Book Review: One Nation Under God

This essay was originally part of my undergraduate coursework at Southern New Hampshire University. You can purchase Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God on Amazon.

Image: Amazon.com

Image: Amazon.com

 

It is a common perception among Americans that their country is founded on Christian principles, or is a Christian nation. Though generally rejected by historians and other academics, this belief persists nonetheless, often being exploited by politicians and pseudo-intellectuals looking to further their agendas or make a few dollars. However, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse believes, and puts forward in his latest book, that academics are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking if America is a Christian nation, Kruse argues that the more pertinent question to be asked is why so many Americans believe it to be so.

The explosion in public religiosity after the Second World War is often explained by academics as being a by-product of Cold War anti-communist tensions.[1] Kruse rejects this explanation, offering in its place that the roots of the change in “America’s religious identity had its roots not in the foreign policy panic of the 1950s but rather in the domestic politics of the 1930s and early 1940s.”[2] As the subtitle of his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America invented Christian America suggests, Kruse believes that the concept of America being a Christian nation is the product of a campaign by corporations and industrialists to co-op religion for their own purposes. He sets his premise by explaining that President Roosevelt’s New Deal revived the ideas of the Social Gospel, a late-nineteenth century religious philosophy that argued that Christianity was a religion “less concerned with personal salvation and more with the public good.”[3] Roosevelt successfully used these concepts to see his New Deal policies, much to the consternation of business leaders, who balked at the higher taxes, pro-union stance, and generally socialist tendencies of the New Deal. Throughout the 1930s, capitalists had tried to wage a public relations campaign to combat the ideas promoted by the New Deal with very little success. In the early 40s, conservatives decided to fight fire with fire.

Kruse traces the genesis of the Christian nation concept back to H.W. Prentis, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Kruse quotes Prentis as saying to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1938 that, “[e]conomic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism; the only antidote is revival of American patriotism.”[4] Answering Prentis’ call was James W. Fifield, a popular Congregationalist preacher from California and head of the conservative Spiritual Mobilization organization, which sought “to arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends to pagan stateism, which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.”[5]

Through the use of successful marketing throughout the 40s, which included a campaign comparing the growth in federal power to the rise of dictatorships in Europe, Fifield was able to amass an impressive array of conservative business leaders, ministers, and politicians, most notably former U.S. president Herbert Hoover. After the death of President Roosevelt in 1945, Fifield and Spiritual Mobilization went after the “creeping socialism” of the Truman presidency, using a combination of religious language, patriotism, and anti-communist feeling to grow their support. The culmination of Spiritual Mobilization’s efforts was the election of the conservative Dwight Eisenhower to the presidency in 1953. Kruse argues, however, that by the time of Eisenhower’s election, the ideas of Spiritual Mobilization had taken on a life of their own, morphing from a conservative, pro-capitalist movement, to a (deceptively) unifying pro-American movement. Eisenhower used Spiritual Motivation’s methods to unite Americans using vague religious imagery, most notably the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and the addition of “under God” to the pledge of allegiance.[6]

This time saw the rise of evangelical, anti-communist religious leaders, the most famous of whom was Billy Graham. Anti-communist tensions only fanned the flames, especially since communism is officially atheistic. However, by the end of the Eisenhower presidency, the charm had worn off and the religio-political movement returned to its pro-conservative roots after a series of legal battles, most notably Engle v. Vitale, challenged religious expressions on the state, rather than federal, level. In Engle v. Vitale, the imposition of official prayers in public schools was banned by the Supreme Court, leading to a backlash from conservatives who had latched on to the idea that America is a Christian nation.[7]

In summary, the essence of Kruse’s argument is that the religio-political revival of the 1950s was one that got away from its founders, Fifield being the most prominent, only to find its way home again after Eisenhower’s co-opting and restructuring of the message backfired. For this reason, argues Kruse, America as a Christian nation became an almost exclusively conservative idea and identity. However, there are a few notable flaws in Kruse’s argument that must be pointed out.

The most glaring absence form Kruse’s narrative is an explanation as to why so many Americans were willing to accept America the idea that America was a fundamentally religious (i.e. Christian) nation. His argument that corporate America invented Christian America is undermined by his own evidence. In explaining that corporate business leaders were seeking to combat the Social Gospel language of FDR’s New Deal, Kruse somehow misses the obvious point that the left was also using Christian language and imagery. Kruse writes that the ideas promoted by conservatives in the 1950s were “commonplace…but Eisenhower presented them in religious language that elevated them for his audience.”[8] In the previous chapter, Kruse noted that FDR did exactly the same thing with the Social Gospel. Clearly Americans were susceptible to the use of Christian imagery being used for political purposes, so it is a bit of a stretch to argue that corporate America – by which Kruse actually means capitalist, conservative America – invented Christian America.

