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One Nation Under God
How Corporate America Invented Christian America
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We’re often told that the United States is, was, and always has been a Christian nation. But in One Nation Under God, historian Kevin M. Kruse reveals that the belief that America is fundamentally and formally Christian originated in the 1930s.
To fight the “slavery” of FDR’s New Deal, businessmen enlisted religious activists in a campaign for “freedom under God” that culminated in the election of their ally Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The new president revolutionized the role of religion in American politics. He inaugurated new traditions like the National Prayer Breakfast, as Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and made “In God We Trust” the country’s first official motto. Church membership soon soared to an all-time high of 69 percent. Americans across the religious and political spectrum agreed that their country was “one nation under God.”
Provocative and authoritative, One Nation Under God reveals how an unholy alliance of money, religion, and politics created a false origin story that continues to define and divide American politics to this day.
“Freedom Under God”
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.1
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 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.”2
While established business lobbies such as NAM had been unable to sell free enterprise effectively in the Depression, neither had the many new organizations created specifically for that purpose. The most prominent, the American Liberty League, had formed in 1934 to “teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property” and “the duty of government to encourage and protect individual and group initiative and enterprise.” It benefited from generous financial support from corporate titans, particularly at DuPont and General Motors. But their prominence inadvertently crippled its effectiveness, as the Liberty League was easily dismissed as a collection of tycoons looking out for their own self-interest. Jim Farley, chairman of the Democratic Party, joked that it really ought to be called the “American Cellophane League” because “first, it’s a DuPont product and second, you can see right through it.” Even the president took his shots. “It has been said that there are two great Commandments—one is to love God, and the other to love your neighbor,” Franklin D. Roosevelt noted soon after its creation. “The two particular tenets of this new organization say you shall love God and then forget your neighbor.” Off the record, he joked that the name of the god they worshiped seemed to be “Property.”3
As Roosevelt’s quips made clear, the president delighted in using religious language to shame his opponents. A practicing Episcopalian, he shrewdly drew on spiritual themes and imagery throughout his career.4 In the judgment of his biographer James MacGregor Burns, “probably no American politician has given so many speeches that were essentially sermons rather than statements of policy.” During his two terms as governor of New York, Roosevelt frequently framed his earthly agenda in heavenly terms. Once, he introduced an otherwise dry speech criticizing Republican plans to privatize public utilities by saying, “This is a history and a sermon on the subject of water power, and I preach from the Old Testament. The text is ‘Thou shalt not steal.’” Roosevelt’s use of religious language was even more pronounced over his four presidential terms, especially when he condemned his enemies in the financial elite. In his acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, for instance, he placed blame for the Great Depression on the “many amongst us [who] have made obeisance to Mammon.” Likewise, his first inaugural address was so laden with references to Scripture that the National Bible Press published an extensive chart linking his text with the “Corresponding Biblical Quotations.” In the speech, Roosevelt reassured the nation that “the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore the temple to the ancient truths.”5
In introducing the New Deal, Roosevelt and his allies revived the old language of the so-called Social Gospel to justify the creation of the modern welfare state. The original proponents of the Social Gospel, back in the late nineteenth century, had significantly reframed Christianity as a faith concerned less with personal salvation and more with the public good. They rallied popular support for Progressive Era reforms in the early twentieth century before fading from public view in the conservative 1920s. But the economic crash and the widespread suffering of the Great Depression brought them back into vogue. 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.”6
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.”7
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. “When he had finished,” a journalist noted, “rumors report that the N.A.M. applause could be heard in Hoboken.”8
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.
