Corporate interests fueled rise of Christian nationalism by Kevin M. Kruse

This speech, edited for print, was delivered Oct. 10, 2015, at FFRF’s 38th annual convention at Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.

By Kevin M. Kruse

The concept of “one nation under God” is one most Americans take for granted. But the story of how the phrase was coined and how it came to occupy such a central role in the national imagination has never really been explored in full.

Its rough origins are clear, with the words rooted in the almost sacred text of the Gettysburg Address. When he delivered that famous speech, President Abraham Lincoln inserted a spontaneous but still solemn prayer that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” After Lincoln, however, that phrase largely disappeared from political discourse for decades.

In the traditional telling, it suddenly reappeared in the 1950s, plucked out of obscurity and inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in a sudden burst of religious revival. According to the standard story, as America fell under the thrall of the anti-communist panic of the McCarthy era, the nation’s leaders sought to emphasize America’s religious traits as a means of distinguishing it from the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union. In this telling, the religious nationalism of the era was little more than a bit of Cold War propaganda that could be cast aside as international relations evolved.
My current work, however, argues that the postwar religious revival in general — and mobilization of the phrase “under God” in particular — were rooted not in the foreign policy of the 1950s but rather in the domestic politics of the 1930s and 1940s. During that earlier era, corporate titans enlisted conservative religious leaders to create this new era of religious nationalism. Together, they advanced an ideology of “freedom under God” that was meant as a contrast, and a challenge, to the state power that its architects feared most. The government they feared was not the Soviet regime in Moscow but the New Deal administration in Washington.

Big business backers

From the earliest days of the New Deal, corporate America mounted a major campaign to restore the image of big business and to roll back what they called the “creeping socialism” of the welfare state. Corporate leaders resolved to change that situation through a massive campaign of what they called “public relations” but what critics characterized as “propaganda.” They did this by transforming older institutions they ran for the new task and by creating wholly new organizations for the purpose.

In 1934, for instance, a new generation of conservative industrialists took over the leadership of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) with promises of “serving the purposes of business salvation.” The powerful industrial association now dedicated itself to spreading the gospel of free enterprise. As late as 1934, NAM devoted a paltry $36,000 to its public relations efforts.

Three years later, it spent nearly $800,000 — a sum that represented more than half of its total funds that year. NAM used that money to sell free enterprise through a wide array of films, radio programs, paid advertisements, direct mail, a speakers’ bureau and a press service that provided premade editorials and news stories for 7,500 newspapers.
But in the end, NAM’s self-promotion efforts were seen as precisely that. As a chronicler of NAM noted, its arguments were so clearly self-serving that “it was easy for critics to dismiss the entire effort as mere propaganda.”

While traditional business lobbies like NAM were unable to sell free enterprise effectively, neither were the new advocacy organizations that were created specifically for that purpose.

The most prominent of these new groups, the American Liberty League, was created in 1934 to “teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property” and “the duty of government to protect individual initiative and enterprise.” It benefited from the financial backing of major corporate figures, particularly from the upper ranks of companies like DuPont and General Motors. But the prominent role of such men in the group essentially crippled its effectiveness, as the Liberty League, much like NAM, was easily dismissed as an organization of tycoons looking out for their own interests.

Enlisting the clergy

Realizing that they could never effectively make the case for free enterprise on their own, these businessmen made the shrewd decision to outsource the job. But they chose a rather unlikely group to serve as their new champions: the clergy.

While it was an unorthodox decision, the reason was simple. As the oil tycoon J. Howard Pew noted in a private letter to a fellow CEO, corporate leaders needed to enlist clergymen in their cause “because recent polls indicated that of all the groups in America, the ministers had more to do with molding public opinion” than any other segment of society. They were much more popular than business leaders, to be sure, and as men of God, they could advance corporate criticism of the New Deal without the suspicion that they were motivated by self-interest.

But it was one thing to want to enlist the clergy and another to actually do it. As early as 1940, NAM had worked to educate ministers about “the spiritual concept that underlies our American way of life.” But its efforts once again came off as little more than self-serving propaganda.

