One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse. Basic Books 352 pp.
For advocates of the separation of church and state, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the concept of “Judeo-Christian America” is a myth, and a relatively recent one at that. In his latest book, Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse reveals the economic and political roots of its origin story.
Previous entries in this field, including Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods (see the April issue of Church & State) and Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God examine America’s history of religious and intellectual diversity. Kruse takes a slightly different tack. He assumes the reader already understands that the Religious Right’s vision of a monolithically Christian America is false and focuses his time instead on examining the political motivations of that myth’s earliest creators.
It begins, as most political stories do, with money. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal promised to lift working Americans out of the grips of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s progressive policies endeared him to many in the working class, but lots of profit-minded business leaders identified the New Deal as an imminent threat to their economic interests. That put them at odds not only with the president and with workers but with Christian ministers, many of whom largely supported the humanitarian mission of FDR’s reforms.
Disgruntled businessmen identified a solution that established the framework for what we now call the Religious Right: Recruit ministers, and their flocks will follow. Early in the first chapter, Kruse quotes a speech by H.W. Prentis, then the president of the National Association of Manufacturers: “Economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism. The only antidote is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith.”
Prentis and his peers in the business community quickly found allies in the church. Congregationalist minister James W. Fifield Jr., fond of liberal theology and libertarian politics, emerged as their most diligent and effective clergy partner.
Fifield’s tactics should be familiar to any dedicated observer of the contemporary Religious Right. Via his Los Angeles church, he built alliances with prominent Hollywood figures and businessmen. In 1935, he founded Spiritual Mobilization, advertised as a means to encourage “ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends toward pagan stateism, which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.”
In practice, Spiritual Mobilization organized ministers into a formidable grassroots force. They first directed their efforts at the dismantling of the New Deal. But they didn’t stop there: In 1951, the ministers formed the Committee to Proclaim Liberty. Ostensibly, they organized the Committee to hold “Freedom Under God” celebrations marking the Fourth of July.
But these celebrations weren’t just about the founding of our nation. Kruse writes that Committee members were overwhelmingly Republican fiscal conservatives. With help from corporate sponsors, the Committee mailed postcards to tens of thousands of clergy supporters, urging them to celebrate “Independence Sunday” in honor of the holiday in their Sunday sermons. Clergy were specifically encouraged to preach against the dangers of socialism – and for the spiritual reform of government.
Kruse dedicates significant space to dissecting Fifield’s mission and work, and given the influence Spiritual Mobilization and its affiliated organizations eventually wielded over the politics of the era, that makes sense. Fifield married libertarian economics to Christian nationalism and by doing so, created the initial momentum needed to drum up popular support for an America governed by sectarian impulses.
Despite his pivotal role in politicizing American Christianity, the minister isn’t as famous as one of his younger contemporaries: Billy Graham.
Kruse pays special attention to Graham’s relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Graham’s star couldn’t rise without powerful support, and Eisenhower proved a natural ally. The young evangelist played an instrumental role in encouraging the World War II hero to run for president. Once on the campaign trail, Eisenhower didn’t hesitate to insert his personal beliefs into his campaign for the White House.
With the support of Graham, Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization and other financial and spiritual luminaries, Eisenhower secured a landslide electoral victory. After winning the presidency, he continued to seek Graham’s guidance, telling him, “I think one of the reasons I was elected was to help lead this country spiritually.”
In a speech made shortly thereafter, Eisenhower announced that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
Eisenhower backed those pronouncements with demonstrations of what we now typically call “Ceremonial Deism.” In partnership with the Freedoms Foundation – another Christian libertarian group founded by Fifield allies – Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover designed the “Credo of the American Way of Life.”
The credo depicted a tower with “Political and Economic Rights” at the top, and at the bottom, acting as the foundation, “Fundamental Belief in God.” Eisenhower incorporated the credo into his campaign rhetoric, and according to Kruse, even considered erecting a statue of it in Washington, D.C.
The credo may have been symbolic, but its message quickly manifested itself in real policies. As president, Eisenhower attended the first National Prayer Breakfast and continued the National Day of Prayer, first declared by his predecessor, Harry S. Truman. He also signed bills that added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and declared “In God We Trust” to be the national motto.
At the time, these measures largely met with approval from a devout American public. As Kruse notes, organizations like Americans United and smaller groups did raise some concerns about the constitutional implications of “Ceremonial Deism.” But it took legal action to restrict the more blatant violations inherent in the practice.
Kruse recounts in thorough detail the landmark Supreme Court rulings that established public schools as religiously neutral zones. This information is likely familiar to readers of Church & State, so I won’t dwell on it here. Kruse’s handling of these famous legal battles is noteworthy, however, and sets the book apart from other takes on the conflicts in question.
Kruse segues neatly from the rise of a distinctly political Christianity to battles over school prayer. The crusade for Christian America, tirelessly waged by Eisenhower, Graham, Fifield and others, marched inexorably into public schools. Legal battles eventually coalesced around mandatory classroom Bible readings and coercive prayer. Both practices fell well within the precedent established by this proto-Religious Right, but the courts ruled them unconstitutional. Two key rulings, Engel v. Vitale and Abington Township School District v. Schempp, put a definitive end to the official endorsement of Christianity by public schools.
These decisions obviously had important ramifications for religious freedom. But the public backlash to them is arguably just as important. Within the context of the Cold War, secular public schools seemed little removed from the anti-religious communism of the Soviet Union. To Americans who had been won over by Fifield and company’s version of a uniformly Christian and capitalist country, these verdicts attacked a sacred national character.
That fury is likely what kept Spiritual Mobilization from becoming a relic and spurred the formation of the contemporary Religious Right.
To borrow a term from late sociologist Charles Tilly, Fifield and his allies created a repertoire of contention, a sort of tactical script that provided a template for future sectarian activism. The Religious Right’s current incarnation is irrevocably shaped by that repertoire and by the central conflict it espouses: God-fearing free enterprise in endless war with godless collectivism.
Kruse’s book will be an important resource for anyone who wonders why so many fundamentalist figureheads – clergy and politicians alike – promote fiscal conservatism alongside social conservatism. By extension, it also explains why the Religious Right continues to benefit from a remarkable financial war chest. Finally, it provides a timely look at the political origins of Ceremonial Deism and, in the process, undermines claims that the practice isn’t intended to exclude Americans who belong to minority belief traditions or are non-believers.
These lessons are especially valuable right now. The 2016 race for the White House has officially commenced, and the Religious Right’s repertoire is already in play. Perhaps the overarching theme of Kruse’s book is a simple one: Everything old is new again.