Kevin Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University. In April his new book comes out: One Nation under God and his provocative thesis is: “How Corporate America Invented Christian America.” Perhaps the book should be required reading for people in both parties, especially as we gear up for the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In the middle of the 20th century, Kruse argues, corporate titans and evangelical activists rewrote U.S. history and created a pervasive misunderstanding that America was, is, and always will be a fundamentally Christian nation.
As Kruse argues, the belief that America is fundamentally and formally a Christian nation originated in the 1930s when businessmen enlisted religious activists in their fight against President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Corporate leaders from General Motors to Hilton Hotels poured funds into conservative clergymen, and encouraged them to attack FDRs New Deal as a program of “pagan statism.” So began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity in opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal.
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders launched a new American ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal government libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting the ideology’s appeal in conferences and PR campaigns. Generous funding came from General Motors, U.S. Steel, and DuPont; and prominent businessmen like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag, and Henry R. Luce.
Following WWII, their “freedom under God”campaign led to the election of their ally Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.
Ironically, however, in President Eisenhower’s hands, a corporate-religious movement created in opposition to the government became instead a national campaign that fused faith and the federal government in ways never seen before.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower revolutionized the role of religion in American political culture; and created new American “traditions” like inaugural prayers and National Prayer Breakfasts. In 1952, Billy Graham went to Washington and made Congress his congregation. Congress happily collaborated and added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and made “In God We Trust” the country’s first official motto. Active church membership rose to an all-time high of 69%; and for the first time, Americans began to think of their country as an officially Christian nation. (Often forgetting of course increasingly active Jewish Americans.)
Kevin Kruse is a respected historian. Books such as his are invitations for further study, reflection, and discussion. I suspect, however, that many people will find his book, One Nation Under God, more than a bit provocative as it details an unholy alliance of money, religion, and politics that continues to define and divide contemporary Americans, now so anxious about alien theocratic movements within Islam.