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Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God offers the straight scoop you won’t hear in high school history class. Put simply: religion is the third rail of American ideology. And despite its controversial claims on American mission and identity, it’s inseparable from American politics and economics.
Kruse makes this case by detailing the rise of Christian libertarianism, which “advanced a new blend of conservative religion, economics and politics.” This particular concoction vaunted the “individualistic ethos,” and according to its backers — corporate and religious leaders in the 1940s and 1950s — generated a fruitful harvest in the free market economy, political democracy, and conservative Christianity.
An erudite yet accessible writer, Kruse uncovers dimensions of mid-twentieth century history missing from our textbooks and media narratives. We all know that the press discovered evangelicalism during Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. But how many of us were taught that Franklin D. Roosevelt “drew on spiritual themes and imagery throughout his career” and gave speeches “that were essentially sermons rather than statements of policy”? Likewise, while the consensus has been that Dwight Eisenhower’s famous quote, “our form of government makes no sense unless it’s founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is,” telegraphed his wishy-washy views on faith, Kruse shows that the conventional interpretation is a serious mistake. Eisenhower was not implying that religious particularity is unimportant; rather he was suggesting that religion retained its power despite America’s universalist premise. According to Kruse, our 34th president was a profoundly spiritual man who believed religion had an important role to play in the public arena.
Kruse’s project, however, is not just to show the entwined strands of religion and politics but to establish the recent provenance of the proposition that the United States is a Christian nation. Rather than a fundamental doctrine of the Founding Fathers, as conservatives claim, “Christian America” is a mid-twentieth century invention by corporate leaders who, in league with sympathetic clergy, sought to roll back the New Deal and end the welfare state. Their plan was to convince the American public that religion, patriotism, and the free market economy were mutually constitutive. In Kruse’s recounting, their campaign successfully seeded the religious revival of the 1950s. His reading challenges conventional notions that the mid-century religious renaissance was a reaction to the Cold War and Communism. Moreover, it contends that the notion of a Christian nation, a bulwark of current presidential campaigns that seek to restore the Founders’ vision, was actually a plutocratic tour de force of more recent origin.
Kruse tells an important story, and it does not disparage his accomplishment to note that it’s not the whole story. In today’s commercial publishing environment, historical books are circumscribed as much to hit their publishers’ 80,000-word limit as to hold their readers’ interest. They tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end (and an epilogue that ideally reverberates into the present moment). One Nation Under God begins in the 1940s and ends in the 1970s with a coda noting its ramifications for today. Within that framework, Kruse makes a strong a case for the mid-century construction of “the one nation under God” mentalité.
The burst of religiosity in the 1950s, he argues, led legislators to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and inscribe “In God We Trust” on our currency. His thesis also explains how popular support coalesced around Ronald Reagan’s program of limited government, welfare reform, union-busting, and deregulation. In fact, the demise of the New Deal and the welfare state, as well as the concomitant realignments of religion, politics, and economics that Kruse’s subjects sought just took a little longer than the pastors and plutocrats had hoped.
Entwined political, economic, and religious allegiances are a longstanding fact of American life. John Winthrop drew on all three when he described their hallowed enterprise to fellow travelers on the Arabella. His shipboard homily, “A Model of Christian Charity” is remembered for its invocation of the Sermon on the Mount’s “city on a hill,” and for almost four centuries, pundits, politicians, and public officials have drawn on Winthrop’s words to remind Americans of their providential calling.
But those early emigrants were as concerned with financial prosperity as they were with freely practicing their brand of Puritanism. As Sacvan Berkovitch notes, many “came to the New World at a time of severe economic depression in England, not only as rebels against Anglican rituals, but equally as youngish (thirty-something on the average), ambitious, mobile professionals who had been enticed by the promises of a chartered profit-seeking corporation.”
Accordingly, Winthrop began by reminding listeners that God had good reasons for creating inequities in wealth, power, and social station. His saints were thus not responsible for making everyone equal, but rather for extending justice, mercy, and, whenever possible, economic assistance — but only after one’s own material security was assured. Winthrop’s charge, and his vision of the nexus of religion, politics, and economics, was the establishment of a holy society that bound citizens in Christian love to serve God, watch over one another, and pursue financial rewards.
