Little has been done linking the important role of the automobile within the context of the history of religion in America. A former student of mine, Peter Cajka, now at Marquette University, has done some interesting work in this area of late and is currently researching the curious story of the world's first Experimental Safety Vehicle, the Aurora, designed by a Catholic Priest living in Bridgeport, CT, during the 1950s. It is a very important scholarly topic, however, and merits serious attention. Here are some excerpts from my book, The Automobile and American Life, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
An Answer to Prayer or Something to Pray About?
With the widespread sales of the Model T in rural areas of
Our little Christian Endeavor flock of five high school boys and girls was returning for a religious retreat sheparded by our minister. The road home led up
Imagine the shock to my newly demonstrated convictions at what we learned from the owner of the service station in
Within Catholic and Protestant contexts, strands of serious discussion about the automobile and its social consequences can be traced back to at least the 1920s. Literature of that era contained a consistent thread of critical commentary related to automobile issues that included safety, organized labor, economics, and social justice. While this stream of articles often reflected topics similar to those voiced in the secular mainstream, what made the material in the Christian literature distinctive was that a moral and at times biblical voice was often injected into an ethical debate concerning what should be the proper relationship between technology and society.
As shall be discussed, the Catholic viewpoint differed from that of the Protestant in both its emphasis on certain subjects at the expense of others, and surprisingly, perhaps, in terms of the intensity of its overall scriptural tone. Mainline Catholic literature tended to the practical and biblical; Protestant contributions were more idealistic while at the same time in language approached the secular. In both subcultures, however, authors attempted to solve difficult social problems created by the automobile during the Machine Age.
The automobile first became an issue for many American Catholics during the late 1920s, as the primary market shifted from rural to urban, and as city dwellers, many for the first time, began to contemplate purchasing vehicles. While the Catholic working class living in the largest of urban centers like New York City often would not purchase a car until after WWII, in the smaller cities and towns, like that of the Lynd’s Middletown – Muncie, Indiana – the family car came home by 1929.
To be sure, the automobile had been a topic in the Catholic literature of the first three decades of the twentieth century, but it was especially in the 1930s that it was frequently mentioned in the pages of The Commonweal,
For example, an overwhelming number of articles appearing in nondenominational Protestant Christian Century during the 1930s railed against drinking and driving. Prohibition had been repealed by the mid-1930s, and one commentator after another linked the rising national auto accident and fatality rates with the “almost complete absence of regulation of strong liquor traffic.” It was more than a shrill attack on drunkenness, for it was argued that the consumption any amount of alcohol substantially increased the risks behind the wheel; therefore, for the responsible driver, the only safe course was temperance. Thus if it was sin, it was never mentioned in theological terms in these articles; rather, the evil was materially identifiable and liquid, with the simple remedy of abstinence. While far less frequently mentioned in the Catholic press, the practice of driving and drinking often resulted in an indignant diatribe despite the fact that Depression-era newspapers and secular periodicals normally ignored or hushed this type of news for a variety of complex reasons.
Protestants and Catholics found common ground, however, on the issue of what speed was doing to Americans, subtly and psychologically. And while on the whole, much of what was said in the Catholic press dealt more with practical than spiritually abstract matters, the latter was occasionally dealt with in surprising fashion. Such was the case of Theodore Maynard’s essay entitled “On Driving a Car,” that appeared in a 1931 issue of The Commonweal. The author fancied himself as a spirit-filled poet whose senses were now deadened by the automobile and speed. Sensing that his driving led to “a definite decrease in spirituality,” coupled with an increase in “a hard, dry, positive frame of mind,” Maynard had little or no inclination to learn about the technology he was saddled with, preferring to “think about it [the automobile] as little as possible.” Indeed, he looked forward to a time when he could give up the car, since then he would be “set free from the tyranny of speed, [and] I can take my pipe and stick and walk again through the quiet fields.” This tyranny of speed was part and parcel of the new world of the automobile. Increasingly, time and space were compressed. While technology had freed people from time-consuming chores and increased the pace of transportation, life was far more rushed and constrained than before. And this need for speed was apparently insatiable, as at times it was truly irrational, given the ever-increasing fatality statistics. Unlike Catholic writers who saw speed as an issue of personal responsibility and a moral decision, the editor of The Christian Century called for the installation of governors on all cars manufactured in
For all his acute insights, Maynard reflected a romantic strain of thought concerning the automobile, one in which it was thought that the car was a passing fad and that more eternal and simple values would ultimately prevail. According to this view, then, there was to be no American love affair with the car, for it was posited that the public would tire of accidents, and “a great ebbing of the tide of public interest in riding may set in. The novelty of speeding around in a car which has grown during the last thirty years into the great national pastime, may wear off, and people will stay at home more and tend gardens or otherwise occupy themselves in quiet and safety.” This writer, however, misjudged the power of the automobile over the individual; in contrast, as early as 1916 one astute priest remarked that “the automobile was here to stay.”
