“In God We Trust” Anti-Labor Propaganda from 1930s Corporate Bosses

An eager reader sends me this Fresh Air interview with Kevin Kruse, author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Kruse says making “In God We Trust” the national motto wasn’t a 1950s response to Soviet Communism; it was really a 1930s millionaires’ offensive against American labor unions and the New Deal:

The New Deal had passed a large number of measures that were regulating business in some ways for the first time, and it [had] empowered labor unions and given them a voice in the affairs of business. Corporate leaders resented both of these moves and so they launched a massive campaign of public relations designed to sell the values of free enterprise. The problem was that their naked appeals to the merits of capitalism were largely dismissed by the public….

So when they realized that making this direct case for free enterprise was ineffective, they decided to find another way to do it. They decided to outsource the job. As they noted in their private correspondence, ministers were the most trusted men in America at the time, so who better to make the case to the American people than ministers? [Kevin Kruse, interview, “How ‘One Nation’ Didn’t Become ‘Under God’ Until the ’50s Religious Revival,” Fresh Air, 2015.03.30]

And what did those ministers preach?

They use these ministers to make the case that Christianity and capitalism were soul mates. This case had been made before, but in the context of the New Deal it takes on a sharp new political meaning. Essentially they argue that Christianity and capitalism are both systems in which individuals rise and fall according to their own merits. So in Christianity, if you’re good you go to heaven, if you’re bad you go to hell. In capitalism if you’re good you make a profit and you succeed, if you’re bad you fail.

The New Deal, they argue, violates this natural order. In fact, they argue that the New Deal and the regulatory state violate the Ten Commandments. It makes a false idol of the federal government and encourages Americans to worship it rather than the Almighty. It encourages Americans to covet what the wealthy have; it encourages them to steal from the wealthy in the forms of taxation; and, most importantly, it bears false witness against the wealthy by telling lies about them. So they argue that the New Deal is not a manifestation of God’s will, but rather, a form of pagan stateism and is inherently sinful [Kruse, 2015.03.30].

Now I get it.

To be fair, Franklin Delano Roosevelt deserves a share of the blame for this twisted church-state mingling:

[Religion News Service]: You say that some of this notion was a response to Roosevelt’s New Deal. How so?

[Kevin Kruse]: Roosevelt himself deserves some of the credit, as he regularly invoked religion in his speeches for the New Deal. His first inaugural address was so laden with Scripture that the National Bible Press put out a chart linking his text to the “Corresponding Biblical Quotations.” The business interests he denounced as “the moneychangers” decided to beat him at his own game, using religious rhetoric to repackage their worldly agenda in heavenly terms. As both sides of the debate blended religion and politics, ideas of piety and patriotism became closely intertwined for all [Jonathan Merritt, “‘Christian America’: Corporate Invention or Founding Fathers’ Vision?Religion News Service, 2015.04.03].

While we usually associate this capitalist-Christian hybrid a beast serving conservative masters, preacher to L.A. millionaires James Fifield had to take a very liberal theological approach to build and unleash that beast:

[Kruse]: …[Ministers like Fifield and Billy Graham are] very effective at making this argument that a state that restricts capitalism will inevitably restrict Christianity. They link economic restrictions with religious restrictions. It requires a bit of a leap of faith, but it’s one that they effectively sell. This out-of-control state is coming for them all.

[Michael Schulson]: It seems like quite a stretch to draw libertarian economic principles out of the Gospels.

[Kruse]: It is not the Bible I was taught as a child, for sure. They do this by a very selective reading. These are not fundamentalist churches by any means. In fact, theologically, they’re quite liberal. As Reverend Fifield says, reading the Bible should be like eating fish. Not all parts are of equal value. We take out the bones to eat the meat. Fifield disregards all of Christ’s warnings about the dangers of wealth. He completely disregards the injunction to look out for one another. To love your neighbor, to be your brother’s keeper. He discards all of those messages. It becomes a faith of individualism [Michael Schulson, “‘Pagan Statism’: The Frightening Corporate/Christian Alliance That Invented ‘In God We Trust’ and ‘One Nation Under God’,” Salon, 2015.04.25].

The Christian libertarians seem to conflate God with the Invisible Hand: intruding on the free market with the minimum wage and collective bargaining interferes with God’s will. Take your hands off the wheel, let God steer the economy, and everything will work out fine. Godly workers will practice the Protestant work ethic, godly employers will deliver the deserved paychecks, and God will bless all pious participants in the marketplace with prosperity.

At least that’s what the bosses in the 1930s wanted us to believe.

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p.s.: South Dakota’s secularist-excluding motto “Under God the People Rule” did not come from anti-New Dealers. Congregationalist pastor Joseph Ward, founder of Yankton College, proposed this “splendid Puritan motto” at the September 1885 Constitutional Convention in Sioux Falls. Ward died in 1889, a month and a week after South Dakota gained statehood, from blood poisoning caused by a carbuncle on his neck, the deadly effect of which, in the words of biographer George Harrison Durand in 1913, “had undoubtedly been hastened by the great and incessant labors of those last years, and especially by the burden of care and anxiety he had borne.”

