Freedom Under God

Christian Libertarianism and the politics of piety and patriotism


During the Great Depression, corporate leaders launched a new public relations campaign to discredit the New Deal. Rather than attack the regulatory state directly, they recruited clergymen to make the case that capitalism was the soul mate of Christianity and that “pagan statism” threatened both. Reverend James W. Fifield, Jr., the most influential of these ministers, founded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization in 1935 to spearhead the effort. With generous funding from major corporations and conservative philanthropists, Rev. Fifield worked to convert clergymen across the country to the gospel of free enterprise, quickly assembling a membership of some 17,000 “minister-representatives.” In the late 1940s, Spiritual Mobilization spread its ideology of “Christian libertarianism” through its monthly magazine Faith and Freedom, a weekly radio program, and the distribution of libertarian books and pamphlets. By the early 1950s, Rev. Fifield had distilled this ideology down to a simple, powerful phrase: “freedom under God.” He soon went to work marketing it.


In the spring of 1951, Spiritual Mobilization’s leaders struck upon an idea they believed would advance their cause considerably. To mark the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they proposed for the week surrounding the Fourth of July a massive series of events devoted to the theme of “Freedom Under God.” According to Fifield’s longtime ally William C. Mullendore, president of the Southern California Edison Company, the idea originated from the belief that the “root cause of the disintegration of freedom here, and of big government, is the disintegration of the nation’s spiritual foundations, as found in the Declaration of Independence. We want to revive that basic American credo, which is the spiritual basis of our Constitution.”

To that end, in June 1951, the leaders of Spiritual Mobilization announced the formation of a new Committee to Proclaim Liberty to coordinate their Fourth of July “Freedom Under God” celebrations. The committee’s name, they explained to a crowd of reporters, came from the tenth verse of the twenty-fifth chapter of the Book of Leviticus, in which God instructed Moses that the Israelites should celebrate the anniversary of their arrival in the Promised Land and “proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to the inhabitants thereof.” This piece of Scripture, organizers noted, was also inscribed on the crown of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The committee originally had just fifty-six members, equal to the number of signers of the Declaration, but the list quickly expanded as others clamored for a place. Although the committee claimed to seek a spiritual emphasis for the upcoming holiday, very few religious leaders actually served in its ranks. Indeed, aside from Fifield and his longtime friend Norman Vincent Peale, the founding ministerial members of the committee included only a liberal Methodist bishop, G. Bromley Oxnam; the Catholic bishop of the Oklahoma City–Tulsa diocese; and a rabbi from Kansas City.

The true goal of the Committee to Proclaim Liberty was advancing conservatism. Its two most prominent members had been brought low by Democratic administrations: former president Herbert Hoover, driven from the White House two decades earlier by Franklin Roosevelt, and General Douglas MacArthur, removed from his command in Korea two months earlier by Harry Truman. These conservative martyrs were joined by military leaders, heads of patriotic groups, conservative legal and political stars, right-wing media figures, and outspoken conservatives from the realm of entertainment, such as Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan. But the majority came from corpo­rate America. J. Howard Pew was joined by other business titans, such as Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels, B. E. Hutchinson of Chrysler, James L. Kraft of Kraft Foods, Hughston McBain of Marshall Field, Admiral Ben Moreell of Jones & Laughlin Steel, Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines, and Charles E. Wilson of General Motors.The interest of lead­ing businessmen in the endeavor was so strong that the committee was forced to expand its ranks to make room for the others clamoring for a spot, including household names such as Harvey Firestone, E. F. Hut­ton, Fred Maytag, Henry Luce, and J. C. Penney, as well as the less well-known heads of US Steel, Republic Steel, Gulf Oil, Hughes Aircraft, and United Airlines. The presidents of both the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers served, as did the heads of free enterprise advocacy organizations such as the Founda­tion for Economic Education and the Freedoms Foundation. As a token counterweight to this overwhelming corporate presence, the Committee to Proclaim Liberty included a single labor leader: Matthew Woll, a vice president with the American Federation of Labor, but more important, a lifelong Republican well known for his outspoken opposition to industrial unions and New Deal labor legislation.

As the Fourth of July drew near, the Committee to Proclaim Liberty focused its attention on encouraging Americans to mark the holiday with public readings of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The decision to focus solely on the preamble was in some ways a natural one, as its passages were certainly the most famous and lyrical in the document. But doing so also allowed organizers to reframe the Declaration as a purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government. Those who read the entire document would have discovered, to the consternation of the committee, that the founding fathers followed the high-flown prose of the preamble with a long list of grievances about the absence of government and rule of law in the colonies. Among other things, they lambasted King George III for refusing “his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” for forbidding his governors from passing “Laws of immediate and pressing importance,” for dissolving the legislative bodies in the colonies, and for generally enabling a state of anarchy that exposed colonists to “all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.” In the end, the Declaration was not a rejection of government power in general but rather a condemnation of the British crown for depriving the colonists of the government they needed. In order to reframe the Declaration as something rather different, the Committee to Proclaim Liberty had to edit out much of the document they claimed to champion. Even their version of the preamble was truncated. They excised a final line about the specific plight of the colonists and ended instead on one that better resonated with their contemporary political aims: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

