At the conclusion of his book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kevin Kruse says this: “This history reminds us that our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era.” That is the burden of his excellent book: to show us how the corporate leaders who hated Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal worked tirelessly (their sabotage goes on even to our own time, ably personified by House Speaker Paul Ryan) for decades to reverse the programs designed to help the poor and middle classes devastated by the Great Depression. They hated New Deal programs and regulations which they excoriated as excessive government intervention in the allegedly objective workings of the economic and social system designed by God (and immensely profitable to them). In other words, capitalism and free markets should be left to do their God-ordained work without the interference of government bureaucrats. Sound familiar? It should. It has long been the mantra of the Republican Party and has animated recent governments from Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Trump. What was not apparent before Kruse’s book was how recent this program really is, and how successful the propagandists have been in convincing the American people that the principles and slogans and symbols—In God We Trust, One Nation Under God, the Pledge of Allegiance—are old and venerable and descended from our founding documents. They are not. They are the result of a campaign in the 1930s and 1940s that sought to link capitalism to religion, specifically the Christian religion, to give it the imprimatur and heft of American doctrine.
Kruse begins with some revealing stats, i.e., the percentages of American who claimed membership in a church—just 16% in 1850, rising to only 36% in 1900, and still only 49% in 1940. After WWII, however, when the push for public religiosity reached its apogee, especially with Dwight Eisenhower as President, the percentage leaped to 69% in 1959. So the repeated assertions by public promoters of religion like Reagan and Ike and Nixon and the great revivalist, Billy Graham, that it was the Founding Fathers who dedicated this nation to religion, were little more than smoke and mirrors. Rather, Washington and Jefferson and Franklin and Thomas Paine were “deists,” men so suspicious of the notion that any Divinity actually interacts with humans, much less political humans (i.e. in a state religion), that they wrote their warning into the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
So where did all this ranting and raving about making religion public and political come from? That’s what Kruse tells us in his book. And the surprise is that it came, initially, from the corporatists desperate to deflect the blame for having caused the Great Depression away from their business practices and onto the New Deal itself. That is, with the Depression, the reputation of American business had gone into the toilet. And corporate America blamed Roosevelt and his New Deal for what they saw as this defamation. This led the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), among others, to mount programs and make alliances starting in 1934 that would put “business’s story” in a better light. If this sounds uncannily like the movement that was started by the infamous Powell memo (August 23, 1971) titled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” that’s because it was: both were animated by the same perceived attack on American business, the first by the New Deal, the second by Ralph Nader and the left-wing ‘socialists’ of the 1960s who sought to make businesses accountable. And both sought to set up organizations and alliances to mount a counterattack to restore the good odor of business in America.
The leaders of NAM decided to use religion to do the job. They found a popular Congregationalist Minister from Los Angeles named James Fifield (his parish catered especially to millionaires like movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille) to make the link. And make it he did. In a speech to NAM in 1940, Fifield passionately defended the American system of free enterprise, which he alleged was suffering from the New Deal’s “encroachment upon our American freedoms,” especially in “the rising costs of government and the multitude of federal agencies attached to the executive branch” (6-7). Through Fifield, other conservative ministers took up and extended the religious attack, accusing “the Democratic Administration (i.e. FDR’s New Deal)” of making a “false idol” of the federal government, leading Americans to “worship it over the Almighty,” as well as
“to covet what the wealthy possessed and seek to steal it from them…Above all, [these ministers] insisted that the welfare state was not a means to implement Christ’s teachings about caring for the poor and needy, but rather a perversion of Christian doctrine. In a forceful rejection of the public service themes of the Social Gospel, they argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. If any political and economic system fit with the religious teachings of Christ, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified such values, they insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise (7). (Emphasis added).
By the 1940s, Fifield had organized a group he called Spiritual Mobilization to combat what he censured as “pagan stateism:” “Recognizing the anti-Christian and anti-American trends toward pagan stateism in America, I covenant to oppose them in all areas of influence” (14). More concerned about domestic liberals such as FDR and his successor Harry Truman than even about the Soviet Union, Fifield said in a letter,
“There is a very much accelerated response to the efforts of Spiritual Mobilization because it is so obvious that the battle to collectivize America is really on, and on in earnest since the announcement of President Truman’s legislative program” (22).
A powerful member of Fifield’s organization, J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil Co., put it even more graphically:
“According to my book there are five principle issues before the country: The socialization of industry, the socialization of medicine, the socialization of education, the socialization of labor, and the socialization of security. Only through education and the pressure which the people exert on their politicians can we hope to prevent this country from becoming a totalitarian state.”
