Enjoy a sampler of Christian podcasts, including one inspired by the book “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing.
It’s time for our second annual Christmas Episode Exchange! Each year I put out a call on the Christian Podcasters Association Facebook page for 5-minute mini-episodes based on the theme of Christmas. Now I’m going to present several of the best from that group.
The 1983 Supreme Court case Lynch v Donnelly brought church and state together in one important decision. In it, the court decided that a city-owned creche (also known as a manger scene) could remain on private land because it was part of a greater display. It wasn’t a stand-alone creche. It was surrounded by Christmas trees, a Santa’s village, and more. The diorama could stay because it held no significant religious value. It was, in their words, “ceremonial deism”.
In this modern era where it seems like religion is slipping away from public life, it’s good to stop and ask what we’re losing. Do our public displays of piety have any real Christian weight to them in the first place? What are we fighting for if “In God We Trust” doesn’t specify which God it’s referring to?
When can manger scenes appear on public land? The answer is… “it depends”.
The United States staged a coup in 1954 to protect the United Fruit Company. We overthrew a democratically elected leader.
In 1954 the United States government, led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, staged a coup to oust President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala. For what reason? To help the United Fruit Company.
United Fruit was a giant company, capturing over 90% of the market in its heyday. The juggernaut found President Arbenz to be a nuisance when his agrarian reform meant they would be paid for some of their unused land, which would be given to peasants. With the help of powerful friends like Allen Dulles (the Director of the CIA), the United States staged a coup, installing Castillo Armas in his place.
All of this took place while the USA was busy framing itself as a Christian nation. What does that mean for the Christian Church today? Are we a nation that supports that kind of behavior?
What threat did President Jacobo Arbenz pose to United Fruit?
United Fruit owned many utilities in Guatemala from the trains to telephone lines. How would you feel if our utilities were owned by foreign entities? If they controlled our natural resources?
Do you think the land reform deal was a good one for their country?
Were people like John Foster Dulles right to overthrow Arbenz?
How might it have benefited them to do so?
In what way could the actions of the US in the 1950s reflect poorly on Christianity domestically and abroad?
It has been argued that American consumers benefit when Latin American and African countries are thrown in disarray. It means cheaper diamonds, gold, rubber, and more while also stranding the people in those countries in poverty.
Does it bother you that you may be benefiting from unbalanced countries?
Do you find the assumption that we are benefiting to be offensive? Why?
Billy Graham may have been the most important evangelist of the 20th century. His words were heard by millions of people around the world. He preached in person, on television, magazines, radio, and film. His impact is still felt today. He is also one of the people most responsible for tying Christianity, Capitalism, and the United States. But his legacy didn’t stop there. While he denounced communism, he went to great lengths to ensure that communists had access to the gospel too.
Billy Graham’s evangelistic efforts in Romania, Hungary, and China
Was Billy Graham anti-communist?
Billy Graham’s sermons
Was Billy Graham a fundamentalist?
What is the difference between fundamentalist and mainline churches?
TRANSCRIPT NOTE: We do try to get these right, but because of editing changes and our lack of staffing, they may not be perfectly accurate.
CS: Chris Staron (host)
DA: David Aikman (guest)
CS: This episode is part of a long series examining 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 3.
Also – we’re talking about Billy Graham. In the spirit of full disclosure, I produce podcast ads for Christianity Today, and CT serves ads to this show. Billy Graham started Christianity Today so we have a loose affiliation, though I tried not to let that influence this episode. Okay… here is the show.
Should Christians get involved in politics? Oof, big question right out of the gate. It’s going to come up a lot in the coming months. It seems like a simple question, though, right? It’s far from simple.
Lets say you’re an an American evangelist in the mid-1950s. Nice suit. A hat. Everyone wore hats back then. Maybe you travel around with a tent with someone playing gospel music behind you. What is your main goal? To reach people for Jesus, I’m guessing. Because, like many Christians, you probably believe that Jesus is the way to heaven. That it’s your duty to go out on that stage and snatch souls from the mouth of hell.
That’s your job. And there can be no more important task.
If you believe that it’s your job to bring salvation… all other responsibilities fall away. Right?
Well, you’ve got a problem. The 1950s were a time of racial segregation in the United States. If you preached in the south, the auditorium or tent or stadium would be divided in two: one section for the whites, one section for black people. You could say something on stage about the problem of racism… but you know that would scare away some of the audience, an audience who needs to hear about Jesus or risk eternal torment. If you don’t say something, though… history will judge you.
Do you get involved in politics or do you stay out of it?
There is a man who had to walk this line between politics and eternity. A man responsible in no small part for creating an era of public faith in the mid-1900s. For bonding capitalism with Christianity and Christianity with the United States. His name was Billy Graham.
