When I began this project more than a decade ago, I set out to explore the roots of the Religious Right in the 1960s and 1970s. I had just completed my first book, one that used a close study of Atlanta to show how white resistance to the civil rights movement reshaped conservatism at the grassroots decades before talk of a “white backlash” dominated national politics. Believing that approach had worked well for chronicling the roots of racial conservatism, I planned on using it to track religious conservatism. Conducting studies of a dozen communities that later served as bases for the Moral Majority, I thought, would let me chronicle how conservative Christians became enraged at social changes and engaged in politics, long before the Religious Right made its stunning debut on the national stage in the late 1970s.
But where to begin? In the conventional narrative on the Religious Right, popular outrage over the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision against state-mandated school prayer represented the earliest rumblings of modern religious conservatism. Accordingly, I traveled to the Library of Congress to conduct research in the papers of Justice Hugo Black, the jurist who authored that decision. I was delighted to find ten boxes filled with angry letters, telegrams and petitions he’d received about the ruling, but surprised at what I discovered in them. Over and over again, in hundreds if not thousands of these letters, ordinary Americans invoked slogans like “one nation under God” and “in God we trust” as ironclad evidence that the Supreme Court had erred in embracing the separation of church and state.
The repeated refrain of these phrases and, more so, the power they clearly held for Black’s correspondents surprised me. In the standard historical and legal literature, such slogans of religious patriotism have long been dismissed as essentially meaningless. Indeed, right after the Supreme Court issued its school prayer ruling, Yale Law School Dean Eugene Rostow assured a worried nation that the decision wouldn’t impact religious ceremonies and slogans in government. In doing so, he coined a term that governed scholars and lawyers’ thinking for fifty years. Phrases like “one nation under God” or “in God we trust,” Rostow argued, were nothing more than “ceremonial deism.”
Rostow’s term captured the conventional wisdom well. His invocation of “deism” called to mind the specific religious practice of many of the founding fathers, of course, but it also reflected the ways in which public acknowledgments of a deity tended to be vague and divorced from any one sect. But Rostow’s framing of these religious references as “ceremonial” in nature was even more important. In the eyes of the law, these invocations were ceremonial in the sense that they were merely ornamental. They had no real meaning.
But these stacks of letters sent to Justice Black showed these religious slogans did have real meaning. In the eyes of ordinary Americans, I soon realized, the “ceremonial” nature of things like the pledge of allegiance and the national motto did not diminish their importance. Quite the contrary, it vested them with incredible weight. The official embrace of religious slogans by their government seemed as politically significant and legally binding to them as any formal amendment to the Constitution.
As an historian, that sort of moment – when the archives surprise me so thoroughly – is the surest sign that I’ve stumbled onto something important. Accordingly, I changed my plans. Rather than focus on grassroots conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s, I decided to explore the rise of this religious nationalism in the 1950s. Though it’s not commonly remembered that way, that decade had a massive religious revival that revolutionized American political culture. Those key mottos of ceremonial deism were created during the Eisenhower era, with Congress adding “under God” to the pledge in 1954 and placing “In God We Trust” on stamps in 1954 and paper currency in 1955, before making it the nation’s first official motto in 1956. Likewise, the main ceremonies that blended piety and patriotism also came from these same years: the National Day of Prayer, the National Prayer Breakfast, opening prayers at cabinet meetings and countless others.
As I dug into these issues at the Eisenhower presidential archives and elsewhere, though, I found myself surprised once again. According to the conventional wisdom, the religious revival of the 1950s could be explained entirely by the Cold War. As Americans confronted the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union, this story went, they played up their own nation’s religious heritage as a convenient point of contrast between the superpowers.
But as I pored through the documents, it became clear that the standard story was wrong. Tracing the private correspondence and public statements of the men who crafted the slogans and ceremonies that formally linked piety and patriotism, it became clear that they had been engaged in that cause long before the Cold War.
And so I revised my research agenda yet again, following leads from the postwar period back into the Great Depression. Searching through manuscript collections of various political and religious leaders, business organizations, and leading industrialists, I pieced together the history of a movement of conservative businessmen and clergymen who popularized a new ideology they summed up in the phrase “freedom under God,” which they placed in contrast to the “slavery of the state.” And as their letters and publications made clear, the state power they truly feared was not the Soviet regime in Moscow, but the New Deal administration in Washington. The religious nationalism of the 1950s, I now understood, stemmed from domestic politics of the 1930s and 1940s.
At that point, after more than five years of research, I felt confident that I finally saw clearly the larger arc of the book, one that would run from the New Deal to Nixon. To be sure, I could have continued to roll back the chronology further. It’s a cliché for historians that any particular project could be tracked further back in time, but like all clichés, there’s a great deal of truth to it. I could have gone further back: Americans had fused faith and free enterprise in the decades before the Depression, and arguments that the United States was a “Christian nation” had been made since the early eighteenth century.
The history I now had before me built on those earlier trends, but seemed to represent a distinct and distinctly important story of its own. My book, as I finally understood it, could now chronicle both how the key forms of our civil religion were made and what in turn was made out of them. The narrative in its simplest form: corporate America helped make old ideas of a “Christian America” manifest in the 1950s, but the religious rhetoric quickly took on a life of its own. In a classic case of unintended consequences, an elite corporate campaign for economic conservatism created language that was co-opted by a more populist movement of social conservatism.
Oddly enough, the book ends where I’d once assumed it would begin: with the struggle over school prayer and other local concerns in the 1960s. It took me a while, but I finally got there.