Christian America is an invention: Big business, right-wing politics and the religious lie that still divides us

The idea of "one nation under God" is a modern one -- and does not date back to the Founding Fathers

Published April 19, 2015 4:29PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Joe Skipper/Jason Reed/Rich Pedroncelli/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Joe Skipper/Jason Reed/Rich Pedroncelli/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America"

When he ran for the White House, Texas governor George W. Bush took a similarly soft approach, though one that came from the right. A born-again Christian, he shared Bill Clinton’s ability to discuss his faith openly. When Republican primary candidates were asked to name their favorite philosopher in a 1999 debate, for instance, Bush immediately named Christ, “because He changed my heart.” Despite the centrality of faith in his own life, Bush assured voters that he would not implement the rigid agenda of the religious right. Borrowing a phrase from author Marvin Olasky, Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative” and said he would take a lighter approach to social issues including abortion and gay rights than culture warriors such as Pat Buchanan. But many on the right took issue with the phrase. For some, the “compassionate” qualifier implicitly condemned mainstream conservatism as heartless; for others, the phrase seemed an empty marketing gimmick. (As Republican speechwriter David Frum put it, “Love conservatism but hate arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism—great ideological taste, now with less controversy.”) But the candidate backed his words with deeds, distancing himself from the ideologues in his party. In a single week in October 1999, for instance, Bush criticized House Republicans for “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” and lamented that all too often “my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah.”

In concrete terms, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” constituted a promise to empower private religious and community organizations and thereby expand their role in the provision of social services. This "faith­ based initiative" became the centerpiece of his campaign. In his address to the 2000 Republican National Convention, Bush heralded the work of Christian charities and called upon the nation to do what it could to sup­port  them. After  his inauguration, Bush moved swiftly to make the pro­posal a reality. Indeed, the longest  section  of his 2001 inaugural address was an expansive reflection on the idea. "America,  at its best, is compassionate," he observed. "Church and charity, synagogue and mosque  lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws." Bush promoted the initiative at his first Na­tional Prayer Breakfast as well. But it was ill-fated. Hamstrung by a lack of clear direction during the administration's first months, it was quickly overshadowed by a new emphasis on national security after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Bush continued to advance his vision of a godly nation. Soon after 9/11,  he made a special trip to the Islamic Center of Washington, the very same mosque  that  had opened its doors  to celebrate the Eisenhower inauguration a half century earlier. No sitting president had ever visited an Islamic house of worship, but Bush made clear by his words and deeds there that he considered Muslims part of the nation's diverse religious community. He denounced recent acts of violence against Muslims and Arab Americans in no uncertain terms. "Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America," he said; "they  represent the worst of humankind and they should be ashamed." Referring to Islam as a "religion of peace" and citing the Koran, he closed  his address with the same words of inclusion he would have used  before  any audience, religious  or otherwise: "God bless us all." The president was not alone in enlisting religious patriotism to demonstrate national unity after  the attacks. On September 12, 2001, congressional representatives from both parties joined together on  the Capitol steps to sing "God Bless America."Meanwhile, several states that did not already require recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in their schools introduced bills to do just that.

But the efforts to use the pledge as a source of unity were soon  thrown into disarray. In June 2002, a federal court ruled that  the phrase "one na­tion under God" violated the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a state religion. The case Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District had been filed in 2000 by Michael Newdow, an emergency room doctor who complained that his daughter’s rights were infringed because she was forced to “watch and listen as her state-employed teacher in her state-run school leads her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God, and that ours is ‘one nation under God.” In a 2-to-1 decision, the court agreed. It held that the phrase was just as objectionable as a statement that “we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.” The reaction from political leaders was as swift as it was predictable. The Senate suspended debate on a pending military spending bill to draft a resolution condemning the ruling, while dozens of House members took to the Capitol steps to recite the pledge and sing “God Bless America” one more time. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced that the president thought the decision was “ridiculous”; Democratic senator Tom Daschle called it “nuts.” The reaction was so pronounced, in fact, that the appeals court delayed implementation of its ruling until an appeal could be heard.