DA: The first crusade I attended was many decades ago in 1975 in Hong Kong.
CS: This is David Aikman. A long time journalist for Time Magazine who interviewed everyone from Boris Yeltsin to Manuel Noriega. He’s also the author of Billy Graham: His Life and Influence. Mr. Aikman was in a nursing home when I interviewed him so you may hear some noise in the background.
DA: When he made his invitation for people to get up from their seats there was a moment of silence before the people started coming and there was a palpable sense of the Holy Spirit absolutely coming over that place. I will never forget that.
CS: It may be hard to imagine the impact of Billy Graham in part because the numbers are so large. In 1951 he spoke to 100,000 people at the Rose Bowl in LA. 336,000 people in Forth Worth Texas.
Though he died in February of 2018, his name is still with us. When Christianity Today’s former editor Mark Galli, who appeared on this show two years ago, wrote that CT could not support President Donald Trump, Graham’s son Franklin claimed that his father would not have approved. Billy Graham was pulled into politics, even after his death.
Much of his career took place during the Cold War. Historic, era defining, and controversial, Graham not only spoke out against atheistic communism… he also took bold steps to preach where nobody else could go.
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.
September 3, 1949. Scientists for the United States recorded some strange seismic activity. Coming from the Soviet Union. It could mean only one thing… the Soviets had tested their first nuclear bomb, this one detonated underground.
President Truman told the scientists to double-check their work. It had been only 4 years since the US dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States no longer held a monopoly on nuclear weaponry. Truman released a statement that read, in part:
TRUMAN: (read by an actor) We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R. Ever since atomic energy was first released by man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected. This probability has always been taken into account by us.
CS: World War II was only recently over. The threat of nuclear war was upon us. War between an atheistic, communist nation and a capitalist nation with freedom of religion. It’s easy to discount that reality. See it as old fashioned. Scare tactics to control the population. Resist that temptation.
One bomb, with no warning, could wipe out an entire city. Soon, those missiles would be aimed at us.
Billy Graham was born in 1918, the son of a farmer. When he was 16 an itinerant evangelist named Mordecai Ham came to Charlotte, North Carolina to preach a hellfire and brimstone sermon. Young Billy walked forward that night but also bowed a knee a few years later while on the eighteenth hole of a golf course. While he was in training to be an evangelist, by the way. FYI, it’s possible to be in the ministry and not really know God at all.
After college he toured with Youth For Christ, preaching campaigns with musicians, moving from city to city. At this point, he was like a lot of other revivalists. Some ups, some downs. Not the draw that would later become.
Town after town. Month after month.
It wasn’t all roses. Billy Graham himself had a crisis of faith. A friend questioned him about whether or not the Bible could be true. Graham didn’t see a lot of return for his preaching. A crusade in Pennsylvania didn’t go as hoped. Graham went out for a walk one night, set his Bible on a tree stump, and prayed that God would solidify his faith in the Scriptures.
A month later, his team arrived in Los Angeles in 1949.
An advance team of fundamentalists did their work advertising the revival, which took place under a big canvas tent. Two days before the revival began, President Harry Truman told the world that the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb. Graham’s first Sunday sermon did not steer away from this looming threat.
GRAHAM: (read by an actor) “This nation now knows that Russia has the atomic bomb! Do you know the area that is marked out for the enemy’s first atomic bomb? New York! Secondly, Chicago! And thirdly, the city of Los Angeles! Do you know the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?”
CS: Fifth Columnists is a term used to refer to people within a country who are working to overthrow that country. His concern wasn’t just Soviets, but also communists at home.
Later in his sermon, he called Communism: “a religion that is inspired, directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”
This era was a defining moment for Graham. Messages like this one found success for the first three weeks of the Los Angeles crusade. Then a famous radio star said on the air that he’d been saved Graham. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, told his editors to “Puff Graham”. And his audiences, here comes the pun, exploded. 10
Here again is David Aikman.
DA: He was a very strong anti-communist in the 1950s, as most prominent American speakers were at that time. Many of his crusade speeches spoke in a very sort of doomsday fashion about the dangers of sleek Russian bombers poised to strike atomic fear over American cities. So, throughout the 1950’s he was pronouncedly anti-communist.
CS: By 1954 the crusades had swept through cities in the United States. Eight million people heard him speak in person. He had a newspaper column and a radio broadcast. He’d also made some powerful friends including Sid Richardson, an oil tycoon who may have been the richest man in America. Another friend was Henry Luce, the owner of magazines like Time. He called captains of industry to prayer, even christening an airline and praying at an event for Holiday Inn. Winning him an interesting nickname: “the big business evangelist”.
