Part I: The Church
As we begin our trip through this fictional 1950s town, it is only fitting that our journey start at the church. For the majority of Americans at the time, the church was the destination on the first day of the week. The religious principles of the church permeated the entire social fabric of the United States. These facts make the church a necessary stop on our survey of the height of conservative America. Religion was seen as almost a civic activity, one that brought the people of the nation closer together and closer to God as a result.
Religion was booming in America during the 1950s. According to Gallup polling, church membership peaked at 76% just prior to the 1950s and held steady at 73% throughout the decade. Self-reported church attendance within the last week topped out at 49% on more than one occasion throughout the Fifties. Additionally, 69% of Americans believed that religion was increasing its influence on American life. Comparing these figures to 2019 is staggering. In 2019 79% of Americans said religion was losing its influence on American life, only 51% reported themselves as members of a religious community, and only 34% reported attending a religious service within the last week.
The dominance of religion led to several efforts to further enshrine religion in America’s civic life. The two most notable examples are the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto. The movement to add the words “under God” to the Pledge was initiated in the 1950s by the Knights of Columbus, who began adding the words to their personal recitations of the Pledge in 1951. The movement was truly galvanized by a sermon urging for the addition of the words by Reverend George M. Docherty on May 3, 1952. Docherty rose to fame when he delivered the sermon again on February 7, 1954, to a crowd that included President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The next day, legislation was filed in Congress to add the words to the Pledge, and it was passed and signed into law on June 14, 1954.
“In God We Trust” was adopted as the official national motto just a couple of years later in 1956. The words had a long history of use in the United States as an unofficial motto (the second verse of the National Anthem actually was the first to declare the words our motto) and had been included on currency long before it became the official motto.
Besides the statistical and the historical, there is of course the anecdotal. Wayne Drayer, our guide through this 1950s town introduced in the first part of this series tells the story of students discovering the religious nature of the United States:
Liberty, of course, was to be our theme. Then it just seemed to take on a life of its own, leading us from one step to the next.
The very first topic led us to the Bible. From that point on, we could not escape taking note of similarities.
We were amazed that many of the principles of America’s founding and continued growth seemed to parallel certain principles of the Bible.
The students in Drayer’s book discover this anew as the 1960s saw religion forced out of schools. As will be discussed in more depth later in this series, a hallmark of 1950s religiosity was its inclusion in school and the benefit that brought to the students and society. Regardless, the understanding of this connection between religion and the nation was well understood in the 1950s, thus giving it a prominent part in national life.
What made religion so unique in the 1950s and what served as the driving force for its inclusion in the national identity was the ability to use it in the major geopolitical conflict going on at the time, the Cold War. The Soviet Union was avowedly atheist, and they carried out an assault on religion that “confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools.” Against that backdrop, it made sense to see the conflict couched in religious terms. Whittaker Chambers released his monumental book Witness in 1952, and his words galvanized the minds of conservative Americans who began to see the Cold War as a moral conflict. Chambers explained that communism was as much a religion as faith in God was. It was, of course, a false religion, but it was one that would stop at nothing until it wiped out all other religions. Its disciples were devoted to it regardless of the atrocities committed in its name. Such was the nature of the battle between the two faiths that Chambers believed it was a turning point in history.
The innate religiosity of the period must also be understood as a hallmark of American conservatism. From the earliest days, America’s founders understood just how vital religion was to the health of the nation. George Washington famously called religion and morality “indispensable supports” to the “dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.” Washington goes on to say that “in vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
Benjamin Rush, a prominent Founding Father who signed the Declaration, served in the Continental Congress, served as the Surgeon General of the Continental Army, and is remembered for his contributions to medicine and education stated the importance of religion, declaring:
But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is the religion of JESUS CHRIST.
It is foreign to my purpose to hint at the arguments which establish the truth of the Christian revelation. My only business is to declare that all its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well being of civil government. A Christian cannot fail of being a republican. The history of the creation of man and of the relation of our species to each other by birth, which is recorded in the Old Testament, is the best refutation that can be given to the divine right of kings and the strongest argument that can be used in favor of the original and natural equality of all mankind. A Christian, I say again, cannot fail of being a republican, for every precept of the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy and the pageantry of a court. A Christian cannot fail of being useful to the republic, for his religion teacheth him that no man “liveth to himself.” And lastly, a Christian cannot fail of being wholly inoffensive, for his religion teacheth him in all things to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him.
As I argued in my definition of conservatism that I provided this journal, conservatives should be interested in preserving the political tradition of the American Founding. The Founders’ own words point to the importance of a strong and healthy religion inculcated in the national psyche.
The 1950s showed that the nation could live up to that calling. The incredible growth and prominence of religion during that decade led to a strong nation, strong national identity, and numerous blessings for the country. As can be seen throughout the rest of this series, we stopped first at the church because of the prominence of religion in the 1950s was vital for the success of all other areas of life.
About the Author
Connor Kaeb is the Managing Editor of American Discourse.