Most of the Catholic literature of the early 1930s did not concern itself with deep matters related to human beings and their relationship to the machine, however, but rather the effects of the automobile on everyday, common lives, especially in terms of the alarming rate of fatal accidents. There was a sharp increase in fatalities during the 1920s, as automobile accident deaths rose from 15,000 in 1922 to 33,000 in 1930. What most concerned Catholic writers about these statistics was the large number of pedestrians, especially the young and the old, who ranked disproportionately high on casualty lists. Authors made light of the fact that the automobile was killing more Americans than war, and that numbers were on a marked rise, despite the fact that the Great Depression had curtailed the number of miles driven. One essay equated the situation as akin to that of Herod and his slaughter of innocent children, for “It will suffice to face the central fact – that every day from one to a hundred little ones get in the path of speeding cars, are crushed to death or maimed for life. Such a toll summons to mind ancient and terrible images of gods to whom babes were tossed in sacrifice” Apparently for some it was sport, according to G. K. Chesterton:
Let me take the case of a very queer moral twist, about which this paper [G. K.’s Weekly] has often made protests; and often been practically alone in making them; the case of a motorist, clearly beholding somebody walking across the road, who drives straight at him, and knocks him down in a way that is more than likely than not to kill him.
Statistics aside, the topic of accidents was dealt with either by an exploration of causes – drivers, speed, the vehicles themselves, or highways – or remedies that included driver education and stricter licensing laws, better enforcement of speed restrictions, the construction of walking paths and better roads. Above all, it was a discussion about responsibility, and here fingers were pointed at mothers, manufacturers, government, but above all inexperienced or dangerous drivers. In the Lynd’ s followup to Middletown, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937, the complaints concerning the automobile and its threats towards child pedestrians were quite similar to those mentioned in Catholic articles, but with one important difference – responsibility and moral matters were never grappled with.
One article from the secular press that held sway in Catholic circles was Curtis Billings’ “The Nut that Holds the Wheel,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1932.
Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the frightful nature of automobile accidents remained a central theme. However, one issue quickly gained importance during the second half of the 1930s – the tensions between organized labor and the Big Three. Until 1935, it was totally absent from the Catholic Periodical and Literature Index and Readers’ Guide. But between then and the coming of World War II, a substantial number of articles can be found in both the Catholic and Protestant press that demonized capitalists while sympathetically portraying the plight of the working classes. One Catholic author who railed against capital and management was Fr. Paul L. Blakely, S.J., who characterized the condition of autoworkers as “differing little from that of slavery.” Blakely righteously blasted the automakers, asserting that
this huge and inhuman industry has grown up within the last thirty years, is sad evidence of the world’s inability to understand the message of Leo XIII in his Labor Encyclical. But the message was simply the message of Jesus Christ, and his name is not in reverence in our modern world. Decidedly, there is something rotten at the heart of our alleged civilization, something that cannot be healed or excused by the forces which have been at work in the body politic for more than a quarter of a century.
Blakely followed with an essay on spies that had infiltrated the unions, assigning to management the name of Satan. Clearly, a wing of American Catholicism had taken on matters of social justice and there was no better stage than that of
Protestant literature also covered union-management issues during the 1930s and beyond, but with little of the fierce intensity and biblical ire that characterized Catholic writing. Indeed, Protestant reporting was coldly analytical, with the only bit of emotion coming when describing the life of the first UAW president, Homer Martin, a former Baptist minister from Kansas City. Martin, “who was forced out of that Church in Kansas City has by his change of pulpits become a kind of Paul, who has taken away some of the profits of Demetrius and the Ephesian silversmiths, who has been in jail for his convictions, but whose cause is so just that not even the wealth of Dives can prevail against him.”
In sum, Church literature reflected sincere and sensitive concerns about the automobile and human purposes. The numerous essays and editorials revealed that Catholic writers recognized that the automobile possessed a Janus-like two faces, and that despite all of its conveniences, cars not only could maim and kill, but also subtly alter the human spirit. Thus, these writings mirrored a struggle that was associated with the rise of automobility during the first half of the twentieth century. It was serious stuff to debate thoughtfully, and profound questions concerning contemporary culture surfaced. Would a technology become the master of a society rather than a mere utilitarian tool subordinate to human purposes? Were humans somehow less important than machinery? In what ways were we inwardly changing to accommodate patterns of automobile use? These and more tensions were a part of a dialogue that was never fully addressed then or now, as evidenced by the fact that most people remain entranced by and dependent upon a machine that changed the world, both for better and for worse.