Graham was known for his political ties as well, meeting with every president from Harry Truman to Barak Obama. Often becoming quite close.
DA: For example, Lindon Johnson probably spent more time in conversation with Billy Graham about spiritual matters then any other American president. And Johnson was apparently very frightened that he might go to hell. And so his conversations with Graham were an important landmark in LBJ’s life.
Graham even preached a sermon from the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC, drawing an estimated 45,000 people. In that sermon, he called for a national day of prayer. Not a new concept. Abraham Lincoln had called for one decades earlier. It was up to President Truman to agree.
In our episode about the National Prayer Breakfast, we discussed the misgivings some people have about public displays of piety in prayer. By the way, the National Prayer Breakfast is different from the National Day of Prayer in that the breakfast is for political leaders in DC and the day of prayer is for everyone. When President Truman was given the option to create the Day of Prayer… he resisted. After all, Matthew 6 instructs us to pray in our rooms with the door closed, not in public for all to see. But public demand won out. Congress made it part of our law that the President must choose a National Day of Prayer. The first one took place on July 4th, 1952.
Yes, Graham had powerful friends and did events in politically charged locations. Before you get too judgy, remember, even powerful people need God. Business owners and politicians have the same access to Jesus as you or me. But that kind of familiarity makes some people nervous. Here was an anti-union preacher with a vast audience mingling with leaders of industry who stood to benefit if the unions disappeared. An evangelist encouraging people to turn inward for change, rather than seek change in society.
An early biographer said of Graham,
BIOGRAPHER: (read by actor)“When Graham speaks of the American way of life, he has in mind the same combination of economic and political freedom that the National Association of Manufacturers, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal do when they use the phrase.”
CS: In a 1951 sermon in Greensboro, North Carolina he talked of the “dangers that face capitalistic America.” He went on to say that in order to make it through this troubling period, we had to embrace, “the rugged individualism that Christ brought”.
Individualism is a big concept there. Don’t sneak past it. When I talked about the changes made in American Christianity in the 1800s a few episodes ago, I noted that we turned to an individualistic view of the gospel. You as an individual need to make a personal commitment to Christ. Need to walk forward like Graham himself and accept the Lord into your heart as an individual. Some see that individualism in the sermons of evangelists and apply it to their nation. That since God is focused on the individual, we should be too. That’s why capitalism appeals to some. Instead of collectivism, which is centered on society as a whole.
He was also not a fan of the New Deal. It was a collectivist solution to an individual problem.
He knocked the Marshall Plan, which was an American program to rebuild western Europe after WWII and the welfare state here at home saying,
GRAHAM: “Their greatest need is not for more money, food or even medicine; it is Christ… Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic conditions.20”
If you believe that the only thing the world needs is conversion to Christianity, it can seem like you’re being cold to the needs of normal people. Choosing bootstrap theology over societal change. Ignoring social pressures that keep people down.
It’s a fine line to walk. On September 16, 1951 he delivered this sermon. I want you to listen and notice where he thought change came from. Not from social movements, but from the actions of individual Christians. He starts out talking about the influence John Wesley had on the US. He’s going to talk really fast here, so hold onto your hats.
BG: Child labor laws, orphanages, the abolition of slavery, and social justice for the unfortunate poor followed Wesley. However, Wesley’s social efforts were not socialistic in the modern political sense of the term. And by no means could Wesley be called Marx’s predecessor as much divergence lies between Wesley and Marx as between light and darkness. Wesley’s social consciousness was not the result of a materialistic godless doctrine as Marx produced 50 years after Wesley’s death. Quite the contrary! Wesley answered Kane’s question: in the light of correct scriptural teaching, I am my brother’s keeper! But this keepership was not the outgrowth… was the outgrowth of a right relationship to God through Jesus Christ and not that of a cold, cruel, mechanistic philosophy of class hatred. Mob violence Wesley despised. The revolt of the proletariat had no place in Wesley’s thinking. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the great Wesley revival of the 18th century saved Great Britain in her darkest and gravest hour. The desperate need in America and Britain at this hour of crisis is a spiritual awakening that will bring about social reform, honesty, and integrity in government put a new moral fiber in our society and pack our churches with men and women seeking the God of our fathers. The tragedy of the whole situation is that most of you agree with what I’m saying but you refuse to do anything about it. You do not seem to realize that you are America. And that when you make your decision for Christ it’s America through you making it’s decision. You must realize your own personal responsibilities. This spiritual awakening must begin in your hear.
CS: Did you hear the individualism there? That it wasn’t up to a big social movement like communism to do the right thing, but that of the Christian individual? Also he tied the United States to Christianity there at the end, contrasting it with socialism. That if Americans were Christians, we could fight against the evils of communism.