12 Responses to “In God We Trust” Anti-Labor Propaganda from 1930s Corporate Bosses

  1. larry kurtz

    Related: the Church of the Holy Roman Kiddie Diddlers conspired and colluded with Mussolini before and during the Second World War mostly because of the fear of organized labor leading a world wide socialist rebellion.

    It’s commonly thought that the Catholic Church fought heroically against the fascists in Italy. But historian David Kertzer says the church actually lent organizational strength and moral legitimacy to Mussolini’s regime. Kertzer recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.


  2. Reaching, Larry: the Fresh Air interview to which you link doesn’t focus on the fear of organized labor. Kertzer mentions that Pius XI was concerned socialist revolution might spread to Italy. Kertzer focuses more on the simple power politics. Kertzer says Mussolini, who deeply opposed the Church, embraced the Church in a speech in Parliament in 1921. The Catholic Church, which had been shut out of power since the formation of the nation of Italy 60 years before, saw an opportunity to overcome the separation of church and state and reclaim some influence. Plus, Pius XI didn’t believe in freedom of speech, religion, etc., so Mussolini’s fascism fit his agenda fine. Nonetheless, Pius XI despised Hitler and moved away from Mussolini as Mussolini turned toward Nazi Germany. Pius XI was planning to give a speech denouncing racism and warning bishops about fascist spies in February 1939 at a big event in Rome, but the Pope died the day before that speech.

    Kertzer notes that Hitler adopted the tactic of accusing Catholic priests of pederasty in order to weaken their influence in Germany.

  3. larry kurtz

    Thanks for spelling my name right, Cory!

  4. Michael Schulson said:
    >“It seems like quite a stretch to draw libertarian economic principles out of the Gospels.”

    At the beginning of His public ministry Christ identified Himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1, announcing that God had sent Him to proclaim liberty to captives. Intellectuals like Albert Jay Nock had been applying Christ’s libertarianism to economics for at least two decades before Kevin Kruse suggests the fusion began. If Schulson wants to argue that Christ’s libertarianism is irrelevant to economics, the ball is in his court.

    Cory wrote:
    >“The Christian libertarians seem to conflate God with the Invisible Hand: intruding on the free market with the minimum wage and collective bargaining interferes with God’s will.”

    As I’ve noted at DFP before, the Bible indicates that God works all things after the counsel of His will. All things would obviously include any ill-advised intrusions upon the free market. Maybe some Christian libertarians conflate God with Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but I’m pretty sure most of us don’t.

    I’m just picking a couple of nits here, Cory. Overall I thought this was an outstanding, thought-provoking blog post. If we have to disagree, at least we’re disagreeing about things that are important.

  5. larry kurtz

    Kurt Evans: you’re a freaking nutcase.

  6. Deb Geelsdottir

    That sound you hear is me running down the street, screaming and tearing my hair out.

    Jesus would have no recognition of this bastardized, pseudo-Christianity. The Christianists draw on one of the most powerful tools of manipulation that exists. That’s what religion is for all the religious extremists, a tool.

  7. Mr. Evans, this is probably the least important thing I have ever read on this blog.
    God moved north.

  8. Roger Cornelius

    I was wondering what the hell that noise was.

    Anyway, I just heard that the definition of a libertarian is a republican that you block on Twitter.

  9. If everything is God’s will, then why should we argue about government regulation of the marketplace? Regulation is as much an expression of God’s will as market forces. No matter what we choose, it’s God’s will.

    That’s why “God’s will” doesn’t help me sort out policy. It provides no solid ground for any policy argument.

    Christians vs. Christianist—that’s a distinction I need to remember, Deb! The corporate Christianists are abusing Christianity to make an argument that Christianity does not make.

  10. Richard Schriever

    Not only that, but a little earlier in Isaiah, God reveals He is not all goodness and light, but also the sole source of all evil and darkness.

    Isaiah 45:7King James Version (KJV)

    7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

    So, you see, claiming whatever you’re up to is “the will of God” is a handy dandy excuse for all kind of evil despicable stuff.

    Okay – so how about a simple secular morality that just puts one’s fellow human beings as one’s first concern???? Anyone???

  11. Cory asks:
    >>“If everything is God’s will, then why should we argue about government regulation of the marketplace?”

    Because it’s God’s will for us to argue about it, obviously (ha ha).

    Cory continues:
    >“Regulation is as much an expression of God’s will as market forces. No matter what we choose, it’s God’s will. That’s why ‘God’s will’ doesn’t help me sort out policy. It provides no solid ground for any policy argument.”

    Richard Schriever references Isaiah 45:7 and adds:
    >“So, you see, claiming whatever you’re up to is ‘the will of God’ is a handy dandy excuse for all kind of evil despicable stuff.”

    You guys both make great points. I’m reminded of how belief in “manifest destiny” has been cited as justification for U.S. annexation of Native American lands during the 1800s. That kind of reasoning ignores the Bible’s teachings that it’s God’s will to allow the temporary coexistence of good and evil.

    The mere observation that westward expansion was destiny and God’s will isn’t a blanket exoneration for every act committed in the process, any more than it’s an exoneration for the millions of murders committed under Joseph Stalin. As Cory observes, it doesn’t even provide solid ground for justifying expansionary policy in the first place.

    I’m not saying all westward expansion was evil. Some probably was; some probably wasn’t. My point is only that God’s will or “manifest destiny” adds no moral weight to arguments either for or against it.