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by Marc Jampole
Reviewed in this essay: One Nation Under God, by Kevin M. Kruse. Basic Books, 2015, 384 pages.
IN ONE NATION UNDER GOD, Kevin M. Kruse, a Princeton history professor, reconstructs the story of the growth of the twin ideas that the United States is a Christian nation and that a free-market, deregulated, de-unionized United States fulfills the ideals of Christ.
Kruse starts his history with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who Kruse says was the first to bring religious language into political speeches. FDR associated religious — and specifically Christian — ideals with the New Deal. Corporate interests fought back by spending enormous amounts of money to associate Christian values with free market and anti-union principles. They failed miserably, but that did not end the attempt to use religion for political ends. Eisenhower consciously inserted religion into politics, but it was a wishy-washy ecumenism that boiled down to “We are one nation, under god.” A general consensus formed that included politicians of both the left and right to support the idea that the United States was founded on broad religious principles shared by all monotheists. Many added a stark contrast with godless communism to their rhetoric. Some manifestations of the 1950s religious consensus were the placement of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and attempts to insert specific prayers into the public school curriculum.
In the early 1960s, Kruse relates, a series of Supreme Court decisions essentially ended prayer in public school. The justification for both the state laws that injected school prayer into the curriculum and the defense of school prayer in court was that the customs of the United States — e.g., placing “In God we trust” on money and starting Congressional sessions with a prayer — demonstrated that we are a religious nation. Opponents to prayer in school included many prominent clergy of many religions, most of whom feared that a specific prayer in classes would establish one religion as the state belief, thereby suppressing all other faiths; for these purposes, every Christian sect counted as another religion.
The court cases essentially split the loose religious coalition of the 1950s into left and right, the left proposing that we are a religiously secular nation in which individuals are allowed to practice any religion and all religions are allowed to thrive.
ENTER RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON, who revived the idea of connecting rightwing economic values to Christianity. With the help of Billy Graham, Nixon used corporate money to organize those Christians who believed in prayer in school and other governmental manifestations of Christianity to support the basic economic principles of the extreme rightwing. That’s where Kruse’s story essentially ends.
As we all know, Nixon’s coalition has endured and grown into a powerful force in American politics, representing about 20 percent of all voters, although it is an aging constituency. This 20 percent of the voters now controls the Republican Party. While virtually all politicians of all ilk invoke God, only the Republicans want to follow fundamentalist Christian ideas in teaching science and mandating social mores.
Kruse makes a convincing case, except for one thing: His premise that corporate America invented the concept of America as a Christian nation is not correct. The view that America is fundamentally Christian, founded on Christian principles, has a long history.
For example, another book I’ve been reading, Figures publiques by French cultural historian Antoine Lilthi, analyzes the attempts of the very early and popular biography of George Washington by Mason Weems to transform our first president, an avowed nondenominational deist, into the incarnation of a Christian evangelist. Weems made up a pack of lies about Washington’s private life and beliefs, essentially setting in stone most of the myths we learned as children about the general, e.g., the cherry tree incident. As his source for this distortion of history to serve ideological ends, Lilthi cites Francois Furstenburg’s In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation, which studies how the publishing industry in early America helped to establish America’s civic culture. FYI, Lilthi’s book, which unfortunately is only available in French at this time, is a valuable guide to the creation of the contemporary concept of celebrity from 1750-1850 in France, England and North America.
AMONG OTHER EXAMPLES of the imposition of religious values on the political scene in American history are the abolitionist movement, the movement to stem the growth of unions, the opposition to giving women the right to vote, and Prohibition. Plenty of rich folk with real estate and factory holdings funded these movements. To marvel that corporations from 1940-1970 introduced the concept of “American the Christian” requires one to forget that on one level corporations are merely organizations of convenience for the wealthy.
Kruse’s book is still worth reading because his documentation of religion in the public square during the years before and after World War II is detailed and fascinating. More importantly, he reminds us that Richard Nixon was instrumental in the creation of the ultra-right coalition that assumed power with Reagan and has succeeded in transferring enormous amounts of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, destroying our public education system, turning us into a near police state, re-establishing a Jim Crow system through mass incarceration, and puttering away more than thirty years in the fight against human-induced global warming. Although they all portray the United States as a devoutly Christian nation, if Reagan is the devil and Bush II, Cheney and their crew the devil’s spawn, then Nixon is the devil’s father.
Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.