Most historians trace the origins of the modern Religious Right to the late 1970s, when a surge of conservative religious political activism resulted in the creation of the Moral Majority. It's true that Jerry Falwell and others on the Christian Right exploded onto the scene at that time, helping to put Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980 and never looking back thereafter. But if we really want to trace the historical events that gave rise to the Religious Right, we would be remiss if we did not consider the decade that arguably resulted in more successful anti-secular efforts than any other: the 1950s.
Known for the Red Scare and fear-based politics, the 1950s were extremely anti-secular times. In the midst of the McCarthy era, when outward expressions of patriotism were expected and a mere accusation of communist sympathy could ruin a career, visibile religiosity crept into all facets of American public life.
The first major assault that decade against Jefferson's wall of sepration came in 1952, with passage of a bill that requires the president to declare a "National Day of Prayer" each year. Occasional days of prayer had been declared previously, but they were relatively rare and never an annual occurrence. With the rise of the Soviet Union as America's chief rival in the post-war world, however, religion suddenly became an important means of distinguishing between America and the godless communisim of the Soviet system. Atomic weaponry was now in the hands of both superpowers, and the role of fear in defining the atmosphere of the era is difficult to overstate. With schoolchildren being trained to dive for cover under desks in the event of a nuclear attack from evil communist adversaries, it wasn't hard for religious interests to lobby successfully for governmental endorsement of religion.
Those religious interests, led by the Catholic fraternal group the Knights of Columbus, scored another huge victory two years later, when they convinced lawmakers to insert the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. No longer would America be "one nation indivisible," because instead the Pledge would demand that the nation be seen as "under God." That this version discriminates against nonbelievers and others who do not accept the idea of the nation being under a God is beyond dispute, but in the hysteria of the McCarthy era such questions of equal rights mattered little.
Still not content, religious interests then turned their attention to the national motto. Since the founding era the de facto motto of the country had been E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for "out of many, one." This inclusive, pluralistic motto had served the nation well since the Revolutionary War, but to the God-fearing lobbyists and politicians of the 1950s it didn't suffice, so in 1956 they passed legislation declaring the nation's new motto to be In God We Trust. Little consideration was given to those good Americans who simply do not believe in a deity, let alone trust one.
The social psychology that allowed this string of hyper-religious governmental actions arose from a unique confluence of factors: the existence of a godless adversary, the invention of apocalyptic weaponry, recent memories of the horror of the Second World War and the Holocaust, misinformation campaigns that trained the public to associate secularity with totalitarian atrocities, assertive religious institutions determined to get their way, passive secular groups, and the general paranoid environment of the Cold War and McCarthyism. With this as the backdrop, it's little wonder that religious conservatives found it easy to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state.
Today, over half a century later, we still live with the fallout from the hyper-religiosity of the 1950s, except that few remember the paranoia that gave rise to this mixture of religion and government. Because Americans tend to be historical amnesiacs, few remember that the annual National Day of Prayer is a recent invention. And few know that "under God" was added to the Pledge in 1954, or that In God We Trust has not always been the country's motto.
Most Americans simply assume that it has always been that today's governmental religiosity traces back to the founding, and therefore religious expressions are seen as proof that America has always been a very religious country. Because of this, a key goal of today's secular groups and activists is to educate Americans that most governmental expressions of religiosity are not longstanding traditions at all, but recent inventions of religious activists exploiting a climate of fear.
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