KEVIN M. KRUSE. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic Books, 2015. Pp. 384. $29.99. Paperback. ISBN: 0465049494.
One Nation Under God is the second book written by Kevin M. Kruse, Professor of History at Princeton University. The work historicizes the rise of religious conservatism in the United States of America from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, with an epilogue that continues the narrative through the early 2000s. Kruse is primarily concerned with tracing the rebranding of Christianity as a “public religion” by Depression-era industrialists. Wealthy business leaders bankrolled conservative ministers to concoct a new mixture of politics and religion that wedded Capitalism to Christianity. Kruse calls this admixture “Christian libertarianism,” and he argues that it subsequently became a central tactic of modern conservativism and the new Republican Party. Kruse is also concerned with the appearance of Christianity on the national stage more generally. He sees public Christianity as peaking during the Eisenhower administration and as still very much alive today, evidenced by the language of our everyday institutions and habits. Finally, by resituating the origins of public Christianity in the 1930s, Kruse is attempting to refute a “conventional historical narrative” that “the spiritual revival of the postwar era was” was a direct reaction to the anxiety-ridden context of the Cold War and the nuclear age.
The narrative begins in the 1930s and 1940s. At this time, “corporate titans enlisted conservative clergymen” in their ongoing propaganda war against the progressive labor and welfare reforms of the New and Fair Deal eras. Basically, these titans of industry came together in organizations like American Liberty League to condemn the federal government for practicing “pagan statism” and advocating “creeping socialism.” They saw the new, welfare liberalism of the age as a direct threat to ideas of American individualism as well as their bottom line. These industrial leaders included the heads of major corporations like General Motors, Chrysler, Republic Steel, National Steel, International Harvester, and more. At first, these leaders advocated their case on purely economic grounds, but their appeals were seen as “mere propaganda.” Then, at a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria luxury hotel in 1940, the head of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), stated, “Economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism. The only antidote,” he continued, “is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith.” And so began the long, incestuous relationship between the Capitalism of corporate America and the conservative Christianity of the public sphere.
The corporate antagonists of the New and Fair Deal eras found their messiahs in celebrity ministers. Electric personalities like James W. Fifield (a kind-of precursor to Billy Graham) added a moral dimension to their economic arguments while also popularizing them through a variety of new media: annual events, monthly publications, radio shows, religious mailings, and more. These ministers had evangelized the merits of free-market capitalism against the “so-called Social Gospel” for decades, but their endorsement by an industrial and conservative coalition propelled them to unprecedented exposure. These preachers forged a vast chain of anti-statist ministers who convinced the public “that America not only should be a Christian nation but also that it had always been one,” despite what the Founding Fathers said about separation between Church and State. By the 1950s, this idea became dominant with Eisenhower, the first president to pray during his inauguration. As Kruse informs us, it was during this administration that the National Prayer Breakfast became a tradition, the words “In God we Trust” were added to U.S. currency and became the nation’s first official motto, the phrase “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and Frank Becker first proposed the School Prayer Amendment.
One Nation Under God is actually very similar in focus (though not necessarily content) to Kruse’s first book, entitled White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. In that book, Kruse demonstrated how certain characteristics of modern conservatism that are generally viewed as having a long history—like “hostility to the federal government and faith in free enterprise”—were actually re-constituted by segregationist resistance to changes in the postwar era. This helps us to explain why the Confederate battle flag only emerged in the Civil Rights era as a cultural symbol for the resistance of a conservative South, and why it was not prominent before then. In One Nation Under God, Kruse is trying to demonstrate something similar with religion, showing that “public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era.” Specifically, it was only in the 1950 and 1960s that American became identified as a Christian nation.
Kruse’s work is exceptional though it does have a few weaknesses. The Great Depression and the New Deal period is presented as an inciting incident to the story but not an era given serious analysis. As such, the masses of “Christian America” are portrayed almost as puppets of an industrial, reactionary coalition that began in the 1930s. However, if we give the New Deal credit for improving both unemployment and the national economy then we may better understand why the masses were more accepting of a capitalist Gospel in the 1950s than they were in the 1930s. In this sense, I am wondering if the success of the New Deal contributed to its own backlash. Having attained relative prosperity and equilibrium, were most people now more willing to criticize the government’s role in society? Did the idea of criticizing welfare become more acceptable among the masses not that most of them had used it to climb out of poverty?
Second, in pushing back against the “Cold War thesis,” Kruse might underestimate both the role that new cultural fears played in the creation of “public religion” (without any real help of corporate America) and the prominence of religion among the public before the 1930s, especially progressive activists. On the first note, conservative businessmen may have re-invented the tactic of domesticating religion for their anti-statist arguments, but, as Kruse acknowledges, “public religion” may just have easily worked against private industry. The idea of “public religion” also worked for progressive activists who wanted government intervention, among them Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps “public religion” joined the conservative pantheon of scare tactics for other reasons. Among these may be broader changes that threatened stability: ideas of Soviet atheism, and new race relations, gender dynamics, and sexual behaviors. Peoples’ reason to fear these changes often had nothing to do with whether they were progressive or conservative or where they stood on government’s relationship to private enterprise. On the second note, Kruse contends that “the percentage of Americans who claimed membership in a church…[was] 16 percent in 1850.” Maybe so, but this misconstrues the actual weight of religion in society. Famous abolitionist works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin were so successful precisely because they invoked religious arguments. The extent to which the population attends regular, religious service is not a measure of its willingness to be moved by moral appeal.
Finally, I wish that Kruse had taken Christianity a little more seriously from a theological standpoint. He could have dissected the sermons of the ministers in more detail, looking not only at the passages they used as well as those they ignored, but comparing them to the Bible itself as a source for free-market and Social Gospel readings. To Kruse, the book is presented as a pick-and-choose text, yet I began wondering whether one claim had merit above the other. If scholars can read the writings of the “Founding Fathers” and conclude they were against the marriage of religion and politics, then cannot scholars try and do the same for the Bible? If this source is different, then what makes it so?
Despite these few critiques, Kruse’s One Nation Under God is an engaging and provocative narrative. The book will force its readers to question the history of Christianity’s relationship to the modern conservative movement in specific, and the American political arena in general. To the extent that religion had always been used to add a dimension of moral righteousness to arguments, it is not surprising that appeals to Christianity remain prominent in our society. Nonetheless, watching modern conservative debates about the “War on Christianity” and hearing President Obama end speeches like Reagan, with “God Bless America,” suggests that something more specific is going on here. For this reason alone, Kruse’s book is worth a read.
Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 7, 73, 36.
Ibid. xiv, 23-24, 14, 87, 20, 4, 6.
Ibid. 5, xiiv, 77-78, 121-124, 207.
Ibid. 294. Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservativism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 10.