In 1945, a consultant explained why the effort to recruit clergymen as defenders of free enterprise had failed. He had interviewed dozens of priests, ministers and rabbis, but ultimately found them, almost to a man, repulsed by the organization’s efforts at outreach.

‘Apostle to millionaires’

Accordingly, the industrialists decided that they needed a go-between, a single sympathetic minister whom they could use to reach his fellow clergymen, win them over to the cause of free enterprise and convince them to join him in its defense. They found him in Rev. James W. Fifield Jr.

Fifield had been ministering to the needs of the rich and powerful since 1935, when he became pastor of the posh First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. Located on a palm-shaded drive in the heart of the residential section, the church had an imposing physical structure, including a massive cathedral of concrete with a 176-foot-tall Gothic tower, wedding chapel, gymnasium, three auditoriums and 56 classrooms.

The church included so many of the city’s leading businessmen that one observer said “its roster reads like the Wall Street Journal.” Fifield warmly embraced his new flock, becoming, in the words of one admiring profile, the “Apostle to Millionaires.” To be sure, he was the perfect match for the millionaires in his pews. In the apt words of one observer, Fifield was “one of the most theologically liberal and at the same time politically conservative ministers” of his era.

Theologically liberal, he had no patience for fundamentalists. Reading the bible, he reasoned, should be “like eating fish — we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value.” Accordingly, he dismissed Christ’s teachings on wealth and poverty to embrace more recent theories about the compatibility of Christianity and capitalism.

“The blessings of capitalism come from God,” he argued. “A system that provides so much for the common good and happiness must flourish under the favor of the Almighty.”

While Fifield took a loose approach to the bible, he was a strict constructionist with the Constitution. He believed that the New Deal expansion of the federal government was wholly unconstitutional. As it fought the “restricting trends” of “pagan statism,” the church would find natural allies in corporate America because “business, like the church, is naturally interested in the preservation of basic freedom in this nation. Goodness and Christian ideals run proportionately high among businessmen,” Fifield said. To lead this crusade of churches and corporations in defense of freedom, Fifield created an organization he called Spiritual Mobilization. Its credo: “Man, being created free as a child of God, has certain inalienable rights and responsibilities; the state must not be permitted to usurp them; it is the duty of the church to help protect them.”

Spiritual Mobilization was founded in 1935, but its influence remained fairly small until it attracted the notice of the nation’s leading businessmen. By the mid-1940s, its board resembled, in the words of an observer, “a who’s who of the conservative establishment.”
Not surprisingly, top corporations donated generously, as did many executives from their personal accounts. They also pressured friends, competitors and employees to do the same. Spiritual Mobilization had a budget in 1947 of $270,000. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $3 million today.

A decade earlier, organizations that these industrialists formed and financed to challenge the New Deal had been easily dismissed. But now the tables were being turned. Spiritual Mobilization argued, quite explicitly, that the New Deal had broken most, if not all, of the Ten Commandments. It asserted that the Roosevelt administration had made a “false idol” of the federal government, leading Americans to worship it rather than the Almighty.

Above all, Spiritual Mobilization insisted that the welfare state was not a means to implement Christ’s teachings about caring for the poor and the needy, but rather was a perversion of his teachings. In a forceful rejection of the public service themes of the “social Gospel,” it argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. And for any political and economic system to fit with Christ’s teachings, 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.
Gospel of capitalism

Thus, throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Fifield and like-minded religious leaders advanced a new blend of faith and free enterprise that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.” A critic noted that Fifield and his allies “do as much proselytizing for Adam Smith and the National Association of Manufacturers as they do for Christianity,” but these figures would have welcomed the gibe as a fair description of their work, even a compliment. They believed, rather sincerely, that spreading the gospel of one required spreading the gospel of the other.

Fifield soon reduced Christian libertarianism to a short, catchy phrase: “freedom under God.” Scholars would later assume that the phrase was coined to contrast the democratic and religious foundations of the United States and the godless communism of the Soviet Union. But the private correspondence between Spiritual Mobilization’s religious leaders and its corporate financiers shows quite clearly that the main that to the American way of life, as they saw it, came from Washington, not Moscow.