In another sermon titled “Satans Religion,” he spelled it out even more clearly with his five things that could fight communism: One: “old-fashioned Americanism”. Two: “by conservative and Evangelical Christianity”. Three: “prayer”. Four: “Spiritual revival”. Fifth: “by personal Christian experience.” He went on to say, “the greatest and most effective weapon against Communism today is to be a born-again Christian.”
An individualistic idea, right? That the only thing stemming the tide was you. It’s not unheard of for evangelists, to take the news of today and personalize it, use the concerns of modern life to bring people to a moment of decision. It is focused on the individual, not on the role of society. Contrast that to the Social Gospel which was very much about bringing societal change.
To his credit, Graham, an individual, did bring about societal change. In some ways that surprised even his own supporters.
You’ve probably heard me caution against creating a “they”, a people group we can scapegoat. Those people are the worst. If only they had their act together. I warn against this because if we create a “they” then we’re free to ignore that group of people. It allows us just to write them off. But our job as Christians is take the good news of Jesus to the world. We can’t do that if we’re ignoring a people.
Graham’s early supporters were fundamentalists. Those were the people who came to his early revivals and brought their friends. But Graham wanted to attract mainline Protestants as well. By the way, in the past, I’ve used the term mainline incorrectly. I’ve tried to go back to old episodes and edit those sections out but may have missed some. To make some generalizations, mainline Protestants tend to be more theologically moderate, and are less likely to take the Bible as literal. Whereas fundamentalists are more conservative and do take every word of the Bible as literal.
For example: The story of Jonah getting swallowed by a whale from the Old Testament. Mainline churchgoers might see in that poetry or allegory whereas fundamentalists see a guy being swallowed by a literal whale.
See the difference? Okay. So, Billy Graham wanted to reach out to mainline churches, the poetry/allegory camp – a necessity in places like New York City where they were the majority of Christians. He would need their help to carry out the task of putting on his revival there.
But there was this imaginary chasm between the two groups. Us over here and those guys waaaay over there. So Graham reached out.
In 1957 he held a gigantic crusade at Madison Square Garden, which was sponsored by the Protestant Council of the City of New York, a group with many liberal ministers. Graham also spoke at liberal seminaries. Broadening the idea that maybe Christians could get along. And, seeing the gospel as the most important thing, he could preach to the choir who also needed saving.
This crossing of theological lines drew criticism. Most notably by fundamentalists like Bob Jones Sr. who saw him as cow-towing to liberal ideology.
Graham’s efforts were effective. The New York crusade was the longest-running, and most heavily attended event in Madison Square Garden history. Across all of the venues, 2 million people attended with 55,000 cards signed with people making decisions for Christ. Making it the most successful evangelistic event in American history. Of course, numbers are deceptive. Many people came more than once. Thousands came from out of town. Of those many cards that were signed, only about 6-10,000 new people started coming to church in the area. The rest were already churchgoers. This sounds like a slight but really demonstrates that churchgoers, like Christian leaders, need to hear the gospel too. This was accomplished, in no small part, because he was willing to reach across theological lines.
That’s not always easy to do. Conservatives and liberals are so used to referring to each other as “those people”. One of the things I admire about Billy Graham is that he was willing to cross those heavily guarded borders. To preach to people who otherwise might not gear the gospel.
He is often criticized today for another line he had to walk. He famously removed the ropes that divided the segregated audience for his 1953 Chattanooga crusade. A few months later, he allowed a Dallas venue to segregate rather than risk some not hearing the gospel. Understandably, folks got angry about it. Still do. There are lots of angry articles about that moment on the Internet. The next year, he determined to never hold a segregated crusade again.
In the same way, he started fighting Communism by speaking out against it. Those people. But as time went on, Graham’s approach changed. Communism was a real threat. Don’t forget that. The nuclear bomb, the spread across Asia that led the United States into wars. It would be understandable to simply treat communists as those people.. but… but… Graham didn’t leave it there. Just condemn “them” to hell. To his credit, he went to places that nobody else could imagine going. And blazed a trail behind the iron curtain.
We’ll be back after these messages.
Billy Graham was us and them about Communism. Understandable considering the great number of their own people they killed, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. But the story doesn’t stop there… What changed, according to David Aikman, is not what he thought of communism, but ideas about how Christians should react to communists.
DA: He began to change his outlook on the communist world in the 1970’s. And two events in that decade were instrumental in altering his outlook. One was he got a very high level briefing from an official in the White House in the administration of Jimmy Carter, which really scared him because the Carter official told him how dire things would be if there were ever anything resembling a nuclear war. The other thing that happened was that in 1977 when the Cold War was still at it’s height, he made a visit to Hungary as a speaker and this set in motion a whole series of invitations to other communist countries of eastern Europe.
