The Recent Religious Revival and the Political Implications
12. 07. 2015
The way we talk about faith has become a coded bi-faceted dance depending on your political persuasion. What is often lost amongst the bickering is the relative newness of the explicit use of religion in politics.
In the 1930's prominent business interests funded ads with the not so discreet goal of moving the public from Franklin Roosevelt to a more conservative path. The National Association of Manufactures (NAM), founded in 1895, fought anti-union and were for pro-business policies throughout the progressive era. NAM tried relentless to build public backlash against the New Deal, and PR spending rose from $36,000 in 1936 to $793,043. James W. Fifield Jr., a conservative preacher from Los Angeles, led the charge to organize and fight the New Deal on religious grounds. Fifield promoted new readings of the constitution that over emphasized the religious aspects and highlighted the sin of socialism.
The next manifestation of spirituality was more grotesque as it mixed religious nationalism and the fight against Communism. The Committee to Proclaim Liberty and other like-minded groups began to promote the “Under God” mantras as a necessity in protecting life in America. Today “Under God” is a part of our daily lives, but it is a Cold War baby, born out of a time of intense insecurity and masterful manipulation by cooperative business and religious groups.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a deeply religious man, though not exclusive to a single denomination of Christianity. He worked with Billy Graham to craft a spiritual message of rebirth and a God-focused presidency. In the White House he became the first president to have regular pray before cabinet meetings. It was an outgrowth of prayer groups started in congress by Abraham Vereide, another outspoken critic of Roosevelt. While the prayer gatherings were considered non-partisan, they often only included the most conservative members of both parties.
Throughout the 1950s religious groups were able to get Congress to pass numerous laws that fundamentally redefined the relation of God and the state. In 1954 congress added “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance. “In God we trust” was also added to coins, the dollar, and over the door to the US capital. Civic and secular groups were mostly silent during this time; not wanting the backlash that had followed other groups that spoke out in the 1950s.
It was the Supreme Court that really galvanized the religious groups and the country. In Engel v. Vitale the court ruled that prayer in schools was unconstitutional, followed by Abington School District v. Schempp, which ruled that giving out bibles in school was illegal. Both cases were ruled with a deliberate and measured tone, but were blown up and viewed as broad government assaults on religion. It was out of these cases that the fiercest rhetoric about the need to defend religion came. Two constitutional amendments were proposed and failed that would have allowed prayer in school.
Today ‘Nones’ are the largest growing religious identification. As the nation becomes less religious a recognition of our recent past is needed. Coming to terms with how groups used religion to exploit political ends will allow a more honest and hopefully more productive discussion of our history and how to move forward.