The CIA and Ad Council targeted propaganda to the American people.
The CIA, big business, and the Ad Council worked together to create the America that we know and love today. Together, they bonded our ideas of patriotism, capitalism, and religion. But not many of us know who the Ad Council is. Sure they created Smokey Bear, the Crash Test Dummies, and the Crying Indian ads… but who are they?
Have you ever been impacted by advertising? How did it make you feel?
Does it matter where our ads come from? Even public service announcements?
How do you feel about the CIA paying for ads to impact Americans?
Should responsibility for big problems like plastic waste fall on individuals, big corporations, or both?
Do you think the Bible says anything about one economic model over another?
What does it mean that the CIA and Ad Council targeted propaganda to the American people?
TRANSCRIPT (note this is an approximation — we’ve got a one person staff and I sometimes miss stuff)
CS: Chris Staron (host)
WM: Wendy Melillo (guest)
Are We Ever Really Free From Advertising?
CS: This episode is a part of a long series exploring how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done, go back to the beginning of season three for more context.
If you’re out in the wilderness, camping, roasting marshmallows, you might think that advertising is not present. Like, it has no influence on you there. You can sit around the fire, tell stories, and crawl into your sleeping bag knowing that you are out of the reach of the Don Drapers of the world.
Wait… we skipped a step. Sit around the fire, tell stories, sleeping bag. That’s right… you can’t just leave a fire burning overnight. It could start a forest fire. All of us grew up hearing that only we can prevent forest fires. And who told us that? Smokey the Bear.
WM: One of the things that is interesting about Smokey first is that there is no “the” in his name.
CS: Sorry… Smokey Bear.
WM: Although people will still fight me on this stuff. But the original name is Smokey Bear.
CS: This is Wendy Melillo. She is a Journalism professor at American University and the author of the book “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America”. Smokey Bear’s origin story begins with WWII.
The History of Smokey Bear
WM: What this campaign was all about originally, before the animated beloved character of a bear that everyone has come to know and love, this campaign had to do with protecting our lumber supply.
CS: The world was at war. The United States needed wood to build ships, gun stocks, buildings…
WM: And there was an incident off the California coast where a Japanese submarine fired upon the mainland of America.
A Japanese Submarine Attacked the US Mainland
CS: On February 23, 1942 a Japanese submarine emerged from the water just seven miles north of Santa Barbara, California. They opened fire. Almost two dozen five-inch shells. It was the first time the US mainland was attacked during WWII. The event caused great concern, even though it only destroyed a shed. Could the Japanese use technology to burn down our forests?
That would be terrible for the war effort. Forget about the Japanese for a moment… were Americans here in the states hurting the war effort too? The previous year the Forest Service said there were 208,000 forest fires in the US. 9 out of 10 of which were caused by humans. That’s no joke. Americans were pretty irresponsible with their fire. We had to curb the destruction of this precious resource.
WM: The campaign was created for that reason. But if you look at some of the original advertising, the posters were quite frightening. They had, you know, Hitler. They had Tojo of Japan and they were like menacing faces of those two against the backdrop of a forest on fire.
CS: This was two years before Smokey entered the picture.
WM: And it had slogans like “Careless Matches Aid the Axis” or you’d have “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon”.
CS: The implication was that carelessness was treason. The problem was… this stuff was scary to children. They really are scary. Straight up creepy. So the US Forest Service…
WM: … decided to come up with a more appealing character and animals were doing well at the time because you had the Disney movie out at the time.
CS: This was the era of Fantasia, Dumbo, Little Bambi and his mom (sniff)… I’m cool. Sorry. So the Ad Council came up with… a bear.
WM: Smokey remains the longest running public service advertising campaign in American history.
CS: And everyone loves Smokey, right? I live in Wyoming, we’re surrounded by National Forest. I see Smokey all the time. He’s the best… right?
WM: An academic researcher did this study about how people shoot bullets at posters. Well, people were shooting bullet holes… well, why? Isn’t Smokey loved by everyone?
CS: Ummm… no. Because there are people who like to burn fields for crops. And opinions about forest fires have shifted over the years as people see that they are part of the natural process, clearing old growth, making way for new plants and revitalizing habitats. Parks and forests in the US actually start fires on purpose for that reason. Still… you should put out your campfires.
Why Some People Don’t Like Smokey Bear and the Forest Service
WM: The US Forest Service also represents a lot of negative things to people who live off the land. And who owns the land? Whose land is it? And who took it way back when? You know, all of those arguments that we have about history. This is the only campaign that I can find that is actually protected by an act of Congress. It’s the Smokey Bear Act of 1952 and this prevents anyone from not only using the name Smokey Bear, I mean, not only the image of Smokey to try and profit off of… but the Forest Service controls the words. Anything related to Smokey, you have to get US Forest Service permission to use. Even if it’s for educational purposes.
CS: So… for those of you who were going to run out and sew his face onto socks and hats for your Etsy account… you might want to put a pin in that.
It turns out that advertising is all around us. Even out in the forest. We look at something like Smokey Bear and think it’s pretty cut and dry. He’s there to stop us from burning down the woods. But who is behind these ads? Even ads we might agree with and support?
On this episode, a bear in a forest ranger hat, radio stations in distant lands, communists, Christian America, and the CIA. And the organization that tied them all together: The Ad Council.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
CS: Okay, so, the Ad Council. Maybe you’ve seen their logo on the bottom corner of a billboard or television commercial. But who is the Ad Council? Back to Wendy.
The History of the Ad Council
WM: For a long time, nearly a decade I was the Washington DC Bureau Chief for Ad Week Magazine. And one of my beats and responsibilities was the Ad Council. And what was so fascinating about the Ad Council is that this was the “do good” part of advertising. This was all about selling good to the American people.
CS: Smokey Bear, McGruff the Crime Fighting Dog, the crying Indian commercial that encouraged us to recycle. That is all the Ad Council.
WM: And this was so different from selling soap or toothpaste or laundry detergent. And I was fascinated by the message development and the strategy behind coming up with the slogans and the visuals that actually persuaded people to do something. Particularly changing behavior, which is not an easy thing to do.
CS: That doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. As we talked about with the Pledge of Allegiance, societies have to encourage their populations to act in a certain way.
WM: When I really started digging into the primary documents I realized, okay, this organization had a very strong, deep rooted background in propaganda on behalf of the federal government.
CS: The Ad Council is not a branch of the US government, but it is sometimes funded by the government. That line is going to get murky here soon, but I wanted to get that out there early on. To understand the creation of the Ad Council, you have to know what advertising was like in the early 1900s.
Advertising Regulation Hasn’t Been Evaluated in Almost 100 Years
WM: You know, the history of advertising involves people who were obviously trying to sell products, but because it wasn’t regulated, really, up until the late 1930s people took liberties. So you had a lot of basically false, deceptive, and misleading advertising. And, understandably, there was a rise in the consumer advocacy movement that pushed back against these kind of false claims.
CS: Nobody was regulating this stuff. Which is especially important to note when it comes to foods and drugs. The American people really should know what is actually in their foods. You shouldn’t have to guess if there is formaldehyde or plaster dust in your milk3. Or roll the dice about whether or not a medicine can really do what it claims. The Franklin Roosevelt administration created the Federal Trade Commission as part of the New Deal… and it had its regulatory eye on the advertising world. Demanding proper labels, at least, for the most part.
