In 1952, with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president, a small, chariot-driving clan of Christian evangelicals stormed the national stage, bent on foisting their religious claims into American law, custom, and ceremony. The chief drivers—the Congregationalist James Fifield, the Methodist Abraham Vereide, and the Baptist Billy Graham—enlisted the pliable Eisenhower, a self-described man of “deeply-felt religious faith,” and used his popularity to foment legislative and judicial changes dear to their cause. In return, these media-savvy pastors, along with fellow-traveling capitalists, delivered audiences to any politician blessing their credo. To vote is a faith-based proposition, believing in what the candidate stands for. The outcome was a new corporate-political movement, later termed “Christian libertarianism,” which mixed piety and patriotism and trademarked free enterprise as every American’s “divine right.”
To hear Princeton historian Kevin Kruse narrate the complex interplay of religion and the state—seeded in Americans’ postwar exhaustion and gratitude; residual anger at the New Deal and labor unions; the feared rise of communism from within the United States (less from Europe or Asia); and a zeal for a Fourth Great Awakening—is to stand in stupefied witness at the relentless need conservative Christians have to stamp their dogma on the citizenry.
The ghost of establishment—government favoring one religion over others, which the First Amendment prohibits—reappeared on July 4, 1953. As part of their “March of Freedom” campaign, the National Association of Evangelicals pressed Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, the Supreme Court justices, and every governor to sign a “Statement of Seven Divine Freedoms.” The deal was, as Kruse writes, “to signify that the United States of America had been founded on the principles of the Holy Bible.” Most boarded the bibliolatry bandwagon with glee as it steamrolled across America, supported by Moose Lodges, Legionnaires, Kiwanis, and Boy Scouts, vowing that all parties, as Eisenhower proclaimed, “turn to Him.” The spectacle hoorayed on Independence Day on the National Mall.
By 1953 the National Association of Evangelicals was ten million strong, one in sixteen Americans. Their “Seven Divine Freedoms” were designed to replace Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four human freedoms, which the association said were state-bred, not Lord-led. (Part of Kruse’s thesis is that the 1950s religious revival was fed less by communist opposition and more by anti-Roosevelt fervor.) Each fundamentalist “freedom from” was fitted to passages in the Lord’s Prayer. For example, “Freedom From Want” developed from “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Born-agains, whose advocacy groups included Spiritual Mobilization, Freedoms Foundation, and the Advertising Council, seduced Ike and a willing US Congress. Later, Nixon, who gorged at the trough of any political expediency, became the most aggressively theocratic of presidents. A hotplate of new mottos and ceremonies warmed Washington—“In God We Trust” was blazoned on postage stamps, coins, and currency; a National Prayer Breakfast was instituted along with compulsory prayers at meetings; and “under God” was slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. How sweet to rub shoulders with such creedal phrases as “City on a Hill,” “the sacred cause of liberty,” and “manifest destiny.”
In the wake of this “ceremonial deism,” the courts heard cases of religious intrusion, especially in public schools. Several constitutional redoubts, explicated by Kruse in detail I’d wager few have ever read, form the separationist’s feel-good half of the book. With something close to veto power, the Warren Court (1953-1969) bell-rang the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—getting prayer out of schools in 1962 and Bible reading out of schools in 1963, loosening the grip of any faith persuasion in public institutions.
A largely Christ-centered U.S. Congress countered by proposing two separate prayer amendments in 1963 and 1966. Each measure, backed by 70 to 80 percent of Americans, guaranteed “forever the protection of our Christian traditions and the right of our people to pray and honor Holy Scripture in their institutions.” Battles royal ensued, joining secularists and religionists against the standard-bearers of a state faith and school devotions. The contention, Kruse reveals, recalled the McCarthy hearings; they were just as fierce but less shaming. The first prayer amendment died in committee and the second—its champion was Everett Dirksen—failed in a Senate vote. Winners rejoiced, their position articulated by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii: “Religion on a government platter has never provided much spiritual nurture for the people, nor has it given strength to the nation.”
Why do so many Americans think that we’re a Christian nation? One answer is that after the Second World War religious radicals fought (against whom is never clear) to rebrand America on a false proposition, namely, that our nationhood is wholly, exclusively, Christian—an idea against which Kruse’s capacious history clangingly resonates.
Every generation, the fanatics of divine American agency tout our “lost” Godly origin, a half-truth easily pawned off on a frightened electorate. Even today, cowed by terrorism, Americans espouse similar canards such as more guns equal more safety or the National Security Agency is a good Santa. We all know the tale: our indomitable founders, the religiously persecuted of Europe, rode the Atlantic swells to New England’s fair shores and stuck Jesus’s trident in the sand. None but ill-treated Christian worshippers did this, and “we the people” are forever in their debt. Like Rolling Stone journalism, story precedes fact.
Kruse, an indomitable writer himself, unveils their story: the sloganeering about our Christian creation has, with Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and both George H.W. and George W. Bush become routine. Nine out of ten presidential speeches now invoke God’s blessing! Reagan, who sought to dismantle both Jefferson’s and Berlin’s walls, said: “If we are not a nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.” Note the word nation—not an evolving culture, a society of unequals, or a geographical people. The paradox is obvious: We keep having to claim that we are a Christian nation by rewriting or reimagining our origin as Christian. We must deify our Constitution with amendments in God’s name because—the irony ever escapes the evangelicals—it never was deified.
This devil of reverse engineering needs exorcising, a major boon of Kruse’s book. How long until we learn that millions of non-Christians, individuals and families, came here for economic freedom, not religious freedom, and that the slaughter of non-Christian Native Americans and Africans was Bible-sanctioned. It may be that our forefathers were guided by urges less for religious liberty and more for liberty from religion.
Kruse’s nonfiction technique is bricolage—layering, brick by brick, facts, anecdotes, quotations, and multiplying them into the hundreds. Such density, unchecked, stifles insight. Still, the author lays out a new mega-subdivision in our sprawling religious history. The result exposes a class of pulpit vipers who infect an insecure quarter of the population and who can never shake the feeling they are not as believed in as they believe they should be. Purveyors of this grim anachronism, in Kruse’s phrase, “do violence to our past” with their merciless campaign to Christianize American memory.
My lone gripe about One Nation Under God is the subtitle’s claim that corporate America invented Christian America. It’s rather the case that ministers rallied businessmen and pushed politicians to brand the postwar era, and rebrand our origin, according to God’s plan. While it’s true that corporate heads rail against government regulation, citing scripture when necessary, more importantly, they need government—police, military, courts, infrastructure—to guarantee their free-market liberties. That dominionist hypocrisy knows no end, and Kruse makes sure to point it out.