The committee’s corporate sponsors took out full-page newspaper ads to promote this pinched interpretation of the Declaration. The San Diego Gas & Electric Company, for instance, encouraged its customers to reread the preamble, which it presented with its editorial commentary running alongside:

These words are the stones upon which man has built history’s greatest work — the United States of America. Remember them well!
“…all men are created equal…”
That means you are as important in the eyes of God as any man brought into this world. You are made in his image and likeness. There is no “superior” man anywhere.
“…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” Here is your birthright — the freedom to live, work, worship, and vote as you choose. These are rights no government on earth may take from you.
“…That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…” Here is the reason for and the purpose of government. Government is but a servant-not a master-not a giver of anything.
“…deriving their just powers from the consent of the gov­erned…”
In America, the government may assume only the powers you allow it to have. It may assume no others.

The ad urged readers to make their own declaration of independence in 1951. “Declare that government is responsible TO you—rather than FOR you,” it continued. “Declare that freedom is more important to you than ‘security’ or ‘survival.’ Declare that the rights God gave you may not be taken away by any government on any pretense.” Other utilities offered similar ads. The Detroit Edison Company, for instance, quoted at length from a Clarence Manion piece first published by the original Heritage Foundation. “Despotism never advertises itself as such,” Manion warned. “By its own sly self-definition it may label itself ‘democratic,’ progressive,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘humanitarian,’ or ‘fraternal.’ Those who oppose it will be called reactionaries, fascists, and other ‘bad names.”’ The Utah Power & Light Company, meanwhile, cut right to the chase in a full-page ad with the alarmist headline “How many ‘Independence Days’ have we left?” The utility company implored readers to “pray for help in maintaining man’s closeness to God, in preserving man’s God-given rights and responsi­ bilities against those who would make you dependent upon a socialistic, all-powerful government.”

The Committee to Proclaim Liberty also enlisted the nation’s min­isters to promote the “Freedom Under God” festivities. Those on the Spiritual Mobilization mailing list received a suggested press release that merely needed clergymen to fill in the blanks with their personal information (‘The purpose of the Committee,’ the Reverend _______ declared, ‘is to revive a custom long forgotten in America—spiritual emphasis on the 4th of July”). The committee also established a sermon contest, modeled on the wildly successful “Perils to Freedom” competition that Spiritual Mobilization had held in 1947. The seventeen thousand minister-representatives of the organization were encouraged to compete for cash prizes and other rewards by writing an original sermon on the theme of “Freedom Under God” and delivering it to their congregations on “Independence Sunday,” July 1, 1951. They could also order, for a penny each, special worship calendars prepared by the committee, adorned with illustrations and messages supporting the festivities’ theme. The interior was intentionally left blank so that the minister could mimeograph the details of his particular service and then literally wrap the Committee to Proclaim Liberty’s message around it.

Utility companies such as the Utah Power & Light Company ran full-page advertisements that promoted the “Freedom Under God” celebrations of Spiritual Mobilization and, more important, its underlying message of Christian libertarianism.

On “Independence Sunday,” the organization reported, “tens of thousands” of clergymen offered sermons on the topic of “Freedom Under God.” Because the contest was limited to official minister-representatives of Spiritual Mobilization, the sermons invariably sounded its themes. “The effort to establish socialism in our country has probably progressed farther than most of us fully realize,” asserted a Lutheran minister in Kansas. “It would be well to remember that every act or law passed by which the government promises to ‘give’ us something is a step in the direction of socialism.” A clergyman from Brooklyn agreed. “Today our homes are built for us, financed for us, and the church is provided for us. Our many services are in danger of robbing us of that which is most im­ portant,” he warned, “the right to our own kingdom of self.” The growing acceptance of the philosophy of the Welfare State is a graver peril to free­dom in America today that the threat of military aggression,” cautioned a Missouri Baptist. A Congregationalist minister in Illinois advanced the same argument: “People have been encouraged to believe that a benevo­lent government exists for the sole purpose of ministering to the selfish interest of the individual. We have achieved the four freedoms: Freedom to ask; freedom to receive; freedom to be a leech; and freedom to loaf.”

