Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 14
Dirty Little Secrets
This is Part 14 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Although each entry in the series has some information and commentary
that can be of interest “standing alone,” each builds on
information, concepts, and commentary introduced in earlier entries in the series,
and thus it is most effective to read the material sequentially from the beginning.
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1
“You go and tell that goddam minister that if he gives out one more story about my religious faith I won’t join his goddam church!”
(President Dwight D. Eisenhower to his Press Secretary, Jim Hagerty, 1953, regarding the pastor who just recently baptized him.)
“Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer.”
(Eisenhower remark at a cabinet meeting, early 1950s.)
That the 1950s and early 60s have a reputation as God’s Era, with America swept by religious fervor and thereby blessed by God with wealth and prestige, is undeniable. You can read about it all over the Web in 2017, usually from authors wistful that they are no longer surrounded by such a pious citizenry.
Off to the Church of Their Choice
Patriotic writings from that time period often referred to the US as God’s Favored Nation, with a mandate to evangelize the world…and some even literally referred to President Eisenhower as its “High Priest”…the epitome of godliness. He had a carefully groomed public face of a man of deep spirituality
Ike and Mamie…with the “goddam minister” who baptized him…
However, peeking behind the scenes and finding quotes from Ike like those above can leave one with just a bit of Cognitive Dissonance. Not just about Ike, but about the whole public face of America as a Holy Nation. As it turns out, digging a little deeper than that COULD leave one with not just dissonance…but disillusionment. But few seem to have the time to do any digging. Just passing along Facebook memes extolling the past keeps most folks from ever having to face any such disillusionment.
I’ve been doing some digging. Here’s one of the items I’ve looked into.
The assumption that America was, is, and always will be a Christian nation dates back no further than the 1930s, when a coalition of businessmen and religious leaders united in opposition to the FDR’s New Deal. With the full support of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, these activists—the forerunners of the Religious Right—propelled religion into the public sphere. Church membership skyrocketed; Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance  and made “In God We Trust” the country’s official motto . For the first time, America became a thoroughly religious nation.
Provocative and authoritative, One Nation Under God reveals how the comingling of money, religion, and politics created a false origin story that continues to define and divide American politics today.
Here’s a quip from a magazine interview with the author.
Salon Magazine interview, 2015
In 1949, some of the country’s top advertising executives launched a national marketing campaign. They weren’t selling a physical product. They were selling religion. Before long, the Religion in American Life campaign was placing close to 10,000 newspaper ads per year, coordinating national radio marketing, and putting up thousands of billboards, all intended “to accent the importance of all religious institutions as the basis of American life.” Major corporations bankrolled the effort.
We tend to imagine public expressions of faith as rising spontaneously from the American people, for good or for ill. When a politician says “God bless America,” she’s trying to sound like a populist, not like a corporate pawn. But as Princeton historian Kevin Kruse details in a new book, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” our country’s religious slogans owe more to corporate campaigns than they do to grassroots work.
As Kruse argues, in the wake of the New Deal, business leaders linked Christianity, Republican politics and libertarian economics, helping drive a wave of public piety in the 1950s. The decade gave us our national motto, In God We Trust (born in 1956), and a new line in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation under God” (dating to 1954, this American tradition is [only] as old as Burger King and Denzel Washington). [Source]
This process didn’t start in 1949, though. It can be traced back directly to 1940, as outlined in Kruse’s book.
IN DECEMBER 1940, MORE THAN five thousand industrialists from across America took part in their yearly pilgrimage to Park Avenue. For three days every winter, the posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel welcomed them for the annual meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).
That year, the program promised a particularly impressive slate of speakers. Corporate leaders were well represented, of course, with addresses set from titans at General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, Mutual Life, and Sears, Roebuck, to name only a few. Some of the other featured attractions hailed from beyond the boardroom: popular lecturers such as noted etiquette expert Emily Post, renowned philosopher-historian Will Durant, and even Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover.
Tucked away near the end of the program was a name that few knew upon arrival but everyone would be talking about by the week’s end: Reverend James W. Fifield Jr. Ordinarily, a Congregationalist minister might not have seemed well suited to address the corporate luminaries assembled at the Waldorf-Astoria. But his appearance had been years in the making.
