Religious Propaganda and the Making of An American ReligionAndrew R. Polk November/December 2021
The United States has been a deeply religious nation since its earliest beginnings,” President Harry S. Truman ardently declared as he opened his 15-minute address. It was the evening of October 30, 1949, and Truman delivered a major speech live on all four major television and radio networks. “The need which the founders of our country felt—the need to be free to worship God, each man in his own way—was one of the strongest impulses that brought men from Europe to the New World. As the pioneers carved a civilization from the forest, they set a pattern which has lasted to our time. First, they built homes and then, knowing the need for religion in their daily lives, they built churches.” Yet this spiritual foundation was not relegated to the past, Truman insisted. “When the United States was established, its coins bore witness to the American faith in a benevolent deity. The motto then was ‘In God We Trust.’ That is still our motto and we, as a people, still place our firm trust in God.”1
The fact that Harry Truman would so brazenly proclaim America’s religious foundations might be surprising to some. Many would assume such declarations would be made by Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or by Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower. They would be right, of course. In particular, Eisenhower, whom historians have rightly characterized as the high priest of America’s civil religion in the mid-twentieth century, made so many declarations of the nation’s religious heritage during his presidency that years before he left the office his staff had begun denying requests for speaking events so that the president’s seemingly endless religious references would not annoy the public. Yet Eisenhower, and virtually every president thereafter, was really following a program established by Eisenhower’s two immediate predecessors, Truman and Franklin Roosevelt. That program, which I uncover in detail in my new book, Faith in Freedom: Propaganda, Presidential Politics, and the Making of an American Religion, enlisted the aid of advertising executives, military public relations experts, and the government’s own professional propagandists to sell the American public on a common religious heritage in support of the White House’s preferred policies. As a result, both the civil religion identified in the 1970s and 1980s and the Christian nationalism so prevalent today are, in truth, the byproducts and lasting legacies of a decades-long program of religious propaganda.2
Creating a Faith in Freedom
Rife with historical inaccuracies, Truman’s mythic account of the nation’s religious origins is typical for the religious propaganda of the period. With no mention of Native Americans or the horrors of slavery, Truman’s narrative has no room for criticism of American history or the nation’s present activities, and any mention of such criticisms would only weaken the nation and help the “godless communists” who constantly threatened America’s freedoms. Yet Truman did recall the nation’s faith in God, a faith that prompted the founders to include “In God We Trust” on their coinage. In truth, the phrase was not included on American coinage until the Civil War. Northern preachers were concerned that the Confederacy explicitly and unequivocally called upon God in both their Constitution and official proclamations, while the Union included no such declarations. Although Abraham Lincoln opposed the numerous amendments designed to add an acknowledgment of God to the U.S. Constitution, he did agree to have the motto added to the coinage. The Union was in the midst of a war, and they needed to show that they were on God’s side. Truman and his speech writers might have genuinely believed their erroneous version of the story, but it seems unlikely. Regardless, historical accuracy might not have mattered. Truman understood that, even if their current rivalry with the Soviet Union had not yet escalated into all-out war, Americans needed once again to demonstrate, or at least claim, their devotion to God if they were to gain the upper hand.3
Truman had numerous allies in that project, but none were more influential than the Advertising Council, a conglomeration of American advertising executives who offered their expertise and services to the government free of charge. Formed during World War II as the War Advertising Council, their public relations campaigns were responsible for many of the more famous slogans during the war, including “Rosie the Riveter,” Smokey the Bear’s “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” (from the rumored Japanese loyalists seeking to start fires in the Pacific Northwest), and “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” They worked diligently with the government’s Office of War Information (OWI) both to inform and convince the American people of the government’s preferred view of the conflict. The Roosevelt administration was especially concerned with inculcating a sense of unity behind the war effort. Americans were incredibly diverse, but they needed to unify for the sake of the war, Roosevelt believed. Race, ethnicity, and class were too divisive, but in the end, all Americans, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jew, all believed in the same God and held the same essential American faith. Or, at least, that’s what the OWI and Advertising Council continuously told the American people.
