Radio drama gave Americans a new form of commercial entertainment in the 1930s, but the stories themselves contained time-honored elements. One of these was the rhetorical tradition scholars have identified as American civil religion. Radio Westerns were particularly well suited to promulgate familiar civil religion themes. They described the United States as an instrument of divine will in history, celebrated Americans as pious people, and associated national expansion with the implementation of God's will.
The Lone Ranger was the most famous Western to articulate these themes. The show's writers consciously sought to create in their hero a “composite of all men who uphold the laws of God and man.” During its long broadcast history from 1933 to 1954, the show attracted a large audience and inspired publishing, film, and television ventures. By the late 1940s, however, owing in part to World War II and in part to the Cold War, some Americans on both sides of the microphone found the old formula unsatisfactory.
Gunsmoke, which premiered in 1951, exemplified a second generation of radio Westerns. Though still civil religious, these Westerns located the United States' religious significance less in national triumph than in personal triumphs of its citizens. In doing so, they critiqued the earlier Westerns and shifted from what Martin E. Marty has called the “priestly” to the “prophetic” form of civil religion. Their impatience with the older Westerns' use of civil religion also paralleled theological critiques of the popular Christianity of the 1950s.
- © 2012 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture