Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Andrew R. Polk's "Faith in Freedom"

Andrew R. Polk is Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Faith in Freedom: Propaganda, Presidential Politics, and the Making of an American Religion, and reported the following:
If readers were to open to page 99 of Faith in Freedom, they would find themselves near the beginning of the fourth chapter and at the point where the religious propaganda I uncover has just started to shift totally away from the control of religious representatives. The page discusses Harry Truman’s somewhat spotty record of fighting racial injustice throughout his administration, yet highlights his formation of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. That group eventually released its report, To Secure these Rights, that explicitly condemned American bigotry and intolerance, past and present. Despite knowing the political consequences of his actions, Truman issued executive order 9981 a few months later, which called for the integration of the armed forces. That action nearly cost Truman the 1948 presidential election, but he overcame the defection of many southern democrats and numerous bad polls to win the election.

The page 99 test is somewhat of a mixed bag for my book. It works well in that it gives the reader a sense of my style and sets up the irony of Truman’s later acquiescence to his propagandists’ insistence that racial bigotry be ignored by patriotic Americans. However, the page misses the core argument of the book, which is that the Christian nationalism and civil religion people recognize in the Religious Right of the 1980s and in White evangelical supporters of Donald Trump today are actually legacies of the religious propaganda campaigns of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower in the mid-twentieth century. The politicians, advertising executives and military public relation experts who constructed the propaganda all agreed that even mentioning America’s racial injustices was tantamount to disloyalty bordering on heresy. However, race was not at the center of their construction, and readers who start on page 99 might think otherwise.

In truth, the point of the religious propaganda I document was to unite the nation in support of specific political objectives. At first, the goal was to unite the country to fight during the Second World War, but those early campaigns were used as a template for the much more robust campaigns during the early Cold War. To convince Americans that the nation needed a large standing military and in support of free market economic policies, these propagandists created massive public relations campaigns to convince the American public that the nation was religious at its core. Yet that patriotic religion also insisted that anyone who did not support the preferred policies and positions of its architects hated America, supported the communists, and opposed religion and God Almighty. The result was a strict dichotomy within American culture that combined religion and politics in dangerous and divisive ways. It’s that legacy that Americans are still wrestling with today.
Learn more about Faith in Freedom at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue