The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s by William I. Hitchcock is a fascinating book exploring the 1950 era. Below is an excerpt from the book:
“In God We Trust”
On Sunday, February 7, 1954, the president and Mrs. Eisenhower went to worship at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington. Immediately after the service the president appeared on a CBS television and radio broadcast to kick off the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign. Started in 1951 as a way to honor the famous “four chaplains”-ministers of four different denominations who died at sea during the war when they gave their life jackets to others on board their sinking ship-the Back to God campaign had become a signature annual event in which leading churchmen and rabbis, gathered in ecumenical fellowship, called upon their listeners to rededicate themselves to a life of godliness and spirituality.
Eisenhower’s remarks on the broadcast aimed to link the American experience to religious zeal. “Out of faith in God, and through faith in themselves as His children, our forefathers designed and built the Republic;’ the president said. He gave a brief civics lesson that recalled the struggles of the Pilgrims, the testing of George Washington at Valley Forge, and the determined battle of Abraham Lincoln to save the Union: all of them shared a steadfast belief in God. The one unifying feature of the American experience, Eisenhower insisted, was faith: “By the millions, we speak prayers, we sing hymns, and no matter what their words may be, their spirit is the same-In God is our Trust:’ In 1954, as America again faced a time of crisis and struggle, “there is a need for positive acts of renewed recognition that faith is our surest strength:’
This brief speech captured perfectly Eisenhower’s instrumental view of religion: the doctrinal content of religious devotion need not divide Americans so long as they shared a basic commitment to faith and belief. The differences between sects paled in contrast to the yawning gap between believers and nonbelievers. And of course the seedbed of such nonbelief was. “atheistic Communism:’ To believe in God was itself an act of resistance and defiance of communism; however one worshipped God did not matter, so long as one was willing to acknowledge the power of a higher being.”
The president was joined in this televised appeal by two of the leading public religious figures of the day: the Rev. Fulton J. Sheen, a bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Bishop Sheen was well known as the longtime host of the radio show The Catholic Hour and, since 1951, the impresario of the television program Life Is Worth Living. Among the first clergymen to use the new medium of television to reach his flock, Sheen, with his gaunt face and deep-set eyes, could be seen weekly at 8:00 p.m. across the nation. Robed in a full-length cassock, bearing a pectoral cross on a chain around his neck, topped by a small skullcap, Sheen delivered commentary on topics ranging from marriage and alcoholism to freedom, the devil, love, and purgatory. He stood before a chalkboard, occasionally turning away from the camera to jot down a few keywords like a skilled 10th-grade English teacher. He usually started by recounting a humdrum tale of ordinary life, perhaps sent to him in a letter from a viewer. He would mine this for its didactic value and throw in a few light witticisms along the way. Quiet, composed, articulate, Sheen’s TV personality entranced millions of Americans, drawing audiences as large as those that tuned in to Milton Berle and Bob Hope.
Peale, a pudgy, bespectacled Methodist with a flair for homespun stories and down-to-earth verities, had become a national phenomenon as the author of Wildly popular Christian self-help books. The idea for such guidebooks was not Peale’s alone: in 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous appeared on America’s bookshelves, offering a 12-step method for treating not just alcoholism but other “social” diseases. The crucial step in these programs was the recognition of a “higher power” that could provide spiritual sustenance as one progressed through the prescribed treatment.
Peale saw a church-building opportunity in the yearning of Americans to overcome their personal problems and achieve success. He offered a simple therapy for any affliction: belief in God. In a stream of publications as well as radio and television appearances, he provided audiences simple steps to improve their lives and grasp the financial, personal, social, and professional success they desired. Books like Inspired Messages for Daily Living compiled passages from the Bible that could serve as “health-producing, life-changing, power-creating Thought Conditioners” for people experiencing anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, lack of confidence, frustration, and more. These troubles were easily treatable by reciting Scripture. If you wanted to know, for example, “how to break the worry habit” or “how to make your work easy” or “how to get people to like you;’ Peale offered easy techniques, all of which amounted to reciting a few passages of the Bible, selected by Peale himself. Such spiritual exercises, Peale claimed, amounted to a “magic formula” for personal happiness and success. He found an enormous audience for his Christian home remedies. His book The Power of Positive Thinking appeared in 1952 and stayed on the best-seller list for 186 weeks. He became a much-admired public figure and would go on to develop a close personal friendship with Richard Nixon.”
