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One Nation Under God

How Corporate America Invented Christian America

Kevin M. Kruse

(NY Times)

Did you ever wonder how 'In God We Trust' came to be quoted on every American coin and dollar bill? Or why the Pledge of Allegiance to the most revered symbol of the nation includes an explicit declaration of confidence in the Almighty? Or why the president and members of Congress host a National Prayer Breakfast the first Thursday of each February?

These now utterly commonplace markers of public piety were almost all created during the same decade - the 1950s. Their initial enthusiasts, as described by the Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse, were conservative Protestant ministers and businessmen who hoped Americans would not take their handiwork for granted. They believed the nation badly needed a religious awakening to reverse the depredations of a godless federal state.

'Every Christian should oppose the totalitarian trends of the New Deal,' asserted James W. Fifield Jr., an eloquent Congregationalist pastor from Los Angeles who, during the 1930s, created Spiritual Mobilization, a publicity offensive that joined megachurches like his with vocal, anti-liberal magnates like the Hollywood producer Cecil B. De Mille and J. Howard Pew Jr., the president of Sun Oil. They all believed religiosity, if widely and officially deployed, would be a mighty weapon in the battle against collectivist liberals at home and Communists abroad. As their ally, Billy Graham, preached in 1951 at one of his ever popular crusades, Americans urgently needed to rededicate themselves to 'the rugged individualism that Christ brought' to the world.

But a funny thing happened on the road to spiritual and political redemption. By the mid-1950s, officeholders and social activists from every point on the ideological spectrum had signed on to the same righteous platform. In 1952, just before moving into the White House, Dwight ­Eisenhower (who was named after Dwight Moody, the renowned Gilded Age evangelist) told a gathering at the Waldorf Astoria: 'Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is.' Only a hardened atheist could object to such an ecumenical bromide. Under Eisenhower, Kruse writes, 'the state no longer seemed 'pagan,'... and liberals could present themselves as acting in accord with God's will too.' Two years later, when Congress agreed to add 'one nation under God' to the Pledge, not even the American Civil Liberties Union objected. One lone Jewish representative from Brooklyn, Abraham Multer, did argue that putting God's name on the currency would not stimulate 'one single person to be more religious.' But even he didn't dare vote against the bill.

Faith-based conflict did not disappear from American politics, of course. During the 1960s and early 1970s, battles over religion in public life were fought with no less vigor and nastiness than those waged over civil rights, feminism and war. Kruse provides a deft narrative about the movement to overturn the Supreme Court's ban on prayer and Bible readings in public schools, President Richard Nixon's attempt to make approval of his Vietnam policy seem a sacred duty and the Republican Party's wooing of white evangelicals. Only the last of those endeavors was successful.

In 1966, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois spearheaded an aggressive campaign to add a Constitutional amendment permitting school prayer. 'They teach the little children sex in the schools,' the Republican leader growled. 'They teach them about Communism. They even teach them ballet! Why not God Almighty?' Opinion polls strongly favored his stand. But clergymen from a variety of faiths contended that encouraging children to pray violated the First Amendment and might confuse a faith in God with obedience to their teachers. The Dirksen amendment failed to receive the necessary two-thirds margin in the Senate.

The main event in Nixon's pro-war religious revival took place on Independence Day in 1970. Billy Graham led a joint rally and prayer service at the Lincoln Memorial to 'Honor America.' Graham assured the crowd of 15,000 - and a national television audience - that the Republic's founding was 'rooted in a book called the Bible'; Kate Smith belted out 'God Bless America.' But several hundred chanting, mocking, underclad demonstrators managed to distract and anger the crowd, and the occasion did nothing to firm up support for the debacle in Indochina.

Despite the argument Kruse makes beginning with his subtitle, 'corporate America' played no significant role in conceiving any of these initiatives - although the hotelier J. Willard Marriott did persuade fellow businessmen to finance Honor America Day. Devout lawmakers like Dirksen and preachers like Graham were quite capable of mustering a God-fearing constituency by themselves. And Graham was not the stalwart right-winger that Kruse, echoing many of his contemporary critics, describes. As Grant Wacker reveals in his excellent new biography of the man, 'America's pastor' admired and was as close to President Lyndon Johnson, an archliberal, as he was to the wily Republican who succeeded him.

Kruse tells a big and important story about the mingling of religiosity and politics since the 1930s. Still, he oversells his basic premise. Americans easily accepted placing God's name on their currency and in the oath children recite every school day because similar invocations were already routine in public discourse - from the Declaration's reference to the 'unalienable Rights' endowed by the 'Creator' to the official chaplains who have opened sessions of the House and Senate with a prayer since 1789. Following the attacks of 9/11, we've added the ubiquitous 'God Bless America' to bumper stickers, to the ends of political speeches and to many a seventh-inning stretch. As features of what the sociologist Robert Bellah called 'civil religion' (a term he borrowed from Rousseau), the familiarity of these practices comforts some without making particular demands on anyone else. Even back in the age of Eisenhower, the A.C.L.U. understood that.

In recent years, those who claim to have inside knowledge of what the Creator wants us to think and do have been more common on the right than on the left. Conservatives blasted President Obama for comparing, at this year's National Prayer Breakfast, the people who 'committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ' with those contemporary Muslims who slaughter in the name of Allah. No serious competitor for the 2016 Republican nomination would quarrel with Ronald Reagan's 1984 statement that 'as morality's foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related...If we ever forget that we're one nation under God, then we'll be a nation gone under.'

But which leading progressive in American history would have disagreed with those sentiments? Surely not William Lloyd Garrison or Jane Addams or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As Kruse points out, Franklin Roosevelt, that alleged collectivist foe of God, sprinkled biblical references into many of his speeches. In his Second Inaugural Address, Roosevelt even 'portrayed himself, rather unsubtly, as a modern-day Moses leading his people out of the wilderness.' In the United States, spiritual mobilization has long been anyone's game. For that very reason, the presence of four little words of reverence on the currency is quite unremarkable. I doubt any of the long-dead white men whose portraits appear along with the words would have found them objectionable. They may, however, have wondered why they were necessary.

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