WM: And going beyond the false, deceptive, and misleading, you got into the “puffery” aspect. That’s when you inflate the attributes of a product. Buy this deodorant and you’ll be happier, healthier, sexier. Just fill in the blanks with any product.
CS: While consumer groups and the FTC did away with false, deceptive, and misleading ads, they haven’t done away with puffery. You’ll still see it today.
WM: And the last time that our government has seriously looked at regulating advertising goes back to the Wheeler-Lea Act of 1938.
CS: The advertising world decided to get out ahead of this regulation. Demonstrate that they weren’t so bad after all. So they created a non-profit organization to help the government. Do some rebranding of themselves.
WM: Advertisers could say to the federal government, ‘let us help you use our communication and advertising to help you with your policies directed toward the American people.’
CS: That sounds heinous, but it could be something as simple as encouraging people to buy war bonds. Plant victory gardens. Or don’t burn the forest down. As it did during the first World War. In a time of a cold war, it could identify the enemy.
WM: And if you look at Ad Council campaigns, particularly starting in the 1950s as the Cold War starts to get underway, you start to see the values of the people who were involved in the Ad Council playing out in the campaigns.
Smokey Bear Was Created to Fight Hitler and Tojo
CS: They had already used those forest fire ads to identify Hitler and Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan during WWII, as enemies of the country. During the Cold War, the Ad Council would go to battle with communism and the Soviet Union. The Crusade for Freedom Campaign began in 1950. Not just targeting Americans, but also those in the Soviet Union itself. Part of it was a program called Radio Free Europe.
The History of The CIA’S Involvement With Radio Free Europe
WM: Radio Free Europe became very important at the time for US foreign policy to try to get people in countries behind the Iron Curtain to rise up against the communist influence that they were experiencing in their countries.
CS: Here is how it worked. Set up radio stations…
FAKE ANNOUNCER: You’re listening to Radio Free Europe.
CS: In a friendly nation that can then beam that signal into a communist country.
FAKE: Meaning we can send messages into countries that normally shut out western media and anyone with a radio can hear it for free.
CS: And there’s not much the communist nation could do about it. We’ve done this a lot as the US. Some Christian ministries do it even today to broadcast evangelistic messages into places that are hostile to the gospel. The Ad Council was part of setting up, promoting, and fundraising for Radio Free Europe.
WM: And what people didn’t know is that this campaign was secretly funded by our CIA.
How the US Used the Arts to Influence Communist Countries
CS: Now that records have been opened up, we know that the US government was involved in spreading American culture into the Soviet Union. The controversial American opera Porgy and Bess, which featured a largely black cast was sent in to counteract Russian propaganda about the treatment of African Americans. Which is weird because it’s not a great depiction of black people. Rock bands like Bon Jovi and The Scorpions did a concert in Moscow. All to spread American culture.
In 1951 when a Czech train carrying passengers escaped the Soviet Union by fleeing to West Germany, the Crusade for Freedom campaign sent 2,000 balloons carrying 2 million leaflets about the events into Prague. They took stories of people escaping the Soviet Union and sprinkled them behind the Iron Curtain to encourage more.
Radio Free Europe was like that but in people’s homes. Dropping messages into their living rooms. Encouraging them to rise up against their communist overlords. 29 stations in sixteen languages, supposedly funded by a non-profit. But, really, by the CIA.
WM: And so the messages were messages of liberty, “free yourselves”. It was basically talking about how wonderful democracy is and how wonderful democracy is.
CS: Radio Free Europe was run by the National Committee for a Free Europe. It’s members, it will come as no surprise to you by now, are some of the usual suspects we’ve heard a lot about this season. The president of General Motors, Dwight Eisenhower, and Cecil B. DeMille.
I guess you could expect actions like this in a ideological war. Sending pro-capitalism messages into the enemy camps. Don’t let the narrative be that simple. The campaign also targeted people living in the US.
WM: And so, if you look at the Crusade for Freedom advertising, one headline would be… it’s like a 1950s housewife saying, “I can do something about communism?” Well… give money to Radio Free Europe. The money raised by people mailing in dollars was very little. This was actually a front to help our foreign policy in foreign countries.
CS: The goal of ads like this one wasn’t really to raise money. That was secondary. The objective was to change the minds of Americans when it came to things like communism.
The CIA and Ad Council targeted propaganda to the American people.
WM: Which is not supposed to happen, legally. Because the US government is not supposed to direct propaganda messages like this toward Americans. And so this became quite controversial. The media got on to it back in the 1960s, the late 1960s, that this had been secretly funded by the CIA but a lot of people don’t realize how this stuff can affect us.
CS: The text on that ad claims that $1 would buy “100 words of truth beamed right through the Iron Curtain, Truth to smash Soviet lies, give hope and courage to the 70,000,000 enslaved people behind the Iron Curtain, Truth to stiffen their will to resist, to help keep the Kremlin off balance on its own home grounds.”
Enslaved people behind the Iron Curtain? That’s quite a claim. While Radio Free Europe did send messages behind the Iron Curtain, the real objective was to turn American attitudes against communism in support of US policies.
WM: And when you trace the primary documents, which are the internal memos of the Ad Council, think of an, I don’t know how much you know about advertising. But a famous advertising agency to this day is Chicago based Leo Burnett. Well, Leo Burnett wrote reports in the 1950s talking about the real concern about communism and that the Ad Council needed to be directing its efforts toward promoting the democratic way of life under a capitalistic system. We had to do something to fight the propaganda because Soviet Union was doing the same thing.
CS: You can listen to our episode titled “Godless Utopia” to learn more about Soviet propaganda.
WM: The Crusade for Freedom campaign, which kicks off the decade in the 1950s is followed by a series of Ad Council campaigns like The Miracle of American, the People’s Capitalism… you can kind of see in the names. Traveling exhibits that promoted the American way of life in other countries.
CS: That may seem kind of basic, but let that sink in. Because, after the break, we’re going to talk about how the Ad Council got involved in promoting religion. In the US it can seem confusing how capitalism and religion got linked in our minds. Advertising campaigns like these played a big role.
But those were not the only messages for us. This goes even deeper than radio stations, and crime fighting dogs. Their third campaign is quite startling for us today. It ran for a long time. Remember what we’ve been talking about for the last few months. Communism wasn’t seen just as an economic problem, but as a religious one. Because communism, according to Karl Marx, is inherently atheistic. If the United States and the Ad Council were really going to fight the Soviet Union… they would do it with religion.
I’ll tell you how after these messages.
The Ad Council Sold Religion to the American People
The Ad Council’s third campaign was called “Religion in American Life”. Wendy doesn’t talk about this in her book, so we’ll come back to her a little later.
The stated purpose of the “Religion in American Life” campaign was (and this is a quote), “to accent the importance of all religious institutions as the basis of American life” and “to urge all Americans to attend the church or synagogue of their choice.”
For example, there was a print ad featuring a group of kids singing. The text below it says, “Democracy starts here… The way I see it… when you’re a father you’re automatically a Founding Father, too. It’s up to you to found America in the heart and mind of every young citizen you add to the census.” At the bottom it reads, “Find yourself through faith, come to church this week.”
I know that went by fast, but what is this ad equating? I’ll play it again so you can count the buzz words.
“Democracy starts here… The way I see it… when you’re a father you’re automatically a Founding Father, too. It’s up to you to found America in the heart and mind of every young citizen you add to the census.” “Find yourself through faith, come to church this week.”
ACTOR: Vote for me and I’ll make all your dreams come true!
