Tag Archives: One Nation Under God

OUR FAITH HAS BEEN “TAMED AND TRIVIALIZED”

More on Tuesday’s gathering of evangelical leaders and activists with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee:

First, Yahoo News has posted a transcript of an audio recording of the gathering.  I encourage you to read through the entire document with care.

Second, I thought that Michael Gerson’s Washington Post editorial regarding the meeting was absolutely first-rate.  Gerson, a Wheaton alum and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the most insightful evangelical commentators on contemporary American politics.  Please read his latest op-ed, which expresses more eloquently than I could the discouragement and disappointment that we are both feeling.  Here is just a sampling:

. . . we are seeing a group focused on the rights and privileges of their own community, rather than the welfare of others — the poor, struggling and vulnerable. Many in that room do wonderful good works. But they have reduced Christian political involvement to a narrow, special interest — and a particularly angry and unattractive one. A powerful source of passion for social justice — a faith that once motivated abolitionism and various movements for civil and human rights — has been tamed and trivialized.

. . . Evangelical Christian leaders, motivated by political self-interest, are cozying up to a leader who has placed bigotry and malice at the center of American politics. They are defending the rights of their faith while dishonoring its essence. Genuine social influence will not come by putting Christ back into Christmas; it will come by putting Christ and his priorities back into more Christians.

One Nation Under GodFinally, for those of you with the time and appetite for a serious work of history that would place what we’re seeing in a larger context, I would recommend One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin Kruse.  I reviewed this book at length when it came out last year.  I don’t agree with all aspects of Kruse’s argument about the origins of popular belief that the United States is a Christian nation, but his book is chock-full of insights that might help us think historically and Christianly about the present moment.

Particularly chilling is Kruse’s recreation of the Nixon White House and that president’s shameless manipulation of gullible evangelicals.  Nixon held worship services once a month or so in the East Room of the White House, and he regularly used them to court influential donors, influence key congressional votes, and promote a partisan agenda generally.  Evangelical leaders who accepted the president’s invitation to take part were uniformly convinced of Nixon’s sincerity dismissed charges that the religious services were political.  The reality was rather different.  Kruse quotes Nixon aide Charles Colson, who later experienced a dramatic conversion to faith in Christ and repented of his role in Nixon’s administration:

Sure, we used the prayer breakfasts and church services and all that for political ends.  One of my jobs in the White House was to romance religious leaders.  We would bring them into the White house and they would be dazzled by the aura of the Oval Office, and I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups that we worked with.

Colson arriving at federal district court in Washington, D.C. to be sentenced for obstruction of justice in connection with the Watergate scandal, June 1974

Colson arriving at federal district court in Washington, D.C. to be sentenced for obstruction of justice in connection with the Watergate scandal, June 1974

Regarding the East Room worship services specifically, Colson elaborated:

We turned those events into wonderful quasi-social, quasi-spiritual, quasi-political events, and brought in a whole host of religious leaders to [hold] worship services for the president and his family–and three hundred guests carefully selected by me for political purposes.

More broadly, Kevin Kruse’s careful study points out all of the ways during since the mid-twentieth century that arguments for America’s Christian identity have been intertwined with other commitments, whether to capitalism, patriotism, anti-communism, or eventually, to the Republican Party.  The entire book is a huge cautionary tale.  If only we could get some of the evangelicals at Tuesday’s gathering to read it.

DID CORPORATE AMERICA REALLY INVENT CHRISTIAN AMERICA?

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.

One Nation Under GodThe 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.