If Peale and Sheen were friendly Christian showmen, Ike’s own pastor, Rev. Edward Elson, offered sterner counsel. In 1954 Elson published a small book, America’s Spiritual Recovery, dedicated to the president. (The introduction was written by another parishioner, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.) Elson declared that America found itself “in a period of real moral sag and deterioration:’ He drew a desperate portrait of the nation’s ills: soaring crime, the “kow-towing admiration for the tycoons of business and the captains of industry;’ the veneration of money and profit, and the lapse of religious worship. Children, he said, no longer respected their parents. Jazz, modern art, and vulgar films like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire that glorified “a deteriorating personality” offered more evidence of a collapse of morals. Schools no longer taught Christian precepts. The militant atheism of communism threatened the world.
Yet Elson also found reason for optimism: amid these grave moral threats, “the greatest religious awakening in the history of our nation” was under way. American worshippers were filling the churches and making plans to build many more. “Six out of every ten Americans formally belonged to a church-the highest ratio in the country’s history;’ he wrote. Every week 85 million Americans bowed their heads in prayer in a house of worship. Students on college campuses had shown renewed enthusiasm for religious instruction. The recent best -selling books in the nation included the Bible, books by Rev. Peale and Bishop Sheen, and other inspirational texts and tales. Elson did not mention that this was also the period in which Hollywood produced blockbuster movies on religious themes, such as Quo Vadis (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Ben Hur (1959).
Elson believed that Eisenhower’s election to the presidency had triggered this religious revival. Ike had become “the focal point of a moral resurgence and spiritual awakening of national proportions:’ His inaugural prayer, given on the steps of the Capitol, had Signaled the return of faith into public life, as did his decision to start his cabinet meetings with prayer. “It is not an exaggeration to say that the business which receives the attention of the president is surrounded with an atmosphere of prayer:’ Ike’s moral and spiritual leadership could save America from what Elson saw as a grave threat: not only the nation’s internal moral collapse but the gathering forces of atheism and communism. Marxism presented such a great danger because it offered a “new world religion” and aimed to unseat Christianity. The philosophies of “the sickle and the cross;’ Elson said, “are irreconcilable;’ and only one of them could survive. If Christianity was to triumph, communism must be vanquished.”
This kind of public piety, moralism, and prophetic speech saturated the Age of Eisenhower, and it squared perfectly with the language of the new administration. It is not surprising, then, that Ike found himself drawn to and befriended by the most significant evangelist of the postwar years, Billy Graham, with whom he shared many basic ideas about the relationship of spiritual faith to the creation of a well-ordered society. Graham, a tall, rangy Baptist, grew up on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, went to college in Wheaton, Illinois, and started his preaching in a Chicago-based organization called Youth for Christ in the mid-1940s. His talent, sincerity, zeal, and sheer charisma sped him on his way to stardom. In 1949 his enormous Los Angeles revival meeting-which he called a “crusade” -attracted nationwide press coverage. In 1951 Texas oil man Sid Richardson urged Graham to add his voice to the chorus then calling for General Eisenhower to run for president. Graham gladly complied, asking Eisenhower to “offer himself to the American people.”
Richardson arranged for Graham to meet the general at SHAPE headquarters in Paris in March 1952, just after Ike won the New Hampshire primary. Eisenhower welcomed Graham into his modern, newly constructed office and spoke with the pastor of his spiritual life, especially his upbringing among the devout River Brethren in Kansas; Graham reported on the “crusade” he had recently concluded in Washington, D.C. They sat together for two hours and formed a bond. In August, after Eisenhower won the GOP nomination, he invited Graham to Denver to the Brown Palace Hotel, where he asked Graham to help him find appropriate themes and scriptural passages to work into his campaign speeches.
Graham’s influence hung on some of Eisenhower’s campaign statements. When Ike was asked to describe his religious beliefs for the Episcopal Church News in September 1952, he responded, “You can’t explain free government in any other terms than religious. The founding fathers had to refer to the Creator in order to make their revolutionary experiment make sense …. It is ours to prove that only a people strong in Godliness is strong enough to overcome tyranny and make themselves and others free.” He concluded, “What is our battle against communism if it is not a fight between anti-God and belief in the Almighty?” America’s problems might be easier to solve, Eisenhower opined, if every American “would dwell more upon the simple virtues: integrity, courage, self-confidence, and an unshakeable belief in his Bible.”