How corporate America invented ‘Christian America’ to fight the New Deal

By Ron Briley | 23 March 2016
History News Network

 President Richard Nixon and the evangelist Billy Graham, 1970. (Photo: Bettmann / Corbis)
President Richard Nixon and the evangelist Billy Graham, 1970. (Photo: Bettmann / Corbis)

The 2016 annual meeting for the Organization of American Historians (OAH) will feature a session focusing upon the provocative book One Nation Under God by Princeton history professor Keven M. Kruse. In One Nation Under God, Kruse argues that the idea of the United States as a Christian nation does not find its origins with the founding of the United States or the writing of the Constitution. Rather, the notion of America as specifically consecrated by God to be a beacon for liberty was the work of corporate and religious figures opposed to New Deal statism and interference with free enterprise. The political conflict found in this concept of Christian libertarianism was modified by President Dwight Eisenhower who advocated a more civic religion of “one nation under God” to which both liberals and conservatives might subscribe.

Kruse concludes that with the polarization of America in the 1960s over such issues such as school prayer and the war in Vietnam, politicians such as Richard Nixon abandoned the more inclusive civic religion of the Eisenhower era. Kruse writes that by the 1970s “the rhetoric of ‘one nation under God’ no longer brought Americans together; it only reminded them how divided they had become” (274). Arguing that public religion is a modern invention that has little to do with America’s origins, Kruse maintains that contemporary political discourse needs to better recognize the political ideology being perpetuated by the advocates of America as a Christian nation. Needless to say, Kruse’s arguments will antagonize many on the Christian right, as well as many on the left who have employed Christianity as the means through which to implement principles of equality and opportunity as extolled by Jesus of Nazareth, the working-class carpenter.

Drawing upon extensive archival research, the first part of Kruse’s book documents the alliance between religious leaders such as Congregationalist minister James W. Fifield Jr. and businessman J. Howard Pew Jr., president of Sun Oil and a major figure with the National Association of Manufacturers. Working out of his affluent Los Angeles community and congregation, Fifield formed a national organization called Spiritual Mobilization that attracted the support of big business while embracing unfettered capitalist traditions threatened by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The fertile ground plowed by Spiritual Mobilization and Fifield prepared the way for the influential prayer breakfasts of Methodist minister Abraham Vereide and the crusades of evangelist Billy Graham. While the insecurities of the Cold War contributed to the growth of postwar religious fervor, Kruse insists that the prayer movement and Graham “effectively harnessed Cold War anxieties for an already established campaign against the New Deal” (36).

The prayers of the Christian libertarians were answered with the ascendancy of Dwight Eisenhower to the Presidency. While Graham was given a cold shoulder by Harry Truman, the evangelist was welcomed to the White House by Eisenhower, who also supported the prayer breakfast movement bringing together Congressional leaders and members of the business community. While he lacked allegiance to any specific denomination, Eisenhower was a devout Christian who opened cabinet meetings with prayer. Kruse argues that the President endorsed a rather general sense of Christian principles that would unite the nation under a common understanding of its religious heritage. Thus, Eisenhower supported Congressional legislation that added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance while also embracing “In God We Trust” as the nation’s official motto that was included on the nation’s money supply. The Eisenhower administration also endorsed the National Association of Evangelicals call for a July 4, 1953 March of Freedom declaring that the American government was based upon Biblical principles. The concept of “One Nation Under God” was also championed in the popular culture by the creation of Disneyland and Cecil B. DeMille’s film epic The Ten Commandments (1956), while the National Council for Advertising championed Madison Avenue techniques that would bring the concept of God and free enterprise to all Americans on the local level.