For much of the 1930s, organizations such as NAM had been searching in vain for ways to rehabilitate a public image that had been destroyed in the crash [of the Stock Market in 1929] and defamed by the New Deal. In 1934, a new generation of conservative industrialists took over NAM with a promise to “serve the purposes of business salvation.” “The public does not understand industry,” one of them argued, “because industry itself has made no effort to tell its story; to show the people of this country that our high living standards have risen almost altogether from the civilization which industrial activity has set up.”
Accordingly, NAM dedicated itself to spreading the gospel of free enterprise, hiring its first full-time director of public relations and vastly expanding its expenditures in the field. As late as 1934, NAM spent a paltry $ 36,000 on public relations. Three years later, the organization devoted $ 793,043 to the cause, more than half its total income that year. Seeking to repair the image of industrialists, NAM promoted the values of free enterprise through a wide array of films, radio programs, advertisements, direct mail, a speakers bureau, and a press service that provided ready-made editorials and news stories for seventy-five hundred local newspapers.
Ultimately, though, its efforts at self-promotion were seen as precisely that. As one observer later noted, “Throughout the thirties, enough of the corporate campaign was marred by extremist, overt attacks on the unions and the New Deal that it was easy for critics to dismiss the entire effort as mere propaganda.”
All that was about to change. Business was about to “get religion.”
…When Roosevelt launched the New Deal , an array of politically liberal clergymen championed his proposal for a vast welfare state as simply “the Christian thing to do.” His administration’s efforts to regulate the economy and address the excesses of corporate America were singled out for praise. Catholic and Protestant leaders hailed the “ethical and human significance” of New Deal measures, which they said merely “incorporated into law some of the social ideas and principles for which our religious organizations have stood for many years.” The head of the Federal Council of Churches, for instance, claimed the New Deal embodied basic Christian principles such as the “significance of daily bread, shelter, and security.”
FDR signs the Social Security Act, 1935
Throughout the 1930s, the nation’s industrialists tried to counter the selflessness of the Social Gospel with direct appeals to Americans’ self-interest but had little success.
Accordingly, at the Waldorf-Astoria in December 1940, NAM president H. W. Prentis proposed that they try to beat Roosevelt at his own game. With wispy white hair and a weak chin, the fifty-six-year-old head of the Armstrong Cork Company seemed an unlikely star. But eighteen months earlier, the Pennsylvanian had electrified the business world with a speech to the US Chamber of Commerce that called for the recruitment of religion in the public relations war against the New Deal. “Economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism,” Prentis warned; “the only antidote is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith.”
The speech thrilled the Chamber and propelled Prentis to the top ranks of NAM. His presidential address at the Waldorf-Astoria was anticipated as a major national event, heavily promoted in advance by the Wall Street Journal and broadcast live over both ABC and CBS radio. Again, Prentis urged the assembled businessmen to emphasize faith in their public relations campaigns. “We must give attention to those things more cherished than material wealth and physical security,” he asserted. “We must give more attention to intellectual leadership and a strengthening of the spiritual concept that underlies our American way of life.”
But a speech by an industrial leader could not be expected to carry much weight outside his own peer group. To give “spiritual credibility” for this message to a wider audience, a spokesman from the Spiritual World was needed.
…James W. Fifield Jr. was on hand to answer Prentis’s call.
Handsome, tall, and somewhat gangly, the forty-one-year-old Congregationalist minister bore more than a passing resemblance to Jimmy Stewart. (His politics resembled not those of the actor’s famous character George Bailey, the crusading New Deal populist in It’s a Wonderful Life, but rather those of Bailey’s nemesis, the reactionary banker Henry Potter.) Addressing the industrialists at the Waldorf-Astoria, Fifield delivered a passionate defense of the American system of free enterprise and a withering assault on its perceived enemies in government.
Decrying the New Deal’s “encroachment upon our American freedoms,” the minister listed a litany of sins committed by the Roosevelt administration, ranging from its devaluation of currency to its disrespect for the Supreme Court. He denounced the “rising costs of government and the multitude of federal agencies attached to the executive branch” and warned ominously of “the menace of autocracy approaching through bureaucracy.”
