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August 6, 2015: The first debate of the 2016 presidential election season closed on a high note, with a final question allowing the Republican candidates to offer personal benedictions to the raucous evening. Before presenting their closing statements, candidates were asked to respond to a viewer’s query whether they had “received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”
How such a question — explicitly religious, implicitly Christian, and presuming much about both God and politicians — came to be asked and fervently answered in a presidential debate is explained in Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Kruse’s subject is not the rise of the religious right, but rather the rise of a religiously civic America that the right (and left) have enshrined. Narrating the relatively recent prehistory of the hallowed phrase “one nation under God” and other articles of American civil religion, Kruse excavates key moments in twentieth-century America that set the stage for this inaugural Republican debate. Preachers and presidents, media moguls and movie stars, Supreme Court justices and Bible salesmen all feature in this tale that moves from suburban Detroit to Hollywood. Despite this panoramic cast, Kruse’s narrative is tightly focused. He sets out to explain how Americans came to be — or at least came to believe themselves to be, with hands over hearts — “one nation under God.”
Kruse argues that a confluence of faith, freedom, and free enterprise lies behind the invention of “one nation under God” in postwar America. While historians often cite anti-communist sentiment and the threat of the USSR to explain the heightened clamor for public religiosity in the United States, Kruse locates the roots of this phenomenon in an earlier opposition to state power and big government.
Beginning at the tail end of the Great Depression, Kruse depicts how business executives struggling to regain influence in American society enlisted clergy in a massive public relations campaign to oppose the New Deal. Together, this cohort preached a gospel of free enterprise and personal responsibility, proclaiming “freedom under God” — and thus, freedom from government — as a sacrosanct feature of the American spirit. Their efforts produced what Kruse terms “Christian libertarianism,” a rhetoric and ideology that had unintended consequences in the American political landscape. Though its original purpose was to limit the reach of big government, this language wound up promoting religion more than free enterprise as the rallying standard of patriotism.
During the Eisenhower presidency, this patriotism generated a political culture in which religiosity was the valued currency, coming in unmarked denominations of generically Christian, Judeo-Christian, or a “universal” monotheism. From the birth of the National Prayer Breakfast, to the literal coinage of “In God We Trust” as America’s official motto, to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, this public religiosity took root throughout society. Kruse shows how even the mid-century legal debates over school prayer and the Bible — debates which ostensibly limited religion in the public square — secured the presence of this new religiosity in American civic culture.
Though his narrative ends in the Reagan years, an epilogue brings it into the present, showcasing the continuation of this public religiosity into twenty-first century presidential politics and broader civic culture. Kruse concludes with thoughts on the meaning we should take from this phenomenon and its history. The recovered lineage of “one nation under God” shows its origins to be less sacred, more profane. It therefore belies any primordial basis of American identity in faith. Though Kruse does not deny the rhetoric of “one nation under God” a place in the contemporary American lexicon of identity, he contends that its primacy of place is challenged by its genealogy. Only by allowing this genealogy to influence how and whether we employ this rhetoric in current discourse might we be able to begin to approach what constitutes American identity and decide what faith, if any, guides it forward.
Kruse’s subtitle, which claims that corporate America invented Christian America, has drawn some flak for its bombast. As a narrative overlay, it sometimes seems to overreach. Connecting these disparate events, figures, and societal transformations into a single movement requires significant work on his part as narrator. Nonetheless, there are important contributions One Nation Under God has to offer.
Most notably, Kruse sheds light on a central tension in twentieth-century America: how the nation’s dealings with religion in the public square effectively separated church and state, while cementing piety in politics. The challenges posed by the new public religiosity led the courts to affirm the secular neutrality of the law. At the same time, the American people, partisan politics, and national practice ascribed to the nation a faith and inscribed it on buildings, coins, hearts, and minds. Thus, while America became more secular, it also became more religious, with this religiosity not simply suggesting a faithful citizenry, but rather imparting a faith to the state itself. Kruse’s narrative depicts the paradox of a secularizing nation taking on a believing identity and officially proclaiming “In God We Trust.”
One dynamic Kruse uncovers in this paradox is the shifting relationship of civic religiosity to institutional religion. Kruse’s text is replete with observations showing how the growth of civic religiosity did not necessarily coincide with the revitalization of the institutional religions on which it was based. In the course of his text, Kruse depicts the creeds and clergy of established institutional faiths gradually falling out of favor in the face of this new form of civic religiosity. As the basis for religiosity moves out of “the church” and into popular culture, politics, and the public square, we see civic religiosity reshaping institutional religion and the privilege of place it has in society.
As witnessed by the prominence of leaders such as Billy Graham in One Nation Under God, new evangelical revivalism complemented the new public religiosity. The divergence of civic religiosity from institutional religion and the cleavage that opens up between them is abetted by this new evangelicalism and may, in fact, be one of the critical highlights of the book. It is in the gap between civil religion and institutional religion — a discernible gap, yet one defined by fuzzy boundaries — where Kruse’s text has much to say, to the study of religion as both a category and as a reality in American public life.