Eisenhower’s rather vague notion of a Christian America, however, did not quite coincide with the ideology of Christian libertarianism. Instead, Kruse suggests that actions such as adding “under God” to the pledge were examples of ceremonial Deism; establishing the idea that the First Amendment mandated the separation of church and state but not the separation of religion and politics. Thus, general support for the sacred was acceptable, but not active government intervention that might advance a particular sect. In addition, Eisenhower did not move to dismantle the New Deal; accepting programs such as Social Security and expanding government activity with legislation such as the Interstate Highway Act. Kruse, writes, “Unlike Christian libertarians, who had long presented God and government as rivals, Eisenhower had managed to merge the two into a wholesome ‘government under God.’ In doing so, he ironically undercut the key segment of many of his earlier backers, making their old claims about the ‘pagan’ origins of statism seems suddenly obsolete” (87). Here, Kruse seems to imply Eisenhower had inadvertently sanctified the state and government. Therefore, to criticize the government was both anti-patriotic and anti-religious. This is a fascinating argument, with considerable implications for contemporary politics, but Kruse fails to tease out this idea before moving on to other issues.

Kruse maintains that the religious unity sought by Eisenhower was challenged in the late 1950s and the 1960s as various faiths worried that state advocacy of religion might trample on traditional beliefs and practices. One of the most contentious issues was school-mandated prayer which was deemed unconstitutional in the Engel v. Vitale (1962) decision. Nevertheless, in his majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black insisted that ceremonial Deism, such as prayer before Congressional sessions, chaplains in the military, and “under God” in the pledge, was protected. To the surprise of many church members, a number of religious leaders and the National Council of Churches came to support the prayer decision as a means through which to protect religious traditions from state interference. This approach, however, led to considerable division between leadership and laity; undermining the concept of “one nation under God.”

Seeking to mount a conservative movement against the religious establishment, evangelists such as Billy Graham joined forces with the administration of Richard Nixon to promote a religious perspective that would divide rather than unify Americans. Holding White House religious services officiated by leading evangelical ministers and sponsoring events such as the 1970 Fourth of July “Honor America Day,” featuring a religious service at the Lincoln Memorial led by Graham, Nixon attempted to employ religious nationalism as a means through which to brand those opposing his administration or the war in Vietnam as attacks upon American Christian values. Although Kruse includes an epilogue offering an overview of religion and American politics from the 1980s to the Obama Presidency, he assigns Nixon, rather than Ronald Reagan, primary responsibility for using religion to divide rather than bring Americans together.

One Nation under God is a provocative piece of historical scholarship that will be sure to engender considerable debate at the OAH. It is a work that will antagonize those on the political right who perceive American exceptionalism as a gift from God bestowed upon the framers of the Constitution, while those who embrace the opposing tradition of the social gospel and Christian socialism may also take offense. Religion has played an important role in American history, and some critics will make the case that Kruse downplays the role of the sacred in American life. However, Kruse makes a major scholarly contribution in his examination of how ministers cooperated with big business to formulate an ideology that the New Deal was a threat to traditional American Christian values of free enterprise and individualism while promoting the false pagan deity of statism. As Kruse moves into a discussions of ceremonial Deism with the Eisenhower administration and consideration of how Nixon employed religion to divide rather than unify, Kruse’s thesis regarding the role assigned to corporate America in creating a Christian America becomes somewhat lost, and this ambitious study may take on too much by attempting to survey the relationship between American politics and religion from the New Deal to the modern age.

Ron Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School.

The roots of ‘Christian America’ can be found in corporate America – Prof. Kevin M. Kruze

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (w/ Kevin Kruse)

Animated map shows how religion spread around the world

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50 COMMENTS

  1. Sounds like an interesting read. Does Kruse address the influence of Bill Bright, Campus Crusade for Christ and their interaction with corporate America.