Yet the partnership between the OWI and Advertising Council changed in 1943 when the OWI, pursuing African American support for the war, openly and explicitly referred to racism as un-American in several of their advertisements. The reaction was swift and decisive. Southern congressmen, joined by business leaders, challenged the OWI’s efficacy and relevance in domestic affairs, noting that the Advertising Council was doing far more for the American cause at home. Consequently, Congress all but disbanded the OWI’s “Domestic Branch” in 1943, greatly reduced their budget for direct “domestic propaganda” efforts, and transferred most of their old appropriations to the Advertising Council, who proved a better purveyor of the type of unity those leaders envisioned and, not coincidentally, made it clear that any discussion of racial injustices served America’s enemies. Roosevelt made the relationship between the Advertising Council and the government both more official and more secretive soon after, when he invited members of the their executive committee to the White House for “off-the-record indoctrination talks” with the president and members of the War Department, Navy Department, and other executive agencies. The meeting would become an annual event in the coming years.4
After having already proven itself a valuable ally during the war, the Advertising Council (they simply dropped “war” from their name after the war’s conclusion) capitalized on their accrued goodwill in the latter half of the decade. They launched several successful campaigns on behalf of the government, including United America and the Freedom Train, which sought to invigorate the spiritual devotion of the nation, or, to be more precise, marshal religious devotion in favor of preferred governmental policies and attitudes. Both campaigns were cosponsored by outside groups with their own interests in mind, most notably the American Heritage Foundation, which, in partnership with the Advertising Council, designed the Freedom Train and its accompanying “patriotic revival meetings” to educate the American public on what they considered America’s three great pillars: religious freedom, free-market capitalism, and a strong military essential to defending them both. Coming after the innovations of the New Deal and with the baggage of America’s historical distaste for large standing armies, the latter two were hard sells, but they were made all the more palatable by the former. In the words of Thomas D’Arcy Brophy, the Advertising Council executive who coordinated the project, the Freedom Train was about “re-selling Americanism to Americans,” and they had long decided that religion was the best way to do so.5
Consequently, the train was intended to define America for Americans as it rode around the country carrying dozens of original historical documents, including Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, the Bay Psalm Book, and Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, to big cities and rural hamlets alike. Numerous political, economic, civil, and religious individuals and groups vied over the train’s message. Through these many machinations a central theme emerged: freedom. They defined America as both the land of freedom and freedom’s ardent protector. Some ideologically liberal leaders, including Attorney General Tom C. Clark, advocated for either “democracy” or “equality” as America’s defining virtue. However, Advertising Council executives decided that equality carried too much baggage along with it, meant too many things to too many different people, and would be especially divisive in the Southern states.6
Freedom was better, they thought. Specifically, they designated religious freedom, which they vaguely defined as a sort of Judeo-Christian heritage rather than religious disestablishment, as a core tenet of American life and the vital element that both America’s enemies threatened and the American military had to protect. Thanks to the goading of business leaders, organizers also intimately linked free enterprise with freedom of religion as the communist’s target. The Freedom Train taught Americans that their country was a bastion of religious freedom and the land of opportunity, where free enterprise meant that anyone could pull himself or (less commonly) herself up by the bootstraps. When visitors learned that the Communists hated our freedom, they learned that both America’s material and spiritual prosperity represented this freedom and, consequently, Americans had to defend them at all costs. In all, more than 3.5 million people visited the train itself, and an estimated one in three Americans participated in one of its associated events.7
Yet the Freedom Train’s success paled in comparison with the Advertising Council’s next major campaign, Religion in American Life (RIAL), which Truman’s national address on October 30 was designed to kick off. As Truman’s speech indicates, the White House directly sponsored the initiative and was vital in gaining the support of local newspapers and advertisers, who generously donated more than 3,000 print ads. Besides simultaneously broadcasting Truman’s speech, the American Broadcasting Channel, Mutual Broadcasting System, National Broadcasting Channel, and Columbia Broadcasting System dedicated free commercials and hours of airtime to the campaigns’ message. Although the true impact of such a massive promotion cannot be completely measured, advertising agencies of the day used listener impressions to determine the overall public exposure to a message. According to the Advertising Council’s measurements, one listener impression meant that either one person or household heard or viewed the message once. RIAL generated more than 500 million listener impressions just in the month of November. The U.S. population was around 150 million in 1949, meaning that public exposure to the RIAL was astonishing. The Advertising Council also blanketed the nation’s outdoor billboards with more than 5,200 advertisements that taught Americans during the buildup to Thanksgiving Day that “Families That Pray Together Stay Together.” RIAL inundated Americans with tales of the religious foundations of the country, the Soviet threat to American prosperity, and, for the sake of their freedom, the need for national unity. According to the Advertising Council, Americans could demonstrate that unity by supporting the expansion of America’s essential military presence abroad, buying American-made products, and “attending and supporting the churches and synagogues of their choice.”8
The story of the mid-century’s religious propaganda goes far beyond Truman and the Advertising Council, though the latter was a key player in both Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s own programs. Roosevelt, the first to breach America’s traditional wall of separation between church and state in such a way, first looked to religious leaders to support his policies with divine sanction. However, they proved to be unwieldy allies, especially the liberal Protestant Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. Yet his move beyond religious institutions and recruitment of secular propagandists such as the OWI and Advertising Council would prove to be a vital template for his successors. Truman initially repeated many of Roosevelt’s mistakes and wooed those same religious elites, only to reject them for secular allies in much the same way. Eisenhower, for his part, never even attempted to court religious leaders, though he had the advantage of Roosevelt’s and Truman’s established programs and the support of additional secular interests in advancing his own religious propaganda such as the United States Information Agency, the American Legion, and the Foundation for Religious Action in the Social and Civil Order. He also had Billy Graham, whose support of the period’s propaganda would heavily influence conservative evangelicals’ embrace of its core tenets in the coming decades. Similarly, as liberal Protestants and Jews came to oppose the elements of a propaganda they had previously endorsed, former religious battles over the authority and accuracy of Scripture gave way to clashes over the United Nations and America’s military and economic policies.
