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When the Supreme Court adjudicated on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in June 2014, two dominant powers in American life came into sharp focus: Christianity and capitalism. Ruling that a “closely held corporation” could have the status of a person that could exercise religion, the Court decided that the religious rights of a corporation came before the economic and health needs of its employees.
Defenders of this ruling hailed it as a victory for both corporate and Christian America. Its ramifications extended beyond the narrow scope of the decision. Soon, individuals and small business owners began asserting their rights as Christians to deny service to customers and citizens on religious grounds: bakers in several states refused to provide cakes to same-sex weddings; a county clerk in Kentucky denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples; pharmacists in several states have refused to fill prescriptions for birth control. A growing libertarian movement joined with the right in protesting government regulations as creeping “socialism” that threatened not only free enterprise, but religious freedom as well. Many promoters of these views are working-class and middle-class Americans who have identified both Christianity and free market capitalism as essential American values.
The way we tell the story of religion and power in the United States helps to shape our understanding of historical and social change. This story, as I have outlined it here, is a top-down narrative of a broad, national legal decision having widespread local effects on religious practice and identity. Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America is a history of American religion and economy that reflects this understanding of social change, and shares in both the virtues and vulnerabilities of this approach.
In great detail and with great precision, Kruse exposes the history of corporate leaders marketing the idea of Christian America, recruiting influential religious leaders as spokesmen for their product. Kruse’s primary innovation is to overturn the conventional interpretation that makes Cold War anxieties over communism responsible for a revival of nationalist Christianity in the 1950s. He contends that a domestic enemy a few decades earlier motivated this religious turn. The New Deal posed a challenge to both corporate interests and a capitalist reading of Christianity. By the time of the Cold War,” corporate leaders had already laid the foundations of a Christian America. The fruits of their labor were manifold: President Eisenhower’s public embrace of a “ceremonial deism,” popular rhetoric of Christianity as a fundamental part of the “American way of life,” and the inscription “In God We Trust” on our money.
Kruse’s narrative is instructive about the roots of the deep entanglements of capital, nationalism, and Christianity in the twentieth century. It is sure to cause scholars to rethink our stories about the religious history of the last century, and teachers to retool our classes. To cite one example, Billy Graham will remain an important figure, but he will have to be contextualized as a character in a larger drama that was not simply about Christian salvation and innovative preaching but also about corporate interests that sought to redefine the relationship between capitalism, American individualism, and evangelical Christianity’s emphasis on individual salvation.
In many respects, Kruse’s book is a testament to the insights of the “new” scholarship on capitalism that looks beyond traditional boundaries of economic history to interrogate capitalism’s entanglements with social, cultural, and political histories. It is also a reflection of trends within American religious history that regard distinctions between “religion” and “the secular” as problematic at best. The cross-cutting stories of influence between religion, commerce, and politics ring true.
In our time as in the past, they form a messy intersection rather than neatly divided avenues. Here the advice to “follow the money” pays off. Business leaders and their clerical allies mobilized religious rhetoric and institutional influence for the express purpose of promoting free enterprise and corporate power. The book thus goes a long way to explain the convergences of religion, capitalism, and politics that episodes like the Burwell decision reveal: the current synthesis of corporate and Christian is the product of an intentional process.
Kruse tells a story about the power of money to shape politics and identity.
One Nation Under God thus represents a type of history that propels the world it describes. Kruse portrays a world where men with big visions and lots of money can transform the country’s understanding of itself and its relationship to religion and capitalism. It is, then, a story about the power of money to shape politics and identity.
In framing the story in this way Kruse (perhaps unwittingly) ratifies the judgment that the rich and powerful determine history. He depicts political and commercial leaders making history by spending money and exerting influence, without exploring the mechanisms that created traction for their campaign outside the circles of their production. What compelled the rest of the population to internalize these ideas? That is, once corporate interests produced these ideas, what did others make of them? How did working and middle class Americans come to embrace the corporate invention of Christian America? Granted, these are not Kruse’s questions. But one of the benefits of reading his book is that it provokes new inquiries for the study of religious history.
Reading One Nation Under God alongside other recent studies of Christianity and commerce in the United States presents intriguing possibilities for exploring these questions further. For instance, Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise analyzes how the changing economy of the late twentieth century and changing emphases in evangelical Protestantism helped to blur the distinctions between functions in the service economy and conceptions of Christian service and family nurtured in certain American religious subcultures. As the meaning of work changed, Wal-Mart began representing retail labor and consumption in a way that uplifted conceptions of authenticity, caring, and other Christian American values. In other words, local factors helped shape the ways that local populations related to and interpreted religious ideas and economic concerns.