CS: The most famous evangelist in the world… went behind the Iron Curtain. It took five years of planning to do so. Americans of Hungarian descent criticized Graham for going there. Seeing it as an implicit endorsement of the horrors that occurred in their country. But Graham himself said,
DA: And then in 1982 he made a controversial appearance at a peace conference in Moscow organized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, it was a essentially a propaganda stunt to get Graham there and to have him say some fairly innocuous things. But it set into motion a series of invitations to Graham by east European regimes like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and even Poland that allowed Graham tremendous access into these countries which previously had been closed to outside evangelists.
Graham was, once again, met with skepticism by some in the United States. He had now become strongly anti-nuclear weapon, even calling for disarmament. Dismantling the military might we had spent so much money to build. Some saw that as the hand of the Soviets, manipulating Graham so they could gain an advantage. Soften their image.
DA: He was criticized by many evangelicals in the US even for taking up that invitation to go. And he was even more criticized by not just Christians but by journalists. In 1982 when he accepted the invitation to the Russian Orthodox peace conference in Moscow. And it’s very significant that one of the strongest critics of that time was Dan Rather, the CBS anchor person. And he had lambasted Graham for his naivete for attending that conference. But later on he completely retracted that criticism because Graham was speaking to the aspirations of many ordinary Russians. And they responded in a major way to his message.
CS: He preached in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, which was considered one of the most religiously oppressive of the Soviet regimes. He was not always met with enthusiasm. Authorities in these countries were brought up to fight for atheistic communism. They limited the number of people who could attend or they cut the wires to his loudspeaker systems. Still, the crusades carried on.
DA: Most significantly, of all the foreign trips that he was invited to make to eastern Europe there was a trip in Romania in the year 1985 when Graham gave an important talk at a cathedral in the city of Timisoara, which is the major city in the Hungarian speaking component of the nation of Romania.
CS: The crowd there was estimated to be 150,000 people. Enough to make a world leader nervous for sure. Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, cancelled his meeting with Graham. But the groundwork had already been laid. Protests by Protestants in Timisoara called for the end of the regime.
DA: That revolt in in Timisoara against Ceausescu triggered the collapse of the last regime in eastern Europe to succumb to the anti-communist wave that had penetrated the country.
CS: Some Romanians credit Graham’s visit for getting the ball rolling to start the revolution.
DA: Later on in 1992 after Boris Yeltsin had emerged as the leader of Russia, which was no longer part of the Soviet Union, Graham was able to make a crusade to Russia itself. Something he had prayed about on his very first trip to Russia as a tourist way back in 1959 when he said he knelt down in Red Square and prayed that the Lord would open the door for him to share the gospel with ordinary Russians and that of course happened. So I think Graham’s influence on the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and Russia was very significant. And it would be quite wrong to assume that his 1950’s era anti-communism prevailed as a viewpoint throughout his life. It didn’t. It was really modified. His disgust with the dangers of nuclear war and his sincere admiration for some peace programs in the 1970s.
CS: As his approach changed, doors continued to open for him to preach in places that had previously been unthinkable. Including both North Korea and China.
DA: When he went in 1988 the Chinese authorities were a bit annoyed by the fact that he particularly asked to see a Chinese Christian named Wang Ming-dao (spelling?) who spent decades in a labor camp for his strong Christian witness. And the people accompanying Graham were very surprised that Graham decided he wanted to make this visit. But it was extremely important for Wang Ming-dao himself. And it was a great encouragement for Chinese Christians. In fact, on the same trip by Graham, Graham had invited one of the prominent house church leaders to visit him for tea in Moscow. And the guy was arrested on his way to that meeting, which, of course, made the Chinese communists look pretty bad. But the fact is that Graham showed great sensitivity to the needs of followers of Jesus who suffered serious persecution in various countries.
CS: Which is important. Everything Billy Graham did drew media attention. By meeting with these persecuted Christians, their stories could be told. His visit in 1988 occurred at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. An era of unrest, eventually leading to the student revolt of June the 4th, 1989 in Tiananmen Square. An event that David Aikman himself was witness to. You can hear more about that by visiting our Patreon page.
Billy Graham’s legacy is complex. A man whose first love was telling people about Jesus. His career spanned massive social changes from segregation to the women’s liberation movement. Nuclear proliferation to the fall of the Soviet Union. Radio, television, films, and the Internet. Not knowing where history would go, or how he would be judged.
