Christian Nation, Christian Libertarianism

[This post was originally published at Religion in American History.]

Kruse, Kevin M. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

One Nation Under God, Kevin Kruse’s new book on How Corporate America Invented Christian America, is a fascinating narrative of the connections between religion, big business, and patriotism and governance in the United States from the New Deal to Ronald Reagan. The book is justly receiving praise and widespread attention, including several reviews here at Religion in American History (by Michael Graziano and Darren Grem) and coverage in the New York Times and on NPR. Since there are a number of reviews or summaries of the book available, I am going to take for granted that you know the basic shape of the book. In this review I intend to cast the book’s argument into relief from the perspective of nineteenth-century American religious history in order to highlight the contribution that the book makes.

One Nation Under God is a history of how the idea that the United States is a Christian nation was deployed in the middle of the twentieth century. There were several possible historical moments when this idea could have arisen. One is during the revolutionary period: Kruse deftly “sets aside the question of whether the founders intended America to be a Christian nation and instead asks why so many contemporary Americans came to believe this country has been and always should be a Christian nation” (xiii). Another contender is the Cold War period. This book takes the Cold War into account, to be sure, but it offers an important corrective by tracing the idea of “one nation under God” to business opposition to the New Deal in 1930s and 1940s. As Kruse writes about the addition of that phrase to the pledge of allegiance, the change was “the result of nearly two decades of partisan fighting over domestic issues. The Cold War contrasts were largely a last-minute development, one that helped paper over partisan differences” (109). But there is a third contender for the origins of the Christian nation idea: the nineteenth-century United States. This critical period for understanding church-state concerns has been re-examined in recent years by scholars such as Sarah Barringer Gordon, Steven K. Green, and David Sehat.

These historians have charted the ups and downs of the Christian nation ideal in a period earlier than Kruse’s. To set these works in conversation with Kruse, let’s examine the chronological boundaries of his book. One Nation Under God begins with an opening vignette of Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953, noteworthy for Eisenhower’s publicized visit to a Presbyterian church and his recitation after being sworn in of a prayer he had composed himself. The first chapter takes us back in time to the New Deal and the origins of Christian libertarian opposition to the expansion of the state. Subsequent chapters track the spread of prayer meetings to the Eisenhower Oval Office, as well as to the Pentagon and other government agencies. We follow the rise of the National Prayer Breakfast, the addition the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 and the phrase “In God We Trust” to the currency in 1957. In the chapter on “Pitchmen for Piety” (my favorite in the book) we learn about the Advertising Council’s campaigns for “Religion in American Life” beginning in 1949, along with the efforts of Walt Disney, Fred Schwarz of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, Cecil B. DeMille (who raised up thousands of monuments of the Ten Commandments plugging both God and his 1956 movie), and the traveling salesmen who organized as the Gideons to distribute Bibles, especially in the school. We also read about Richard Nixon’s crass attempt (aided by Billy Graham) to use White House church services for political ends, and about how Ronald Reagan created the invocation “God Bless America” that is now a fixture of American political speeches. The book occasionally takes us beyond these chronological boundaries, as when we learn that Francis Bellamy’s original pledge of allegiance from 1892 did not contain the words “under God.” But the book’s argument is firmly anchored in a narrative that takes us from libertarian opposition to the New Deal in the 1930s, to widespread publicity campaigns for one nation under God in the 1950s, up to Reagan’s “God Bless America.”