First place in the sermon competition went to Reverend Kenneth W. Sollitt, minister of the First Baptist Church of Mendota, Illinois. Published in the September issue of Faith and Freedom, his sermon bore the title “Freedom Under God: We Can Go on Making a God of Government, or We Can Return Again to the Government of God.” As the title suggested, it was an extended jeremiad about the sins of the welfare state. Reverend Sollitt decried the national debt, growing federal payrolls, corporate taxation, government bureaucracy in general, and Social Security in particular, while still finding the time and imagination to use the parable of the Good Samaritan as grounds for a diatribe about the evils of “socialized medicine.” “For 175 years we have focused our attention so much on ‘the enjoyment of our liberty’ that we have been perfectly willing to pass all kinds of legislation limiting the other fellow’s liberty for our benefit,” he argued. “‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’ has become government of the people by pressure groups for the benefit of minorities. ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ has been shortened to just plain ‘Give me.”’ In the dire tones of an Old Testament prophet, he warned that “America stands at the cross roads… The one road leads to the slavery which has always been the lot of those who have chosen collectivism in any of its forms,” he said, be it “communism, social­ism, the Welfare State — they are all cut from the same pattern. The other road leads to the only freedom there is”: free enterprise.

The sermons delivered on “Independence Sunday” were amplified by a program broadcast that same evening over CBS’s national radio network. The committee had originally hoped to schedule the broadcast for the Fourth of July itself, but all airtime on the holiday had been reserved. As organizer James Ingebretsen noted, “Even if we had the Lord Himself making a return appearance, we couldn’t get the time.” He quickly warmed to the idea of holding a special program on Sunday instead, both to highlight the spiritual emphasis of the festivities and to build on the momentum of the day’s sermons. The national advertising agency J. Walter Thompson officially promoted the program, but organizers believed that a word-of-mouth campaign from the pulpit would be even more effective. “There will be a couple of hundred thousand ministers across the country who will have had direct word about this program and many of them will definitely be cooperative,” Ingebretsen said in a telephone call with the head of public affairs at CBS. “There will be thirty to forty million people in church that Sunday as usual . . . and we will pick them up just a few hours afterwards instead of three days later.”

The program itself lived up to the organizers’ expectations. Cecil B. De- Mille worked with his old friend Fifield to plan the production, giving it a professional tone and attracting an impressive array of Hollywood stars. Jimmy Stewart served as master of ceremonies, while Bing Crosby and Gloria Swanson offered short messages of their own. The preamble to the Declaration was read by Lionel Barrymore, who had posed for promotional photos holding a giant quill and looking at a large piece of parchment inscribed with the words “Freedom Under God Will Save Our Country.” The program featured choral performances of “America” as well as “Heritage,” an epic poem composed by a former leader of the US Chamber of Commerce. The keynote came from General Matthew Ridgway, who interrupted his duties leading American forces in Korea to send an address from Tokyo. He insisted that the founding fathers had been motivated, in large part, by their religious faith. “For them there was no confusion of thought, no uncertainty of objectives, no doubt as to the road they should follow to their goals,” he said. “Theirs was a deep and abiding faith in God, a faith which is still the great reservoir of strength of the American people in this day of great responsibility for their future and the future of the world.”

The “Freedom Under God” festivities reached a crescendo with local celebrations on the Fourth of July. The Committee to Proclaim Liberty coordinated the ringing of church bells across the nation, timed to start precisely at noon and last for a full ten minutes. Cities and small towns across the country scheduled their own events around the bell ringing. In Los Angeles, for instance, the city’s civil defense agency sounded its air raid sirens, in the first test since their installation, resulting in what one newspaper described as “a scream as wild and proud as that of the American eagle.” As bells chimed across the city, residents were encouraged by the committee “to open their doors, sound horns and blow whistles and ring bells, as individual salutes to Freedom.” After the ten minutes of bell ringing, groups gathered in churches and homes to read the preamble to the Declaration together. Both Mayor Fletcher Bowron and Gover­nor Earl Warren, like their counterparts in many other cities and states, issued official proclamations that urged citizens, in Warren’s words, to spend the day reflecting upon “the blessings we enjoy through Freedom under God.” That night, fifty thousand residents attended a massive rally at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Organized under the theme “Free­dom Under God Needs You,” the night featured eight circus acts, a jet plane demonstration, and a fireworks display that the local chapter of the American Legion promised would be the largest in the entire country. Reverend Fifield had the honor of offering the invocation for the evening ceremonies, while actor Gregory Peck delivered a dramatic reading of the Declaration’s preamble.

In the end, the Committee to Proclaim Liberty believed, rightly, that its work had made a lasting impression on the nation. “The very words ‘Freedom Under God’ [have] added to the vocabulary of freedom a new term,” the organizers concluded. “It is a significant phrase to people who know that everybody from Stalin on down is paying lip service to free­dom until its root meaning is no longer apparent. The term ‘Freedom Under God’ provides a means of identifying and separating conditions which indicate pseudo-freedom, or actual slavery, from those of true free­dom.” Citing an outpouring of support for the festivities, the committee resolved to make them an annual tradition and, more important, keep the spirit of its central message alive in American life. The entire nation, its members hoped, would soon think of itself as “under God.”


Excerpted from One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse, published by Basic Books on April 14, 2015.

Available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local independent.

Top image credit: Mark Englebrecht, via creative commons

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Kevin M. Kruse’s story.