Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal magazine.
By Kevin M. Kruse
Basic. 352 pp. $29.99
After visiting the United States in the 1920s, the English journalist G.K. Chesterton famously remarked that America is a nation with the soul of a church. By that he meant that the United States is the only nation founded on a creed, the doctrine that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Presumably a historian Kevin M. Kruse would not disagree with Chesterton about the nation’s founding principles, but he casts a much more jaundiced eye on the condition of the nation’s easily manipulated soul.
In “One Nation Under God,” Kruse takes pains to show that the prominence of religious rhetoric and ceremony in our current politics is an anomaly, and that those who stress the religious roots and character of American democracy are distorting the historical record. The pietistic tone of contemporary politics, like the motto “In God We Trust” on our currency, is a recent development, not an inheritance from the Founding Fathers. In Kruse’s telling, some of the most influential churchmen of the religious revival of the late 1940s and 19 50s were not much more than corporate shills.
Over the past 40 years, there has been a vigorous debate about the place of religion in our public life. The nation seems divided between those who think Christianity is both foundational and essential to the health of democracy, and those who think the wall of separation between church and state should relegate religion to the private sphere. For advocates of the positive role of faith, the effort to privatize religion is seen as an assault on the country’s very identity and a threat to its abiding values and its future. Kruse argues that this debate is largely a put-up job. He points to the relatively low level of religious affiliation among Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries and to the supposedly secular tenor of the era’s politics. What accounted for the dramatic change in religious practice and the more explicit religious concerns of politicians in the 1950s? According to Kruse, the answer is a concerted and well-financed effort by powerful corporate and politically conservative forces to clothe their long-standing opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the pieties of “Christian libertarianism.” Returning the nation to a “government under God” meant restoring the freedom of big business and dismantling the ungodly welfare state.
Among the many interesting and revealing stories Kruse tells is that of the Rev. James W. Fifield Jr., a Southern California Congregational minister whose theology was as reliably liberal as his politics was conservative. Fifield came to the attention of business elites with a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers in 1940. In it, he denounced the Roosevelt administration and the growth of the federal government while championing the Christian values allegedly embodied in the free-enterprise system. Subsequently bankrolled by moneyed interests, he soon led an effort by tens of thousands of ministers across the country to alert their congregants to the dangers of “collectivism” and the “false idol” of the federal government. “Above all, they insisted that the welfare state was not a means to implement Christ’s teachings about caring for the poor and the needy, but rather a perversion of Christian doctrine,” Kruse writes. Christianity’s essential message concerned the salvation of the individual, not the demands of social justice. “If any political and economic system fit with the religious teaching of Christ, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos.”
Fifield helped organize a massive public relations effort, in radio, films and print, to promote the gospel of free enterprise and to warn against the dangers of big government. With the election of Dwight Eisenhower, Fifield and his backers found a sympathetic ear in the White House. Though wary of any direct government endorsement of a particular denomination, Eisenhower was convinced that the nation was sorely in need of spiritual renewal. He was the first president to be baptized while in office. He also helped establish the presidential prayer breakfast and insisted that Cabinet meetings begin with a prayer. During his presidency, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to U.S. currency. Eisenhower’s close association with Billy Graham, often referred to as America’s pastor, furthered what Kruse calls the sacralization of the state.
It was Eisenhower, Kruse argues, who initiated “a host of religious ceremonies and symbols” that foisted “an apparently permanent public religion on the institutions of American government. . . . The state was now suffused with religion, and so it would remain.” Presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush have exploited that “public religion” to ill effect.
“One Nation Under God” is a fascinating, if frustrating, book. Kruse is coy about the persistent presence of religion not just in American culture but also in the nation’s politics. It was dissenting Protestant groups that insisted on the Constitution’s separation of church and state. In this sense, what is “secular” in the founding documents has deep religious roots. A religiously inspired suspicion of authority and celebration of equality has profoundly shaped American political life, as Tocqueville noted nearly 200 years ago. Kruse takes note of the influential role of the Social Gospel in the politics of the Progressive era, but the Gospel-infused politics of three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan are ignored. Prohibition, another instance of the outsize role of religion in American politics, is also absent from Kruse’s account. Nor does he try to fit the triumph of the civil rights movement into his story of postwar religious ferment.
Finally, how the social revolutions and secularizing forces of the 1960s could follow on the heels of the pietistic ’50s goes unexplained. True, the sentiments and allegiances of religious Americans have often been manipulated by the powerful. Like most human activities, religion attracts far more rogues or sheep than saints. But the idea that the religious fervor of postwar American political life was essentially a kind of corporate puppetry is just a little too pat.