His audience of executives was stunned. Over the preceding decade, these titans of industry had been told, time and time again, that they were to blame for the nation’s downfall. Fifield, in contrast, insisted that they were the source of its salvation.
From Villains to Heroes in one day. It must have been a heady experience indeed.
“When he had finished,” a journalist noted, “rumors report that the N.A.M. applause could be heard in Hoboken.” With his speech at the Waldorf-Astoria, Fifield convinced the industrialists that clergymen could be the means of regaining the upper hand in their war with Roosevelt in the coming years. As men of God, they could give voice to the same conservative complaints as business leaders, but without any suspicion that they were motivated solely by self-interest.
In doing so, they could push back against claims that business had somehow sinned and the welfare state was doing God’s work. While Roosevelt had joked that the Liberty League was concerned only with commandments against coveting and stealing, conservative clergymen now used their ministerial authority to argue, quite explicitly, that New Dealers were the ones violating the Ten Commandments.
In countless sermons, speeches, and articles issued in the months and years after Fifield’s address, these ministers claimed that the Democratic administration made a “false idol” of the federal government, leading Americans to worship it over the Almighty; that it caused Americans to covet what the wealthy possessed and seek to steal it from them; and that, ultimately, it bore false witness in making wild claims about what it could never truly accomplish. Above all, they insisted that the welfare state was not a means to implement Christ’s teachings about caring for the poor and the needy, but rather a perversion of Christian doctrine.
In a forceful rejection of the public service themes of the Social Gospel, they argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. If any political and economic system fit with the religious teachings of Christ, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified such values, they insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise.
In other words, according to their version of the Gospel, Jesus Himself endorsed unfettered Capitalism, condemned such things as “social safety nets” like Social Security—and even public works programs such as the CCC—as destroying “personal initiative” (in the old, the feeble, the starving, and the destitute??).
God would surely be against unions, since they interfered with a corporate leader’s power to do as he pleased to fulfill his plans. And God gave evidence of His approval of unfettered capitalistic economic methods by “blessing” industrialists—and bankers, and stock brokers and their peers—with wealth.
And any attempt to interfere in any way with the freedom of the wealthy to be led by the Profit Motive was ungodly and a tool of the devil.
But this re-imagining of the “true nature” of the “Biblical basis of American economics” didn’t emerge from careful examination of the Bible, from theological studies at religious seminaries, nor from discussions among clergyman of various denominations at the grass roots level. It emerged in the rarified air of the exclusive circles of the American business elite and the pastors who served them what they wanted to hear.
And more importantly, the “national revival” of Church Going and Public Piety that eventually formed around these economic theories in the 1950s was not a “spontaneous eruption” of renewed religious feeling and spiritual faith. Both the theories, and the implementation of their propagation to the citizenry of the US (and the religious manifestations among the masses that resulted from their efforts) were the direct result of public relations persuasion, subtle propaganda, and not-so-subtle badgering by the national outreaches of organizations formed by “Corporate America”… Big Business, with the cooperation of a significant proportion of religious leaders in the nation. (And the cooperation of a lot of Madison Avenue ad men.)
Dirty Little Secrets
Behind the “Standard Narrative” about the piety of America in the 1950s and early 60s, and about the “astonishing revival” of interest in religion that characterized that period, lie what I have termed a collection of four “Dirty Little Secrets.” The façade seen in illustrations from that era belie the reality of these secrets.
Upcoming entries in this blog series will examine these four Dirty Little Secrets in detail and with documentation.
Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows—and their legions of followers—have bought into that Standard Narrative. They believe that the US reached a peak in its growth as a Great and Godly nation in the 1950s, fell soon after that from God’s favor, and needs to be “restored” to that status so that God’s blessings of prosperity could be once again bestowed on the nation. And they believe that President Donald Trump and his administration are now God’s tools to bring about that restoration.
Yes, they want to recreate the Holy Happy Days of the 1950s, not realizing that they were neither… as holy or as happy as so many have been led to believe.
The upcoming entry in this series will investigate the first of those Dirty Little Secrets…
Manufacturing Religious Revival