Moral Therapeutic Deism, 1952 Edition

As you know, I’m a fan of old radio shows. Af late, I’ve been listening to This is Your FBI, which ran on ABC from 1946 to 1953. I’m almost at the end of the run.

This is Your FBI was an anthology show that featured different crimes every week with one constant, Special Agent Jim Taylor (played by actor Stacy Harris). It was produced in cooperation with the FBI, so we get lots of pontificating by J. Edgar Hoover (mostly played by an actor).

And lots of pontificating about the nature of crime, particularly the youth crime wave that allegedly swept the country in the immediate post-WWII years. Crime was a simple matter for the producers of This is Your FBI: bad parenting was responsible for most it. Young people became criminals because they were either spoiled or were neglected. It’s a simple psychology indicative of mid-century thinking that probably drove more than a few parents neurotic.

But for This is Your FBI, “the criminal” is almost an entirely different species or race of human being. In fact, there is much talk about “the criminal,” how he is different, not like “us,” a threat to ordinary individuals and society, and under the right circumstances, can eventually be managed out of existence.

For that is the goal of all this law enforcement — the complete elimination of crime. By catching and locking up criminals, and creating conditions by which none are produced. Like most endeavors to change and make human beings better, it has failed. And it will fail.

What does any of this have to do with religion? This is Your FBI is an unremittingly secular show, like most popular entertainment from the middle of the 20th century. To the extent God and church are involved, it is usually peripherally — a church is robbed, a priest is interviewed about someone’s character.

Except that in one episode, “Man Hunt,” from May 1952, the narrator speaks of the the etiology of “the criminal” in a different way:

Few people become professional criminals for any single reason. Greed may be a dominant cause in many, insecurity in others, and hatred of society in a proportion of the remaining cases. Some students of crime point to another reason seldom mentioned: the decline of religion. Study after study of religious training among criminals prior to their arrest show almost none with interest in or knowledge of any religion. One of the tenants of any form of worship is the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Obviously, no criminal lives by that code. Mainly because, as the figures show, the majority were never taught the basic concepts of any religion. As a citizen, you can do nothing about your neighbor’s interest, or lack of interest, in moral ideals, except by your example. However, if you are a parent interested in preventing your child from becoming a criminal of tomorrow, invest your time, your effort, in helping him learn the truth of religion. It’s the best investment you can possibly make in his future. And in your country’s.

The decline of religion. This is May, 1952, very near the high watermark of American Christendom. Churches in cities, towns, and suburbs were stuffed to the gills, engaged in a building boom, couldn’t lay bricks and cement or design programs fast enough. I’m not entirely sure where, in 1952, religion was supposed to have declined from. The church is influential, listened to, respected. Catholics, Jews, and Mormons have more or less become Protestant co-religionists in an America where the church is reasonable, liberal, and tolerant. Perhaps not as much as some would like, but that change is a just a few years down the road.

There’s the stunning lack of specificity, a reference to a generic religion that wants us only to be good. It is, as I have noted before, a lowest-common-denominator faith, a “truth” that has no specific content (because it can’t without inflaming sectarian disputes; so, pick a truth, any truth) but which, somehow, can inoculate against evil behavior. Note again what’s essentially stated here — a content-free truth can make someone a good person. Indeed, that’s the whole point of religion here. Not transcendent meaning, but becoming and being a good person. And this is 1952, long before the culture wars and the decline in church membership. Faith and truth here are merely utilitarian means to ends, with the end here being good citizenship, not discipleship.

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