FATHER: Son, let me teach you about tire tread separation. Then we’ll play catch.
Patriotism and the United States.
(clip of the national anthem)
Ahem…. faith… in… in what? It’s not really specific, is it?
“Find yourself through faith, come to church this week.”
Nope. Not specific. By design. Again, this campaign ran during the Cold War. Encouraging Americans to see patriotism, democracy, parenting, and religion as building blocks of our society.
This was not the only ad. Not by far. A filmed ad keeps asking the question: why? (play the sound of why over and over again) It shows people walking in a park. An old woman. Kids playing. A family at a dinner table. The graphic and the voice at the end say, “In a World Looking for Answers Maybe God is the Place to Start. God is hope. God is now.” And it ends with the Ad Council Logo.
This is the McGruff the Crime Dog people! Pro-seat belt. Anti-drunk driving. And they advertised for people to turn to God. A non-specific God.
The Religion in American Life campaign ran at about the same time as Spiritual Mobilization disseminated its information. It all sounds like of innocuous and innocent, doesn’t it? As American as apple pie.
Well… hold up.
Ad Council chairman Stuart Peabody said that, “when you stop to figure it out, there is hardly any Council campaign which doesn’t make some contribution to the health of American business.”
Is it Okay for the Ad Council and American Government to Propagandize the American People?
That may seem like a weird thing to say. But lets you and I think about those PSAs for a moment. That ad with the kids singing urged people to go to church to put America into your kid’s hearts. During the Cold War. How does that benefit business? Well, if they are going to church and are good patriots, it keeps kids away from godless, collectivist communism. Which is great for business, because collectivism means the government would control the means of production. Restrictions. Regulation. Collectivism means you’re not relying on individuals to bargain for their wages, but groups come together to demand certain things for workers. Which all cuts at the bottom line for corporations. The campaign bonded church attendance with Americanism and capitalism. Unregulated capitalism would be their preference. Without all of that New Deal, Social Gospel stuff. I don’t know why we struggle to see regulated capitalism as an option, but we do.
Think about the crash test dummies. How are they good for big business? Keeps insurance companies from having to pay out benefits. Does that mean its bad for society to have seatbelt advertisements? No. Of course not. Seatbelts save lives. But they also benefit insurance companies.
Maybe you’ve noticed that a common theme with a lot of our stories this year has been big business. That’s not by accident. Nor the ways they stand to lose from collectivization. That brings us to another big theme. How do you fight collectivization? By focusing on the individual.
Here again is Wendy Melillo.
WM: What a number of Ad Council campaigns seem to focus on was much more the individual responsibility to do something about a large issue. A societal problem. As opposed to what can we all do together, right?
CS: In the ads, problems aren’t solved by sweeping social change, but by the actions of one person. Only you can prevent forest fires. Doesn’t say anything about faulty electrical equipment that started massive forest fires in California last year, does it? No. It put the onus on the individual.
What about the famous ad where a Native American cries at the sight of litter? The problem is that you didn’t pick up your trash… not that the companies who make the packaging go way overboard. It’s not businesses that are the problem… it’s that you’re not doing your part. There is a big movement out there calling for manufacturers to make less packaging, especially since so much of what we take to our recycling centers is just put into landfills anyway now that China has stopped taking our recycling. It’s not wrong to recycle, but wouldn’t we off to a better start if there were less packaging to begin with?
Okay… take what we know about the ads, the individualism, promoting capitalism, and the American way and apply it to the Religion in American Life campaign. We might be tempted to think they were a little blip on the radar. Think again.
The campaigns were handled by J. Walter Thompson, the largest advertising firm in the world. Maybe they don’t sound like such a big deal. It’s just ads, right? Well, the country was deeply saturated with them. In 1956 alone the Religion in American Life campaign did 5,412 billboards, 9,857 posters in bus and train stops, and 59,590 ad cards inside buses and trains and streetcars.
Local groups could put put prayer cards on restaurant tables, do mailings, and use bumper stickers. A company that wrapped loaves of broad in Columbus, Ohio and another in Wisconsin put labels on their bread promoting the Religion in American Life campaign. 30 millions loaves of bread urged people to go to church.
Like the celebrations Francis Bellamy put together decades earlier to sell flags, local chapters could acquire kits that did the heavy lifting for them. Kits included proclamations that could be signed by mayors, a pre-fab newspaper editorial about the proclamation, and more.
Radio and TV stations were required to run public service announcements. So the Ad Council made some ready-to-go. The ads were everywhere. Really. Everywhere. Buses, radio, television, in print, on the public square. Everywhere.
It’s complicated. As a Christian, I want people to hear about God. But are we okay with all of the trappings that came with the Ad Council? Pro-big business leanings? Tying faith to the United States which means that the actions of the US then reflect back on religion? Does it matter just what an ad says… or should we also know where our ads come from?
WM: I think you have to start in K-12 education. This has to start from the very beginning. Our young people need to be taught that the messages that you are exposed to every day are not necessarily benign. Persuasive communication is very powerful and when I teach it I talk about the continuum. On one end you can have advocacy which can be done for very good causes. And you need to understand what an organization or person is advocating for. But on the other end of that same continuum of persuasive communication is propaganda.
And you have to be very very careful. Because when it goes too far, at what point does it become propaganda? At what point does it become a problem? Particularly with some of the attacks we’ve had against our democratic institutions. And it’s not just the media, though the media has taken some hits. But the judicial system, right? And you can go right down the line. So you have to understand the agenda. What is the agenda behind the campaign? Well, in a 30-second ad, are you going to be able to get that? Especially with an organization like the Ad Council which is very behind the scenes.
It puts up it’s little logo, Ad Council, but nobody really knows what that means. And so, I think it’s important for people to understand that these messages, even if the image is being promoted as selling good, is it really selling good? I think that is a legitimate question to ask. What we have to teach our youngsters in media literacy is a healthy skepticism.
CS: How did Christianity get tied to big business? Through marketing campaigns by James Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization, Abraham Vereide, and the Ad Council. We’re trained to connect Christianity and capitalism.
Yes, massive campaigns can urge us toward a saving faith in Christ, something I believe in. But they can also act as a distraction, smoke and mirrors that keep us from regulating industries. If libertarian ideas get tied to Christianity, you weirdly end up in a world where Christians are fighting regulatory agencies that are doing nothing to do with the faith. We’re made to fight stuff that we perceive as bad for business. Even if we could never back our stance up with the Bible. Many are backing libertarian ideals under the guise of standing up for Jesus. But are those the same?
We have to be aware of where our ads come from. The messages we hear. The things we equate. Otherwise when the submarine of public opinion surfaces off the shore of our beliefs… we may not survive the fire.
Special thanks to Wendy Melillo. I barely scratched the surface of her book “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America”. We had such a good conversation and I couldn’t use it all. If you give money to support the show you can listen to more of our interview. Details are at trucepodcast.com. I’ve also posted a YouTube video there of one of her lectures on this subject and you can see some of the ads we discussed for yourself.
As always, I’m indebted to Nick Staron who helped me talk through this episode.
It’s been a while since I’ve thanked these guys, but Roy Browning of JMC Brands in Ohio built our awesome website. My friend Andy Huff, author of the Shepherd Suspense novel series, designed the logo.
Truce is listener supported. On what other program are you going to hear a discussion of how the Ad Council shaped Christian America? These episodes take me a long time to research, edit, and post. Your financial help makes a huge difference. You can learn how to give at trucepodcast.com/donate.