He was instrumental in tying Christianity, capitalism, and America together in the minds of many. Spreading the idea that societal change could be accomplished by individuals. Those concepts are vital to understanding why popular Christianity in the US is the way it is today. Why critics of American Christianity see the faith as in the pocket of big business. Ask not what big business can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. He also defined a time in America that is at the center of many debates. Some of us long for a time when Christianity was visible in every corner of society, literally preached from the steps of the capital building, on network television, and in newspapers. The 1950s can have a glow to them for that reason. A warm simplicity. When they say “Make America Great Again” this is what they’d like to emulate.
This era has long made me suspicious. Was it really so different from our own or do we romanticize the past? Was that time really less complicated, or just complicated in different ways?
Because, others see the 1950s as a time of great struggle. Rampant racism and segregation. War, restricted career and social options for women, the very real threat of nuclear holocaust. Not to mention, the reality that, religiously, we were actually pretty wishy-washy in the 1950s. We’ll get to that soon.
Billy Graham had the difficult challenge of trying to be all things to all people, so that he could make the gospel known. Despite sometimes ending up on the wrong side of history, his legacy was profound and often positive. Leaving we Christians in modern times to ponder some big questions. I’ll put these in the show notes of this episode in case you want to spark a conversation with your friends and family over dinner tonight.
Is Jesus’ message individualistic, collectivist, or something in between? If the majority of a nation’s citizens say they are Christians, does that make it a Christian nation? Does hobnobbing with the wealthy and politically connected occasionally backfire? Like, say, when you’ve come out backing Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as Graham did? Is it possible to cross political and theological lines today in order to spread the gospel? When do we prioritize the gospel over social issues and when do we have to put our foot down? When do you walk out into the stadium and take down the ropes that divide us and when do you leave the ropes where they are?
Special thanks to David Aikman. His book is titled Billy Graham: His Life and Influence. Two other books that were helpful in this story were One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse and The Evangelicals by Francis Fitzgerald. You can hear many recordings of Graham’s sermons at billygraham.org, which is where I found clips for this episode.
Truce is a listener supported show. I need your help to keep this thing going! Traditional means of financing Christian media don’t work for this show because I’m exploring some of the most complex issues in the faith. Questioning the legacy of Billy Graham, questioning the role of money and influence in the church, and whether or not the US is a Christian nation don’t tend to fit in with wealthy donor’s ideas. If you like this show, I’m counting on you. Not just to donate, but to tell your friends, and leave a review in your podcasting app. If we’re going to send the message that intelligent Christian media is important, I need your help.
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Thanks for listening, thanks for sharing, and thanks for praying for the show.
What do evangelical Christians hope to get out of the 2020 election?
What do evangelical Christians hope to get out of the 2020 election?
That’s a big question, right? Do we want to find a person who will represent us? Who will give us access to the seat of power? A person who will listen?
In this episode of the Truce Podcast, Chris asks some big questions. Do we share the gospel because we want people to know Jesus, or because we are claiming this land for ourselves? Leading up to the 2020 election, we need to stop being a people driven by anger and start being a people of the Word. What do evangelical Christians hope to get out of the 2020 election? Maybe the better question is to start with “what do I hope to gain from this election?”
Is the patriot church on the right track?
This episode is 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 to the beginning of season three.
You walk into a restaurant. A greasy spoon diner. It’s the 1970s. There are booster seats stacked by the door. Tall, sticky, plastic menus in a little box. Knick knacks up high on shelves shelves.
WOMAN: One, please, for breakfast.
A server shows you to a booth. There on the table is the usual – silverware wrapped in napkins. Menu. A glass of water, some butter packets. Salt, pepper.
That’s weird. Stuck between the specials and a list of pies is a brochure. You open it up. Inside is a picture of a family. They look happy, well dressed, sitting in a pew. They’re in church, surrounded by a multi-ethnic smattering of people. All looking forward attentively while an American flag hangs in the background, slightly out of focus.
In big bold letters is written:
WOMAN: (slow, like she’s reading) Go to Church.
Let’s you and I do a gut check. How do you feel about this being at your table? What questions do you have?
It probably all depends on your religious beliefs. If you’re religious, this probably looks really good to you. Evangelism is the bedrock of many denominations and religions. Plus it may seem refreshing, as an American, let’s say you’re an American, to see a business owner expressing themselves without fear of repercussions. Not to mention the multi-ethnic ethos of the pictures. It shows unity. And the flag represents patriotism.
Let’s assume that at this point you’re cool with this brochure. You read it, think…
WOMAN: When was the last time I went to church?
And put it back where you found it. Time for pancakes.
WOMAN: With a side of hash browns, please.