Moreton’s attention to gender, class, and a changing workplace goes a long way toward helping her readers to understand the new religio-economic landscape. Readers are able to see the considerations that local populations have made in response to particular environmental, cultural, and economic situations. These communities are not merely passive recipients of the inventions of corporate America, but participants constructing and mobilizing these rhetorics and identities for themselves. Combining Kruse’s and Moreton’s stories would help us understand how local histories intersect with the corporate invention of Christian America, how particular communities relate to national ideas, and how religion and economy are lived in relation to complex entanglements that individuals and communities actively negotiate.
Another recent study of the intertwining of evangelical Protestantism, capitalism, and conservative politics, Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, details the transformation of Southern evangelical migrants to California into the conservative voting bloc that we recognize today. Again, like Moreton’s, it is a story that overlaps with Kruse’s narrative but is told from the bottom up.
Changing identities, class markers, and evangelical positions meet political and corporate interests in particular circumstances, finding affinity and common cause. For instance, Southern evangelicals who moved to southern California carried with them particular religious and class identities that evolved in their new location. In California they encountered new alignments of religion and politics, creating an identity crisis that led them to adopt a more conservative political outlook. The new economic possibilities that they found in their new home brought evangelicals into alliances with business and intellectual conservatives.
Like Moreton’s Wal-Mart clerks, Dochuk’s evangelicals were able to find affinity between their own concerns and those voiced by the corporate “Christian America” movement in local contexts. Both groups shared the rhetoric of Christian identity, pro-free enterprise, and anti-federal control. But both came to these views from different experiences and reasons. It is worth noting that such common causes contain tensions and contradictions that are not always self-evident.
Both these studies point to avenues of research beyond the scope of Kruse’s book. He presents a detailed story of the corporate invention of Christian America, but neglects to explain why anybody in America — except for capitalist and conservative political interests, that is — would buy that invention.
Another aspect of this development complicates the story and underscores the need for further analysis. Many of the corporate and religious leaders behind the Christian America movement were staunchly anti-labor. Christian America was backed by executives such as Charles White, the president of Republic Steel Corporation, under whose tenure ten striking workers were shot dead by police in 1937.
The architect of the national prayer breakfasts, Abraham Vereide, actively opposed labor strikes in San Francisco and Seattle in the 1930s and organized prayer meetings for businessmen and ministers. His goal was to “revive the spiritual life in commerce,” stop what he saw as the socialization of labor and the economy, and get workers back under control. Vereide is one of the primary characters of Kruse’s story, and the founder of “The Family,” the politically powerful fundamentalist Christian group that Jeff Sharlet investigated in The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Both his influence on the creation of Christian America and his opposition to organized labor cannot be overstated.
James Fifield, whose Spiritual Mobilization laid the groundwork for recruiting religious leaders to embrace corporate interests, media products, and financing, was himself motivated by his opposition to labor mobilization and what he saw as the “collectivization” of America. Billy Graham, who carried on Fifield and Vereide’s advocacy, was likewise anti-labor. Kruse records that Graham declared in 1952 that “the Garden of Eden was a paradise with ‘no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.’ The minister insisted that a truly Christian worker ‘would not stoop to take unfair advantage’ of his employer by ganging up against him in a union. Strikes, in his mind, were inherently selfish and sinful.” Government involvement in the economy, including any sort of economic regulation was “socialism,” Graham believed, and socialism led inescapably to atheism.
So the corporate invention of Christian America was at its core anti-labor. The vision of a free market Christian America was also opposed to the rights and interests of labor to bargain collectively, protest working conditions, or propose regulations. How, then, did we get to where we are today, where working people have internalized and embraced a laissez-faire vision of Christian America? Just because corporate leaders could create this ideal hardly ensured that it would reshape the political and religious landscape. Yet it did. Some of the loudest and proudest mobilizers of this sentiment are working-class Americans. In Kruse’s narrative, the corporate construction of Christian America was re-formed by Eisenhower, disembedding it from its libertarian foundation. But then the language was taken back by populist elements in social conservatism after the Nixon years.
How did a corporate creation become a popular movement? How did working people come to see corporate interests as their own? How did the anti-labor perspectives of the founders of Christian America become a popular orientation of laboring people? This is the fuller story of the creation of Christian America, and it’s a story that is only partially told by Kruse’s history. Its full telling will require cultural and social theory, a broader archival base, and an interest not only in money, influence, and ideas, but also in media reception, networks of local, regional, and national identity. In short, it will require appreciation for how people draw on diverse cultural resources — including religion — to “make something” of the experiences of everyday life and the forces that shape their worlds. To be sure, some of those resources are corporate productions, marketed and mobilized in strategic ways. But people take them up in ways that may go beyond the intentions of their producers.
Perhaps the mobilization of working-class conservative Christians on political and economic matters is a sign that corporate America and conservative think-tanks have won the battle of ideas. The aftermath of Burwell seems to suggest as much, and Kruse’s narrative helps to explain the roots of this alignment. But local struggles over identity, economic agency, religious community, demographic change, political expediency, and media reception can go beyond Kruse’s history to illuminate why and how people in particular places have consumed and exploited elite ideas as they have.