How Corporate America Invented Christian America – POLITICO Magazine
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.
That’s where Revered Fifield came in. Nicknamed “The Apostle to Millionaires” by a friendly writer, Fifield took over the elite First Congregational Church in Los Angeles in 1935. The minister was well matched to the millionaires in his pews. Politically conservative but doctrinally liberal, he crafted an interpretation of the Bible that catered to his congregation. Notably, Fifield dismissed the many passages in the New Testament about wealth and poverty, and instead assured the elite that their worldly success was a sign of God’s blessings.
Soon after his arrival in Los Angeles, Fifield founded Spiritual Mobilization, an organization whose mission was “to arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends toward pagan stateism, which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.” The organization’s credo reflected the common politics of the millionaires in his congregation: Men were creatures of God imbued with “inalienable rights and responsibilities,” specifically enumerated as “the liberty and dignity of the individual, in which freedom of choice, of enterprise and of property is inherent.” Churches, it asserted, had a solemn duty to defend those rights against the encroachments of the state.
Fifield quickly brought the organization into national politics, gaining attention from leading conservatives across America who were eager to enlist ministers in their fight against the New Deal. Former President Herbert Hoover, deposed by Roosevelt and disparaged by his acolytes, advisedand encouraged Fifield in personal meetings and regular correspondence. “If it would be possible for the Church to make a non-biased investigation into the morals of this government,” Hoover wrote the minister in 1938, “they would find everywhere the old negation of Christianity that ‘the end justifies the means.’” In October 1938, Fifield sent an alarmist tract to more than 70,000 clergymen across the nation, seeking to recruit them in the revolt against Roosevelt. “We ministers have special opportunities and special responsibilities in these critical days,” it began. “America’s movement toward dictatorship has already eliminated checks and balances in its concentration of powers in our chief executive.” Finding the leaflet to his liking, Hoover sent Fifield a warm note of appreciation and urged him to press on.
Within a few years, the minister had the support of not just Hoover but an impressive array of conservative figures in politics, business and religion—“a who’s who of the conservative establishment,” in the words of one observer. As Spiritual Mobilization’s national ambitions grew, Fifield searched for more sponsors to finance the fight. In the mid-1940s, he won a number of powerful new patrons, but none was more important than J. Howard Pew Jr., president of Sun Oil.
Tall and stiff, with bushy eyebrows, Pew had a stern appearance that matched his attitude. He had previously been involved in anti-New Deal organizations like the Liberty League and now believed the postwar era would witness a renewed struggle for the soul of the nation. Looking over some material from Spiritual Mobilization, Pew decided the organization shared his understanding of what was wrong with America and what needed to be done. But to his dismay, the material offered no agenda for action whatsoever, merely noting that Spiritual Mobilization would send clergymen bulletins and place advertisements but ultimately “leave details” of what to do “to individual ministers.” Pew thought this was no way to run a national operation. “I am frank to confess,” he wrote a confidant, “that if Dr. Fifield has developed a concrete program and knows exactly where he is going and what he expects to accomplish, that conception has never become clearly defined in my mind.”
If Pew felt Fifield’s touch had been too light, he knew a more forceful approach would fail as well. In February 1945, famed industrial consultant Alfred Haake explained to Pew why NAM’s own outreach to ministers had failed. “Of the approximately thirty preachers to whom I have thus far talked, I have yet to find one who is unqualifiedly impressed,” Haake reported. “One of the men put it almost typically for the rest when he said: ‘The careful preparation and framework for the meetings to which we are brought is too apparent. We cannot help but see that it is expertly designed propaganda and that there must be big money behind it. We easily become suspicious.’”
If they wanted to convince clergymen to side with them, industrialists would need a subtler approach. Rather than treating ministers as a passive audience to be persuaded, Haake argued, they should involve them actively in the cause as participants. The first step would be making ministers realize that they, too, had something to fear from the growth of government. “The religious leaders must be helped to discover that their callings are threatened,” Haake argued, by realizing that the “collectivism” of the New Deal, “with the glorification of the state, is really a denial of God.” Once they were thus alarmed, they would readily join Spiritual Mobilization as its representatives and could then be organized more effectively into a force for change both locally and nationally.
Reverend Fifield worked to make Spiritual Mobilization out of the ranks of the clergy. The growing numbers of its “minister-representatives” were found in every state, with large concentrations in industrial regions like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. They were overwhelmingly Protestant, though a scattering of priests and rabbis allowed the organization to present itself as part of the new spirit of “Judeo-Christianity.” In the previous decade, this innovative “interfaith” approach had taken shape as a way for liberal clergymen to unite in common social causes. Now, in the postwar era, conservative organizations such as Spiritual Mobilization shrewdly followed suit.
The organization grew rapidly. In February 1947, Fifield reported that in three years he had expanded the mass of their minister-representatives from an initial 400 members to more than 10,000 in all. He set them to work spreading arguments against the “pagan stateism” of the New Deal. “It is time to exalt the dignity of individual man as a child of God,” he urged. “Let’s redouble our efforts.”
Clergymen responded enthusiastically. Many wrote the Los Angeles office to request advertised copies of Friedrich Hayek’s libertarian treatise The Road to Serfdom and anti–New Deal tracts by Herbert Hoover and libertarian author Garet Garrett. Armed with such materials, the minister-representatives transformed secular arguments into spiritual ones and spread them widely. “Occasionally I preach a sermon directly on your theme,” a Midwestern minister wrote, “but equally important, it is in the background of my thought as I prepare all my sermons, meet various groups and individuals.” Everyday activities were echoed by special events. In October 1947, for instance, Spiritual Mobilization held a national sermon competition on the theme “The Perils to Freedom,” with $5,000 offered in prize money. The organization had more than 12,000 minister representatives at that point, but it received twice as many submissions for the competition—representing roughly 15 percent of the entire country’s clergymen.