Thus, throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Fifield and like-minded religious leaders advanced a new blend of conservative religion, economics, and politics that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.” A critic in the mid-1950s noted with sarcasm that “these groups do as much proselytizing for Adam Smith and the National Association of Manufacturers as they do for Christianity.” But his targets would have welcomed that as a fair description of their work, even a compliment. For they saw Christianity and capitalism as inextricably intertwined and argued that spreading the gospel of one required spreading the gospel of the other. The two systems had been linked before, of course, but always in terms of their shared social characteristics. Fifield’s important innovation was his insistence that Christianity and capitalism were political soul mates, first and foremost. The government had never loomed large in Americans’ thinking about the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, but in Fifield’s vision the state cast a long and ominous shadow. Accordingly, he and his colleagues devoted themselves to fighting back against the government forces that they believed were threatening capitalism and, by extension, Christianity. In the early postwar era, their activities helped reshape the national debate about the proper functions of the federal government, the political influence of corporations, and the role of religion in national life. They built a foundation for a new vision of America in which businessmen would no longer suffer under the rule of Roosevelt but instead thrive—in a phrase they popularized—in a nation “under God.”9
JAMES W. FIFIELD JR. MADE his fame and fortune in Southern California. The frontier mythology of the region had long attracted Americans looking to reinvent both themselves and their nation, but that was never truer than during the depths of the Great Depression. In the early 1930s, the lush landscape and the allure of Hollywood held out promises of a fresh start for a people who had never needed it more. A continent away from the East Coast establishment that had dictated national norms for centuries, the region proved to be the perfect place for new modes of thought and action. This was especially evident in the otherwise staid worlds of religion and politics, as Southern California spawned new directions in both.10
As with many other Depression-era migrants to Los Angeles, Fifield came from the Midwest. Born in Chicago and educated at Oberlin, the University of Chicago, and Chicago Theological Seminary, he had been recruited in 1935 to take over the elite First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. Located on a lush palm-shaded drive, the church boasted a sprawling complex that included a massive concrete cathedral with a 176-foot-tall Gothic tower, a full-size stage, a wedding chapel, a modern gymnasium, three auditoriums, and fifty-six classrooms. As the new pastor soon discovered, however, the church had an equally impressive debt of $750,000. While the deacons fretted about finances, Fifield launched a massive spending spree. A consummate organizer, he divided the church into four new divisions, hiring assistant ministers to run each of them with the help of their own complete staffs of secretaries, clerks, and organists, as well as five fully vested choirs shared between them. He recruited an instructor from Yale to launch a new drama club, while a new adult education series christened the College of Life started classes with a faculty of fourteen professors from nearby universities. Seeking to expand the church’s reach even further, Fifield instituted five new radio programs and a speakers series, the Sunday Evening Club.11
Under Fifield’s sharp direction, First Congregational rapidly expanded. The College of Life soon had twenty-eight thousand paying participants, while the Sunday Evening Club reported an average attendance of nine hundred each week, with collection plates bringing in twice as much as Fifield spent on programming. By 1942, the church was out of debt and turning a tidy profit. Its membership nearly quadrupled, making it the single largest Congregationalist church in the world and the church of choice for Los Angeles’s elite. “Pushing four thousand,” a reporter marveled, “its roster read like the Wall Street Journal.” The advisory board alone included rich and powerful figures such as Harry Chandler, a wealthy real estate speculator and conservative publisher of the Los Angeles Times; Dr. Robert A. Millikan, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist who had graced the cover of Time before becoming president of Cal Tech; Harvey Seeley Mudd, a mining magnate and prominent philanthropist; Alexander Nesbitt Kemp, president of the mammoth Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company; and Albert W. Hawkes, a chemical industry executive who would soon become president of the US Chamber of Commerce and then a US senator. The mayor of Los Angeles regularly took part in the services, as did legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. Chronicling the achievements of Fifield and his flock, a friendly writer anointed him the “Apostle to Millionaires.”12