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Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in two weeks with more.
James Fifield was a pastor, radio personality, publisher, and outspoken libertarian. He hated the New Deal and its restrictions. His organization, Spiritual Mobilization, created a marketing campaign that would bond Christianity to capitalism and the United States for decades to come.
Also… you know those Ten Commandments monuments all over the country? Well, it turns out that many of them were built to advertise for one of the highest grossing movies of all time: Cecil B. Demille’s “The Ten Commandments”.
List of Ten Commandments monuments placed by the Eagles
Ten Commandments trailer featuring Cecil B. Demille
Is it creepy when corporations tell people how to behave?
Do you like it when companies tie religion to business?
Is Christianity an individualistic religion? A collectivist one? Neither? Both?
Does Leviticus 25:10 mean that we have a right to liberty? Or does it mean something else?
Should monuments to the 10 Commandments be allowed on public land?
PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT (note: this may not be exact)
This episodes is part of long series about how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. It can stand on its own, but when you’re done, go back and start at the beginning of season three.
We started this season talking about the rise of communism and socialism. Then moved to capitalism, even spending a fair bit of time on labor unions, workers rights, and some more liberal ideas. The New Deal, a clear example of Social Gospel ideals in the political realm. Now we need to talk about the impact of Christian libertarians.
What is libertarianism? Like any ideology, there are lots of variations. So many! But there are recurring themes. Generally, it is the idea that the government should stay out of people’s lives as much as possible.
Taxes? No! Or, at least, they should be bare minimum.
Restrictions on trade? Get out of here! Commerce, manufacturing, and business of any kind should be left to the whims of the market.
Is a company is behaving badly? Then people will just stop going there and put it out business. Sounds easy enough. But, like I said, that is a generalization.
After the Great Depression, the US saw the rise of prominent Christian libertarians. They were there before, of course, but programs like those of the New Deal sparked concern in their minds. Because Congress and FDR were starting to crack down on big business. The minimum wage, safety standards, not to mention protection for unions. All of that would be bad for corporations. And some saw it as atheistic communism seeping into American life. So they fought back… through advertising.
That’s right, today we’re going to explore the weird world of religious advertising. And how libertarian ideas have been spread through the media in the last eighty years. It’s a story of religion, big business, one of the greatest blockbuster movies of all time, and the Declaration of Independence. Well… an edited version, anyway.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
December 1940. The National Association of Manufacturers held their big conference. In attendance were people from Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, General Electric, General Motors, Sears… all the big shots. It was an industrial conference held during the Great Depression, just before the US joined World War II. The Russians and Germans had already invaded Poland. The German themselves took control of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, France, and others. The Soviets were well established in Russia. Meanwhile, these big wigs hobnobbed. Suits. Ties. Firm handshakes.
BUSINESSMAN: Good to see you Johnson, how’s that business case treating you?
I don’t know… I’m not a business guy. Just guessing there.
Think about these businesses. They had a lot to lose with the New Deal. If you were going to hand-pick a group of people who probably didn’t like the FDR’s plan, it would be the National Association of Manufacturers.
Someone invited a minister to talk. Kinda weird for a manufacturing conference, right? But the Reverend James Fifield bowled them over. Passionately preaching against the New Deal. Leaders of industry had been told they were the reason the Depression happened. Fifield was there to tell them that they were not the problem, but our salvation.
Essentially Fifield’s argument against the New Deal goes something like this:
It infringes on god-given liberty
The New Deal makes a false idol of the government. Instead of looking to God for your help, it encourages citizens to turn to their government.
It leads poor people to covet. The New Deal makes poor people want to take away the things that rich people have.
It bears false witness. It’s a lie because it will not be able to come through for the people.
There were a few more reasons libertarians like Fifield were against it.
Evangelists in the 17 and 1800’s emphasized salvation as an individual experience. You have to make a personal commitment to God. Therefore, the logic goes, Christianity is individualistic. So if you want to make a Christian society, honor the individual. Communism, socialism, and the Social Gospel were looking after the collective. Therefore, we should go the other way. Trumpet the rights of individuals. It’s a weak argument, but a popular one.
And, of course, The New Deal was seen as evidence of creeping socialism in this country. It’s easy to mock this now as alarmist, but with communists murdering millions of their own people in Russia… and communism is the utopian version of socialism, then socialism seemed like a logical first step to inviting that kind of persecution into the US.
Fifield was an instant success at the National Association of Manufacturers. According to historian Kevin Kruse, capitalism and Christianity had often been compared. But Fifield’s innovation was, and I’m quoting here, “the insistence that Christianity and capitalism were political soul mates”.
His is not to the opinion of all Christians. Many Christian leaders like FDR saw the New Deal as the Christian thing to do. But today is about Christian libertarianism.
The world had not heard the end of James Fifield.
He was the pastor of a church of 4,000 people in Los Angeles, the largest Congregationalist church in the world8. It had a drama club, radio ministry, and college-level courses. It was also known as the church for the well-connected. People like legendary filmmaker Cecil B Demille. One chronicler of Fifield described him as the “Apostle to Millionaires”9.
Fifield was paid the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars a year in today’s money. He printed a full-page ad in the LA Times denouncing the New Deal. Before you yell, “fundamentalist!” hold your fire. He wasn’t a fundamentalist. Instead, he believed you could pick and choose what parts of the Bible applied. And that capitalism and Christianity were the same because, in his mind, both allowed you to succeed or fail on your own merits. Again, also hard to believe when Jesus spent so much time with the poor. But I digress.
It wasn’t just his preaching that made him famous. Fifield started “Spiritual Mobilization”, an organization that disseminated his speeches and ideas. Here is something that has really struck home while researching this season… big organizations like this are basically marketing agencies. So was the Moral Majority in the 1980s. All of their influence came from their ability to spread their ideas far and wide. Spiritual Mobilization sent tracts to over 70,000 ministers in the US condemning the New Deal.
It read, in part:
“We ministers have special opportunities and special responsibilities in these critical days… America’s movement toward dictatorship has already eliminated checks and balances in its concentration of powers in our chief executive.”
Catch that? Fifield straight up implied FDR was a dictator. Someone get Fifield a mic so he can drop it. He also opposed the US’ entry into WWII. His advisory committee was a who’s who of the politically connected. Leaders of the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying organization in the country, and Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking” and future pastor to the Trump family.
The organization was backed by millionaires like the founder of the Firestone tire company and J. Howard Pew Jr, president of Sun Oil.
Spiritual Mobilization faced a problem, though. It wasn’t enough to just mail out materials. People could see the money behind it. They needed it to feel like a grassroots campaign. They had to get ministers involved. What better way to get pastors on their side then a shared enemy?
Have ministers see the threat that faced them. So they enlisted over 10,000 clergy as representatives at the local level, to make it seem less like a highly-financed propaganda campaign and more like an organic movement. Once they did that, requests for materials written by prominent libertarians and politically connected people like former president Herbert Hoover, started pouring in. Encouraging ministers to preach on themes hand-picked by Spiritual Mobilization.
Another way to get ministers to talk on these themes was to hold a sermon contest. In October 1947 they encouraged clergy to write a sermon on the theme, “The Perils to Freedom” and you could win $5,000. Which is about $57,000 in today’s money. Something like 15% of all of the clergy in the country sent in a submission. That’s a lot of influence. And if you wrote a sermon, why not preach it? Think about that title: The Perils to Freedom. The title alone invokes fear, and also because it’s preached from a pulpit, people will equate freedom in this country with Christianity. Pastors could also preach the sermon that won. Sounds innocent enough, right? Let’s be upfront about this, though… this was big business-sponsored patriotism. Fed by fear. When preached from a pulpit, those messages felt like part of a grassroots movement. Even though the contest was sponsored by some of the largest companies in the world seeking to keep their assets, discourage labor unions, and anything that restricted a free market.