In 1949 they launched a radio program called “The Freedom Story.” The free, 15-minute program was fairly simple — a dramatic presentation followed by a brief commentary by Fifield. Importantly, the broadcasts were marketed to stations as a way to fulfill their public service requirements in a way that would attract listeners. This decision allowed the organization to secure free airtime, but it also dictated changes in its content.
In the original scripts, Fifield made blunt attacks on the policies of the Truman administration, but his legal counsel warned that getting involved in partisan politics would disqualify the program as a public service feature. Instead of directly attacking the Democrats, the lawyer said, they should use “a horrible example from current experience in the socialist and communist countries of Europe and Asia” and then later “make it plain enough to your radio audience that we are heading for the same kind of situation here.”

Within a year, Fifield’s weekly programs about the danger of “creeping socialism” were being aired on over 500 stations. At the same time, Spiritual Mobilization launched a new monthly magazine titled Faith and Freedom. The magazine printed and promoted the work of an expanding network of libertarian and conservative authors.

‘Freedom under God’

Spiritual Mobilization’s leaders struck upon their greatest idea yet in the spring of 1951. To mark that summer’s 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they proposed a massive series of events for the Fourth of July week, using the theme of “Freedom under God.” According to Fifield’s longtime ally William C. Mullendore, president of the Southern California Edison Co., the idea originated from the belief that the “root cause of the disintegration of freedom here, and of big government, is the disintegration of the nation’s spiritual foundations, as found in the Declaration of Independence. We want to revive that basic American credo, which is the spiritual basis of our Constitution.”

Spiritual Mobilization announced in June the formation of the Committee to Proclaim Liberty to coordinate the events. The committee’s name, they explained to a crowd of reporters, came from the 10th verse of the 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, in which God instructed Moses that the Israelites should celebrate the anniversary of their arrival in the Promised Land and “proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to the inhabitants thereof.” This piece of scripture, organizers noted, was inscribed on the crown of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

The committee’s main thrust was to advance conservatism. The committee members whose presence was most emphasized were prominent opponents of Democratic administrations: former President Herbert Hoover, who had been driven from the White House by Roosevelt two decades earlier, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had been removed from his military command by Truman only two months before.

They were joined by military leaders Gen. Mark Clark and Lt. Gen. A.C. Wedemeyer, the heads of veterans groups such as the American Legion and conservative media stars like newspaper columnist George Sokolsky, radio broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr. and Human Events founder Felix Morley. Also joining were conservative voices in law like Clarence Manion and Dean Roscoe Pound of Harvard and conservatives from the entertainment world like Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan.

The dominant presence on the committee, however, came from the corporate world. J. Howard Pew, whose family had donated a tenth of the committee’s $100,000 operating budget, served as a founding member. He was joined by Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels, B. E. Hutchinson of Chrysler, James L. Kraft of Kraft Foods, Hughston McBain of Marshall Field Department Stores, Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines and Charles E. Wilson of General Motors.
Business interest in the endeavor was so strong that the committee had to expand its ranks to make room for the others clamoring for a spot, including notables like Harvey Firestone, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag, Henry Luce and J.C. Penney.

Reframing the preamble

As the Fourth of July drew near, the committee focused its attention on encouraging Americans to mark the holiday with public readings of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

The decision to focus solely on the preamble was in some ways a natural one, as its passages were certainly the most famous and the most lyrical in the document. But doing so also allowed organizers to reframe the Declaration as a purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government. Those who read the entire document would have discovered, to the consternation of the committee, that the founders followed the high-flown prose of the preamble with a long list of grievances about the absence of government and the rule of law.

In the end, the Declaration was not a rejection of government power in general, but rather a condemnation of the ways in which the British crown had deprived the colonists of the government they so desperately needed. In order to reframe the Declaration as something rather different, the committee had to edit out much of the document they claimed to champion.

Indeed, the committee offered its own interpretation, which was spelled out clearly by its corporate sponsors in full-page newspaper ads. The San Diego Gas & Electric Co., for instance, encouraged customers to reread the preamble, which it presented with its editorial commentary running alongside:

• “. . . all men are created equal . . .” That means you are as important in the eyes of God as any man brought into this world. You are made in his image and likeness. There is no “superior” man anywhere.

