God and Mammon: The Politics of Religion and Commerce in Mid-Twentieth-Century America

AHA Session 47
Thursday, January 3, 2013: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Chamber Ballroom III (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Kathryn S. Olmsted, University of California, Davis
Diane Winston, University of Southern California

Session Abstract

One of the most exciting trends in the study of twentieth century U.S. society has been the “fiscal turn.” In the flourishing, intersecting literatures of American politics and culture, the corporation has emerged as a new topic of interest. Whether talking about shifting and competing ideologies of political economy, organized labor and the New Deal legacy, suburban sprawl and the service sector, or grassroots activism on the Republican Right, historians have latched on to the corporation as a critical explanatory force. By doing so they have reoriented historians’ gaze in another way, refocusing attention on the early Cold War period—that moment between 1945 and 1960 when the United States achieved unprecedented influence through the extended power of big business. Once characterized as a period of constancy and centrism, this moment is now being described as a pivot point in the life of the nation, out of which emerged a deeply polarized American citizenry.

Historians of evangelical Protestantism have begun to chime in with their own reworking of this turning point. Contrary to an earlier wave of scholars, who portrayed mid-twentieth-century evangelicalism as marginal, a new generation of historians is offering a fresh line of reasoning. No longer willing to accept the typical storyline of an incapacitated, dormant evangelicalism jolted into political activity during the 1970s culture wars, they have found fresh ways of measuring this movement's sustained authority by moving beyond the pulpit and pew into the sphere of corporate activism during the Cold War. Evangelical entrepreneurialism thus figures prominently in the new narrative, with Christian businessmen emerging as vital characters in the unfolding saga of American capitalism and its subplots of political agitation and change. Once dismissed as outliers, evangelicals are as a whole now being recast as insiders with direct access to Cold War America’s bastions of political and economic power.

This panel features three papers that underscore the value of this revised history. Each presenter places individuals and institutions of faith at the heart of mid-twentieth-century America’s fiscal turn and its resulting political tumult. Through his study of the union of corporate leaders and sympathetic clergymen, Kevin Kruse demonstrates how business conservatives used sweeping public relations strategies (witnessed in their “Freedom Under God” campaign) to sell free-market, anti-statist principles to the nation. Darren Grem extends this analysis by showing how Christian CEOs like J. Howard Pew shaped the internal workings of Cold War Protestantism. Though sensitive to the tensions Pew’s fierce conservatism caused among evangelicalism’s leading lights (Billy Graham included), Grem argues that Pew’s cohort molded evangelical political action according to their interests. Finally, Darren Dochuk offers further proof that Christian businessmen—in particular, Protestant oilmen—dictated evangelicalism’s political priorities. It was amid the heightened tensions of the 1950s, he shows, when petro-capitalists with evangelical ties began forging a potent alliance that would forever change the course of American politics.

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