In recent weeks Mitt Romney has become the poster child for unchecked capitalism, a role he seems to embrace with relish. Concerns about economic equality, he told Matt Lauer of NBC, were really about class warfare.
“When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus 1 percent,” he said, “you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”
Mr. Romney was on to something, though perhaps not what he intended.
The concept of “one nation under God” has a noble lineage, originating in Abraham Lincoln’s hope at Gettysburg that “this nation, under God, shall not perish from the earth.” After Lincoln, however, the phrase disappeared from political discourse for decades. But it re-emerged in the mid-20th century, under a much different guise: corporate leaders and conservative clergymen deployed it to discredit Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
During the Great Depression, the prestige of big business sank along with stock prices. Corporate leaders worked frantically to restore their public image and simultaneously roll back the “creeping socialism” of the welfare state. Notably, the American Liberty League, financed by corporations like DuPont and General Motors, made an aggressive case for capitalism. Most, however, dismissed its efforts as self-interested propaganda. (A Democratic Party official joked that the organization should have been called “the American Cellophane League” because “first, it’s a DuPont product and, second, you can see right through it.”)
Realizing that they needed to rely on others, these businessmen took a new tack: using generous financing to enlist sympathetic clergymen as their champions. After all, according to one tycoon, polls showed that, “of all the groups in America, ministers had more to do with molding public opinion” than any other.
The Rev. James W. Fifield, pastor of the elite First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, led the way in championing a new union of faith and free enterprise. “The blessings of capitalism come from God,” he wrote. “A system that provides so much for the common good and happiness must flourish under the favor of the Almighty.”
Christianity, in Mr. Fifield’s interpretation, closely resembled capitalism, as both were systems in which individuals rose or fell on their own. The welfare state, meanwhile, violated most of the Ten Commandments. It made a “false idol” of the federal government, encouraged Americans to covet their neighbors’ possessions, stole from the wealthy and, ultimately, bore false witness by promising what it could never deliver.
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Mr. Fifield and his allies advanced a new blend of conservative religion, economics and politics that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.” Mr. Fifield distilled his ideology into a simple but powerful phrase — “freedom under God.” With ample support from corporate patrons and business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce, his gospel of godly capitalism soon spread across the country through personal lectures, weekly radio broadcasts and a monthly magazine.
In 1951, the campaign culminated in a huge Fourth of July celebration of the theme. Former President Herbert C. Hoover and Gen. Douglas MacArthur headlined an organizing committee of conservative all-stars, including celebrities like Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, but largely comprising business titans like Conrad Hilton, J. C. Penney, Harvey Firestone Jr. and J. Howard Pew.
In an extensive public relations campaign, they encouraged communities to commemorate Independence Day with “freedom under God” ceremonies, using full-page newspaper ads trumpeting the connection between faith and free enterprise. They also held a nationwide sermon contest on the theme, with clergymen competing for cash. Countless local events were promoted by a national “Freedom Under God” radio program, produced with the help of the filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, hosted by Jimmy Stewart and broadcast on CBS.
Ultimately, these organizers believed that they had made a lasting impression. “The very words ‘freedom under God’ have added to the vocabulary of freedom a new term,” they boasted. Soon the entire nation would think of itself as “under God.” Indeed, in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over the first presidential prayer breakfast on a “government under God” theme and worked to promote public religiosity in a variety of ways. In 1954, as this “under-God consciousness” swept the nation, Congress formally added the phrase to the Pledge of Allegiance.
In the end, Mr. Romney is correct to claim that complaints about economic inequality are inconsistent with the concept of “one nation under God.” But that’s only because the “1 percent” of an earlier era intended it that way.