Kevin M. Kruse. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic Books, 2015. 384 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-04949-3.
Reviewed by L. Benjamin Rolsky (Drew University)
Published on H-AmRel (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Bobby L. Smiley (Vanderbilt University)
The Businessman's Revival
Once in a blue moon a monograph comes along that both contributes decisively to an ongoing scholarly conversation and introduces its readers to a plethora of little-known documents, archives, organizations, and individuals. Not only does this type of text challenge taken-for-granted historiographic tendencies, but more importantly it also makes conceptual space for those interested in taking up one of the many institutions, individuals, or events encountered in the text as a subject of an undergraduate research paper, graduate seminar paper, or perhaps even a doctoral dissertation. Historian Kevin M. Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America is just this kind of book.
Published with Basic Books, One Nation Under God explores the recent political past of the United States by going back to two of its most iconic moments: the New Deal of the 1930s and the Cold War scares of postwar America. Spread across eight chapters and three major sections appropriately titled, “Creation,” “Consecration,” and “Conflict,” Kruse’s narrative explores a “history that has been hiding in plain sight” (p. xvi). For Kruse, the notion of America being “one nation under God” is a very recent and modern one that has very little to do with the Founding Fathers and everything to do with strategic allegiances between presidential administrations, various corporate leaders, and the entertainment industry. Kruse’s task is to explain why so many Americans have come to believe that the United States has been and always will be a Christian nation. While his evidentiary base is nothing less than impressive, Kruse’s overall argument is less so since it has to span virtually the entire twentieth century while utilizing the ever-useful vignette to illuminate and elucidate his incisive arguments. Executed in this manner, the text relies heavily on individual stories to explain an almost century-long process. As a result, we often hear from the periods’ voices more so than we do from Kruse himself. Regardless, Kruse’s text is a significant contribution to the history of the Christian Right, the Cold War, and the culture wars of the recent past for historians and scholars of American religion.
Kruse’s narrative begins in the tumultuous decades following World War I. Echoing the recent work of American religious historian Matthew Sutton, Kruse argues that “corporate titans enlisted conservative clergymen in an effort to promote new political arguments embodied in the phrase ‘freedom under God’” in the name of “Christian Libertarianism,” a newly emergent strand of Protestant thought that supported a mutually supportive relationship between capitalism and Christianity. For these men, including Congregationalist minister James W. Fifield Jr. who forged many of the early relationships between industrials and ministers, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was nothing less than “pagan statism.” Not only did the New Deal possess totalitarian tendencies because it was federally administered, but it also threatened to suffocate the sanctity of the individual due to its emphasis on social engineering as an outgrowth of the social gospel. Fifield and others responded vociferously by bringing Wall Street and Protestant ministers together through organization building including Spiritual Mobilization, perhaps the most significant product of this religiously rambunctious period. Such individuals and their political leanings lend support to one of Kruse’s most powerful arguments: “These businessmen were alarmed less by the foreign threat of the Soviet Union and more by the domestic menace of liberalism, which had been recently reinvigorated by President Truman’s surprising re-election in 1948” (p. 22). Fifield and others were also willing to use Hollywood’s support for many of their faith drives, including appearances from Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, and even Ronald during their Fourth of July “Freedom Under God” celebrations in 1951.
Perhaps the most important period in Kruse’s account is this very decade, the Dwight D. Eisenhower years of the 1950s. For one Baptist minister, government of the people had descended into “government of the people by pressure groups for the benefit of minorities” (p. 32). It was up to Eisenhower to respond to this growing sense of discomfort with the federal government, and not the Cold War, by addressing what many at the time called a “crisis of spirit.” As Kruse argues, “Countless people were certainly driven to prayer” by the fear of nuclear war, but “the spiritual revival of the postwar era was much more than fallout from the nuclear age” (p. 37). The creation of novel institutions during the Eisenhower administration, including the Abraham Vereide and Conrad Hilton-led Presidential Prayer Breakfast with the support of evangelist Billy Graham, was such a response by the president in an effort to popularize public prayer at the expense of politicizing it. Despite the focus on domestic matters, many a minister including Vereide encouraged their congregations to mobilize against the “forces of the anti-Christ” by making a choice between “Christ or Communism” (p. 49). In opposition to the progressive, interfaith “American Way” of the 1930s, Eisenhower helped design “The Credo of the American Way of Life” with the help of Herbert Hoover and the pro-business Freedoms Foundation, which appeared in the pages of Reader’s Digest in 1949. For Kruse, the Eisenhower administration, in addition to Eisenhower’s Oval Office baptism, did much to ingrain the mentality of “God Consciousness” within the populous through what can only be called a corporate-led Christianization effort on par with colonial America’s awakenings and revivals. Despite the ultimate defeat of the senator-led “Christian Amendment” in 1954, the mottos “One Nation Under God” and “In God We Trust” acknowledged the country’s dependence on a higher Christian power beyond the state in an unprecedented, bipartisan manner. From this moment on, conservative readings of “America’s fundamental nature would have a seemingly permanent place in the national imagination” (p. 125).
For Kruse, the Cold War created a false sense of American unity in the face of a foreign threat that in reality concealed the vehement disagreements taking place on the ground over the politics of piety and patriotism. “The concept of ‘one nation under God’ had seemed a simple, elegant way to bring together the citizens of a broadly religious country,” argues Kruse, “but at the local level ... Americans were anything but united” (p. 170). The various church/state rulings of the Supreme Court during this period reinforced the on-the-ground divisions between the future “Silent Majority” of the Nixon era and the progressive National Council of Churches. Combined with the growing disillusionment of a multitude of laypersons over their ministers’ support of the court, this phenomenon led to a “growing gap between leaders of major denominations and the laypeople to who they ministered” (p. 200). These religio-political conditions set the stage for not only the emergence of the Christian Right but also the presidency of Reagan and the culture wars of America’s late twentieth century. For Reverend George T. Cook, rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church of Oceanside, New Jersey, the court’s decisions were hailed by “a small but loud-mouthed group of confused clergy who have supported the National Council of Churches in its headlong rush towards socialism” (p. 210). Like the earlier comment on interest groups and minority representation, it is not mere coincidence that both quotes find common causes with our contemporary political discourse over bailouts, Wall Street, and austerity.
Despite concluding the text with a somewhat rushed epilogue that brings the reader up to the present, Kruse leaves us with arguably the key to understanding the ascendance of conservative Protestantism since the 1960s. “If conservative Christians at the grassroots would simply organize themselves according to their politics rather than their particular denominations, they could end the reign of the religious establishment” (p. 237). In short, Kruse helps us see how the polarization of our current moment finds much of its initial fervor in the actions of those Christian Libertarians and businessmen in search of a motto for the nation in uncertain domestic times.
. For more on this argument, see Matthew Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98, no. 4 (2012), 1052-1074.
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