To be sure, the minister was well matched to the millionaires in his pews. Fifield insisted that he and his wife always thought of themselves as simple “small-town folks,” but they acclimated easily to their new life of wealth and privilege. Within a year of their arrival, they bought a mansion in an exclusive development on Wilshire Boulevard. “It had been built in the Twenties by a rich oil man for around a million dollars—using imported tile, special wood paneling, Tiffany stained glass windows, silk hand-woven ‘wall paper’ and many such luxuries,” Fifield remembered. “The extensive lawn, colonnade archways, swimming pool and large main rooms on the first of three floors enabled us to entertain visiting speakers, dignitaries and important people from all over the world who could and did assist the church.” The Fifields soon employed a butler, a chauffeur, and a cook, insisting that the household staff was vital in maintaining their “gracious accommodations” during the depths of the Depression. “The traditional image of a clergyman in those days [was] a man who has a hole in the seat of his pants and shoes run over at the heel,” Fifield acknowledged. “It was quite a shock to a lot of people to see a minister driving around in a good car with a chauffeur at the wheel, who did not have to ask for a discount because he could afford to pay the regular price.” Before long, Fifield was earning enough to pay full price even for luxury goods. First Congregational paid him $16,000 a year, a salary that, adjusted for inflation, would be roughly a quarter million dollars today.13
Fifield’s connection to his congregation extended to their views on religion and politics too. 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. He had no patience for fundamentalists who insisted upon a literal reading of Scripture. “The men who chronicled and canonized the Bible were subject to human error and limitation,” he believed, and therefore the text needed to be sifted and interpreted. Reading the holy book should be “like eating fish—we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value.” Accordingly, Fifield dismissed the many passages in the New Testament about wealth and poverty and instead worked tirelessly to reconcile Christianity and capitalism. In his view, both systems rested on a basic belief that individuals would succeed or fail on their own merit. Although Fifield was not the first to suggest such connections, he put those theories into action in ways unlike any before him. At First Congregational and elsewhere, the minister reached out warmly to the wealthy, assuring them that their worldly success was a sign of God’s blessings and brushing off the criticism of clergymen who disagreed. “I have smiled,” he reflected later in life, “when critics of mine have called me the Thirteenth Apostle of Big Business or the St. Paul of the Prosperous.”14
While Fifield took a loose approach to the Bible, he was a strict constructionist with the Constitution. Much like the millionaires to whom he ministered, Fifield had watched in alarm as Roosevelt convinced vast majorities of Americans that unfettered capitalism had crippled the nation and that the federal government now needed to play an important new role in regulating the free market’s risks and redistributing its rewards. For Fifield and his flock, Roosevelt’s actions violated not just the Constitution but the natural order of things. In December 1939, the minister placed a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times decrying the New Deal as antithetical to the designs of the founding fathers. “From the beginning,” the ad read, “America has built on the ideal of government which provides that the state is the servant of its citizens, that all just powers of government arise from consent of the governed, and that government’s function is to provide maximum responsibility and maximum freedom to individual citizens. The opposite philosophy has been unwelcome in America until recently.” The New Deal, it continued, posed a dire threat to the American way of life, and it was the duty of clergymen to save the nation’s soul. In their crusade against the wanton growth of government, the church would find natural allies in corporate America because both were committed at their core to the “preservation of basic freedom in this nation.” “Goodness and Christian ideals run proportionately high among businessmen,” the ad assured. “They need no defense, for with all their faults, they have given America within the last decade a new world-high in general economic well-being.”15
To lead his crusade in defense of freedom, Fifield offered the services of Spiritual Mobilization. He had founded the organization in the spring of 1935 with a pair of like-minded intellectuals, President Donald J. Cowling of Carleton College, a doctrinally liberal graduate of Yale Divinity School, and Professor William Hocking of Harvard University, a libertarian philosopher. The organization’s founding goal was “to arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends toward pagan stateism, which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.” Soon Fifield took sole control, running its operations from his offices in Los Angeles. The organization’s credo reflected the common politics of the minister and the millionaires in his congregation. It held that men were creatures of God imbued with “inalienable rights and responsibilities,” specifically enumerated as “the liberty and dignity of the individual, in which freedom of choice, of enterprise and of property is inherent.” Churches, it asserted, had a solemn duty to defend those rights against the encroachments of the state. Heeding this call, the First Congregational Church formally took charge of Spiritual Mobilization in 1938.16
