Kevin Kruse’s Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America is an engaging and important book with a somewhat misleading central argument.
Kruse explains how many things Americans take for granted came to be: the presence of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the adoption of “In God We Trust” as a national motto, the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “may God bless America.” Although “In God We Trust” has a longer history, many elements of American civil religion have their roots not in the American founding but in the more recent past.
Nor did expressions of public piety bubble up from the pews. Instead, a coalition of politically conservative business leaders forged ties with likeminded ministers, evangelists, and politicians to fight against New Deal liberalism, Communism, and immorality. Kruse describes their agenda as “Christan libertarianism.” Many individuals played leading roles in this cause: the Congregationalist minister James Fifield, Goodwill Industries founder Abraham Vereide, philanthropist J. Howard Pew, Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney. But the two foremost heroes (or villains, depending on your perspective) were Dwight Eisenhower and Billy Graham.
What Under God’s book jacket describes as an “unholy alliance” succeeded, but only in part. This coalition of sometimes strange bedfellows helped elect Eisenhower (and later Richard Nixon and Reagan), but the genial man from the Abilene clapboard house ultimately had no interest in dismantling the New Deal. According to Eisenhower, those who attempted to scrap Social Security, unemployment insurance, and labor laws were “stupid.” (Contemporary Republicans might be wise to take note).
Eisenhower did, however, preside over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. He prayed at his own inaugural, was baptized shortly after taking office, opened cabinet meetings with a time of usually silent prayer, and attended a National Prayer Breakfast organized by Abraham Vereide and Senator Frank Carlson (a Republican from Kansas).
With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Very few Americans opposed such steps. Civil liberties groups were far more worried about the actions of Joseph McCarthy. Many Jews felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity. Most Americans did not think the government’s general promotion of religion conflicted with the separation of church and state.
Soon, however, this “crusade” (a term Eisenhower had used for his presidential campaign) almost inevitably overreached. A constitutional amendment to declare that the United States “devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations” went down to defeat. And by the early 1960s, the prior consensus about public religion was crumbling. Although many public school districts had long organized prayer and Bible reading, the introduction of such practices in new places led to lawsuits, and the Supreme Court struck them down as unconstitutional.
Going forward, Americans found themselves bitterly divided about the place of religion in public life. When Billy Graham organized an “Honor America Day” event in 1970 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, antiwar protesters frolicked in the reflecting pool, some of them in the nude. Instead of providing a source of spiritual renewal and national consensus, the idea that the United States is “one nation under God” became a partisan and divisive idea, the bastion of evangelicalism and the Republican Party. Evangelical activists mobilized to amend the Constitution to defend prayer, and Republican politicians advanced their own careers by supporting such efforts.
At the same time, the controversies caused some Americans to embrace a more complete separation of church and state. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who had once declared that Americans were “a religious people whose institutions presuppose the existence of a Supreme Being,” penned the Engel v. Vitale decision that struck down school prayer and wondered if other intersections of religion and civic life were likewise unconstitutional.
Americans and the Supreme Court remain divided on such matters. In 2014, the Court ruled that a town council could permit chaplains to open its sessions with prayer. It was a 5–4 decision.
An Older Myth
Kruse is certainly correct to argue that the 1950s outpouring of government-sponsored public religiosity was the culmination of a longer-term effort by businessmen and anti-New Deal Protestants. Whether or not this represents an “unholy alliance,” of course, probably hinges on whether one regards “big business” or “big government” as a greater threat to individual freedom.
Kruse, though, incorrectly implies that the idea of “Christian America” is a construction of a few pivotal decades in the mid-20th century. “There once was a time during which virtually all Americans agreed that their country was a Christian nation,” he explains, adding that this “period of consensus was much more recent and much more short-lived than most assume.” Kruse is right to suggest that the still-popular-among-evangelicals idea of a “Christian founding” is more myth than history. Even so, this myth is of a much longer vintage. Indeed, from the earliest days of the American republic, concerned Protestants sought to preserve it from irreligion (as in the French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson’s alleged atheism) and religious pluralism (in the form of 19th-century Catholics and Mormons).
Most 19th-century and early-20th-century Americans would have affirmed that the United States was a “Christian nation,” even if they would have disagreed bitterly about the meaning of that phrase. Nor were public displays of generic (or even Christian) religiosity new, though they took on new forms during the Eisenhower administration. Moreover, the general alliance of Protestant revivalism and big business dates back at least to the era of Dwight L. Moody.
Of course, these observations do not mean that intersections of religion and government (whether introduced in the 1790s or 1950s) should necessarily continue in a more religiously pluralistic United States. Nor do they detract from Kruse’s powerful narrative. He carefully provides the behind-the-scenes story of key moments in the history of religion and American politics, from the Eisenhower inaugural to the church services in the Nixon White House. While the Christian-libertarian alliance was not very successful in advancing its political agenda on the national level, it was remarkably effective in creating a reliable set of Republican voters across a half-century. Even those sympathetic to evangelicalism and conservative politics will find certain aspects of the story unseemly.
John G. Turner teaches religious studies at George Mason University. He blogs at The Anxious Bench.