Some readers may have noticed the “Reading List” on the blog’s right frame. Today, we take Kevin Kruse’s “One Nation Under God – How Corporate America Invented Christian America” off that list and discuss it.
The book begins with the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and describes how, through succeeding administrations, Americans came to think that we are a Christian nation instead of a nation of Christians. What started in Eisenhower’s living room ended up in corporate boardrooms, and finds a place at the heart of campaigning in today’s politics.
In 1935, James W. Fifield, a Congregationalist pastor from Los Angeles founded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization. Channeling donations from businessmen like tire magnate Harvey Firestone, Hollywood producer Cecil B. De Mille, Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew, and the National Association of Manufacturers, Fifield built a nation-wide publishing and propaganda campaign that called ministers to action, saying:
Every Christian should oppose the totalitarian trends of the New Deal…
And to oppose:
The anti-Christian and anti-American trends toward pagan stateism in America.
This was conflated with slogans promoting: “free pulpit, free speech, free enterprise, free press, and free assembly.”
The Spiritual Mobilization campaign’s thesis was that if religiosity could be widely and officially deployed, it would be the sword that defeated both collectivist liberals and Communists who, in their view, were both working to undermine America.
Some context: The percentage of Americans who claimed membership in a church was low in the 19th century. Kruse shows that it increased from 16% in 1850 to 36% in 1900. It rose to 49% by 1940. It peaked in 1959 at 69%. Along the way, we adopted “Under God” and “In God We Trust” with little opposition from organizations like the ACLU. Much of what Kruse tells us is about familiar events:
• The addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954
• The official adoption of “In God We Trust” on all American currency in the late 1950s
• The Supreme Court decisions that struck down state-mandated prayer and Bible reading in public schools in the early 1960s, and the huge polarization it brought among individual Christians vs. their Church leaders, mostly abetted by politicians who saw a campaign issue
Overall, the book is an excellent analysis of how Christian fundamentalism and capitalism were conflated in the 1950s to erode the divide between church and state, re-casting progressive political philosophy as both “un-American”, and “anti-Christian” at the same time. Importantly, he describes the thinking that emerged from Fifield’s movement and its subsequent embrace by Billy Graham; that our way of life and our economic system were ordained not just by God, but by the Christian God.
Graham said during the 1952 presidential campaign:
The Christian people of America will not sit idly by…They are going to vote as a bloc for the man with the strongest moral and spiritual platform, regardless of his views on other matters.
Graham meant Eisenhower. Kruse details the incestuous relationship between clergymen and politicians, with particular focus on Rev. Billy Graham’s remarkable ability to get close to, and influence, presidents.
Some have criticized the book, saying it does not prove its case about the influence of corporate America in the promotion of “One Nation Under God”. Wrongo disagrees. Most of the funding for these efforts, which began in the 1930s and continued through the Nixon administration in the 1970s were contributed by corporations and corporate executives. In fact, the book’s main premise is that corporatists are as responsible as politicians and clergy for making America a more Christian nation.
We continue to see the impact of these corporate/clergy efforts today: It bolsters the idea of American Exceptionalism, it limits the range of acceptable political debate, it fosters class warfare, and suborns churches to the cause of politics.
Today’s religious fundamentalists want to blur the lines between church and state. They seek to control American culture, to use faith in the service of ideals that leave no room for social programs, no room for diversity, no room for science, no room for ideas that contradict or challenge the myth of America as a Christian-capitalist-ordained-by-God empire.
This movement that started in the 1930s explains why many Americans favor policies that are clearly against their best interests. Not coincidentally, many of those in that category are also “religious conservatives.” A recent interview with a rural Kentuckian who voted for Republican Governor Matt Bevin who plans to roll back Medicaid expansion, despite her need for insurance, said:
My religious beliefs outweigh whether or not I have insurance…
She voted for an anti-abortion, anti-gay rights candidate, despite her personal need for insurance.
Kruse’s book explains why.