Another issue arises in Kruse’s selective use of quotes, two of which jump out in particular. On page 112, Kruse, explaining the rise of “In God We Trust” as a national motto, explains Theodore Roosevelt’s objection to the motto’s use: “My own firm conviction is that such a motto on coins [In God We Trust] not only does no good, but positive harm and is in effect, irreverence, which comes close to sacrilege.”[9] With this quote, Kruse is making the argument that there was opposition to the use of “In God We Trust” as a national motto from important figures in American history. However, in this particular case, Kruse fails to note that Theodore Roosevelt did support the use of “In God We Trust” on public monuments. The rest of the quote Kruse uses reads, “[In God We Trust] is a motto which it is indeed well to have inscribed on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and in building such as those at West Point and Annapolis — in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon. But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.”[10] Clearly Theodore Roosevelt was not opposed to “In God We Trust” as a motto as Kruse leads the reader to believe, but rather Roosevelt was opposed to cheapening the motto by using it on something as mundane as money and stamps.

The second instance of Kruse misusing a quote is when he is discussing a failed attempt to amend the Constitution to include a provision declaring the United States a Christian nation. The amendment was promoted by Presbyterian minister named J. Renwick Patterson, who argued that since there were many invocations of the divine in public life, the Christian nation amendment would be appropriate.[11] Kruse claims that the Supreme Court of the United States took notice of these arguments (a claim he fails to substantiate with any evidence) and ruled in Zorach v. Clauson “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”[12] The issue with the quotation is that it is taken completely out of context. The Zorach case involved students being given leave from public schools to attend religious services. The court ruled that providing such an accommodation did not violate the establishment clause. The language involving “the Supreme Being” in context means that government institutions can cooperate with religious institutions to provide certain accommodations.[13]

Kruse’s misuse of quotes points to an obvious atheist (or secularist) bias. Such gross misuse of quotes brings into question the rest of his quoted material, especially that which the reader is not immediately familiar with. I was able to catch these misuses because I’m intimately familiar with this specific material due to my work for the Secular Coalition for America. A reader not so well versed might be easily duped into believing Kruse’s statements and out of context quotes at face value.

Overall, One Nation Under God is an excellent description of what happened, but not necessarily why it happened. Kruse oversells his basic premise, ignores some obvious points, and makes misleading statements to give the impression that Americans did not believe in the Christian nation concept before the fight over the New Deal in the 1930s and 40s. The careful reader is left with more questions than answers, and not in a good way. Kruse fails to connect how corporations invented Christian America, though he does an excellent job of describing how they exploited a pre-existing concept for their own ends. Kruse places too much stock in the influence of individuals like Fifield and Graham while ignoring larger themes. Instead of placing such characters within their historical contexts, Kruse has them inventing their own contexts.


End notes

[1] Kevin Michael Kruse, One Nation Under God (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[2] ibid., xiv

[3] Ibid., 5

[4] Ibid., 6

[5] Ibid., 12

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 60

[9] As quoted in ibid., 112

[10] As quoted in B.A. Robinson, “U.S. National Mottos: History And Constitutionality”, Religioustolerance.Org, last modified 2012, accessed March 20, 2016, http://www.religioustolerance.org/nat_mott.htm. See also “President Theodore Roosevelt Typed Letter Signed | Lot #6501 | Heritage Auctions”,Heritage Auctions, last modified 2005, accessed March 20, 2016, http://coins.ha.com/itm/books/other-collectibles/president-theodore-roosevelt-typed-letter-signed-theodore-roosevelt-as-president-three-pages-on-8-x-105-white-hou/a/392-6501.s# for a picture of the letter in question as presented for auction.

[11] Kruse, One Nation Under God.

[12] As quoted in ibid., 98

[13] “Zorach V. Clauson 343 U.S. 306 (1952)”, Justia Law, last modified 2015, accessed March 20, 2016, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/343/306/case.html.


References

Kruse, Kevin Michael. One Nation Under God. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

“President Theodore Roosevelt Typed Letter Signed | Lot #6501 | Heritage Auctions”. Heritage Auctions. Last modified 2005. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://coins.ha.com/itm/books/other-collectibles/president-theodore-roosevelt-typed-letter-signed-theodore-roosevelt-as-president-three-pages-on-8-x-105-white-hou/a/392-6501.s#.

Robinson, B.A. “U.S. National Mottos: History And Constitutionality”. Religioustolerance.Org. Last modified 2012. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://www.religioustolerance.org/nat_mott.htm.

“Zorach V. Clauson 343 U.S. 306 (1952)”. Justia Law. Last modified 2015. Accessed March 20, 2016. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/343/306/case.html.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *