"Connie" Hilton's Praying Uncle Sam

Randall Stephens

Conrad Hilton, or "Connie" as Don Draper calls him on Mad Men, was passionate about building hotels and securing America against the dual threats of atheism and communism. It was a patriotic-religious mix he shared with millions of Americans. Yet few had the influence or power of a Conrad Hilton.

I wasn't thinking about Hilton, his faith, or his political ideals when I was browsing Life magazine on Google books at the Norwegian National Library this last weekend. I was looking for adverts for a lecture I'll be giving over here called "Advertising the American Dream."

Still, when I saw the Hilton ad, posted here, Life (July 7, 1952), I was taken back. What's going on here with "America on Its Knees"? Uncle Sam looks strangely like Lincoln, had Lincoln not been shot, and lived to be 70, and taken on the role of Uncle Sam. Why the God-and-country-prayer as an advertisement for hotels? People like patriotism and prayer, I guess.

Annabel Jane Wharton writes of Hilton's specific anticommie views and his propensity for civil religion adverts in her Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (University of Chicago Press, 2006). Says Wharton:

Hilton's belief that religious faith was critical in the battle against communism was also, quite literally, publicized. In 1956, an article in the trade magazine Sales Management: The Magazine of Marketing, noted 'The recent rise of Hilton International has coincided with Conrad Hilton's personal fight against Communism . . .' Indeed, Conrad Hilton regularly substituted prayers for advertisements. . . . Hilton was a passionate Catholic. He also had respect for other religions, working closely with Jews and Muslims. He abominated atheists and demonized communists . . . . [He] believed his hotels made a significant contribution to America's struggle against communism in the cold war (139-140).

So, there you have it. Knowing not too much about high-profile anticommunists (and what little I know coming from books on postwar conservatism and some research on the Midwest), I'm curious about how others might have used public venues to preach the anticommunist gospel. As Grant Wacker notes, Billy Graham was an intense holy cold warrior in his early career. The National Association of Manufacturers had its share of ardent anticommunists, one in particular who launched the John Birch Society. Where else did anticommunism and American Christianity link up?


Curtis J. Evans said…
very interesting article. This is all new to me. About two years ago, I went to the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, DE, to look at the papers of J. Howard Pew (who owned Sun Oil, later Sunoco, with his brother, Joseph Newton). Unfortunately, I became almost deathly ill with a horrible cold while there, and was only able to do research for one day, and even then I had not fully recovered. Pew got his political start by his staunch opposition to the New Deal, but eventually became a powerful anti-Communist, making his views and opinions felt by funding Christian Colleges, making available start-up funds for magazines (Christianity Today being one of the most prominent), and engaging in rearguard action against the National Council of Churches in the 1960s. Many of his criticisms were directed at the growth of the federal govt., but his broader philosophy (as a Presbyterian laymen) was that free enterprise and lay Christian activism would serve as bulwarks against the communist threat (the emphasis on lay activism in part was a reflection of his hostility to leading pastors and liberal Protestant clergyman taking stances on civil rights issues and federal polices with which he disagreed). Allan Lichtman's "White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement" (2008) also has a good discussion (scattered in various parts of his book) of Pew and his brother. As far as I could tell, Pew also sponsored various projects to illuminate the "Christian Heritage" of the US, especially on select college campuses. Obviously, I was disappointed that I was not able to pursue further research, my illness and the weather making it an altogether dreary occasion. Perhaps I will revisit Hagley in the future. My interest in Pew came about because of work I did years ago on evangelicals and race from the 1940s to the 1960s, and I became curious about the relationship between key business figures who funded conservative religious projects. That's also why I'm looking forward to reading the work of Darren Grem when it comes out.
Randall said…
Curtis: That's interesting about the Pew archive. Those themes fit well with what Christianity Today centered on the in the 1960s. Many of issues I've gone through focus again and again on the perils of ecumenism and authors rail against the NCC.
Ken Smith said…

Robert Schuller's autobiography devotes a fair amount of space to discussing his anticommunist views, which at one point in his ministry he was very overt about.

Schuller acknowledges that he overdid it in this area, and indicates that he backed off considerably from this emphasis.

I believe there are any number of biographies of American religious leaders that would bring out a general anticommunist theme or describe a strongly anticommunist phase.

As for me, I am personally a lifelong anticommunist. It's not a phase but a permanent condition.
rmclindsey said…
This trailer for de Mille's 1956 _Ten Commandments_ hints at the film's not so subtle anti communist Anglo-Protestantism, although the original opening to the film (which I couldn't find on short notice) is much more direct if I remember correctly.

Benji said…
Professor Stephens-
Very interesting find (also, very much enjoyed your panel in San Fran on Fundamentalism). I just finished a piece on this very topic for a class at Drew University on the History of Protestant Missions. Wharton does a nice job of summing up Hilton's contributions, but she does not delve deeply into his understanding of Christianity relative to a Protestant/Catholic/Jew nation and to Communism. Her book, however, is wonderful when it comes to how the architecture of the hotels itself embodied in a material sense everything that was good about America as one Hilton after another went up within sight of the Iron Curtain (at least ideologically, not so much geographically, but sometimes both). I drew on professor Lofton's recent work on Oprah and work on the missionary components of 1950s realist foreign policy/liberal foundations in order to argue that through his hotels, which invented a number of amenities taken for granted today not to mention mini-malls within the Hiltons themselves, Hilton presented a commerce-based message of cooperation and Christianity that was reflective of the larger domestic "Spiritual-Industrial Complex" recently demonstrated by historian Jonathan Herzog. Once taken abroad through the hotels, Hilton arguably played a significant role in the re-building of post-war Europe and creating "the West" as we know it today. I hope to develop this Hilton project further in the coming months.
Randall said…
Benji: Sounds like you have a great article in the making. All sorts of interesting leads to follow up on this interconnection of nationalism/patriotism and religion.