The Invention of Christian America?

Kevin Kruse writes a fascinating overview of the 1950’s-1980’s and the growth of what he describes as the corporate invention of Christian America.[1] Drawing on extensive research Mr. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, makes the claim that our understanding of America as a ‘Christian’ nation only dates back to the 1950’s.

He seeks to draw a straight line between businessmen and other leaders who were opposed to President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ and the development of a revisionist history claiming that America was founded upon Judaeo-Christian values and ideals (p. xvi). Tying together business leaders, important religious figures, and political leaders Kruse seeks to explain how phrases like ‘One Nation Under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’ have etched themselves into what others have called America’s ‘civil religion’[2].

The book is a fascination behind-the-scenes look into the connections between business leaders and prominent clergymen such as Billy Graham and how they were able to rally Americans for political change. The section describing how the phrase ‘One Nation Under God’ was added to the pledge is unrivaled in political history writing. Kruse also describes how all branches of the US government were working with and against one another in the battle over prayer in schools. His detailed description of the congressional hearings regarding a prayer amendment illuminate how congress truly works.

Also worth reading is Mr. Kruse’s description of how President Eisenhower in particular set a tone of religiosity unlike presidents before him. Kruse describes the partnerships of business and congressional leaders that were able to work together in setting a religious tone for Pres. Eisenhower’s inauguration and his establishment of the National Prayer Breakfast. He explains Eisenhower’s first inauguration as setting the tone for the entire administration. President Eisenhower instituted beginning every Cabinet meeting with prayer and many Cabinet Secretaries followed suit in their own departments.

His thesis that the “rites of our public religion originated not in a spiritual crisis, but rather in the political and economic turmoil of the Great Depression” misses the spiritual dimension of the very event. Certainly the alteration of our pledge and the acceptance of a motto are recent developments historically. However to assert that they are simply expressions of a newly found faith obscures the facts of history. The original pledge did not contain the phrase, ‘One Nation Under God,’ but a careful reading of American history would suggest that the idea was implicit from the era of America’s origin. Even Kruse acknowledges that President Roosevelt’s first inaugural contained explicit biblical themes. President Lincoln was also adept at calling for national days of prayer and thanksgiving during the Civil War. As Carawardine writes, “[B]y a short proclamation Lincoln could use one of his most supportive networks [i.e. Northern Protestantism] to secure a national charge of adrenaline.”[3]

Certainly a national motto and the addition of words to our pledge are relatively recent. The adoption of those phrases, however, seems to suggest something deeper than merely businessmen and politicians seeking power and influence.

[1] Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Bools, 2015), 352 pp.

[2] Putnam and Campbell write, “Embedded in the American psyche is an implicit article of patriotic faith that the nation owes its very existence, and survival, to a God in the heavens.” Robert  D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, with the assistance of Shaylyn Romney Garrett, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 517.

[3] Richard Carawadine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 298.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Invention of Christian America?

  1. Don Reeves

    So he teaches at a university founded by New Light Presbyterians in 1746 to train ministers and whose motto is “Under God’s power she flourishes” and he wants us to believe that over 200 years later there was a corporate invention of historical American Christian influence? Maybe he ought to learn the history of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) before he tries to rewrite American history. Problem is, most of his students will believe him and parrot his words to others.

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