One Nation Under God book cover

Near the beginning of the school year, my third-grade teacher informed our class that we needed to add two new words to the Pledge of Allegiance. The words “under God” were to go between “one nation” and “indivisible.”

This change came just after many of us had finally figured out the difference between indivisible and invisible. At the time, of course, none of us realized that the addition of those two little words to the pledge was merely one small part of a cultural shift that was taking place in America.

This shift, which marked the beginning of an era that continues to this day, when Americans came to believe that their country was and always had been a Christian nation, is the subject of Kevin M. Kruse’s groundbreaking book “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.” Kruse, a history professor at Princeton, not surprisingly sides with the vast majority of his peer scholars in debunking the notion that our founding fathers intended to establish a Christian republic. But his focus here is on a much later era, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the two decades that followed. It was here that Kruse finds the genesis of the notion of America as a nation founded and based on faith in the Judeo/Christian deity.

In seeking the roots of the “Christian America” concept, Kruse focuses on the work of three high-profile conservative evangelical ministers – James W. Fifield, Abraham Vereide, and Billy Graham. By the late 1930s, leaders of the National Association of Manufacturers were trying desperately to rehabilitate the popular image of corporate America. That image had taken a beating throughout the Great Depression and New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt proved a master at using religious imagery in his speeches and “fireside chats” to bolster the social gospel message of his New Deal liberalism.

In Fifield, business leaders found an ideal answer. The popular evangelist gained a wide following with his message of individual responsibility and his rants about the evils of welfare, big government, and socialism. A list of Fifield’s backers reads like a “who’s who” of corporate America. It included such giants as Standard Oil, General Motors, Gulf, Chrysler, National Steel, Firestone, and Colgate. Throughout the 1940s, Fifield’s alliance, known as Spiritual Mobilization, recruited scores of new corporate sponsors and thousands of pro-business clergy. They turned the New Deal’s social gospel on its head with a message that Kruse labels “Christian libertarianism.” Operating under the slogan “Freedom under God,” Fifield’s sermons made it clear that the greatest threat to American liberty came not from Cold War Moscow, but from Washington, D.C. With ample corporate funding, Fifield’s group managed to reframe the Declaration of Independence as “a purely libertarian manifesto,” according to Kruse.

Meanwhile, Seattle evangelist Abraham Vereide, allied with local industrialists, was waging a war against organized labor. His group’s stated goal was “to develop a Christian nation.” Throughout the 1940s, Vereide created a nationwide network of prayer groups. Most of the local groups were sponsored by wealthy businessmen. Vereide’s first national prayer breakfast in Washington D.C. featured politicians from both parties.

Of all the evangelists spreading the gospel of Christian libertarianism, by far the most popular and most influential was Billy Graham. Throughout the 1950s and beyond, Graham’s crusades drew huge audiences in large cities throughout America. Millions more watched on television. Kruse sheds light on the usually ignored close relationship between Graham and billionaire Texas oil tycoon Sid Richardson, whose money helped bankroll Graham’s career. Graham’s message was always conservative, but following a disastrous visit with Harry Truman (the no-nonsense president regarded Graham as a fancy-dressing, arrogant upstart), Graham’s sermons became more political and rabidly anti-liberal.

It was easy for Richardson to persuade Graham to throw his influence behind the presidential candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower. Although Eisenhower grew up in a devout Christian household, the candidate was not particularly religious. He seldom went to church and was not baptized until after he became president. But throughout his candidacy and presidency, Eisenhower labored to turn the nation into a more religious, worshiping place. His so-called “crusade” received enthusiastic spiritual backing from thousands of evangelicals. Vereide’s group labeled him “God’s man.” Their corporate donors followed suit, channeling thousands of dollars into his campaign.

As president, Eisenhower sought to cement the bond between religion and government. The national prayer breakfast became a permanent institution. Hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton granted use of his Mayflower Hotel in the nation’s capital for the weekly events. For the first time cabinet meetings opened with a prayer. The president eagerly signed bills adding the words “under God” to the pledge and making “In God We Trust” the official national motto. For the first time these words were added to America’s paper money and many postage stamps.

Yet even with all of this, Kruse points out, Eisenhower did not come close to achieving the main goal of the conservative preachers and their wealthy backers. He did not end the New Deal welfare state. If anything, his administration legitimatized it by expanding Social Security and other federal programs. And, as Kruse notes, Eisenhower accomplished something even longer lasting: “Unlike Christian libertarians, who had long presented God and government as rivals, Eisenhower had managed to merge the two into a wholesome ‘government under God.’ In doing so, he ironically undercut the key argument of many of his earlier backers, making their old claims about the ‘pagan’ origins of statism seem suddenly obsolete. The state was now suffused with religion, and so it would remain.”

Kruse adds that the new church-state alliance enjoyed bipartisan support. A liberal Catholic Congressman from Detroit was the chief sponsor of the “under God” amendment to the pledge. Montana’s Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield sponsored the bill that added “in God we trust” to postage stamps. Many liberal backers of the separation of church and state clause in the first amendment rationalized these changes by labeling them “ceremonial deism” – a harmless public profession of a vague spirituality.

If Eisenhower’s brand of public religion proved to be a uniting force, the more pronounced religiosity of Richard Nixon had the opposite effect. By the time of Nixon’s inauguration (1969) the nation was deeply divided over the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. The Supreme Court had recently issued a pair of highly controversial decisions against Bible reading and mandatory prayers in public schools. These decisions caused deep rifts even within America’s religious community. Conservatives denounced the Court for removing God from the nation’s schools. Most mainline Protestant church leaders supported the decision, recognizing the important role that separation of government and religion had played in creating an atmosphere for freedom of worship.

Kruse concludes: “As they debated the prayer amendments, both sides came to agree on at least one basic fact: beyond the broad generalities of public religion, their country was not, in any meaningful sense, ‘one nation under God.’ ”

Under Nixon, with Graham’s support, regular Sunday worship services took place inside the White House for the first time in history. Kruse notes how every detail of these services from the ultra-right wing presiding ministers, to the invited guests, to the seating arrangements was carefully orchestrated by Nixon and his minions in order to maximize the political gain. Kruse concludes that no previous president employed religion as a political instrument as effectively as Richard Nixon. Eisenhower’s old bland public religion became “a starkly conservative brand of faith and politics” that only drove Americans further apart.

In a lengthy epilogue, Kruse outlines how every president since Nixon has embraced public religiosity, albeit in divergent ways. Ronald Reagan’s faith was frequently and strongly stated, but of a more generalized type similar to Eisenhower’s. Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both entered the White House with Southern Baptist backgrounds. And even Barack Obama’s famous speech at the 2004 Democratic convention was, according to Kruse, a sermon advocating American unity and a Biblical “love thy neighbor” message.

Future scholars, no doubt, will expand the broad themes Kruse has explored. Others will take issue with some of his conclusions. I feel that he underestimates the role that fear of the “Godless Soviet Union” played in the 1950s religious revival. Yet it is hard to take issue with Kruse’s well-documented, persuasively argued thesis: “The ceremonies and symbols that breathe life into the belief that we are ‘one nation under God’ were not, as many Americans believe, created alongside the nation itself. Their parentage stems not from the founding fathers but from an era much closer to our own, the era of our own fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers.”

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