In the early 1940s, with speaking commitments stretching years ahead, Norman Vincent Peale threw apparently limitless energy into mass counseling and conservative groups aimed at Christianizing America. He was rapidly making a name for himself in prominent circles, particularly among conservative Christians eager to make piety a sign of the country’s long-awaited recovery from the Depression and religion a shield against its antidemocratic enemies.
A surge in public religiosity, it was claimed, would rejuvenate the nation and herald its full return to preeminence. A mass “return to God” would also, Peale asserted, strengthen the population by “inoculating” it against communism—which, because of communism in the USSR (Stalinism in particular), had been cited since the mid-1930s as a grave threat to the nation’s core beliefs. For Peale, the question “Christ or Marx?” summed up a “perilous” dilemma. With “millions espousing [Marx’s] ideals with fanatical zeal,” he warned in October 1948, in a political sermon he titled “Democracy Is the Child of Religion,” freedom itself was threatened. Religious belief was, by contrast, “the best way to preserve” freedom and was, accordingly, the very principle on which America needed to “crusade.” The evangelical thrust was, for Peale, a consequence of standing united in steadfast opposition to forces such as collectivism. “Thus you have the issue,” he summed up: “Christ or Communism, Christ or chaos, Christ or catastrophe, Christ or the police state.”
As minister of one of the oldest churches in New York City, Peale was exceptionally well placed to air and promote such assertions, to make being unreligious seem unbalanced, fanatical, and wholly “un-American.” He took on the task with relish, using his pulpit to lob almost weekly tirades at Washington.
With the national press riveted by Peale’s every move, he became a lightning rod for national conservative concerns, from the sale of liquor to the perceived threat of labor unions, the godless, and the “alien, un-American ideologies” that, in his view, were behind the threat. Anticommunism was to Peale and his allies a pro-Christian stance, even if the religious component was not strictly necessary for the critique to hold. Aware of Freud’s insights into the nature of religious enthusiasm (itself of vital importance to the experimental Religio-Psychiatric Clinic Peale set up with his collaborator, the Christian psychiatrist Smiley Blanton, and to their organization, the American Foundation of Psychiatry and Religion, Inc.), Peale knew that fervor could fire up Americans beyond the pulpit, especially when packaged as a promise of national renewal through personal and religious redemption. “It is increasingly evident,” he was quoted in the Herald Tribune as asserting, “that the only solution to the present [national and international] crisis is a deeper, more spiritual, more social Christianity.” Even more, he urged—in the kind of accusatory turn that made him popular among hardliners adopting the same refrain a decade later during the McCarthy hearings on un-American activities—“the man who shows no interest in Christianity and fails to support it is the real enemy of our social institutions.”
For those who know Peale from his most popular books, such as The Power of Positive Thinking, it can be disconcerting to realize how thoroughly politics imbued his early sermons, talks, and religious activities. Especially in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Peale was burnishing his reputation as a minister and speaker not just in New York but nationwide, his crammed press folders report the activities and accusations of a man with an extraordinary appetite for political conflict.
Peale’s religious and psychological emphasis blended affirmative prayer with practical self-help, in what has been called a “gospel of personal religion” and, more crudely, “God and gumption.” In combining these elements, he signaled with Blanton a strong desire to fuse theology with psychiatry and positive psychology, especially in connection with the power of belief (“faith in faith”). Yet he differed from Blanton in both the scale of his political vision and his willingness to inveigh at others who failed to share it. While many newspaper headlines hinted at an emphasis that he and Blanton shared—“Dr. Peale Sees Faith as Source of Power”—others skewed to a darker worldview: “Dr. Peale Sees Freedom and Faith Periled.” The minister laced his message with drama to heighten a sense of urgency: “Christianity Seen in Race with Chaos,” the New York Times reported of one such sermon, given long before America became embroiled in the Second World War, and continued with: “Final Destiny of Civilization in Our World Is the Prize, Dr. N. V. Peale Declares.”
When the country struggled to shake off the Great Depression, including through public works projects financed by the New Deal, Peale was especially active in hardline lobbying groups whose self-appointed mission was to question the New Deal’s very existence, to undermine it even by smearing its White House advocate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president was targeted despite his notable religious rhetoric. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address was so “laden with references to Scripture” that it prompted the National Bible Press to release a chart highlighting the “Corresponding Biblical Quotations”; in his second inaugural address, in January 1937, he likened himself to “a modern-day Moses leading his people out of the wilderness.” Peale was unpersuaded. One newspaper article, after declaring, “New Deal Assailed as Curb on Reform: Dr. Peale Charges Hasty Moves for Selfish Ends Impede Real Social Progress,” captures the flavor of Peale’s blunt attack: “Ill-Conceived Experimentation Makes Public Wary of Progress, He Warns.”
