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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  1. No matter how one interprets the social and political development of this country, the fact remains that what separates the founding documents of The United States from that of Western European democracies is the simple truth that the men who led the formation of this country evoked the rights given to them by the JudeoChristian Creator they believed endowed them with “certain unalienable Rights”. For that simple reason it is not far fetched to state that the United States was founded as a Christian nation

    • Do some research please, the founders abhorred religion. You can find multiple quotes from their writing, yes all of them.

      • Just curious which definition of “religion” were you thinking of in your comment? My understanding is that the Founders were uniformly against state-mandated, compulsive religious membership (united as they were against the rule of King George and the compulsive taxation of colonialists in support of the Church of England), not against personal choice of religious practice (or the right not to practice any kind of religion). They wanted to create a national government which ensured that no citizen would be compelled to either be a “member” of nor a compulsively taxed (and therefore de facto “member” of) a state-mandated “religion.” They also wanted to ensure that citizens who wished to participate in a spiritual pursuit and/or congregation of their choice would be able to do so, free from any legal Federal interference. The Founders were against government interference in matters of spiritual conscience. But that didn’t mean that the Founders uniformly “abhorred religion;” just compulsive, state- or legally-mandated religion, which, according to Jesus, for example, really isn’t religion at all (e.g., Jesus’ brother James writes, “True religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” … and Jesus reserved his harshest words for the hypocritical “religious” leaders of the day; no wonder why many of the Founders who were Christians wanted the citizens of the new nation protected from the creation of any laws which mandated a state “religion”). Anyway, since “the founders abhorred religion” is such a broad phrase, I just wanted to ask if you could please clarify for me which definition of “religion” you had in your mind so I can better understand the context of what you wrote. Thanks.

        • “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
          —John Adams
          "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding…."
          -Thomas Jefferson
          There's a lot more – read. Most founders were Christians, but that wasn't the foundation of the country. Religion was rarely mentioned in the founding documents except to say that it should be separate from government.

          • "Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens."
            – George Washington

            "While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."
            – George Washington

            "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
            – John Jay

        • You are correct, Chris, and “guest” has their own agenda and is clueless as to our history. Our Founders were diverse in their beliefs, agreed only in separation of church and state. Some, like Jefferson, believed in God but not organized religion (which would describe many of today’s Christians). Some, like Adams, were devout Church goers. The only avowed atheist was Paine. Washington has been suspected of both being Christian and not being religious at all……he took the real answer secretly to his grave.

    • The most important founding fathers (the ones that everyone can name) were without exception DEISTS and NOT Christians. Most intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment discarded the bible and christian dogma but believed in a "Creator" deity that made the world and then gave Man freedom from interference. The reason these "enlightened" intellectuals of their age weren't full agnostics or atheists was the lack of an explanation for the complexity of life. Later, Darwinism provided a simple answer that removed the need for a creator. This is when DEISM started to faded, and these doubters could now discard the final vestiges of religious dogma and the rise of true atheism, at the time called "Freethinkers" Unfortunately, the founders were dead and the Age of Enlightenment over, with a resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity in the mid 1800's. Thomas Paine, the actual intellectual founder of the revolutionary spirit of The "colonies" was an out spoken atheist (and his remains were repeated desecrated by religious groups). Most of the founding fathers were reactionaries, not revolutionaries.

    • There were actually very few members of the Founding Fathers who were Christian of any stripe. Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Paine, James Madison were all deists. Many of them thought very poorly of the Christian religion. Washington himself came from the French school of thought of the time that Jesus himself was a myth. The only well known member of the Founding Fathers that I know of who was explicitly Christian was Samuel Adams, and he was a Congregationalist, if I remember right.

      And let’s not forget about the Treaty of Tripoli, in which Thomas Jefferson states that in no way was America founded on the principles of the Christian religion.

    • How come you never hear Jews say “Judeo-Christian Tradition”? Is it because it’s not really a thing? It’s just “Stuff Christians Make Up To Call Tradition”?

    • No, actually, my understanding is that the founding fathers were reading Voltaire and his ilk, and those philosophers were exposing the church for burning people at the stake for blasphemy, thus taking away freedom of speech. The church had the Index, which listed people that wrote against the church, and the churches were burning those people at the stake also. Literally killing them. The church was promoting pogroms against jews, moslems, and if the church was catholic, they were killing protestants, and if the church was protestant, they were killing catholics. So, the founding fathers wrote the constitution to protect people against the church and it’s pogroms… I can see why you thought the church was instrumental in the creation of laws, it just didn’t turn out to be the way your mullahs spun the truth. The church actually created the conditions for killing people, and the founding fathers wrote laws to protect people from those sorts of behaviors. Also, Kings were claiming absolute power by divine authority. And using that authority to kill people. So the founding fathers had to write protections into the laws of the land, to protect people form kings. But of course, that’s just ME talking. You could read a history book though. Iike maybe: Will and Ariel Durant’s: The history of civilization in the time of Voltaire.

  2. What difference does it make what the founders believed? We have knowledge and concepts today that they never dreamed of, just like they never could have imagined guns that can kill a dozen people a clip, or internet porn or rampant gratuitous violence in movies that does nothing more than provide both children and adults with a wildly distorted perception of reality.

  3. Freemasons, that is what most were, which includes all 3 Judeo/Christian/Islamic foundation. And all of classic paganism.