I recently completed a book by Kevin Kruse entitled One Nation Under God: How Corporate American invented Christian America. The book is the kind of book that I normally like. It is meticulously researched. The writing is fairly tight and keeps moving. It tackles its subject well and I learned quite a bit about the subject for reading it.
Kruse attempts to make the argument that much (he often alludes to ‘all’) of what we consider “Christian America” began as an attempt from corporate America to put down the New Deal in the 30s and 40s. He does a really good job at it. He shows, quite well, that corporate America reaches out to the predominantly conservative religious people of the time for a political marriage aimed at dismantling aspects of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the impact it has on American ideals and life. This political marriage is espoused in revivalistic fervor that enshrines a “ceremonial deism” within the public sphere. It culminates with the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president, who is arguably the most ardent president in regards to public expressions of faith in government. It is during this time when the words, “under God,” are added to the Pledge of Allegiance and the nation’s motto officially becomes “In God We Trust.” Though to be fair, the latter expression was in use often and much earlier before it became the official national motto.
The book goes on to detail this political marriage as it attempts to keep its hold on an America that is changing in the 1960s. The pillars upon which this portion of the book hang are the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding state-sponsored school prayer in 1962 and state-sponsored Bible reading in 1963. This portion of the book was worth the price for its great depth and reference, not only for what the decisions actually banned, but for the justice’s opinions on what they do not ban. This was the best part of the book for me. Reading the justice’s decisions helped me to clear the foggy air as to what these decisions do and what they are not meant to do. Consider the following excerpt from the majority decision on school prayer.
On June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Engel v. Vitale. Inside the courtroom, Black arched forward in his high-backed chair, rested his arms on the bench, and began reading the opinion with unconcealed emotion. In the audience, his wife thought his delivery “sounded almost like a sermon.” After explaining the details of the case, Black paused to collect himself and clutched his papers tightly. There could be “no doubt,” he went on, that “the daily invocation of God’s blessings [was] a religious activity” and, as a result, no doubt that New York “adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment clause.” Black asserted that the First Amendment embodied the founders’ belief that faith was “too personal, too sacred, too holy to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate.” (Here, an observer noted, “his voice trembled with emotion as he paused over ‘too personal, too sacred, too holy.’”) In Black’s view, religion certainly deserved a place of prominence in American life, but the state could not dictate it. “It is no part of the business of government,” he read, “to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by the government.” Departing from his written text, Black added an impromptu plea. “The prayer of each man from his soul must be his and his alone,” he said. “If there is anything clear in the First Amendment, it is that the right of the people to pray in their own way is not to be controlled by the election returns.” (Bold mine)
This was the guy who wrote the majority decision banning state-sponsored prayer saying that religion deserves a prominent place in American life!
The book finishes with a look at Nixon’s presidency and how he boldly and misguidedly attempted to infuse his administration with religion, though it was certainly nothing more than the “ceremonial deism” of the Eisenhower administration. In fact, one could argue it was much less. In the epilogue, Kruse goes on to investigate the religious overtones of every president since Reagan (who was the first to pepper his speeches with the benediction(?) “and may God Bless America.” Each president since as done the same thing, including President Obama.
Kruse does an excellent job of showing the inner workings of many of the groups that espoused religion in the public square, but did not live by that religion in their own lives or in their organizations. He, likewise, shines a bright light on the failings of ceremonial deism as a form of public religion. It looks very little like true Christianity.
Kruse finishes the book with these words:
This history reminds us that our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era. The ceremonies and symbols that breathe life into the belief that we are “one nation under God” were not, as many Americans believe, created alongside the nation itself. Their parentage stems not from the founding fathers but from an era much closer to our own, the era of our own fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers. This fact need not diminish their importance; fresh traditions can be more powerful than older ones adhered to out of habit. Nevertheless, we do violence to our past if we treat certain phrases—“ one nation under God,” “In God We Trust”— as sacred texts handed down to us from the nation’s founding. Instead, we are better served if we understand these utterances for what they are: political slogans that speak not to the origins of our nation but to a specific point in its not-so-distant past. If they are to mean anything to us now, we should understand what they meant then. (bold mine)
It is here where I diverge from the author a bit. The adding of these “political slogans” can (and perhaps do) speak to origins of our nation, even while their enshrinement is a result of the modern era. For many church-going Americans (which by every measure was a vast majority of the country for up until the 1970s), these words stand alongside those founding documents and the words of many of the founding fathers regarding a divine origin for this form of government. The words are enshrined BECAUSE they feel that way. Even the supreme court justices (quoted by the author) who were striking down state-sponsored school prayer said as much. Why not explore this? The author doesn’t and instead gives us rather cold and calculating answers that feel a bit ham-fisted due to his lack of investigation. It was almost as if he didn’t want to explore some of the deeper questions.
In this way, the book felt more like an agenda than a history. And I really don’t like agendas masking themselves as history. I would have liked a more robust view of the matter, rather than the narrower version I received. If you are going to subtitle your book, “How Corporate America invented Christian America,” then you might need to a little more research into the religious overtones and nuances of the revolution, trace their developments in policy, and then close with a modern take. The book seemed to be all egg and no chicken. Admittedly, it would have been a difficult undertaking, but great books are always difficult undertakings.