Neverland was Peter Pan’s playground. The Scottish writer J. M. Barrie invented it as a metaphor for childishness and escapism. Neverland also depicts another invention—America as a “Christian nation.” It too is escapism.
“The Never Never Land” was introduced in 1904 in the theater play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Peter, of Peter Pan fame, was a real boy—Peter Llewelyn Davies. He lost his brother David in a tragic ice-skating accident. J. M. Barrie, staying with the family a few years later, learned that Peter’s mother had coped with her loss by inventing a story of her son being preserved in time forever, never to grow up. Escapism. This story became the setting for Peter Pan forever frolicking in Neverland.
There’s another story of escapism that also begins with loss. In One Nation Under God, Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton, takes us back to 1935 when James W. Fifield, a Los Angeles minister, started Spiritual Mobilization to oppose Roosevelt’s New Deal. Fifield believed the New Deal was a perversion of Christianity. He proposed instead that free enterprise was most compatible with the Bible’s emphasis on personal initiative and responsibility. Regardless of how you view the New Deal, government has grown ever since under every administration while the faith has lost ground.
By the 1950s a number of clergy felt this loss. Abraham Vereide, a Methodist pastor in Seattle, began promoting Fifield’s views as “Christian libertarianism” and organizing prayer meetings in the 1950s for politicians. As the number of breakfasts grew, Vereide turned his sights to Washington, D.C. Along with evangelist Billy Graham and the “emerging born-again organizations,” Kruse writes that Vereide had Senator Frank Carlson convince Conrad Hilton to host the first National Prayer Breakfast, in January 1953, at his Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Graham got Dwight Eisenhower to be the guest of honor. He had been advising Eisenhower before his inauguration, with the president-elect confiding to Graham that he had been “elected . . . to help lead this country spiritually.” With Graham’s encouragement, Eisenhower became the first president to be baptized while in office. Christians began urging America to return to its roots as a “Christian nation.”
This was an illusion. It was promoted by imagery depicting George Washington in prayer. Washington might have been a praying man but he wasn’t a Christian (likely a nominal Anglican and a deist). John Adams put it more succinctly. “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Illusions, like all bad ideas, tend to overplay their hand. In 1954, Senator Ralph Flanders tried to revive the 19th century campaign for a constitutional amendment to recognize “the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Saviour and Ruler of nations.” It failed. House Democrat Louis C. Rabaut did succeed with a bill to include “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Ten years later, Long Island Republican Rep. Frank Becker, introduced a constitutional amendment that would make organized prayer and Bible reading in public schools legal, rebuking the Supreme Court justices who had declared such piety unconstitutional in 1962. It failed. The Peter Pan era petered out with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson calling America to return to being a “Christian nation.”
We just celebrated the Fourth of July Weekend, which is supposed to be about remembering the past to make sense of the present. Americans, including Christians, are poor at doing this. For believers, David Brooks’ op-ed piece this past week might help. “Christianity is in decline in the United States. The share of Americans who describe themselves as Christians and attend church is dropping. Evangelical voters make up a smaller share of the electorate. Members of the millennial generation are detaching themselves from religious institutions in droves.”1 All true—and likely the consequence of several generations of Christians looking to Washington to “renew” an idea of America as a “Christian nation”—an idea originating in Neverland.
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1 David Brooks, “The Next Culture War,” The New York Times, June 30, 2105.