• “. . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . .” Here is your birthright — the freedom to live, work, worship, and vote as you choose. These are rights no government on earth may take from you.

• “. . . that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. . .” Here is the reason for and the purpose of government. Government is but a servant — not a master — not a giver of anything.

The ad urged readers to make their own Declaration of Independence in 1951: “Declare that government is responsible TO you — rather than FOR you. Declare that freedom is more important to you than ‘security’ or ‘survival.’ Declare that the rights God gave you may not be taken away by any government on any pretense.”

Clergy join attacks

The committee involved the clergy in a variety of ways, most importantly with a national sermon contest. The roughly 17,000 pastors who belonged to Spiritual Mobilization were encouraged to compete for cash and other rewards by writing an original sermon on the theme of “Freedom under God” and then preaching it to their own congregations on “Independence Sunday,” July 1, 1951. Thousands did.

“The effort to establish socialism in our country has probably progressed further than most of us fully realize,” asserted a Lutheran minister in Kansas. “It would be well to remember that every act or law passed by the government which promises to ‘give’ us something is a step in the direction of socialism.”

First place went to Kenneth Sollitt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Mendota, Ill. Appropriately, his sermon was titled “Freedom Under God: We Can Go on Making a God of Government, or We Can Return Again to the Government of God.”

The individual sermons were then linked and amplified by a program broadcast that same evening on the CBS national radio network. The national advertising agency of J. Walter Thompson handled promotion for the program, which lived up to organizers’ expectations. A longtime friend of Fifield’s, Cecil B. DeMille, met with him to plan the production and stock it with an impressive array of Hollywood stars. Jimmy Stewart served as on-air master of ceremonies, while Bing Crosby and Gloria Swanson each offered short messages of their own. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence was read by Lionel Barrymore.

The keynote came from Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who interrupted his duties leading American forces in Korea to offer a live address from Tokyo. In keeping with the “Freedom under God” theme, Ridgway insisted that the founders had been motivated in large part by their religious faith: “Theirs was a deep and abiding faith in God, a faith which is still the great reservoir of strength of the American people in this day of great responsibility for their future and the future of the world.”

Let Freedom ring!

Three days later, the festivities concluded with local celebrations on the Fourth of July. The committee coordinated the ringing of church bells across the nation, timed to start precisely at noon and last for 10 full minutes. As the bells chimed, residents were encouraged “to open their doors, sound horns and blow whistles and ring bells, as individual salutes to Freedom.” After 10 minutes of ringing, groups gathered in churches and homes to read the preamble together.

That night, 50,000 people attended a rally at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It featured eight circus acts, a jet plane demonstration and a fireworks display that a local American Legion chapter promised would be the largest in the nation. Fifield gave the invocation, and actor Gregory Peck delivered a dramatic reading of the preamble.

In the end, the Committee to Proclaim Liberty believed, rightfully, that its work had made a lasting impression on the nation. “The very words ‘Freedom under God’ have added to the vocabulary of freedom a new term,” the organizers concluded. Citing an outpouring of support for the festivities, the committee resolved to make it an annual tradition and, more importantly, work to keep the spirit of its central message alive in American life.

The entire nation, they hoped, would soon think of itself as “under God.” And indeed, the nation soon did.

President Dwight Eisenhower did even more to cement the phrase in the national consciousness. Shortly after taking office in 1953, he presided over the very first Presidential Prayer Breakfast, an event whose official theme was “Government under God.”

The next year, Congress followed his lead by formally adding the phrase “under God” to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. Two years later, Congress made a similar phrase — “In God We Trust” — the country’s first official motto.

As a political culture of public religion moved to center stage during the Eisenhower era, the new religious nationalism eroded the underlying arguments of the New Deal, precisely as its architects had originally intended. It successfully recast capitalism in a favorable light, while encouraging Americans to question the validity and the value of the welfare state.

More fundamentally, this movement of “under God consciousness” succeeded in convincing a wide range of Americans that the country was, at heart, an officially Christian nation. The prayers of corporate America had been answered, but in ways that went beyond their wildest imaginations.

Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University whose newest book is One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. He’s also the author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005) and three collections on modern U.S. history. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in history at Cornell University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation