Friday, October 28, 2005

So many thoughts about the church, communism, consumerism, Joe McCarthy and suburban America.

It All Starts With Pledges

1954 Congress passed legislation adding the phrase "one nation under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance." Before that, apparently, we were just "indivisible" for purely secular reasons. That is, until the communists started infiltrating every sphere of public life.

At the time, America was at the height of Joseph McCarthy's "Red Scare," and that very same scare is what supposedly prompted Congress to add the phrase.

Here's the official line: Public servants were stuck in a game of one-upmanship, trying to outdo each other in their fidelity to God and country in the wake of McCarthy's attacks on the Godless communists. J. Edgar Hoover encouraged parents to make sure their children were active church-goers, "since communists are anti-God." President Eisenhower described himself as the "most intensely religious man I know," and declared: "Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, most basic, expression of Americanism." The very next year, not to be outdone, Congress added the phrase "In God We Trust" to all American currency.

Or Maybe It All Starts With Churches

During the 1950s church membership soared. Less than half of the adult population in the U.S. belonged to churches before WWII. By the end of 1959, some 65% held church memberships. It's easy to make the popular connection that strong anti-communist sentiments by a few public figures led to an upsurge in church membership. Just as political figures were trying to prove their "Americanism" by putting God at the forefront, Americans were proving their patriotism by joining churches in startling numbers.

Religious conviction was nothing new to most Americans, but in an era where McCarthy was "outing" public figures like John Steinbeck and General George Marshall as communists, it seemed like public church membership was the only way to "prove" private religious beliefs. Joining a church was really about the only way to say, "Hey, I'm no Communist."

But hold on a minute. While it's easy to say that the Red Scare led to a post-war surge in public church attendance, other factors ought to be taken into consideration.

While McCarthy's witch-hunt lasted for roughly four years (from early 1950 until December of 1954 when he was cited for contempt by the Senate), the church boom found its start in the immediate events following World War II.

Or Maybe What It Really Starts With Is Housing Booms

After the war, over 20 percent of the population moved to a new residence each year. Soldiers back from the front used their popularity and prestige to secure new jobs and promotions, many using the new GI Bill to go back to school and earn degrees on the government's tab. Large corporations, which had been heavily regulated before and during the war, used their newfound freedoms by moving jobs across the country at a dizzying rate.

At the same time, Americans witnessed the invention of the suburb. WWII saw an influx of African-Americans moving to the city looking for work, mostly in the booming defense-industries of the North and West. When GI's came back from the war, some found their old neighborhoods completely changed. The suburban phenomenon created a new neighborhood for Anglo-GIs to settle: the Crab-Grass Frontier.

Early suburbs were attractive to GIs because already affordable prices were made even more attractive by low-interest home loans to WWII vets per the GI Bill. Access to jobs in the city was made possible when the federal government invested millions of dollars on 75,000 miles worth of new highways. Car production soared from 2 million in 1946 to 8 million in 1955. Suddenly, suburbs sprang up everyone, attracting even more young families away from the changing urban landscape.

Mass migrations made it difficult for middle-class Americans to find a sense of place and set down permanent roots. A post-WWII quest for community ensued. These new suburban families were more likely than other American to be "joiners," finding community in civic organizations, gardening clubs, bridge clubs, athletic associations and so on.

But most importantly, they flocked to churches. Which brings us back to the beginning. Remember, less than half of the adult population in the U.S. belonged to churches before WWII. By the end of 1959, some 65% held church memberships.

Fittingly, It Really Starts With Buying Tons Of Worthless Crap

WWII also saw Americans on the homefront ration common goods in order to strengthen the war effort. American industry reached new levels of productivity, hiring millions of women and minorities to keep pace with war-time demand. The U.S. came out of WWII the strongest and most efficient industrial nation in the world. The wars in Europe and Asia had devastated those countries' economies, leaving America's industries to fill the post-war void.

With so much capital flowing through the country in the immediate years following the war, and with an American society that had finally found its way out of the Great Depression and a war of self-sacrifice, Americans were ready to spend. And boy did they ever spend. New homes, cars, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, etc., etc., etc.

Marketers, ever watchful of consumer tastes, created the modern advertising culture in order to tap into the spending spree. Instead of simply marketing products people needed, they created a new consumer demand for products that had once been available only for the affluent. Keeping up with the Jones' was now an essential component of the American Dream. By 1970, with only 6 percent of the world's population, Americans produced and consumed 2/3 of the world's goods.

And It Starts With Churches Trying To Get In On The Action

Churches applied the same marketing techniques to bring in new parishioners. Billboards, print media, television and radio advertised upbeat, optimistic messages for an upbeat, optimistic era. The Protestant Council of New York City urged its members to "project" messages of "love, joy, courage, hope, faith, trust in God, goodwill. Generally avoid condemnation, criticism, controversy. In a very real sense, we are 'selling' religion, the good news of the Gospel."

Chief progenitor of this message was the popular minister Norman Vincent Peale, author of the widely popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking.

"Flush out all depressing, negative, and tired thoughts," Peale wrote. "Start thinking faith, enthusiasm and joy." As long as one followed this advice, you could become "a more popular, esteemed, and well-liked individual." Just the kind of person who would thrive in the new corporate world and suburban community!

Where Does It Start Again? Oh, That's Right! Evangelicalism!!!

It's fitting that modern evangelical theology found its birth in the setting of the 1950s. C.F. Henry's rise to fame came during the late 40s and early 50s, capped off by being named founding editor of Christianity Today (the flagship publication of the new evangelicalism) in 1956.

This new evangelicalism was fundamentalist in theology, but with a greater appreciation for social and cultural dimensions of the Gospel than the old fundamentalists had been. As suburban churches were booming, the new evangelical theology was as well. By no coincidence, many of those new churches happened to be ones founded by evangelicals. And these new evangelicals, with a passion for Christianizing the social order, eventually saw an opportunity to do so through politics. So even though it would take some 40 odd years for evangelicals to coalesce around the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, the Red Scare was most likely the first great "social movement" of the new evangelicalism.

America in the 50s was on the fast track towards being dominated by a new, optimistic, conservative evangelical culture. It just didn't know it yet.

So for modern evangelicals (who have only historically existed since the years following WWII), phrases like "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God" are foundational to American principles -- because for them, "American principles" were only set forth about 50 years ago, in their initial rise to political power during the great Red Scare. McCarthy's witch-hunt wasn't what put butts in the pews, those butts were there just in time to egg McCarthy on.

That McCarthy went too far denouncing one freedom-loving-American-too-many might have set the new movement back before it even got started. But by 1968, this "Silent Majority" sent the hard-nosed conservative Richard Nixon to the White House for two consecutive terms. And by 1980, they were silent no longer after finding public figures, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who could voice their concerns.

What Was I Talking About? Oh, Who Cares....

Today, with the absence of a communist party to oppose (and a Joe McCarthy to wage war on their behalf), evangelicals mostly just sneer at the far left and bicker amongst themselves. Bringing us to this past week, when evangelical infighting forced one of their own to remove her name for consideration to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Welcome to the top of the food chain, where most of the time, we just feed on ourselves.

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