The main method to combat these collectivizing, socializing elements being embedded by Democratic Party “liberals” in American government would be the promotion of ‘Freedom Under God,’ the theme that would be used to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Kruse then discusses the three most important influences in the resultant “God revival” of the 1950s: the prayer-breakfast meetings started by Abraham Vereide; Billy Graham’s religious revivals that packed hundreds of thousands of aspiring “born-agains” into America’s stadiums; and the election of WWII war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, as President. All promoted the alleged traditional faith of Americans in God, but in a way that had never been so public before. Graham actually said: “Thousands of businessmen have discovered the satisfaction of having God as a working partner…God bless you and thank you, and God bless the Holiday Inns” (37). Minister Vereide managed to convince huge numbers of congress people to attend his Congressional prayer breakfasts (which from then on became standard) to promote a “united front against the forces of the anti-Christ” (49). And Eisenhower, though never a regular church member, and, in fact, only baptized a week after his inauguration as a Presybterian (which denomination he chose “because (his wife) Mamie is a Presbyterian”), became the political face of the spiritual revival: he reiterated on election night what he had said often in his campaign: that “we need a spiritual renewal” (64). As President, he participated in National Prayer Breakfasts (which every president since has had to partake in). He took part in the American Legion’s “Back to God” movement, which linked American government and the freedoms it allegedly promoted with a spiritual awakening to God, and insisted that faith was the foundation of American government because “belief in God was the essential tenet of the Founding Fathers” (73). From there it was only a short step to incorporating God more and more in the signs and symbols of the American government, such as “In God is our Trust,” or, “Without God there could be no American form of Government, nor an American way of life” (75). At the first National Prayer Breakfast—for which Conrad Hilton offered the Ballroom of his Mayflower Hotel—the most mawkish symbol of all (commissioned by Hilton himself) was unveiled: the spectacle of Uncle Sam on his knees, his iconic hat beside him, his hands and eyes offered upward in prayer. Hilton called it “America on its Knees,” and gave the original painting to Eisenhower for the Oval Office, and distributed more than 400,000 copies nationwide.
After this, religion was a central part of the American government’s slogans and iconography for good. The battles over displaying “In God We Trust” on all the nation’s money and as the official motto of the United States (signed into law on July 30, 1956); the insertion of “one nation under God,” into the Pledge of Allegiance (signed into law by Eisenhower on June 14, 1954; when I went to school we said simply “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”); and the contentious court cases over whether children could be urged or forced to recite prayers in public schools and/or read passages from the Bible (both were struck down by the Supreme Court for absolutely sound Constitutional reasons)—all were outgrowths of the original movement to resuscitate the reputation of American business from its part in causing the Great Depression. If there is an apotheosis to this religion-in-government movement, it is probably the presidency of Richard Nixon.
Nixon, of course, had been in on the ground floor of the religious crusade, since he had been Eisenhower’s vice-President. Even more than Ike, he was attuned to the fact that, in the religious battles over school prayer, the lay public was in conflict with the religious leaders of most churches (who agreed with the courts that school prayer violated the Constitution.) Nixon, though not at all religious himself, set out to exploit this outraged “silent majority,” especially since they had already been primed to resent the “godless” protesters objecting to the Vietnam War. Accordingly, his campaign and presidency made prominent use of evangelist Billy Graham, whom biographer Marshal Frady called “something like an extra officer of Nixon’s Cabinet, the administration’s own Pastor-without-Portfolio” (243). Graham was present at his nominating Convention and Nixon returned the favor by appearing at many of Graham’s large crusade events. When he won the election, Nixon asked Graham to “lead us in prayer.” For his first presidential address, Nixon gave a kind of Graham-esque sermon: “To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit,” the President intoned, after which he had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing a solemn version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” (the only sour note coming at the end, when a joker in the press stands yelled: “Okay, play ball!”). Most conspicuously, Richard Nixon, a more or less indifferent Quaker, ordered religious services to be held every Sunday in the White House’s East Room, at which dignitaries were asked to preach, and to which dignitaries from government and business were invited as guests. Though some prominent churchmen and theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Harvey Cox criticized this practice (Cox said “Frankly, we have enough problems persuading young people to become interested in religion without having Nixon support it!” (256), Nixon was quite happy to employ it for public relations, as Charles Colson later testified:
“One of my jobs in the White House was to romance religious leaders. We would bring them into the White House and they would be dazzled by the aura of the Oval Office, and I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups that we worked with” (250).
Colson also related that an early memo from the President ordered him to act on the “President’s request that you develop a list of rich people with strong religious interest to be invited to the White House church services” (254). Accordingly, later guests included the heads of AT&T, Bechtel, GE, GM, Goodyear, PepsiCo, Republic Steel, and similar corporate big wigs. Whether or not they knew that the whole movement to bring religion into government had started to benefit corporations like theirs in the 1930s, it is quite clear that they were happy to be seen in a religious setting in the White House. In this, as in many other areas, Nixon proved to be the least reticent about exploiting whatever area of American life or thought might give him a political advantage. As religious scholar William Martin put it:
“Every president in American history had invoked the name and blessings of God during his inauguration address…but none ever made such a conscious, calculating use of religion as a political instrument as did Richard Nixon” (244).
There is more about this “calculating use of religion” in the presidencies of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama (especially after the rise of the evangelicals of the religious Right), but you get the picture. From 1930 to the present, American politics has had to genuflect to the putative demand of the American public that its leaders, and its public symbols have a “God” element to them. And what is now clear, thanks to Kevin Kruse, is that this religious patriotism, or patriotic religion, really owes its central place in American politics not to a genuine faith in Christ or Christianity, but to the need of corporate America to combat the ‘social Gospel’ of the New Deal with its own gospel of Christian-libertarian capitalism freed from all forms of government regulation and control.