Messages weren’t just spread by pastors, radio broadcasters were required to air a certain amount of public service announcements. Meaning, radio stations were hungry for anything to play during those times. It would be expensive to produce their own… why not get them for free?
Spiritual Mobilization filled that need with their regular 15-minute program, “The Freedom Story”. It featured cautionary tales of government overreach, praising moments in history when the government didn’t regulate industry. While also touting the benefits of religion. By 1951 the broadcasts were heard on more than 800 stations. Much of it financed by a Steel Manufacturer.
They also started a monthly magazine called Faith and Freedom that claimed it was an open marketplace of ideas for ministers. But ended up repeatedly denouncing the minimum wage, price controls, veterans benefits, Social Security, and unemployment insurance. As well as the Social Gospel.
The magazine supposedly didn’t “back” a candidate but put forth a bunch of questions to lead you in a certain direction. “If it proposes to take the property or income of some for the special benefit of others, does it violate the Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal?’ If it appeals to the voting power of special interest groups, or to those who have less than others, does it violate the Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house?”
In 1951 Spiritual Mobilization’s leaders decided that for the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, that the nation should celebrate with events throughout the country. So they formed the Committee to Proclaim Liberty. They enlisted celebrities from Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, Bing Crosby, and Cecil B Demille to Herbert Hoover and General Douglas MacArthur. Once again, the event was to be sponsored by corporate America, United Airlines, J.C. Penny, and Fred Maytag.
It was veiled with patriotism, but was essentially an opportunity to preach libertarian conservatism. The main thrust of the event was the encourage people to read the Declaration of Independence out loud. Sounds great, right? Well… here is where it gets weird. The Declaration spends some time outlining King George’s refusal to let the colonies pass laws. They wanted more government, but George wouldn’t let them. Get that? The colonies wanted to form more government. I’ll prove it. This is from the Declaration of Independence:
“He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance.”
“He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
They were upset that George was shutting down their government. They wanted more government. Which doesn’t really work with libertarianism. In order to get around that, the committee edited those parts out.
The celebrations were held all over the country. With CBS’s radio network airing a special tribute organized by Fifield and movie director Cecil B Demille and starring Jimmy Stewart, Gloria Swanson, Bing Crosby, and Lionel Barrymore. The promotional photos featured the phrase, “Freedom Under God Will Save Our Country”. General Matthew Ridgeway, paused his duties fighting in Korea to insist that the founding fathers had been motivated by their religious faith.
You’ve probably noticed some similarities between my stories about of the Pledge of Allegiance Abraham Vereide. The focus on people in power, organized patriotic celebrations, the mixing of religion and politics. I know it’s hard to layer these stores on top of each other, but Vereide, Fifield, and Billy Graham’s early career overlapped. The inhabited the same world. Tying Christianity to capitalism, and capitalism to the United States. Creating public displays of piety that would later bolster the Christian America camp.
Fifield wasn’t the only one marketing religion in America. In towns all across the country there are literal monuments to this movement. In parks and government buildings. Monuments meant not only to advertise morality and religion… but also a blockbuster film.
We’ll continue our story after these messages.
In Minnesota 1947 a young man stole the family car and went out for a joy ride. In the process, sadly, he struck a pedestrian. At his court hearing, the judge had an unorthodox idea: have the boy learn the Ten Commandments.
Sounds like a good idea, right? There are a lot of good life principles there. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t covet. All good things. The judge didn’t stop there. He figured it would be good for all Americans to learn these principles. So in 1951 he, along with the the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, started placing framed copies of the Ten Commandments in schools and court houses around Minnesota. Now these important rules could be seen in public places by anyone who could read.
Don’t forget – societies need people to act in a moral fashion. That’s just a reality. And religion could accomplish that. That’s what the American Founding fathers thought too, though they weren’t really specific on which religion.
This story caught the ear of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood: Cecil B. Demille.
Demille was a regular attender at James Fifield’s church, and a supporter of the Spiritual Mobilization movement. He directed Bible films like Samson and Delilah and King of Kings, and produced even more. He even made an appearance as himself in the classic black and white film “Sunset Boulevard”, one of my personal favorites.
Demille and Fifield had a lot in common. They were both Christian libertarians. They both hated the New Deal. Ha-ted. Demille also did not get along with unions. And Hollywood is full of unions. When he testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1945 he compared unions to Naziism, Fascism, and Communism. The Demille Foundation for Political Freedom was partially dedicated to fighting unions. Including advocating for right to work states.
You know, I don’t think he liked unions that much.
Bible films did really well in this era. DeMille decided to remake his own earlier Ten Commandments movie. This one would go on to become the 8th highest-grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation. And it wasn’t just Christians who went. The Ten Commandments appeals to Christians, Jewish people, and Muslims alike since the story appears in all three traditions. Meaning… a much bigger market than a strictly Christian film. In fact, the head of research for the movie used texts from all three religions to fill in gaps. Because, listen, the Bible account is kind of cut and dry. How are you going to fill a whole movie with a text that takes twenty minutes to read out loud?
They also invented some stuff. Like the idea that Moses grew up as a Prince of Egypt.
The story of Moses is pretty compelling. A young boy escapes murder, floats down a river, only to be saved and raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. That same boy from an enslaved tribe grows up to lead his people to freedom.
LOUD: Let my people go!
Defeating an evil empire with a powerful tyrant leader by following God’s commands.
What other evil empires do we know of? Oh yeah, the Nazis, Fascists, and Communists. It’s no accident that a libertarian chose to remake this picture during the Cold War and soon after WWII. There’s even a trailer you can see, I’ll post it on the website where Demille himself steps in to advertise for the film. He says:
DEMILLE: “Are men to be ruled by God’s laws? Or are they to be ruled by the whims of a dictators, like Rameses II? Are men property of the state? Or are they free souls under God?”
The final words spoken by Moses in the movie quote scripture. And not just any scripture, but the same one printed on so many of the materials distributed by Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization: “ Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land, unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.”That’s Leviticus 25:10, and the same verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell.
It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with liberty the way you think of it. It’s actually part of a command to keep the year of Jubilee from the Old Testament. Something Christians don’t do. Anyhow…
In preparation for the launch of what would become one of the biggest movies of all time, someone had a bright idea… wait a second… the Fraternal Order of the Eagles is already distributing paper copies of the Ten Commandments… we could build monuments across the country and advertise for the movie at the same time.
And that’s what they did. Demille had taken a trip to Israel and at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and he picked up a piece of red granite. Kept it as a souvenir. So it was decided that the monuments should also be made of red granite. From Wisconsin. They didn’t ship it all the way from Israel.
Together with the Eagles, they donated 4,000 6-foot high red granite monuments of the Ten Commandments. Four thousand! That’s a lot of monuments. The film producers arranged for the actors from the movie to appear at some of the unveilings. Yul Brynner went to the first of these in 1955. Charlton Heston attended another in North Dakota where 5,000 people turned out for the unveiling.
There’s even a list of where you can find monuments in your area. I’ll post a link to it on our website. I looked up the closest one to me and took a drive to see it for myself.
