Forgive me for being away for so long. I don’t know how academics who blog daily (or more frequently!) find enough hours in the day. At any rate, I’ve been up to my eyeballs with work recently. This week has been particularly full, but late this afternoon I was able to slip away to my favorite hideout (the super-cool loft in a café near campus), I’ve just taken my time with a cup of Darjeeling and a slice of chocolate banana bread, and now I get to tell you about one of the last books I read under my tree before duty called me back to the office at the end of the summer.
The book is One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Princeton University professor Kevin M. Kruse. The book came out earlier this year, and I added it to my reading list because I had just finished reading Steven Green’s Inventing Christian America and I had heard just enough about Kruse’s book to believe that it would offer an interesting contrast. Both books are concerned with how Americans came to view the United States as a Christian country, and both books agree that this belief didn’t emerge until long after American independence. Here the similarities end. Green argues that the early decades of the 1800s marked a key turning point, while Kruse concentrates on the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower more than a century later. Both can’t be correct. Both may be wrong. (You can read my review of Green’s book here.)
Boiled down, Kruse’s thesis is that the contention that America is a “Christian nation” is hasn’t been around nearly as long as we think. It began to be promoted by businessmen, of all people, during the Great Depression, for reasons that had little to do with either religious conviction or historical belief. Alarmed by the purportedly anti-business activism of the New Deal, business magnates like E. F. Hutton, J. C. Penney, and Conrad Hilton, among others, began linking capitalism and Christianity, with the not so subtle insinuation that restrictions on free enterprise are un-Christian. By insisting that the United States is a Christian nation, they strengthened their indictment of FDR and his minions, making the New Deal not only un-Christian but also un-American.
In years to come, politicians from both the Left and Right would embrace this rhetoric during the Cold War as a way of differentiating the United States from atheistic communism. During the 1950s, among other symbolic acts, Congress passed bipartisan measures adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency. In doing so, however—and this is a point that the author repeatedly underscores—they were building on an argument crafted for them by the nation’s wealthiest businessmen.
So here are my first impressions, keeping in mind that I am far from an expert on the 1950s: First, I really enjoyed reading the book. It will never be made into a movie, but Kruse writes clearly and without pretentious jargon, and I found myself getting into the story. (And Kruse is telling a story; this is good old fashioned narrative history that follows a clear chronological trajectory). He’s also obviously spent a lot of time in the archives. The research is extensive and meticulous, and I learned a great deal thanks to his labors. If you’re interested in the role that Christian rhetoric and imagery can play in politics, you’ll likely find this book fascinating.
But really liking a book is not the same as being wholly persuaded by it, and I am not persuaded by One Nation Under God. Let me say at the outset that Kruse makes a much more nuanced argument than the subtitle would suggest. The subtitle will help to sell books—and the marketing gurus at Basic Books may be more to blame than the author—but the simplistic assertion that “corporate America invented Christian America” struck me as calculated sensationalism.
Let’s begin with the role played by “corporate America.” Kruse makes a compelling case that by the 1930s a lot of big businessmen were actively defending free enterprise by linking it to Christianity. With regard adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance” and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency, he convinces me that corporate leaders had been suggesting such measures for a couple of decades, and that their motives had a lot to do with restoring the reputation of business during the Depression and making a case against New Deal activism. At the same time, Kruse notes that Dwight Eisenhower—the only president to be baptized while in office—emphasized America’s religious roots out of genuine conviction and firmly believed that religious faith was vital to the nation’s flourishing. The same apparently held true for at least a significant proportion of the congressmen who followed his lead.
I’m more troubled by how Kruse defines the concept of “Christian America.” Kruse’s focus is on officially designated symbols; he places enormous emphasis on the Congressional recognition of the phrases “under God” and “in God we trust.” But the concept of “Christian America,” as used in both academic and popular writing, is usually understood more broadly. Steven Green, for example, dates the “invention” of Christian America to the second generation after the American Revolution. He bases his conclusion not on official Congressional acts but on the claims of religious and political leaders and the opinions of common Americans. For Green, in other words, the concept of “Christian America” was born when a critical mass of Americans began to think of the U. S. in this light. For Kruse, the concept didn’t exist until Congress enacted it.
This approach strikes me as far too rigid. No one can deny that “under God” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, but was this change substantive or symbolic? Did adding “In God We Trust” to currency in 1955 really redefine the nation, or did it institutionalize an already widespread cultural perception? Because Kruse skips over the first century and a half after independence, we can’t really assess how significant these congressional acts were.
I have my doubts. For example, Kruse makes much of the Congressional mandate requiring “In God We Trust” on all money, but the government had begun stamping the phrase on certain coins as early as the Civil War, and had been doing so on all denominations of coins by 1907. Would we really say that the addition of the phrase to paper money—and not just to pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters, etc.—was necessary before we could say that “Christian America” existed? More broadly, there were numerous public practices long before the 1950s that linked the government at least symbolically with a generic Judeo-Christian religion. The authorization of chaplains for the armed forces, presidential thanksgiving proclamations, and invocations of God in inaugural addresses all long predate the period of Kruse’s focus. In sum, while Kruse may be right, I think he needs to do more to persuade us that the changes of the 1950s were as substantive as he claims.
These misgivings aside, I do believe that there is a message in One Nation Under God that American Christians need to hear. Although I’m far from convinced that “corporate America invented Christian America,” Kruse offers compelling proof that during the mid-twentieth century the insistence that the United States had always been a Christian nation became inextricably intertwined with a host of political and ideological commitments that had little to do with the Gospel. In this respect the entire book is a cautionary tale, and well worth the reading.