With First Congregational now supporting it, Fifield brought the organization into national politics. He began by simply distributing copies of the political speeches he delivered from the pulpit. In one such pamphlet, Fifield detailed at great lengths the “grievous sin” of the New Deal state, which had wreaked havoc on the professional and personal lives of upstanding businessmen with its unwarranted meddling in their affairs. “The President of the United States and his administration are responsible for the willful or unconscious destruction of thrift, initiative, industriousness and resourcefulness which have been among our best assets since Pilgrim days,” he charged. “I speak of the intimate, personal observations I have made of individuals who have lost their ideal, their purpose and their motive through the New Deal’s destruction of spiritual rootage.” It wasn’t merely the rich who were suffering but all Americans. “Every Christian should oppose the totalitarian trends of the New Deal,” he warned in another tract. Dismissing Roosevelt’s promises of progress, Fifield called for a return to traditional values. “The way out for America is not ahead but back,” he insisted. “How far back? Back as far as the old Gospel which exalted individuals, which placed responsibility for thought on individuals, and which insisted that individuals should be free spirits under God.”17
These pamphlets from Spiritual Mobilization drew attention from leading conservatives across America, men who were eager to enlist the clergy in their fight against the New Deal. Former president Herbert Hoover, who had been deposed by Roosevelt and disparaged by his acolytes, encouraged Fifield in personal meetings and regular correspondence. “If it would be possible for the Church to make a non-biased investigation into the morals of this government,” Hoover wrote the minister in 1938, “they would find everywhere the old negation of Christianity that ‘the end justifies the means.’” (“Aside from all that,” he added, “I do not believe that the end they are trying to get to is any good either.”) In October 1938, Fifield sent an alarmist tract to more than seventy thousand ministers across the nation, seeking to enlist them in the revolt against Roosevelt. “We ministers have special opportunities and special responsibilities in these critical days,” it began. “America’s movement toward dictatorship has already eliminated checks and balances in its concentration of powers in our chief executive.” The New Deal undermined the spirit of Christianity and demanded a response from Christ’s representatives on earth. “If, with Jesus, we believe in the sacredness of individual personalities, then our leadership responsibility is very plain.” This duty was “not an easy one,” he cautioned. “We may be called unpatriotic and accused of ‘selling out,’ but so was Jesus.” Finding the leaflet to his liking, Hoover sent Fifield a warm note of appreciation and urged him to press on.18
As the 1930s drew to a close, these conservatives watched with delight as the New Deal stumbled. Though they had hoped to destroy the Roosevelt administration themselves, its wounds were largely self-inflicted. In 1937, the president’s labor allies launched a series of sit-down strikes that secured union recognition at corporations such as General Motors and US Steel but also roused sympathy for seemingly beleaguered businessmen. At the same time, Roosevelt overreached with his proposal to “pack” the Supreme Court with new justices, a move that played into the hands of those who sought to portray him as dictatorial in intent. Most significant, though, was his ill-fated decision to rein in federal spending in an effort to balance the budget. The impressive economic recovery of Roosevelt’s first term suddenly stalled, and the country entered a short but sharp recession in the winter of 1937–1938. As the New Deal faltered, Fifield began to look forward to the next presidential election—in “the critical year 1940”—when conservatives might finally rout the architects of the regulatory state. To his dismay, international tensions soon marginalized domestic politics and prompted the country to rally around Roosevelt again. “Our Mobilization program is developing somewhat,” Fifield reported to Hoover in May 1941, “although, of course, under great difficulties in view of current tensions and trends.” An ardent isolationist, Fifield argued strongly for neutrality in the coming conflict but found his prayers unanswered.
- "A deftly detailed history of Christianity's service to capitalism in the United States."—New Republic
- "Kruse tells a big and important story about the mingling of religion and politics since the 1930s."—New York Times Book Review
- "Fascinating."—Washington Post
- "An important and convincing reminder that the roots of Christianity were cultivated well before the era of the religious right."—Wall Street Journal
- "An illuminating addition to the growing field of the history of American conservatism and capitalism, as well as a vibrant study of the way cultural influence works-one that will make it impossible to take for granted the small print on the back of a dollar bill ever again.... This is what's most interesting in the story Kruse is telling: the pattern of continuity and change that links our own time with those that came before."—The Nation
- On Sale
- Apr 14, 2015
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Basic Books