One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

April 13, 2015 by 5 Comments


Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse’s new book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, $29.99), engagingly traces the rise of the Christian Right as a political force in America.

Kruse explores how business interests of the 1930s fought back against the New Deal and, in an attempt to counteract government regulation and oversight, enlisted the aid of religion. This Christian libertarianism “linked capitalism and Christianity and, at the same time, likened the welfare state to godless paganism.”

That movement eventually mutated into something far more powerful. Kruse summarizes this development:
In their struggle against the New Deal, the business lobbies of the Depression era had allied themselves with conservative religious and cultural leaders and, in so doing, set in motion a new dynamic in American politics. The activism of Christian libertarians such as James Fifield and Abraham Vereide had sought to provide the right with its own brand of public religion that could challenge the Social Gospel of the left. But the rhetoric and rituals they created to topple the New Deal lived on long after their heyday, becoming a constant in American political life in the Eisenhower era and beyond.
Much of Kruse’s book centers around the “twin pillars of ceremonial deism,” embodied in the phrases “one nation under God” and “in God we trust.” Kruse traces the history of these mottos as they became central tenets of American identity, dictums that bolstered the notion that America is, and always has been, an explicitly Christian nation, despite their relatively recent entrance onto the public stage.

Billy Graham also plays a pivotal role in the book — his shadow looms large over the modern conflation of religion and politics. Describing his influence in the Nixon White House, Kruse says “His words and deeds helped make piety and patriotism seem the sole property of the religious right.”
Sadly, this legacy still reverberates through modern political discourse. Graham’s 1951 quote about the plight of the poor is a concise summary of the often misguided priorities that still drive the Christian Right: “Their greatest need is not more money, food, or even medicine; it is Christ. Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic conditions.”

One Nation Under God is a historical narrative, not a theological or political treatise. In telling the story of “a national debate about the proper relationships between piety and patriotism, religion and politics, church and state,” Kruse doesn’t take sides, instead letting the individuals involved in these debates speak for themselves.

His goal is to simply remind us of the recent history of our nation’s struggle to balance religious and political life. Regardless of one’s theological or political position, the truth of the matter is, as Kruse lays out in meticulously but readable detail, that “our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era.”

Reading Kruse’s book is both an eye-opening and frustrating experience.

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