In One Nation Under God, historian Kevin M. Kruse seeks to challenge the dominant assumption that the United States has always been a “Christian nation.” Kruse asserts that this idea is a modern invention. He shows that much of the ecclesiastical symbolism that we commonly take for granted—such as the phrases “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on paper money, and presidential invocations such as “God bless America”—actually had their origins in the 1930s.
Although many scholars reject the popular conception that the United States has always been Christian, they typically attribute the Cold War, and the resulting anti-communist panic as the catalyst. As the story typically goes: “The Soviet Union discovered the bomb, and the United States rediscovered God.” But Kruse contends American piety did not originate in the realm of foreign policy, but was the product of a domestic battle carried out by corporate opponents of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. President Eisenhower then brought a burgeoning religious movement into the White House.
Under the New Deal, the government stepped in to try and save the capitalist system during the Great Depression. The Roosevelt administration regulated business, invested in public works, and tried to contain workers’ struggles by granting them union rights. Kruse maintains that in introducing these measures, “Roosevelt and his allies revived the old language of the so-called Social Gospel to justify the creation of the modern welfare state.” They turned to a liberal version of Christianity to legitimize their program.
Many business leaders, however, deeply resented Roosevelt’s reforms. They enlisted prominent conservative men of faith to promulgate their own religious ideology in order to compete with the New Deal’s social gospel. “This new ideology,” writes Kruse, “was designed to defeat the state power its architects feared most—not the Soviet regime in Moscow, but Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration in Washington. With ample funding from major corporations, prominent industrialists, and business lobbies such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce,” these insurgent evangelists promoted a vision of free enterprise best characterized as “Christian libertarianism.”
While unable to beat back Roosevelt’s policies, this massive public relations campaign got a huge shot in the arm after Eisenhower became president in 1953. Kruse describes Eisenhower’s inauguration as “much more than a political ceremony. It was, in many ways, a religious consecration.” Winning 55 percent of the popular vote, “and a staggering 442-to-89 margin in the Electoral College,” Eisenhower felt he was given “nothing less than a mandate for a national religious revival.” The new president transformed public office, which was previously a secular realm, into one of increasing piety.
In the 1950s, Americans were told explicitly and often that not only should the United States be a Christian nation, but that it always was one. Kruse shows that the Eisenhower administration not only gave “religion an unprecedented role in the public sphere, it essentially echoed and amplified the work of countless private organizations and ordinary citizens who had already been active in the same cause.”
Eisenhower was the first president to participate in the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which was created by conservative Methodist clergyman Abraham Vereide. Kruse notes, “In 1954, Congress followed Eisenhower’s lead, adding the phrase ‘Under God’ to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance.” The original words of the Pledge were written in the 1890s by Francis Bellamy—who called himself a “Christian socialist”—and was a strong proponent of the separation of church and state. “A similar phrase, ‘In God We Trust,’” Kruse documents, “was added to a postage stamp for the first time in 1954 and then to paper money the next year; in 1956, it became the nation’s first official motto.”
Eisenhower had “indispensable allies” in this project of Christianization, in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue. They churned out spiritual films, books, and advertising campaigns. They generated a veritable “Christian crusade” combining “religious nationalism” and laissez-faire capitalism. As a result of this movement, church membership in the US, which had been a relatively modest 36 percent at the turn of the twentieth century, began to skyrocket, peaking at 69 percent at the end of the 1950s.
Liberal organizations like the ACLU, which traditionally defend the separation of church and state, put up very little resistance to the blows against secularism. As a result, the religious movement, coupled with a concomitant shift in popular consciousness, came close to passing a “Christian Amendment,” declaring the United States a “Christian nation,” and mandating public prayer in classrooms.
While these more extreme measures were defeated, the role of religion as a tool of political power motored on. Nixon would blatantly politicize religion as a way of mobilizing the so-called “silent majority”—his white middle-class conservative constituency—as a counterweight against the 1960s social movements. Today, every president appeals to religion in one way, shape, or form. Both Republicans and Democrats invoke “God and country” in their speeches.
One Nation Under God aptly documents the depths the conservative establishment was willing to plumb to battle the welfare state. At the same time, the book suffers from serious weaknesses. It has a one-sided analysis of religion, seeing it as only a vehicle for our rulers to impose their ideas on us.
But, as Frederick Engels wrote, “morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed.” Thus, in the hands of, for example, Martin Luther King Jr., religion was forged into a weapon of struggle for liberation.
Kruse’s argument that religion has only recently been integrated into the state is also overstated. The historical record is filled with examples of how American politicians used religion prior to the Depression. One need look no further than William Howard Taft, who proclaimed in 1912 that the Catholic Church was “one of the bulwarks against socialism and anarchy in this country,” or William McKinley, who in 1899, proclaimed he got down on his knees and prayed to “almighty God for light and guidance” whether the United States should invade and “Christianize” the Philippines.
Kruse is certainly right in asserting that the early American republic was not founded on religious principles. The members of the revolutionary bourgeoisie were comprised mainly of republicans, religious skeptics, and secular liberals who were deeply influenced by French enlightenment philosophy. Central to this were the concepts of deism and the separation of church and state.
However, a religious reaction set in not long after the American Revolution. Much like the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War, conservative elements in the American ruling class turned against the radical republicanism they saw being exported from Jacobin France. What Kruse describes in the Eisenhower era as “revivalism” was actually preceded by perhaps a much larger one in earlier American history. Capital funded preachers to cultivate very individualistic, nativist, and reactionary religious currents in the so-called Bible Belt. Even before its integration into the state, capital used religion as a key part of its ideological indoctrination of workers and the oppressed.
Kruse also does not put the ruling class turn to religion during the Depression in the context of class struggle. He discusses Roosevelt’s Social Gospel in isolation from the wave of workers’ strikes. Roosevelt’s New Deal was not simply a moral issue. It was an attempt to save the system from a radical labor upsurge that threatened American capitalism. That struggle from below forced Roosevelt to grant reforms. His religious doctrine was an attempt to preach social peace between the classes in order to contain revolt from below. But the ruling class was divided on how best to subdue the working class. Roosevelt was attempting to sell his reforms to the labor movement and the reactionary wing of the capitalist class. What he wasn’t doing was providing charity to labor out of the goodness of his heart.
These weaknesses aside, One Nation Under God is an excellent history of the increasing role of religion in ruling-class politics. It shows how the ruling class doubled down on religion from the Great Depression through the Cold War and into the current era.