Kruse’s attention to atheists in One Nation Under God illustrates this point. The atheist presence and absence in his narrative reads like a photo negative for the confluence of the secular and the religious in America. The inability of atheists to enter fully into the American public arena reveals not only the stronghold of religiosity in public life, but also the false dichotomy of religious and secular, the false equivalency of secular and atheist, and the conflation of piety and patriotism in Christian America.
Likewise, Kruse’s detailed recounting of the Regents’ Prayer shows how public religion changed the commonplace understanding of religion in America. Composed by the New York Board of Regents for use in public schools, this prayer raised the question of what a prayer actually is, and whether — once stripped of any specifically Christian language — it carries religious meaning. It raised the question of when and whether the wall of separation between church and state has been breached. The opposition of religious leaders (Christian and Jewish) to the Regents’ Prayer for fear of watering down their beliefs clashed with the support of the Regents’ Prayer by many religious laypeople. This was not the only instance of tension between clergy and their congregants, and Kruse shows how these repeated conflicts led many laypersons to embrace public religiosity as representative of their spirituality over against established religious institutions and leaders. This development signaled the migration of religious authority, but also its dissolution, given that public religion is “emptied” of religious content.
In exploring the rise of Christian America, Kruse probes the boundaries between church and state. He questions the assumed identification of “Christian” with “religious” and reveals the evolution of religion in modern American consciousness, history, and politics. In Kruse’s telling, public religiosity proves to be a litmus test for what does and does not count as “religious” — as properly belonging to the church, and not the state—in American society.
At the same time that these shifts were happening, a broad movement deeply related to American civic religiosity was underway, a movement that Kruse fails to adequately address. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement and the issue of racial inequality occupied the national public square. Leaders, rank and file members, and the numerous martyrs of this movement invoked some of the very same language and ideals Kruse considers. Though they did not seek to enshrine Christian libertarianism, their actions, arguments, and legacy promoted the idea of the American people having a faith and future grounded in a religious hope, guided by a Christian God.
How and why do leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, not fit into the narrative of the birth and development of Christian America? King and the movement he shaped approached America as one nation under God not merely as rhetoric, but as reality, to the point of death. Through nonviolent resistance and an ethic of love, they sought to transform the nation into a religious vision: the table of brotherhood where all are welcome. Their embrace of public religiosity sprang from different roots than that of the corporate cohort Kruse considers, but their influence on the development of American civil religion is difficult to overstate. A Christian minister, King is the only non-military figure memorialized on the National Mall, the pantheon of American civil religion.
The exclusion of opponents to the Civil Rights Movement also proves this point. Segregationists, white supremacists, and their allies synthesized their own compound of religiosity and patriotism to promote racial exclusion and defend a white Christian vision of the body politic. When advanced by certain communities and organizations, “Christian America” often functioned as a cipher for “white America.” Kruse briefly acknowledges this with a few passing remarks recognizing that disgruntled segregationists rallied around the new public religiosity, but leaves others to develop his observation.
The fault lines of religion, race, and partisan politics underwent seismic shifts in the era Kruse considers, at precisely the same time that Christian libertarianism arose and gathered steam. Examining this would complicate the narrative Kruse tells. It would show the roots of Christian America lie not only in the fight over free enterprise but also in the fight over civil rights. Kruse’s decision to not engage this aspect is a missed opportunity, and a particularly curious one given his previous scholarship on white flight, suburbanization, and segregation in a cosmopolitan hub of the Bible Belt. That the Civil Rights Movement and issue of race are intimately related to a Christian public religiosity yet remain unaddressed in Kruse’s narrative hints at the incompleteness of his genealogy. An important branch of Christian America’s family tree is missing.
This acknowledged, One Nation Under God does show how corporate America contributed to the rise of Christian America. Kruse’s text depicts that development and more. His genealogy of public religiosity recounts how piety became expected in the American political landscape. Through his narrative, we recover the history of the idea of Christian America and gain insight into the antics around religion in contemporary presidential debates. Kruse suggests in his epilogue that this insight influence the meaning we make regarding public religiosity today.
His overarching aim is to historicize the phenomenon of American patriotic piety, to show that America as “one nation under God” was born circa 1948, not 1776. In this, he is successful; yet, the question of how and whether a historicized perspective is useful is still up for discussion. The utility of historicized perspectives in matters of religious meaning and identity is tricky (as anyone who has reckoned with the historical Jesus knows), and for those Americans who find meaning in this brand of public religiosity, more questions loom. As a text that raises more questions than it answers, One Nation Under God is a compelling and important read, for scholars and non-scholars alike.