Churchgoing peaked in the US in the 1950s with roughly half of Americans attending church regularly in 1955 (by 2021 that number was down to 33%). However, to go by period car ads, the US was almost a completely secular society. Much like smoking, churchgoing was an activity that many participated in at the time, yet was almost never depicted by automakers in their ads.
As with my previous non-trope post on smoking, the handful of ads collected here represent the sum total of ads I could find depicting either a church or the activity of churchgoing: There were no ads that didn’t make the cut. Personally, I find these non-trope posts actually more interesting than my regular ad trope posts, as non-tropes show everyday activities that automakers almost completely ignore in their ads.
As always, I like to start with the earliest example I could find, which in this case is the 1918 Buick ad pictured above. As we shall see, these depictions are used to subtly (almost subliminally) burnish the moral bona fides of the manufacturer and by implication those of potential buyers, but without being so overt as to risk offending any particular group (Jews and agnostics buy cars too, after all).
Along those lines, here we see a 1951 Pontiac parked in front of a building that is clearly a church. The church is non-denominational – No signs and certainly no crosses anywhere to be seen – but it is definitely Christian, probably Protestant. Even the copy in the ad above tiptoes around the subject ever so gingerly, resorting to the codeword “Character” that can vaguely connote religiosity.
This 1959 Edsel ad is even more subtle. The building in the background has a somewhat generic Federalist architecture. Without stained glass windows, a bell tower, or even a sign, the building could plausibly not be a church at all. However, everyone (children included) is dressed up in their Sunday best, so it is pretty clear where they are all walking to and why.
This 1960 Chevrolet is parked in front of a building that is unmistakeably a church. There is even a sign on the left, although the exact denomination of the church in question is purposely obscured. Initially, I thought this ad might be depicting a First Communion, but upon closer examination, the Mom in front of the Impala appears to be attaching angel wings to one of the little girls, so the event being implied is likely something more secular like a school play, costume pageant, or possibly even trick-or-treating.
The church in the background is more of a prop than anything else. In any case, the ad copy is 100% secular Madison Avenue.
Lastly, this 1965 Chevy II ad tiptoes just a tiny bit closer to the religiosity line than any of the other ads I found. The building the people are exiting is clearly a church, complete with stained glass windows. The event they just participated in appears to be a baptism. While the baby that Grandpa is carrying is hard to make out, the fact that all the ladies are fawning over it makes it clear that it is indeed a baby. he is carrying. The ad even goes so far as to mention the word “Sunday.”
While this is as religious as it gets from Detroit, it is still pretty weak sauce. Outside the “Sunday” reference, the rest of the ad copy is pure secular Detroit.