“The Same God Made Us All”: The Particular Universalism of Religion in America

Curator's Note

1952 marks the first year that presidential candidates made use of television “spots” (20-60 second commercials), which may be why Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson’s ads are choppy at best.  This ad attempts to call a very specific group of people—Americans—to do a very specific action—vote for the Democratic presidential candidate—by staking out a universal public in the vaguest of terms. In terms of content, this ad tells us little but that Stevenson, like Thomas Jefferson, apparently supports the idea of a single humanity created by a single God. Indeed, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide victory over Stevenson can be attributed at least in part to their radically distinct ways of using this new media. Eisenhower’s ads still serve as a basic template for campaign spots while Stevenson’s ads, featuring unfamiliar faces, unmemorable jingles and inexplicable graphics, serve as a guide of what not to do. However, there also seems to be something more interesting afoot in this universal call intended to motivate a highly specific audience to partisan action.

A strange rhetoric surrounds new media in America, from the telegraph to the internet, that claims a universal scope for a very particular public. The power of new media in America is framed as its reach, the more global the better. Part of the work of these media, then, is to define a broad world that they can unite and access. Hence, President Buchanan’s hope that the Atlantic telegraph cable would be “a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.”[1] Or Thomas Friedman’s claim that the world has been made “flat” by the internet.[2] Of course, in each of these cases, the “whole world” is really very small, bounded by the constraints of religious, national and economic particularity. The Atlantic telegraph cable ran between Ireland and Canada, a far stretch from uniting any great set of nations, kindred or not. And one doesn’t need to study the disparity in high-speed internet cables in America’s own landscape to know that the world is far from flatly accessible to everyone.

Similarly, this television ad turns to the widest public possible and claims it as the very foundation of American exceptionalism. The speaker claims that it was the forefathers’ belief in universal (God-given) liberty that makes “us” a nation. Stevenson’s own Christian universalism—his belief that “the same God made us all”—is precisely what grounds his apparently unique agreement with the speaker and distinguishes him as a candidate (although from what is not clear). The public called into being by this early television ad is a particular and tiny public (very tiny—Stevenson won only 89 out of the 531 electoral votes) that coheres on its claim to universality. This is a critical facet of the publics Americans have imagined into being on the backs of new media—a particular generality, often grounded in a Christian rhetoric of universalism that constrains their global reach from the start.

[1] Cited in George Prescott, History, Theory, and Practice of the Electric Telegraph, (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860), 189.
[2] Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).


If Eisenhower's TV spots paved the way for the iconic, branded presidential faces that currently grace our living rooms with their august platitudes, this artifact-- as Jenna points out-- does something decidedly different. It offers us an Everyman hunched behind his podium, twitching hands ever ready to jut up and block forgettably milquetoast features. I love how Jenna reads this actor's appeal to a Jeffersonian God (extra sweet after the recent Texas debacle) in relation to the new medium's presumed potential to become a universal communications platform, the vehicle for a global address. It's ghostly, this "spot," and in no small part due to its glaring failures: if America's inability to identify with this fumbling figure contributed to Stevenson's electoral disaster, this address nonetheless refuses to relinquish its univeralist aspirations. It seems doomed to eternal repetition, hailing publics for all eternity, and faiing every time.

What of the winning strategy, I wonder. Do the disembodied, authoritative faces of victorious Presidents seem somehow more Godlike than this forgettable fellow? Do we prefer our divine invocations to come from men who seem partly divine themselves? Relegating to the archival dustbin those who, uncomfortable on the screen, try to insinuate themselves instead into the television's implied audience? This guy ghosts himself before he even begins; civil religion should, the electorate seemed to say, offer us real televisual presence.

Following as it does on Isaac’s post on sound, I was struck by this ad’s emphasis on aural ways of knowing.  The total lack of visual interest in this spot really highlights the use of speech as the sole persuasive device.  The conversational style of the speaker, and his location behind a kind of pulpit, makes me wonder if the model for this rhetorical style might be Protestant forms of public address that would have been familiar to viewers?

This is fascinating. The particularity of universalism also evokes how particularity is frequently deployed in moves toward certain types of universalism. Remember Bush's demand in 2008 that we "reject this 'dictatorship of relativism,' and embrace a culture of justice and truth"? To call for union among people who are dedicated to something very specific without disclosing potentially alienating details of that specificity resonates with Adlai Stevenson's comments and your analysis. I wonder if these moves might frequently appear together in presidential rhetoric, or if they mark opposite sides of some divide (whether temporal, partisan, or otherwise).

Great post, Jenna.  This reminds me of the Supreme Court's 1992 Lee v. Weisman decision, in which it struck down a rabbi's vaguely ecumenical prayer at a middle-school graduation ceremony as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.  Writing for the 5-justice majority, Justice Kennedy (still distrusted by the Right to this day for this opinion) announced that "the suggestion that government may establish an official or civic religion as a means of avoiding the establishment of a religion with more specific creeds strikes us as a contradiction that cannot be accepted."  Kennedy rightly noted the failure of universalistic or inclusionary religious claims ever to "transcend" their inherent particularity.

My favorite part of this spot, though, is the opening line: "Thomas Jefferson said something like this..."  In fact, Jefferson would probably have been horrified by his appropriation in this way.  But with paraphrasing (as with God?), all things are possible.

 I like how you’ve raised these points, Jenna. Vincent, you’ve wondered about the particularity of what Jenna’s identified as Christian universalist rhetoric. Critics on the American Left are used to mapping such dynamics onto the Christian Right. Supposedly Evangelicals are backward, because they try to establish values as if they were universally good values, when actually other citizens—those of us with the modern, real grasp on universalism—reject the Evangelicals’ old political values. Thus in campaigning against the George W. Bush regime, Obama succeeded by repeatedly saying, “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”
Yet as Isaac wisely suggests, universalist rhetoric is always particular, and in context of America’s civil religion, it’s always religious. The demand Obama cited comes not from democracy itself, which surely allows for factionalism or for tyranny of the majority. The demand comes from America—which of course, notwithstanding popular opinion in America, does not exceptionally embody democracy.
American rhetoric calls for universalist claims because America’s identity-narrative tends to be Christian in a supersessionist sense. That is, according to a founding narrative of Christian identity, it became a universally available medium by replacing the marked particularism of Jewish identity. Then according to a founding narrative of the U.S.A., American identity became a modern, universalist medium when it replaced the marked particularisms of the Old World.  
In parliamentary democracies less shaped by the American Jeremiad, partisans can more openly admit that opposing factions are simply struggling for dominance. But as Bercovitch argues, America got it “astonishing cultural hegemony” by recycling counter-hegemonic impulses into the nation’s “continuing revolution,” short-circuiting transformative rebellion.      
 So, the universalist rhetoric against particularism is particularly notable when it comes from a counterhegemon seeking the White House. Nevertheless, I would’ve campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, and am campaigning strongly now for Democrats who support Obama, because inasmuch as universalism may be called for, I like his approach, particularly.  

Thanks for drawing our attention to this Stevenson ad, Jenna.  When I watch this ad, it is not its "universalism" that strikes me as particularly unique (insofar as Stephenson was not the only one talking this way--the idea of "Judeo-Christian" ethics/morality was born of the cold war years and widely cited by many politicians), but its citing of actual issues: fair salaries (implicitly: strong minimum wage and strong unions) and care for the old (Social Security), and its assumption that liberal social and economic policies are what any people who believe in God (i.e. not the communists) should support.  Though it is a short spot that does not delve deeply into any issues, then, I don't agree that it tells us nothing about Stevenson.  Let's not forget that the cold war right argued exactly the opposite--that people who believed in God should not support a federal government that guaranteed fair wages or assistance for the elderly, because this was not democratic (little d) but rather socialist/communist.

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