoever the hell wanted to hear Happy Holidays (who might vote for him) needed to be sopped too. So HERE was the official 2015 Donald J Trump Christmas card he sent out. Maybe “every store” would need to avoid Happy Holidays, but not DJT Inc.
I am going to guess that Trump’s evangelical support base was able to overlook that odd little discrepancy, and go right back to believing that he and he alone was going to be able to do what they had wanted to do for decades… “Take back America” and make it “Christian Again” like it was when it was Great.
In the next entry in this blog, we will be examining the evidence for that Great Christian American Era a little more closely. Click the link below to read…