[Audio of a trip to Idaho Falls]
It’s hard to believe that monuments all across the country were erected, in part, as part of a movie campaign. But it’s true. And not just any movie, but one that encouraged Americans to fight government control. Directed by a guy who believed in small government, and didn’t like the Social Gospel’s attitudes expressed in the New Deal.
There are a lot of reasons I wanted to tell you about these advertising campaigns.
It’s important to note that they were driven by commercial interests. Not by a grassroots sense of piety. General Motors, General Electric, and Union Carbide were all sponsors of Fifield. And a Hollywood film was a driving force behind our Ten Commandments monuments. Which is their legal right. But some people find the connection a little spooky. Big companies sending out messages about how Americans should behave, and not being up front about where those messages were coming from. Yeah… that’s spooky. Because those corporations benefit when Americans avoid unions, and social programs like a minimum wage.
These ads distinctly tie America to capitalism and religion. The Spiritual Mobilization ads did it with words, the monuments by simply being on public land.
The Spiritual Mobilization ads placed the onus of their messages on individuals. Not on social change. Not on labor movements, laws, or protests. On the individual. And that’s what Moses is in the films, one man creating change. The thing that doesn’t work for me is that Moses then founded a nation with some pretty strict rules. From how to settle disputes to how to treat menstruating women. That doesn’t sound very small government to me… anyhow. The movie ends before he gets to that part.
The movie and monuments targeted Muslims, Christians, and Jews. In other words, they didn’t tell you which faith to follow. We like to characterize this era as a purely Christian one. As far as the ads go… It wasn’t. It was religious without being specific. Don’t forget that. There is a huge difference.
I think it would be cool to live in a world where faith was in the public eye. But make no mistake: when our religion is mixed with corporate interests, it will blow up in our faces. And 2020 has been a year where those bonds are fairly obvious. Think back on the year so far: when has religion been tied to corporate interests? Think about it… think about it…
Massive campaigns can urge us toward a saving faith in Christ, something I believe in. We can celebrate that. But let these stories give you pause. Are we okay with corporate interests dictating our behavior? Our religion? Media literacy is something we Americans are just not good at. But we can get better. It begins by examining the messages within the ads themselves. What are the motivations within the ad? Where did the money come from? Who stands to benefit? And, when our faith is used in advertising, what are they equating with Christianity? An economic model? A social bias? A certain country?
Are we okay with our faith being mixed with others to sell movie tickets? When are we making Christ known, and when are we being taken for a ride?
Special thanks this week to Nick Staron and Gannon Castle for being my sounding boards. Some of the resources for this episode include “One Nation Under God” by Kevin Kruse and “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald. We’re going to continue talking about advertising Christian America in an upcoming episode. I hope you’ll subscribe so you get every new episode as its released.
This week on our website we’ve got so many bonus features. A link where you can locate the Ten Commandments monuments near you. Take a picture with one and tag us on social media! You can also see pictures of the one in Idaho Falls that I visited this summer. You’ll find that ad with Cecil B. Demille talking about the Ten Commandments. So much stuff! You can find it at www.trucepodcast.com.
While you’re there, remember that this podcast is listener supported. You’re not going to hear stories like this in other Christian outlets. If you like what you hear and you’d like to partner with us, head over to trucepodcast.com/donate to learn how.
This week I want to encourage you to join our email list. You’ll get a updates on our release schedule, behind-the-scenes looks, and links to download our Media Fast and Empire curriculum. And it’s free!
You can also learn all about my movies, “Bringing up Bobby” and “Between the Walls” and my novel, “Cradle Robber”.
Thanks for listening. God willing, we’ll be back in two weeks with more. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
When strikes broke out in the 1930’s, some wealthy members of the US elite got together… to pray. One of the organizers of prayer groups across the country was Abraham Vereide. In this episode of Truce we tell the story of how Vereide became one of the most influential non-elected men of his time… and how his movement took a dark turn as revealed in Netflix’s The Family.
When is it an appropriate time for a labor strike?
How bad do things have to get before a strike can shut down the economy?
Is there a Christian perspective on labor strikes?
Is there anything wrong or creepy about Christian businessmen praying to end a strike?
Do you think the National Prayer Breakfast is an event focused on piety?
Read Matthew 6 in the Bible. What do you think it means for public prayer? Jesus prayed in public. Is all public prayer wrong, or just some of it? Where is that line?
Vereide’s legacy created “The Family”, a shadowy organization that tries to create male Christian leaders. Is this good, bad, creepy, or some combination of the three?
“The Family” is focused on male leaders. Why do we struggle as Christians to let women lead?
ROUGH TRANSCRIPT – Note: We do our best to make these accurate. But last minute changes to the episode do happen, and sometimes things are added or subtracted that are not reflected in the transcript.
CHRIS STARON: Hey everyone, this episode is a part of a long series about how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done go back and start at the beginning of season three.
The shipping container was not invented until 19561. I know that’s a strange way to start a story. But if you want to learn about an underappreciated invention that changed the world, look no further than the shipping container. You know, those big long rectangles that cross the ocean on cargo ships. When they reach land they are loaded onto trains or trucks without adapters or whatchamacallits. They’re uniform. They have specific dimensions so they fit wherever you need them. Boats, trains, trucks. Any form of transportation.
Think about how cool that is. No joke – my brother read a whole book about them.
Anyhow, this is not a show about shipping containers. But before their invention and implementation, ships were unloaded by hand. You’d have to take everything out of a boat to load it onto a truck. Then everything out of the truck to load it onto a train. If there were, say, 400 bags of flour, men had to load those bags onto the ship by hand. Stack them. Account for them. And then somewhere, maybe across the ocean, another group of men unloaded those bags of flour. One at a time. Stacked them. Accounted for them. And on and on. With every single item on a boat. See why shipping containers are so much better? Oh yeah.
These men were longshoremen. Their work was dangerous, tedious, with long hours. Then there was the way there were hired. Not by a company as an employee, but each morning the men went down to the docks and were lined up, chosen one by one. There was no guarantee that they’d get picked. Which opened the market for bribery. Imagine looking for work every single day2. We take it for granted that we can get up in the morning and go to work knowing that our job will be there. They didn’t have that luxury. And, as anyone who has done manual labor knows… you can only get away with it for so long. Eventually, the human body breaks down. You need a safety net in case you hurt yourself or the ravages of old age become too much.
These struggles bubbled and churned for decades. Little strikes broke out without enacting real change. Then came the Great Depression. And with it, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. A plan to pull the country from it’s quagmire. One piece of the New Deal, there were many, was the National Industrial Recovery Act or NIRA3. Section 7a of NIRA gave labor unions a new advantage. The right to organize and bargain collectively without interference from their employers.
In May, 1934 the longshoremen went on strike4 physically removing any scabs who crossed their picket lines5. Shipping companies hired professionals who went around the country breaking strikes. They were met with fist fights and brass knuckles6.
The strike closed the west coast. Ships sat on the water, their goods going rotten. There are newsreel films of this era showing empty streets, closed stores. Major US cities reduced to ghost towns. The Industrial Association of San Francisco hired a PR firm to spin the strike as a communist plot to disrupt American life7.
The tension ratcheted even higher on July 5, now known as “Bloody Thursday”, when police and vigilantes fired on the strikers, killing two. By the end of the day another 70 were injured8. The violence encouraged the cities other 160 unions to join the strike in solidarity. 130,000 workers refused to work9.