For a lot of us, that would be the whole story. I saw a pamphlet, it was interesting, I thought about it’s most blatant message, and then I ordered breakfast. We’re often comfortable with the most obvious message. What if we didn’t do that this time? I don’t know about you, but I always want to know more. For example, who put this brochure at my table? Was it the server, business owner, or the last person to sit here? Makes a difference, right? Because these could be at every table and we’re all seeing this, or just my table. Maybe the server is sneakily evangelizing at the risk of their job. Or the owner of the establishment wants the pamphlet there. Who put it there changes the narrative quite a lot. If I do want to know more about God, can I ask the server or owner? Or did some traveling salesman tuck this thing next to the specials and then split, leaving me to figure out what to do with it?
Also, the brochure is vague. That makes a huge difference too! Is this promoting Christianity or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or Hari Krishnas?
That’s also very important. But it doesn’t give us any clues.
Lets do another gut check – what do you think about the brochure now? Still want to move on with your day, order those pancakes? Or, like me, are you growing a little suspicious?
WOMAN: Maybe just a cup of coffee while I think about this…
I thought so. Who would put a leaflet down just telling me to go to church? Any church? And who has the resources to distribute a vague pamphlet? Okay, so you look really hard at this document and in tiny print on the back you see that the ad was paid for by some of the largest corporations in the world. Auto manufacturers, oil companies, food packaging outfits.
They have the right to do that, to print materials like this. And it’s legal, and kind of admiral that someone here at the restaurant felt comfortable distributing it. But it’s not like we’re used to big companies telling us how to live our lives. At least, not so explicitly.
WOMAN: Why does big oil want me to go to church?
Good question. Maybe the CEO is religious and wants to encourage you to be too. Or, another, darker interpretation is that…
WOMAN: (thinking as she speaks) The people who run these companies see religion and patriotism as synonymous. Good for the country.
And they printed it using advertising money from their business. What company do you know of who would print expensive advertising that didn’t help them?
WOMAN: How does this pamphlet help a business when their logo isn’t even on the ad?
Aha. Well, again, it’s the 1970s. The Cold War is on. Children are being taught in schools what to do in case of a nuclear war. Bomb shelters are installed small towns across the country. The more critical approach is to say that since the United States is at war with an atheistic, communist country, the brochure is the corporation’s way of nudging you as a member of the public to support capitalism. Why? Because capitalism has room for religion, while communism, at least according to Karl Marx, doesn’t.
WOMAN: And that benefits the businesses because they don’t want collectivization.
Right. They don’t want the government to own their industry, their means of production. Or the regulatory environment that comes with that much government oversight. In other words…
WOMAN: Religion can be used to reinforce capitalism.
That is the darker interpretation. Oof. Who thought that simply going to a diner could be so complicated?
WOMAN: I’m ready for the check, please.
History demonstrates that religion has been used to reinforce capitalism. That’s what we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks. Men like James Fifield, Abraham Vereide, and organizations like the Ad Council were actively advertising for religion in the United States during the middle of the 1900s. Often financed by big businesses, some of which were driven by libertarian ideas. As we’ll see in a future episode, Billy Graham was in the mix too – one of his nicknames was the “big business evangelist”. Because he also tied religion, patriotism, and capitalism in his sermons.
Let’s do a third gut check. How does this make you feel? Knowing what we’ve learned so far.
I’ll be honest with you, all of this makes me feel conflicted. As a Christian, I want people to know the hope I have in Jesus. There is no more important thing in my life than my faith in Christ. I believe that He died for my sins. That it is a free gift to those who would follow Him. I want people to go to church.
But this feels a little icky.
This pamphlet thing is based on reality. The Ad Council produced materials like this. Is this what Christianity is?
What economic model did Jesus follow?
WOMAN: I don’t think he was all that concerned with economics.
So it’s weird that Christianity gets tied up into all of that stuff. There is still a big part of me that wants that ad there on the table. That is totally cool with the signs the Ad Council plastered on busses and train stations. The commercials on TV and radio. I’m amazed when I see politicians coming together once a year to pray together like at the National Prayer breakfast.
Because it feels like people like myself were represented in America in the mid-1900’s. The issues that I care about are also shared values of the country I live in. At least this whitewashed ideal vision, that ignores the racism and sexism of the era. The wars, just or unjust. Fear of nuclear holocaust. Put that aside, because a lot of us do. We want to imagine those years as ideal. Wholesome. Representative of us.
I want you to focus on that feeling. Of being represented. That’s what were going to be talking about this episode. We’ve already covered the creepy aspects of these marketing campaigns. Today, let’s hone in on how they make us feel. On this desire to feel represented in the public square.
Usually this is where I say that Truce uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. Today, we’re going to do something different. We’re going to talk, you and I, about an underlying urge that we all feel. The need to feel represented. And the trouble that gets we Christians into. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
In the Old Testament… the Jewish people went a long time without a king.
