During the Great Depression, big business needed rebranding. Blamed for the crash, belittled in the press, and beset by the New Deal’s regulatory state, corporate leaders decided they had to improve their image, and soon. “The public does not understand industry,” an executive complained, “because industry itself has made no effort to tell its story; to show the people of this country that our high living standards have risen almost altogether from the civilization which industrial activity has set up.”
Accordingly, corporate leaders launched a public relations campaign for capitalism itself. In 1934, the National Association of Manufacturers hired its first public relations director in its four decades of existence, expanding its annual budget in that field from just $36,000 to nearly $800,000 three years later, a sum that represented half of its total budget. NAM marketed the miracles of “free enterprise” with a wide array of advertisements, direct mail, films, radio programs, a speakers’ bureau, and a press service that provided prefabricated editorials and news stories for 7500 newspapers. Ultimately, though, the organization’s efforts at self-promotion were generally dismissed as precisely that.
While old business lobbies like NAM couldn’t sell capitalism effectively, neither could new ones created especially for the cause. The American Liberty League, founded in 1934, originally seemed business’s best bet. It received lavish financial support from corporate leaders, notably at Du Pont and General Motors, but ultimately their prominence in the group crippled its effectiveness. Jim Farley, then head of the Democratic Party, famously joked that it ought to be called the “American Cellophane League” because “first, it’s a Du Pont product and second, you can see right through it.”
As the 1930s came to a close, corporate leaders looked over the returns on their investment and realized the millions spent had not swayed public opinion in the slightest. The image of big business still needed repackaging. In a 1939 address to the US Chamber of Commerce, H.W. Prentis of the Armstrong Cork Company proposed the way forward. “Economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism,” he warned; “the only antidote is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith.” Prentis’ speech thrilled the Chamber and boardrooms across America. Soon propelled to NAM’s presidency, he continued to tell corporate leaders to get religion. His 1940 presidential address, promoted heavily in the Wall Street Journal and broadcast live on both ABC and CBS radio, promised that business’s salvation lay in “a strengthening of the spiritual concept that underlies our American way of life.”
Accordingly, corporate America began marketing a new fusion of faith, freedom and free enterprise. These values had been conflated before, of course, but in the early 1940s they manifested in a decidedly new form. Previously, when Americans thought about the relationship between religion, politics and business, they gave little thought to the role of the national state, largely because it was so small it gave little thought to any of them. But now that the federal government had grown so significantly, corporate leaders sought to convince Americans that the New Deal threatened not only the economic freedoms of business leaders, but the religious and political freedoms of ordinary citizens as well. They worked tirelessly throughout the 1940s and 1950s to advance a new ideology that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.”