  2. Interesting theory. However, I would argue that the idea of the United States as a Christian nation (particularly a Protestant nation) really took root during the Second Great Awakening, which corresponded with the Age of Jacksonian Democracy and Manifest Destiny. In the wake of the War of 1812 and the French Revolution, the US actively engaged in developing a national identity. Within the context of the Second Great Awakening, increased Irish Catholic immigration, conflict with Native Americans over Western expansion, and the growing debate over slavery, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity became the dominant feature of this imagined sense of national identity. The idea of Manifest Destiny clearly is based upon the idea of the US as a Christian (Protestant) nation with a mission to spread its culture across the continent. The reform movements prior to the Civil War and during the Progressive Age all shared a common sense of Christian duty and Protestant identity. What marks the shift in this ethos in response to the New Deal is the conflation of Christian ideals with a defense of Capitalism.

  3. "Kruse’s thesis regarding the role assigned to corporate America in creating a Christian America becomes somewhat lost…"

    On the other hand, maybe by the time Nixon became President, the movement could fly on its own without so much support from Big Business. (Why does no one use "Big Business" any more?) I certainly never felt much Big Business influence on the Southern Baptist establishment under which I grew up.

  4. notions like this shown in a book called Redeemer Nation way predate the Cold War and into the mid 1800s. but they were played on.

  5. “By our form of government the Christian religion is the established religion.” Samuel Chase, signer of the Declaration
    Christian America was NOT a corporate creation. To say such a thing shows that people have not actually read many of the founding documents or writings of the pilgrims or founders or they are hoping most people haven’t and are attempting to deceive.
    “ Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people and is totally unsuited to the government of any other.” John Adams, Signer of the Declaration and President of the U.S.

    • George Bernard Shaw is reported as saying, “The art of government is the organization of idolatry.” Robert Ingram warned, “The other gods about whom we must be concerned are, as they ever have been, to be found in the seats of temporal, or human, government.”
      One assumes the mantle of deity when he sets himself up as the ultimate authority [as in WE THE PEOPLE’s claim in Article 6 that the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land”]. It’s the attributes of deity that makes someone god-like. In the eighteenth century, the French revolutionaries declared “reason” to be the goddess of their new state religion. Nineteenth century France was spoken of as “goddess France” by patriotic figures like Victor Hugo and Charles Maurras. Hegel, the philosophical patron saint of communism, wrote that “the State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth…. We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth…. The State is the march of God through the world.”
      Idolizing man-made government is a form of Second Commandment transgression seldom addressed from American pulpits.
      Recent polls reveal there is more government distrust than ever before, but this proves nothing. Distrust, especially when combined with fear, is often the very thing that promotes worship. Deuteronomy 6:13 commands us to “fear only YHWH.” Yahweh wants us to fear Him because whom we fear is usually whom we obey, and obedience is the ultimate measure of worship.
      In many instances, whom we distrust is whom we fear. Because many people fear and consequently obey today’s man-made government, it has become a god even for some Christians.
      Others have made the state messianic in that they look to it as their Great Benefactor or Patron (aka: Uncle Sam or Big Brother). They believe it will “save” them (bail them out) from their “sins” (their own folly, incompetence, and indolence).
      The State, in rebellion to Yahweh, is a collective form of humanism. As such, man “progressively demand[s] of the state a redemptive role. What he cannot do personally, i.e., to save himself, he demands that the state do for him, so that the state, as man enlarged, becomes the human savior of man.”
      Biblical civil law presents only negative injunctions. It prohibits publically evil acts. Biblical civil law does not authorize the State to make men good. It does not authorize the State to force men to do good things. It does not authorize the creation of a messianic, salvationist State. The State cannot search the hearts of men. God does this, as the Creator and Judge, so the State must not claim such an ability. The State is only authorized by God to impose negative sanctions against publicly evil acts [Romans 13:3-4]. It is not authorized to seek to force men to do good acts. In short, the Bible is opposed to the modern welfare state.

  6. Have not read the book. The post makes it seem that there is a monolithic "Christian" church. Graham was in a on-again, off-again relationship with Dr. MLK but he refused to "join forces" with the Moral Majority in 1979. There IS a marked increase in activism by the MM since that time with emphasis on "if you are not with us, you are not Christian".

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