Pitchmen for Piety: Disneyland and the Invention of Christian America

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“In its conflation of piety and patriotism, Disneyland embodied larger currents in American popular culture during the postwar era.”
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Provocative and authoritative, “One Nation Under God” reveals how the unholy alliance of money, religion, and politics created a false origin story that continues to define and divide American politics to this day.

We are often told that the United States is, was and always has been a Christian Nation. But in One Nation Under God (Basic Books, 2015), historian Kevin M. Kruse reveals that the idea of “Christian America” is an invention, and a relatively recent one at that. As Kruse argues, the belief that America is fundamentally and formally a Christian nation originated in the 1930s when business men enlisted religious activists in their fight against FDR’s New Deal. Entertainment enterprises and especially the contributions of Walt Disney were essential allies in this deliberate effort. Epitomizing the conflation of American nationalism, Christianity and capitalism is the post-WWII creation of Disneyland. The following excerpt, which discusses the grand opening of Disneyland, is from Chapter 5: Pitchmen for Piety.

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On the afternoon of July 17, 1955, ABC television broadcast a live special event called Dateline Disneyland. For more than a year, the famed entertainer Walt Disney had made weekly appearances on the network to promote a colossal theme park he was building on roughly 168 acres of former farmland in Anaheim, California. Now that it was ready, ABC marked its opening with considerable pomp and pageantry. Its hour-and-a-half program began in the spacious pressroom at Disneyland, which, an announcer noted, was “equipped to service over one thousand members of the worldwide press here to cover this truly great event.” Host Art Linkletter told the audience that the network had twenty-nine cameras installed across the park, along with “dozens of crews and literally miles and miles of cables,” to capture the magic. Thanks to ABC’s efforts, Linkletter claimed, millions watching at home would share the experience of the thirty thousand who had the fortune to be there in person to witness the grand opening of “the eighth wonder of the world.”

The amiable Linkletter quickly turned things over to “Ronnie”— his cohost, Ronald Reagan, who had the honor of introducing the dedication ceremonies from a perch above Main Street, U.S.A., the park’s idyllic reproduction of a nineteenth-century town. Wearing an oversized white sports coat, starched dress shirt, and thin black bow tie, the actor flashed a beaming smile and pointed viewers to a clutch of political and religious figures in the town square. “Walt Disney, Governor Knight, the mayor of Anaheim, and other dignitaries,” he said, “are talking to three chaplains representing the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths.” Disney then strode to the microphone to read the inscription from the dedicatory plaque: “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to the world.” His nephew, Reverend Glen D. Puder, offered an opening prayer that stressed the religious motivations behind the theme park. “I have known Walt Disney for many years, and have long been aware of the spiritual motivation in the heart of this man who has dreamed Disneyland into being,” the Presbyterian pastor said. “Beyond the creeds that would divide us, let us unite in a silent prayer, that this and every worthy endeavor may prosper at God’s hand.” Governor Goodwin Knight followed with similar thoughts on the godly nature of both Disneyland and the nation it would entertain. “This is a wonderful place,” the Republican said, “just like your hometown, all built by American labor and American capital under the belief that this is a God-fearing and a God-loving country. And as we dedicate this flag now, we do it with the knowledge that we are the fortunate ones to be Americans, and that we extend to everyone everywhere the great ideals of Americanism: brotherhood, and peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” A drumroll began, and the US Marine Corps Band played “The Star Spangled Banner” as four uniformed servicemen raised the flag. Disney peered up to the clear blue sky, where a formation of fighter jets from the California Air National Guard soared past in salute.

Disneyland’s dedication testified to how deeply piety and patriotism were intertwined in its creator’s worldview. Disney, a Congregationalist, relied on Christianity as a constant guide. His faith in his country was equally strong, though his political beliefs changed considerably over the course of his life. During the 1930s, he had been a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. His cartoons during the Depression helped establish the so-called “sentimental populism” of the era’s popular culture, always championing “little guys”—Mickey Mouse, the Three Little Pigs, the Seven Dwarves—in their struggles against stronger foes. But in the 1940s, Disney’s politics took a sharp turn to the right. In 1941, a bitter strike at his company led him to denounce “Communist agitation” in a full-page ad in Variety. The day after Pearl Harbor, Disney was stunned when the US Army abruptly commandeered his studio for seven months’ use as a supply base. During the war, the government never paid him for some propaganda shorts he made, and his overseas profits dwindled to a trickle. Disney emerged from the conflict a staunch conservative. He helped bring the House Un-American Activities Committee to Hollywood in October 1947 and, in his appearance as a friendly witness, condemned communist influence in labor unions, pointedly naming names. When fellow Congregationalist James Fifield organized the Committee to Proclaim Liberty a few years later, Disney readily signed on to support its “Freedom Under God” festivities.

Liberty Street

Disneyland represented a subtle extension of Disney’s postwar politics, but within a few years he began to worry that the theme park was perhaps too subtle. Therefore, in 1958, he began planning a new addition, a second major thoroughfare to run parallel to Main Street, U.S.A. The new Liberty Street would celebrate colonial America, with its architecture and storefronts reflecting eighteenth-century life. The avenue would lead visitors into Liberty Square, where they would find a replica of Independence Hall. Inside, they would be dazzled by a film depicting American history through the Civil War, shown in Circarama, a two hundred- degree screen that encompassed their entire field of vision. At the film’s conclusion, the curtain would drop and then rise again to reveal life-size versions of a half dozen American presidents. “The visitor will see all the chief executives modeled life-size,” the lead designer explained. “He’ll think it’s waxworks—until Lincoln stands up and talks.” Disney was sure that the advanced “audio-animatronics” would make the exhibit the central attraction of the entire park. Accordingly, he gave it a grand name: One Nation Under God.

Due to developmental problems, the entire plan was never realized at Disneyland. (The exhibit lived on elsewhere, first in a smaller-scale Mr. Lincoln animatronic feature at the 1964 World’s Fair and then as a new Hall of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida a few years later.) But the underlying spirit of the One Nation Under God attraction remained a vital part of Disneyland nonetheless. In a 1957 interview with the columnist Hedda Hopper, Disney stressed the “American theme” that ran through the theme park. “I believe in emphasizing the story of what made America great and what will keep it great,” he said. Free enterprise, in his mind, was an essential element of the nation’s success. As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal enthusiastically recorded, more than sixty-five corporations advertised their products at the park, with seemingly unlikely partners such as Richfield Oil and Monsanto Chemical sponsoring entire rides. But as the One Nation Under God plans illustrated, the patriotism and capitalism on display at Disneyland were merely manifestations of a deeper foundation of faith. “It was,” as Disney biographer Neal Gabler noted aptly, “a modern variant on the City on a Hill of Puritan dreams.”

In its conflation of piety and patriotism, Disneyland embodied larger currents in American popular culture during the postwar era. Political leaders and religious reformers led the way in fomenting the religious revival of the Eisenhower era, but their counterparts in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue proved to be indispensable allies. Prompted by both patriotism and an eye for profits, entertainers and advertisers did a great deal to promote public expressions of faith in the era. Prominent advertising agencies promoted religious observance as a vital part of American life and religion as an essential marker of the national character. In the same spirit, the era’s biggest film emphasized the foundational role of religion in American institutions, while prominent movie and television stars banded together in a Christian “crusade” to defend America. When it came to the role of religion in American life, political culture and popular culture sang from the same hymnal. 

Excerpted with permission from One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.

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