It was there, amid the strikes that something happened under the radar. Yes, organized labor won a major and bloody victory by the end of July. But in wealthy circles, those frequented by industrialists, a movement was beginning. A prayer movement. One that would shape the country by tying capitalism to Christianity. Changing the outward political reaction to faith for decades to come.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
Let me rewind just a little bit.
Before the strikes, before the shut down, a man named Abraham Vereide did his best to coordinate relief efforts on the West Coast. He was a Methodist clergyman. An immigrant who left Norway in 1905 to seek a better life in the states. In the 1920’s, Vereide ran Goodwill Industries in Seattle. A huge operation.
But ask anyone who works with the poor for a long time… it sometimes grates on you. Slowly. There are genuine needs, but those few who take advantage of the system start to loom larger and larger in your mind. In 1927, Vereide said that…
VEREIDE: Promiscuous charity pauperizes and the average person seeking aid… does not want to work for it.
After rising in the ranks, and being considered for a job in FDR’s relief efforts, Vereide had had enough. He resigned. Now almost 50, he went looking for a new role in life. Just as Seattle was embroiled in a massive labor strike that shut down the city. The longshoremen and other union members had bonded together and slowed down business. The wealthy elite of Seattle gathered together at the Pacific Union Club to lick their wounds and discuss their options. Vereide found himself leading prayer groups there for these wealthy men.
The strike and his time at Goodwill are key to understanding Vereide. He’d seen what organized labor could do – cost his wealthy friends money. Slow the economy. Never mind the strife of the people working on the docks. Forget about the New Deal, legislation that Vereide denounced. He believed that the economy should be unregulated and that the poor should rely on the beneficence of wealthy people10. An ideology that some people still hold today.
The following year Vereide had a chance encounter that shaped his life. A local developer named Walter Douglass stopped him and lamented that churches were not doing enough to stop the labor strikes.
DOUGLASS: Here you have your churches and services and a merry-go-round of activities, but as far as any actual impact and strategy for turning the tide is concerned, you’re not making a dent.
Churches should end these strikes. Denouncing the shut downs. Get involved politically. Which to me brings up questions of the role of the church in society. How much do we get involved and when should we focus people on Jesus. But, we’ve got a long way to go.
The two men hatched a plan. Douglass would give Vereide offices in his building and money to run the operation. Work began immediately. When I say immediately I mean immediately. The two men marched to the offices of the president of the largest department store in the north west and together they drew up a list of wealthy men to invite… to pray with them.
Their first prayer meeting was at the Washington Athletic Club. Guests included people from railroad, gas, lumber, hardware, and candy corporations and two future mayors of Seattle. Political and corporate leaders. Strangely enough, only one of them belonged to a church11.
The prayer breakfast became a regular thing known as the City Chapel. And as word spread, the meeting grew. Soon they were hosting retreats for the wealthy and connected. To see how they could use the gifts God had given them, or that they had earned because of God’s favor, or whatever could be used for their purposes.
Okay. Let’s pause for just a moment. Do a gut check. Is there anything wrong with prayer meetings? I think most of us would say that there is not. What about wealthy people getting together to pray? I mean, does their financial status really make a big difference? No. Of course not. But there are hints… clues that something sneaky could come of this.
But when you hear that people meeting for prayer are not Christians, but are industrialists looking for ways to end their union troubles… doesn’t that give you some pause?
There’s a Bible verse that we’re going to bump up against a lot in the next few episodes. In Jesus’ day the religious leaders gave money in public, prayed in public, and showed off how holy they were. This was Jesus’ response.
Matthew 6:5-6. “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
I don’t want to make a meal out of that passage. Just let it sit a little bit as we go forward. How are we supposed to pray? Humbly. Not parading in front of people.
My early uneasiness about these prayer meeting hinges on this idea. Were they there to pray or were they there to network? And, these prayer meetings were intended as a counter measure to labor movements, which some saw as communist plots to slow the economy. While others saw it as the only way to get the attention of their employers who had ignored their demands for too long.
It wasn’t long before the City Chapel, these prayer meetings, got involved in king making. Their first foray happened at a retreat when conservative Arthur Langlie found his financial sponsor for his first mayoral bid for the city for Seattle. He would eventually become governor and was considered for Eisenhower’s running mate in 195212. That all started in a prayer retreat.
The organizations growth in Seattle sparked businessmen in other cities to start their own prayer meetings aimed at corporate leaders. An oil man started one in Los Angeles. A wool trader in Boston got one going there. A group of business leaders in Chicago. There was prayer to be sure. But also networking. Historian Kevin Kruse described these meetings as, “an important political rite of passage”13.
Makes sense, right? If there are business people and politicians meeting and you want to have influence… you’re going to go where they are. Whether you’re religious or not. There is also the strain of Judeo-Christian beliefs that pushes for “our people” to be in power. We can guess that that concept was very much alive and well in these groups.
Eventually, Vereide made the natural progression to Washington DC where the meetings went from local muckatie-mucks meeting regularly to national politicians. Republicans and Democrats. Members of congress, supreme court justices, business leaders. The Vice President.
Vereide printed up a monthly program that guided these prayer meetings with scripture passages and discussion questions. All the while, Vereide made contacts across the board. Some that you would know. JC Penny, the department store magnate, introduced him to Norman Vincent Peale. Long time listeners may recognize that name. He is the guy who wrote the book, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, which encourages people to think and talk positively to bring about their desired outcomes. It’s basically the precursor to The Secret well before Oprah’s book club. One of the people who would attend Peale’s church and hear his preaching on positive words about oneself was a little boy named Donald Trump.
Vereide framed his movement simply, as “Christ or Communism”. He believed the antidote to communism, which was inherently atheistic according to Karl Marx, was Christianity. Collectivism, labor movements, could be combatted with capitalism and prayer. These little meetings which started with just a few people, these gatherings of the wealthy and connected, were about to go big.
We’ll continue our story after this commercial break.
Enter Senator Frank Carlson. Carlson was one of Vereide’s closest friends in Congress14. He was described by one person as, “like a sunburned Bela Lugosi”, the actor famous for playing Dracula. He spoke out against the New Deal and Roosevelt as the “destroyer of human rights and freedom”15.
Senator Carlson was a member of these prayer breakfasts and decided to invite President-elect Dwight Eisenhower to their small gathering. Seems like a simple enough idea, right? Well, have you ever put together a party and nobody will get back to you?
VALLEY GIRL: I don’t know. I might be doing my hair that night.
Until that popular person is going and then everyone wants to go?
VALLEY GIRL: Wait? Becky is going your party? Like, I’m totally in.
It was something like that. When people heard that Eisenhower would be attending, the prayer meeting got much bigger. The only problem is that their usual meeting place, the Vandenberg Room in the Senate, couldn’t fit the number of people who wanted to attend. So Carlson cashed in a favor with Conrad Hilton so they could host it at one of the Hilton hotels for free. And so was born the National Prayer Breakfast.
The first breakfast’s theme? “Government under God”.
Okay, so it’s a prayer breakfast. We’ve spent all of this time talking about a prayer breakfast? Yes. It’s an important thread in this tapestry that we’re discussing this year. We’re talking about how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian church. And you can see it pretty clearly in the story of Abraham Vereide. The late 1800s and early 1900s in industrialized parts of the world were all about labor. How will we treat workers? Will they have rights? What should the working conditions and the hours be? Should they be allowed to unionize?