I certainly don’t argue that the religious propaganda campaigns of these three presidents are wholly responsible for the religious revivals of the so-called holy fifties or the fracturing of the American public in the ensuing decades. However, the fact that advertisers, politicians, and military leaders chose to define American identity in religious terms to suit their own ends is itself important, especially since that same patriotic religious rhetoric has come to define the period during which they employed it. Examining how these civic leaders crafted religious propaganda to stimulate, as one of Eisenhower’s allies put it, “religiously motivated action” toward common political goals also sheds light on the ways others have used and continue to use religion to promote their own agendas. Since the 1980s the conflation of free market economics and military strength with religious nationalism has been closely associated with white evangelical Protestants, the Republican Party, and the many organizations and leaders who blur the lines between the two. Donald Trump, who garnered the votes of more evangelical Protestants than any presidential candidate in American history, won the White House in 2016 by promising to “make America great again” in part by “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.” Yet the criticisms that Trump characterized as “attacks” were as much a byproduct of the mid-twentieth century’s religious propaganda as the alignment between conservative Protestants and politicians that propelled Trump to the White House. In other words, the formation of two seemingly incompatible notions of America that has plagued American society over the past decades actually emerged from the project of a unified nation in the 1940s and 1950s. The fact that those who still sell America’s faith in freedom seem as much interested in particular economic and military policies as theological or ethical commitments is not a coincidence; it was the very purpose of the enterprise from the beginning.9
1 Press release copy of national broadcast by Harry Truman, October 30, 1949, Folder: 260 Religion, President’s Personal File, box 449, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri (hereafter HST Library).
2 Memorandum from Bryce Harlow to Murray Snyder, November 23, 1954, Folder: 47 Committee on Religion in American Life, President’s Personal File, box 806, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kansas (hereafter DDE Library); Andrew R. Polk, Faith in Freedom: Propaganda, Presidential Politics, and the Making of an American Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2021).
3 See Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Penguin, 2006), especially pp. 373, 374.
4 Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1988), p. 229; “Budget Cut ‘Simplifies’ Grandiose Plans for OWI, Editor and Publisher, August 21, 1943, p. 42; letter from Daniel C. Roper to Edwin Watson, January 19, 1943; letter from G. Bromley Oxnam to Edwin Watson, January 27, 1943; letter from G. Bromley Oxnam to Edwin Watson, February 6, 1943, Folder: Protestant 1943-1945, Official File 76a, box 2, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York.
5 “A Program to Re-Sell Americanism to Americans,” November 15, 1946, Folder: 8, Thomas D’Arcy Brophy Papers, box 35, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Madison, Wisconsin.
6 Daniel Lykins, From Total War to Total Diplomacy: The Advertising Council and the Construction of the Cold War Consensus (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003), p. 70; Foner, pp. 249-252; Wendy Wall, Inventing the American Way: The Politics of Consensus From the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 227-240.
7 “American Heritage Program,” Folder: American Heritage Foundation, Tom C. Clark Papers, box 18, HST Library.
8 Lykins, p. 85; “Go-to-Church Ads Win Wide Support, New York Times, December 5, 1949; “Background Memorandum for Religion in American Life,” October 24, 1949, Folder: 5573 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., President’s Personal File, HST Library; telegram from Charles Wilson to Harry Truman, October 18, 1949, Folder: 260 Religion, President’s Personal File, box 449, HST Library.
9 Letter from Charles Lowry and John L. Sullivan to Charles Wilson, January 3, 1956, Folder: 118 Church Matters and Religion, 1956, General File, box 680, White House Central File, DDE Library; Donald J. Trump, “Remarks at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit,” October 13, 2017; Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-the-family-research-councils-values-voter-summit; for Trump’s support among white evangelical Protestants, see Jessica Martinez and Gregory A. Smith, “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis,” Pew Research Center, November 9, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/.
Article Author: Andrew R. Polk
Andrew R. Polk is an award-winning teacher and scholar of American religious history and an associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University. His book, Faith in Freedom: Propaganda, Presidential Politics, and the Making of an American Religion, is due out in December from Cornell University Press.