They were a people defined by their relationship to God. They were enslaved by the Egyptians and the God delivered them. (Let my people go!). A man named Moses led them out into the wilderness. Toward freedom. It was a long, arduous journey. Only a few people who left Egypt entered into the land of Israel at the end.
Once there they were led by powerful military leaders as they fought the people who lived in the land.
When the Israelites went astray God sent a judge – a person in charge of getting people back in line. Often, in a bloody, ugly way.
Then you get to the book of 1 Samuel. In it we meet the last judge of Israel, a prophet named Samuel. He’s gotten old by chapter 8 and it doesn’t lo ok like his kids are going to be a good replacement. So the elders of Israel come to Samuel and they say…
ELDER: Give us a king and let him judge us.
Samuel did not like this idea. Because God had been their king up to this point. Yes, they had leaders, but not a king. So Samuel prayed. And God replied (this is from the NASB)…
GOD: Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.
And God gives him some warnings to tell the people. I’m paraphrasing these.
SAMUEL: Do you know what kings do? They use your sons to fight their wars. The king will take your daughters to be his servants. He’ll take your land and use it for his purposes. He’s going to collect taxes from you to pay for his government. Your servants will become his. You yourself will have to serve the king. You’re going to regret this decision, but God isn’t going to listen1.
The people didn’t care.
ELDER: We want a king so we can be like other nations. A king that will fight our battles.
They wanted to be like the other nations. And they wanted to feel represented.
Guess what? You follow the Old Testament story and those warnings became realities. They get some decent kings, but many of them are murderous. They took what they wanted. Led them places they shouldn’t be, like to worshipping other gods.
My brother and I think about this story a lot. This desire to be like the other people. The need for representation. The desire to replace God with something else.
Here are some big questions for us today… How are we like the Israelites? How much of our culture war is just us wanting to be represented? Wanting to have the same power that other nations do? Other world views have a leader, we should have one too.
In the Bible, this desire cost them land, their kids, and sometimes their lives to fight in the king’s wars. Today, our desire to feel represented brings us strange bedfellows. Political parties for sure. But also because we’ve been trained to equate Christianity and certain economic systems that are not actually in the Bible. That coupling of Christianity and economics comes from messaging in our history by people life Fifield, Graham, Vereide, and organizations like the Ad Council on the libertarian side. And Social Gospelers like FDR, Charles Sheldon, and Francis Bellamy on the other side of the spectrum.
Look back at the 1950’s, a time when religion was very much in the public eye. A time that Make America Great Again folks hold up as the goal. Eisenhower, himself a Christian, was president. Billy Graham toured the country sharing the gospel, sermons were preached on national television.
A Gallop Poll in 1950 said that 80% of Americans believed the Bible, “was the revealed word of God”. That sounds amazing right? 80%! Like the nation was mostly Christians. Here is where it gets tricky… only 47% could name even one author of the gospels in that Bible2. 47%. There are four gospels in the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Do you know what the authors names were? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
It’s not a hard question. Anyone who has actually read the Bible should know the answer. But most Americans didn’t, even in that supposed golden age. Leaving me to wonder if they weren’t an inch deep and a mile wide. Vast in number, but not actually invested.
We’re heading into a presidential election here in the United States. What do you hear from Christians? Anger. A feeling of not being represented in society. Fear of persecution. The desire to put our person into power.
What do you hear from non-Christians?
Anger. A feeling of not being represented in society. Fear of persecution. The desire to put our person into power.
You see the opportunity there? Our neighbors who maybe don’t believe like we do, are feeling the same things we’re feeling. We’re at a critical moment. Where we can either seek representation, or we can minister to people who feel surprisingly like us.
Here is why I follow Jesus. He’s not concerned about the influence other people can give Him. When He stood before Pilate, He knew who was really in control instead of pandering to get clout. When big crowds gathered, He didn’t sugar coat the truth, and the crowds left. As he walked into Jerusalem for Passover week, the people waved palm fronds and thought he was the military leader they’d been hoping for. The one who would kick the Romans out of Israel so the Jews could have their nation back. Get representation, control over their country that was being ruined by people who did not think and believe like them. But that’s not what He did. Instead of giving them earthly power, He set their souls free.
That’s the real Jesus. And I invite you to follow Him. In this time of contention, name calling, fear, and anger… remember who your real king is. And, while pamphlets on restaurant tables sound nice, and I’m fine with people putting them there, are they being placed because of a genuine desire to share Jesus, or because we are making a public statement. This is my land. I belong here. People like me belong here. Deal with it.
We could go that way. But what could be a better witness than people who don’t seek representation, who don’t need to plant a flag on everything? We could be do that, or we could humbly follow the true king.
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.
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