People like Vereide saw in the unions a sort of mini-communism. Because they took the role of the individual to bargain with their employer for their pay and collectivized it. Pooled it. Collectivization was seen as one building block of communism. One little nudge closer to Joseph Stalin. And the New Deal as a power play by Roosevelt to gain more power for himself.
If they could tie the interests of capitalists together using the ribbon of religion, they could fight creeping communism. And when I say religion I use that word deliberately. They sought a Judeo-Christian understanding. Not necessarily a purely Protestant one. It was meetings like this that allowed people to call this a Christian nation. Because our leadership was meeting together regularly to pray.
We can debate the validity of their espoused faith. Really, we can. Obviously there is a temptation to attend these things whether you believe or not because this is where the powerful are coming together. That is one way that communism in Russia impacted American Christianity: it sparked the creation of prayer meetings for the politically connected across the country. And, in the process, it dangled the carrot of false piety in front of a lot of people.
There is another, more sinister underpinning as well. Beyond the putting on of airs.
First there was the focus on leadership abroad. Vereide built relationships with authoritarian leaders in Haiti, Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines16. Which looks today a little like Christian endorsement of these lousy leaders and their deadly policies.
Vereide organized the efforts of these prayer groups as the National Council for Christian Leadership or NCCL and then an international version of that called the ICCL. It’s a lot of acronyms, I know. But this organization is important.
There is a strain of Christianity that is very interested in leadership. I’ve seen this a lot working in the Christian film, publishing, and now podcasting world. Leadership has been all the buzz for a while. Vereide’s organization became very interested in making Christian leaders. Male leaders.
After Vereide’s death, the organization was led by Doug Coe. It’s Coe who is the focus on the Netflix series “The Family”17. An expose on the now shadowy organization that owns homes near DC where young men are mentored to be leaders in the US. Not… maybe what you and I would consider Christian leaders, but a strange pseudo mixture of things involving studying only sections of the Bible, and leadership itself as practiced under some really bad dudes. Think of the bad guys you know and the Family is studying them. Supposedly not for nefarious reasons, but for their leadership qualities.
The Netflix program, while not what I’d call a documentary, does point out some valuable issues within this slice of Christianity. Using religion to open politically connected doors. Preferential treatment of men, and only a certain kind of man. A weird sort of insider market on growing their own kind of leader. King making. In a country where we are supposed to be a government by the people, for the people… this gives me a great deal of pause. Are the normal, work-a-day people of the nation really being represented if there is an inside track for certain well-connected men? How does that reflect back on Christianity when we create and endorse this kind of system?
Where does this leave us? Did I really do this whole episode just to knock the National Prayer Breakfast? No. There’s always the possibility for real ministry to be done, too. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for people hearing about God. For prayer.
But I think that it is crucial for us to understand the motives behind these actions. These prayer meetings were started to combat organized labor, yes, a movement fraught with its own issues. If you don’t believe me, research General Motors in the 1980’s. But the labor movement was necessary in moving the country forward. We almost certainly would not have child labor laws, a forty hour work week, safety standards, or the like if it wasn’t for the labor movement.
As for the prayer meetings themselves, they played a key role in allowing some people to call the US a Christian nation. It’s just one thread in a much bigger tapestry that includes the Pledge of Allegiance, the slogan “One Nation Under God”, “In God We Trust” printed on our money, prayer in school. There are upshots to branding a nation as Christian. It calls people to a heritage, encourages morality, and there may be some incidental conversions. We can give Bibles to soldiers, equip military chaplains, allow prayer meetings in prisons. Students can study the Bible in schools, if nothing else, because it really has impacted literature for thousands of years. Even Stephen King refers to it a ton in his books. Try understanding Faulkner without at least some knowledge of the Bible. The TV show Seinfeld brought it up a lot. But we also have to consider the downsides. Maybe it sounds like I’m a broken record, but when we market the US as a Christian nation, the actions of the United States are then tied to Christianity itself. The national sins of the US are easily used against us.
Finally, we should call into question the real religious value of meetings like the National Prayer Breakfast. Remember the words of Jesus when He instructed His followers on how to pray:
“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
We sometimes allow ourselves to see these public demonstrations of piety as evidence that our system is godly. When really, its evidence that at the core, there’s nothing of substance going on. It’s a show, a performance that is put on to gain power.
Really quick, did you know that a lot of the US’ recycling used to be shipped to China? It’s true. Because it was cheaper that dealing with it here. I know that sounds crazy. Ship something across the world for cheaper than sending it across the state. But it was true. Do you know what made that possible? Shipping containers. Chinese manufacturers sent us their goods in shipping containers and, rather than send those containers back empty, wasting a perfectly good trip across an ocean, we loaded our scrap metal, plastic, and broken electronics in them instead. For a long time that practice made it cheaper for us to ship our recycling across the ocean than it was to ship and process it ourselves.
My brother read a whole book on that too. Go figure.
When we see a ship in port filled with containers, we might be tempted to think, wow, they’re full of good stuff. Food, clothes, gadgets. Goodies. Endless possibilities. I think the same is true when we see public displays of piety. We want to believe that they herald good things. And they may. They could be a sign of really great stuff.
Or they could a sign that the trash needs to be taken out.
Special thanks to all of the people who loaned me their voices for this episode. Much of the research for this week stemmed from the excellent book “One Nation Under God” by Kevin Kruse. Mr. Kruse chose not to be on the show, but I still want to recommend his research. Other source material can be found on our website at trucepodcast.com. When you’re there you can listen to our complete archives, and join our email list where you’ll get access to our free media fast curriculum and the curriculum for our empire game from a few episodes ago. There you’ll also find ways to donate to the show. Have you ever heard anything quite like this podcast before? I’m guessing no. It is mostly a one-man operation. I’m working toward the goal of doing this full time. Your donation of any amount can help me with that. And donating via Patron will give you access to our bonus interviews, episodes, and insider-only updates. Learn more at trucepodcast.com.
Also, I’ve set the goal of reaching 1,000 downloads per episode by the end of the summer. We have to more than double the number of people listening to do that. I need your help! So, would you take out your phone and text or call someone to let them know how much you appreciate Truce?
Want to help even more? Leave the show a review on your podcasting app. We got this one in recently from TFE tim. It reads, “How did we get to where we are? Spiritually and politically. Truce does a great job asking questions that are rarely asked in our modern culture. This podcast is a breath of fresh air in the stifling dogmatic culture that we now live in.”
Thanks for the kind words! Your reviews help people to find the show.
And for my super-nerd friends out there, I mentioned that you might be interested in learning about the rise and fall of auto worker unions in the US. There is a great book called Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout and Beyond by Paul Ingrassia. I’m not getting any kind of bump to recommend it. It was just a really insightful book.
That’s all for now. God willing, we’ll be back in two weeks with more.
Many Christian leaders came to hate the New Deal, especially libertarians. Their opposition to the New Deal as creeping socialism sparked the National Prayer Breakfast, some of Billy Graham’s speeches, and the bonding of capitalism to Christianity and the US. So we should probably know what the New Deal was!
Our guest this episode is Justin Rosolino. He’s a high school history teacher and the author of the book “Idiot Sojourning Soul“.
You can find pictures of Chris’ 50 mile New Deal Bike Tour on the website at www.trucepodcast.com.
Does the church represent working-class people or are we too focused on the wealthy? During the Industrial Revolution, many saw churches as clubs for rich people. So working folks formed their own churches, unions, and organizations.