Yet there are many examples of how the rhetoric of Christian nationhood was deployed in the nineteenth-century United States, often in ways that were more coercive than a publicity campaign. I’ll mention just a few of the examples discussed in the work of Gordon, Green, and Sehat. One example is the well-known 1811 case in New York of People v. Ruggles, in which Justice James Kent sustained the conviction of a blasphemer on the grounds that “the people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of christianity” and to blaspheme thus struck at the “the root of moral obligation” and obedience to the state. The reform or benevolence movement which took off after the War of 1812 often had took its impetus from the idea that the nation needed to be Christianized. The American Tract Society and the American Bible Society, for example, were both very large corporations (maybe even the biggest of their era) formed by interdenominational alliances with connections to high-ranking politicians who put out intensive publicity efforts. The sabbath mails controversy which periodically raged in the antebellum era seems to me to be not unlike attempts to introduce god-language to the pledge or the currency. Kent’s idea in Ruggles was closely related to the legal maxim that Christianity was part of the common law. Steven Green has charted how this maxim was undercut in what he calls The Second Disestablishment as the law in the nineteenth-century was given a firm secular basis. But at the same time Christian justifications for the law were being removed, the idea that Christianity was the basis of the political and moral order received a new lease on life in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Civil War led to a great deal of anxiety about the basis of government and a widespread sense that it was a failure to adequately recognize the Christian nature of the political order that had led to the war. After the war there were a number of attempts to write Christianity into the Constitution, mostly notably by the National Reform Association (the other NRA, as my students dubbed it). Reading the publications of the NRA, I’m struck by how similar some of their arguments are to those made by the actors in One Nation Under God. As Sarah Barringer Gordon has shown, anti-Mormon, anti-polygamist arguments relied at least in part on the idea that Mormonism and polygamy undermined the Christian family and thus the state. The writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, to cite him as one example of the social gospel in the Progressive era, relied on a reading of the Old Testament prophets which presupposed a connection between Christianity and the social and political order.

I enumerate all these examples from outside the scope of Kruse’s book to make two points. First, I’m not persuaded that this book uncovers the origins or invention of the idea that the United States was a nation under the (Protestant) God. There are just too many examples of that discourse which were mustered to do real political and social work prior to the 1930s. If someone wanted to pin me down to an origin date for the Christian nation idea, I’d argue for the late 1810s and early 1820s, with significant resurgences of the idea around the Civil War and during the 1880s and 1890s. Crucially, though, there was a gap in the early twentieth century. So Kruse is right in that the movement he tracks from the 1930s was a re-discovery or reinvention of this idea—a reinvention, I suspect, which owed at least some of its success to the ways in which the trope had been used before.

But my second, larger point is to use these nineteenth-century examples to highlight the signal contribution that One Nation Under God makes. What this book accomplishes is to show us how the idea of a nation under God became fused with libertarian ideas instead of ideas of moral or progressive reform. All of the examples from the nineteenth-century above yoke the Christian republic tradition to the exercise of state power: against blasphemers and drunkards, against Mormon polygamists, against slavery, against poverty and social inequality. This historical explanation of how people connected Christianity and the state has always made good historical sense to me. But if you had asked me before reading this book to explain how conservative white American Christianity came to be associated with libertarianism, I would have ventured a few unsatisfactory suggestions then thrown up my hands at the unsolved historical puzzle.1 Kruse’s book shows how those two became connected and, in meticulous detail, how that connection was spread by means of corporate influence over media, advertising, and politics. The book also shows the limits of this connection. “Only the broad concept of ‘one nation under God’ proved elastic enough” to bring conservatives and liberals together but it did so at the cost of vagueness (108). As the final section of the book shows, the Christian nation concept was constantly challenged for attempting to be comprehensive of religions or people who did not want to fit under the totem of “one nation under God” or for being excessively vague about which god that phrase referred to. In other words, Kruse has explained the origins of the most recent configuration of the Christian nation idea—a connection between the Christian nation idea and libertarianism that is all the more important to understand at a time when the central symbol of church-state conflict is Hobby Lobby.

I missed the chance to teach this book in both a class on church and state last semester and a class on religion and capitalism this semester. But when those classes roll around again, One Nation Under God is sure to be on both syllabi.

  1. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart does this work for the later twentieth century, and Stewart Davenport’s Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon shows the intellectual underpinnings of the idea from the antebellum United States. I expect that we will get even fuller answers about the connections from forthcoming books by Timothy Gloege and Darren Grem.