The New York Times over the weekend ran a provocative column by Kevin M. Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University, on the origins of the “Christian nation” myth.

Kruse, author of the book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, argues that the “Christian nation” idea really took off in the early 1930s when a band of business leaders endorsed the concept as a way of fighting back against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I haven’t read Kruse’s book, but his Times column is thought-provoking and well argued. It’s worth your time. I was especially interested in Kruse’s use of the term “Christian libertarian” to describe some of the prominent corporate leaders of the “Christian nation” crusade. I’ve had the same thought while attending meetings of Religious Right organizations. At the annual Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC) there’s very little talk these days about religion and theology. Rather, the events have the feel of Heritage Foundation briefings. (In fact, the Heritage Foundation co-sponsors the Summit.)

These events are essentially primers of libertarian economic theory, with the main idea of the FRC these days being not that Jesus is good but that government is always bad. God is still part of their trinity, but the other two figures are President Ronald W. Reagan and Ayn Rand. (Ironically, Rand was an atheist.) At the Summit, Reagan’s name is dropped constantly – Jesus’s, not so much.

Kruse’s ideas are interesting and worth exploring in more detail, but I think there may be more to the story. This July, former Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green will publish a new book titled Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. I received an early copy and read it a few weeks ago. Green, who is now a professor of law at Willamette University in Oregon, argues that the “Christian nation” myth springs from the 1820s, during a time of growing religious piety when a generation that rose up after the Founding Fathers began to cast about for a foundational myth that would link the still-new nation with the Almighty in a profound way.

I think Kruse and Green are both right. The “Christian nation” thesis, it seems to me, rears its head most powerfully during times of change and tension. It’s not surprising that the concept first appeared early in the 19th century. As the growing nation struggled to find its place on the world stage, a belief that the United States was God’s holy experiment and somehow favored by the hand of Providence provided comfort and assurance that what the country and its leaders did was right and good because it was ordained by God. (Even when it wasn’t right – such as our treatment of the Native peoples.)

The concept arose again powerfully during the Civil War (with both sides claiming God’s support) and its aftermath. The belief was that a “Christian nation” would sort through the chaos and secure its destiny and build a new American empire from sea to sea.

During the Great Depression, obviously a time of great upheaval, the “Christian nation” concept flared anew. If Kruse is right, this time it was pressed into service to fend off the rise of centralized, activist government and the “socialism” of the New Deal.

The nation saw a flicker of the concept again during World War II, with some pastors arguing that only a unified “Christian nation” could defeat the Axis Powers. But the idea went into fairly steep decline for many years after that. Kruse notes that President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s religious concepts were much more non-sectarian. Thus, it was blandly ecumenical phrases like “In God We Trust” and “under God” that were pressed into service against the Communists. America’s “civil religion” was born, a concept that is itself not without problems.  

One thing is clear: The “Christian nation” concept does not belong to the Founders. The idea has surfaced from time to time throughout our history, but it can’t be pinned on the men who wrote the Constitution.

For proof of that, we need only read the text of the document itself.