In the New York Sun, Peale’s target shifted once again: “Peale Assails Class Conflict: Criticizes Methods Used by Roosevelt.” In this piece the New Deal was held virtually responsible for the mass inequality that Congress had hoped to reduce by passing a raft of crisis-stamped bills and reforms. The message was unmistakable, and the New York American spelled it out: “Dr. Peale Asks America to Put Roosevelt Out. Country Must Change Him or Change Constitution, He Declares in Sermon.”
It was in alluding repeatedly to the President’s irregular church attendance, however, that Peale found the political vulnerability that suited him as a minister. “Criticizes Roosevelt’s ‘Indifference to Religion,’” the Herald Tribune notes. “Dr. Peale Calls It Cause of Vital New Deal Errors.” Peale was particularly aggrieved by the president’s “Sabbath excursions and fishing trips,” although the relationship of these jaunts to seeming mistakes in the New Deal remains far from clear. President Roosevelt was, Peale said of a conflict over Supreme Court appointees, “a presumptuous seeker after improper power.” In yet another political sermon, he warned ominously of the government’s growing tendency to “autocracy” and the president’s tendency toward “dictatorship”: “We can pull him down when we wish.”
Peale’s cheery autobiography and well-known books on positive thinking are carefully shorn of this amply documented history. When it mentions Roosevelt, the autobiography admiringly invokes the President’s famous dictum, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and otherwise celebrates the America of the time as “simple and homey, yet already bursting with the excitement of an incredible future.”
Yet as Peale’s clippings and correspondence reveal in impressive detail, his political activities dovetailed with his pitch for a national religious revival, with Peale serving as both its advocate and its partial figurehead. His repeated, enthusiastic politicization of his ministry lent shape and force to the revival, given his outsize role as its popularizer.
Though far from original, and rapidly adopted by other conservative revivalists, such as Billy Graham, Peale’s claims that faith in God, country, and self were broadly identical acquired importance by dint of their enormous popularity in postwar America. By 1955, The Power of Positive Thinking had sold almost a million copies and was outselling all other books except the Bible. As his biographer Carol V. R. George concluded, “It was Peale’s message that gave definition to the religious revival” of the early 1950s.
Peale’s conservative populism “surfaced in his partisan activities over the years,” George continues, “and because the press gave generous coverage to his political views, he was constantly being sought out by individuals with political axes to grind.” She claims that in his spirit of eager, voluntary participation, “he often jumped on bandwagons whose real destinations he did not know.”
Though much of that last claim remains doubtful, Peale’s association with such far-right organizations as the Committee for Constitutional Government, Spiritual Mobilization, the Christian Freedom Foundation—and, briefly, H. L. Hunt’s Facts Forum—sometimes generated enough controversy to be acutely embarrassing to him. When a book on hard-line conservatives appeared in 1943, noting accurately that Peale had shared a platform with Elizabeth Dilling and the Reverend Edward Lodge Curran, the damage to his reputation was considerable. Dilling, “a person the federal government ranked among the worst hate-mongers” was, notes George, “a ‘patriot’ who smeared liberals, Jews, African Americans, and other ethnic groups with the same broad brush.” Curran, founder of the National Committee for the Preservation of Americanism, was the author of alarmist books such as Spain in Arms: With Notes on Communism and Facts about Communism.
Under Cover, which had been published by the Armenian-American journalist Arthur Derounian under the pseudonym John Roy Carlson, was supposedly an exposé of “the Nazi Underworld of America.” In it Peale was cast as a patsy for the right—as a “docile Protestant clergyman” who chaired the rigid Committee for Constitutional Government while its executive secretary, Edward Rumely, was under Senate investigation for failing to disclose its murky sources of funding.
With the New York Times and other prominent newspapers calling Under Cover “of sensational importance,” Peale was quick to downplay broader involvement. Privately he wrote the author and his publisher, insisting that his reputation had been unfairly maligned. Behind the scenes, however, he tended to respond with alacrity to such challenges, adjusting his emphasis to suit audience and occasion. A brief from Rumely for a 1943 meeting of the New York Economic Club explains, “Dr. Peale is supposed to touch upon the spiritual outlook ahead, which can mean the tracing of our institutions of freedom and free enterprise and constitutional government and their perpetuation in the post-war period.” The memo continues: “Dr. Peale asks for suggestions of material and viewpoint that it would be desirable for him to bring out from this platform under this title.”
All told, the idea that America needed a pro-Christian nationalism to head off an attack of atheistic communism was central to Peale’s message, and he stuck to it zealously. “One of the best ways to undercut Communism,” he privately volunteered to conservative businessman and fellow anticommunist crusader Edward F. Hutton in July 1947, “is to reach the masses of the people with some simple religious principles.” These, he had bluntly advised the Syracuse Post-Standard two decades earlier, were designed in such a way as to “generate the enthusiasm and vitality necessary for Christian world conquest.”
Excerpted from Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life. Copyright © 2016 by Yale University Press. Reprinted with permission from Yale University Press.