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US rulers wanted Christianity and capitalism to mean the same thing

Today’s religious support for the US regime is not new but was conciously created. John Newsinger talks about political evangelist Billy Graham and what has been called the Spiritual-Industrial Complex.

The Christian right played a vital role in electing Donald Trump to the presidency in November 2016. Evangelical Christians made up a third of electorate and four out of every five of them voted for Trump.

And, so far at least, they have remained loyal to the man they consider to be God’s Chosen. Understanding the strategic position they occupy in US politics today is vital.

To fully understand the continued importance of Christianity in US politics, we have to go back to the end of the Second World War. As the Cold War with the Soviet Union began, the US ruling class decided that Christianity could play a vital part in preparing the American people for the conflict. The best way to defend Capitalism was to dress it up as Christianity. To this end an unprecedented propaganda campaign was launched to persuade Americans to go to church, to pray and to get ready to defend Christian capitalism against Atheistic communism.

This domestic ideological offensive was the work of what has been called “the Spiritual-Industrial Complex”. During the Truman presidency, US big business, under the leadership of Charles E Wilson, the boss of General Electric and the man seen by many as the architect of the “permanent arms economy”, sponsored a back to God movement, the Religion in American Life campaign. From 1949 through to 1958 there was a relentless advertising campaign, using all modern techniques, urging Americans to go back to church.

At one point there were 5,200 billboards across the US advertising Christianity, there were hundreds of thousands of adverts on buses, trains, everywhere, and 1,800 daily newspapers supported the campaign. It was on television and was even taken up by Hollywood. Cecil B DeMille, fiercely right wing and anti-union, saw his film The Ten Commandments as very much part of this offensive. And it was all paid for by big business.

The Religion in American Life campaign worked. The US, alone among Western capitalist democracies, saw a post-war religious revival. Whereas in 1940 only 40 percent of Americans claimed membership of a church, by 1950 the percentage had already risen to 57 percent and by 1960 had reached 67 percent. Church attendance, church building and sales of the Bible all reached record levels.

While the campaign was initiated under Truman, it was consolidated in place by President Eisenhower. He had himself baptised in office and was responsible for adding the words “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and for putting the words “In God We Trust” on the dollar.

A key figure in this ideological offensive was Billy Graham. He became, for many, the voice of Christian America. His revivalist crusade in Los Angeles in September-October 1949 so impressed William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of the time, that he famously ordered his press empire to “puff Graham” at every opportunity.

Another media mogul, Henry Luce, put his magazine empire, including Time magazine, at Graham’s disposal.

Graham was a staunch Cold Warrior, pro-business, pro-rich and anti-union. On one occasion he told an appreciative audience that in heaven there was no disease, no snakes and no trade unions. Indeed, Graham was so influential that he became the spiritual confidante and adviser to successive presidents, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, though not Kennedy (he was a Catholic after all).

Graham was even used to carry the Christian capitalist message abroad. In 1954 he carried his crusade to Britain.

One of his promotional brochures noted the decline of the country where what Hitler had been unable to accomplish “socialism with its accompanying evils” had since achieved. Indeed, in a radio broadcast before leaving the States, he had actually warned that the US could say goodbye to Britain “when Aneurin Bevan takes over”. He was welcomed by MPs of all parties at the Commons and even met and prayed with Winston Churchill.

Graham ingratiated himself with presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, but his favourite was Nixon.

Nixon, aided and abetted by Graham, adopted a very pious public image at this time. According to some, Nixon’s inauguration was the most spiritual ever, with five preachers, including Graham, blessing him. The left wing journalist I F Stone described Graham as Nixon’s “Rasputin”, only “smoother”.

Graham continued to support Nixon all through Vietnam and the invasion of Cambodia. His response to the My Lai massacre is particularly instructive: “We have all had our My Lais in one way or another… Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

And then Watergate. Graham’s reputation was part of the collateral damage when the recordings were released and revealed him indulging Nixon’s antisemitism. Indeed, Graham actually confided to Nixon that while he had Jewish friends, they “swarm around me… They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country”.

He blamed them for pornography and complained about the damage that liberal Jews did to the country through their control over the media: “this stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain”.

When these recordings came to light, Graham denied any memory of the conversations.