Inside one reverend’s big business-backed 1940s crusade to make the country conservative again.
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In December 1940, as America was emerging from the Great Depression, more than 5,000 industrialists from across the nation made their yearly pilgrimage to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, convening for the annual meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers. The program promised an impressive slate of speakers: titans at General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, Mutual Life, and Sears, Roebuck; popular lecturers such as etiquette expert Emily Post and renowned philosopher-historian Will Durant; even FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Tucked away near the end of the program was a name few knew initially, but one everyone would be talking about by the convention’s end: Reverend James W. Fifield Jr.
Handsome, tall, and somewhat gangly, the 41-year-old Congregationalist minister bore more than a passing resemblance to Jimmy Stewart. Addressing the crowd of business leaders, Fifield delivered a passionate defense of the American system of free enterprise and a withering assault on its perceived enemies in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Decrying the New Deal’s “encroachment upon our American freedoms,” the minister listed a litany of sins committed by the Democratic government, ranging from its devaluation of currency to its disrespect for the Supreme Court. Singling out the regulatory state for condemnation, he denounced “the multitude of federal agencies attached to the executive branch” and warned ominously of “the menace of autocracy approaching through bureaucracy.”
It all sounds familiar enough today, but Fifield’s audience of executives was stunned. Over the preceding decade, as America first descended into and then crawled its way out of the Great Depression, the these titans of industry had been told, time and time again, that they were to blame for the nation’s downfall. Fifield, in contrast, insisted that they were the source of its salvation.
They just needed to do one thing: Get religion.
Fifield told the industrialists that clergymen would be crucial in regaining the upper hand in their war with Roosevelt. As men of God, ministers could voice the same conservative complaints as business leaders, but without any suspicion that they were motivated solely by self-interest. They could push back against claims, made often by Roosevelt and his allies, that business had somehow sinned and the welfare state was doing God’s work. The assembled industrialists gave a rousing amen. “When he had finished,” a journalist noted, “rumors report that the N.A.M. applause could be heard in Hoboken.”
It was a watershed moment—the beginning of a movement that would advance over the 1940s and early 1950s a new blend of conservative religion, economics and politics that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.” Fifield and like-minded ministers saw Christianity and capitalism as inextricably intertwined, and argued that spreading the gospel of one required spreading the gospel of the other. The two systems had been linked before, of course, but always in terms of their shared social characteristics. Fifield’s innovation was his insistence that Christianity and capitalism were political soul mates, first and foremost.
Before the New Deal, the government had never loomed quite so large over business and, as a result, it had never loomed large in Americans’ thinking about the relationship between Christianity and capitalism. But in Fifield’s vision, it now cast a long and ominous shadow.He and his colleagues devoted themselves to fighting the government forces they believed were threatening capitalism and, by extension, Christianity. And their activities helped build a foundation for a new vision of America in which businessmen would no longer suffer under the rule of Roosevelt but instead thrive—in a phrase they popularized—in a nation “under God.” In many ways, the marriage of corporate and Christian interests that has recently dominated the news—from the Hobby Lobby case to controversies over state-level versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—is not that new at all.
For much of the 1930s, organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) had been searching in vain for ways to rehabilitate a public image that had been destroyed in the Great Depression and defamed by the New Deal. In 1934, a new generation of conservative industrialists took over NAM with a promise to “serve the purposes of business salvation.” The organization rededicated itself to spreading the gospel of free enterprise, vastly expanding its expenditures in the field. As late as 1934, NAM spent a paltry $36,000 on public relations. Three years later, it devoted $793,043 to the cause, more than half its total income. NAM now promoted capitalism through a wide array of films, radio programs, advertisements, direct mail, a speakers bureau and a press service that provided ready-made editorials and news stories for 7,500 local newspapers.
Ultimately, though, industry’s self-promotion was seen as precisely that. Jim Farley, chairman of the Democratic Party, joked that another group involved in this public relations campaign—the American Liberty League—really should have been called the “American Cellophane League.” “First, it’s a DuPont product,” Farley quipped, “And second, you can see right through it.” Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt took his shots. “It has been said that there are two great Commandments—one is to love God, and the other to love your neighbor,” he noted soon after the Liberty League’s creation. “The two particular tenets of this new organization say you shall love God and then forget your neighbor.” Off the record, he joked that the name of the god they worshiped seemed to be “Property.”
As Roosevelt’s quips made clear, the president shrewdly used spiritual language for political ends. In the judgment of his biographer James MacGregor Burns, “probably no American politician has given so many speeches that were essentially sermons rather than statements of policy.” His first inaugural address was so laden with references to Scripture that the National Bible Press published an extensive chart linking his text with the “Corresponding Biblical Quotations.” In a memorable passage, Roosevelt reassured the nation that “the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore the temple to the ancient truths.”
When Roosevelt launched the New Deal, politically liberal clergymen echoed his arguments, championing his proposal for a vast welfare state as simply the Christian thing to do. The head of the Federal Council of Churches, for instance, claimed the New Deal embodied basic Christian principles such as the “significance of daily bread, shelter, and security.” When businessmen realized their economic arguments were no match for Roosevelt’s religious ones, they decided to beat him at his own game.Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, from which this article has been adapted.