Subsequent generations reformulated Winthrop’s mix to fit contemporaneous ideas about God, society, and success. Thus, the Christian nation looked different in the Jacksonian Era than it did during the postbellum period or the Progressive Era, as Lincoln Mullen points out. But make no mistake, throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, a majority of American Protestants believed themselves to be living under God in a Christian nation. They may not have pledged to it daily or engraved it on their dollar bills, but they knew it from reading school primers, following Blue Laws, and listening to their leaders. They also acted on it when espousing anti-Catholic sentiments and prohibiting Jews from their hotels, clubs, colleges, and communities. Protestantism has been Americans’ lived religion since the Colonial era, and its undercurrents have inescapably swept up Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and even atheists who have come to accept Sunday as a day of rest and Christmas as a national holiday.
This raises the question: Was the Christian nation invented by Kruse’s moguls and ministers substantively different than early iterations? I leave that query for armchair historians and their professional counterparts to decide. But for me, the interesting turn takes place just when Kruse ends his story. In Kruse’s narrative, the “Christian nation” that arose in the 1950s falls victim to the culture wars that began in the 1970s. Battles over school prayer, abortion, desegregation, and the Equal Rights Amendment — as well as our role in Vietnam and the legacy of President Richard M. Nixon — pitted Christian against Christian in ways that could not be papered over by anodyne slogans or pompadoured preachers.
Yet the ghosts of the Pews, DuPonts, Huttons, and Maytags — and many other rich and rabid anti-New Dealers — had the last laugh. Their version of the Christian nation may have reached a dead end in the 1970s, but so did Roosevelt’s. FDR’s vision of a city on a hill — manifest in the New Deal, welfare state, and Social Gospel — succumbed to military defeat, economic decline, and social change. What succeeded both in the 1980s was a new constellation of religion, politics, and economics that gave full-throated support to a free market economy.
As a student of American religious history, I am always pleased when scholars outside the discipline have a come-to-Jesus moment and realize that religion is an integral factor in American culture and society. Most recently, historians of American business and politics have heeded the call, and all our scholarship is richer for it. Yet some of those toiling the fields might interrogate what they mean by religion instead of taking it as a given. Likewise, some might consider whether they have approached religion from a functionalist perspective (that is, a tool used for desired aims) or if they have wrestled with its substantive claims. For example, what exact beliefs motivated Kruse’s cast of characters and how did some expressions of faith differ from others? (Knowing something of Abraham Vereide from Jeff Sharlet’s study on The Family, I inferred that he and Eisenhower had less in common than Kruse suggests.)
Last but hardly least, scholars might look at those whom conventional narratives have traditionally glossed over and remember to include them in histories where their stories matter. In his review of Kruse’s book, Darren Grem notes, “the politics of church and state were not indistinct from conflicts over race, structural racism, segregation, privacy rights, and private spaces, from schools to businesses. Here, however, they oddly are.” By ignoring those other lenses, historians like Kruse perpetuate the notion that history is mostly made by a handful of white men in the Boston to Washington corridor.
One of the biggest problems of book reviews is that reviewers are chosen for their expertise. Their familiarity with the topic makes them more qualified to nitpick and quibble. If I had fresh eyes, I would marvel at the conspiracy Kruse has uncovered. Corporate heads, desperate to turn back government initiatives that fetter unbridled expansion and redistribute wealth, form alliances with clergy who trumpet Biblical warrants for capitalism. Together, they promote an agenda that weds patriotism, religion, and free enterprise. Their efforts lead to a surge in church membership and an expressed national concern for ethics, morals, and religiosity. Concurrently, a popular swell of support for a godly government leads to national rebranding: invoking God in the Pledge of Allegiance and printing His name on the currency. It’s an excellent tale and Kruse tells it well. That he tells just a part of it is only to be expected.