As the case made its way through the courts, the nation had to reckon anew with the meaning of “one nation under God.” According to Newdow, an atheist, the language of the amended pledge clearly took “one side in the quintessential religious question ‘Does God exist?’” The Bush administration, defending the pledge, asserted that reciting it was no more a religious act than using a coin with “In God We Trust” inscribed on it; both merely acknowledged the nation’s heritage. A separate brief filed by conservative religious organizations, however, argued that the pledge was “both theological and political.” Reviving claims of the Christian libertarians, it asserted that the words “under God” were added to underscore the concept of limited government. They were meant as a reminder that “government is not the highest authority in human affairs” because, as the Declaration of Independence claimed, “inalienable rights come from God.” In June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that Newdow technically lacked standing to bring the suit and thus dismissed the lower court’s ruling, dodging the issue for the time being.

Having survived that challenge in the courts, the concept of “one nation under God” thrived on the campaign trail. Seeking to rally religious voters for the 2004 election, Republican strategist Karl Rove advocated a "play-to-the-base" plan  to exploit  the concerns of the  religious right for electoral gain.The president passed two major  pieces of pro-life legisla­tion  and  then joined the campaign for a Federal Marriage Amendment to ban homosexual unions. Many on the right saw the coming campaign as the kind of"religious war" that  Pat Buchanan heralded a decade before. The Bush campaign worked  to capitalize on "the God gap" in the elector­ate, mobilizing religious conservatives in record  numbers. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, one backer erected  a billboard that summed up the unofficial strategy of the Republicans: "Bush  Cheney '04-0ne Nation Under God." The Democrats, meanwhile, gave the politics  of religion compara­tively little  attention. John Kerry's presidential campaign relegated much of its national religious outreach to a twenty-eight-year-old newcomer who  had  virtually no institutional support, not even an old  database of contacts. "The matchup between the two parties  in pursuit of religious voters wasn't just David versus  Goliath," the  journalist Amy Sullivan wrote."It was David  versus Goliath and the Philistines and the Assyrians and  the Egyptians, with a few plagues thrown in for good measure."

* * *

The notable exception to the  Democrats' avoidance  of re­ligious  rhetoric came  at the party's national convention. Then a largely unknown state  senator from  Illinois,  Barack  Obama introduced himself to the country with a stirring speech that emphasized religious values as a source of national unity. Obama dismissed  those who  would "use faith as a wedge to divide  us," proclaiming to loud  applause  that  "we worship an 'awesome  God' in the blue states." "We are one people," Obama insisted, "all of us pledging allegiance  to the Stars  and Stripes, all of us defending the United States  of America." Citing the Declaration of Independence, he rooted his fellow citizens' rights in their  Creator but insisted  that  their responsibilities stemmed from  God  as well. What "makes this  country work,"  Obama observed, was a belief  based  on  lessons  in  the  Bible: "I am my brother's keeper; I am  my sister's keeper." He  ended  his address with  an optimistic invocation of piety and  patriotism reminiscent of the speeches  of Ronald Reagan. "The audacity of hope!" he proclaimed. "In the end,  that  is God 's greatest gift to us, the  bedrock of this  nation." As the crowd roared, he completed his speech with a now-familiar ritual: “God bless you.”

The  keynote address made Obama a contender in the presidential contest just four years later, but it did not protect him from doubts about his commitment to his God and his country. In early 2008, inflammatory comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his longtime pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, came to light, threatening to cripple his campaign. In an excerpt from a 2003 sermon replayed endlessly on cable news networks, the fiery preacher told his congregation that African Americans should condemn the United States. “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human!” Wright shouted. “God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” Obama stated that he thought his pastor’s “rants” were “appalling,” and in March 2008, he confronted the controversy in a major speech in Philadelphia. Though race, rather than religion, emerged as the central theme, Obama employed the language of faith to explain his pastor’s statements and, at the same time, distance himself from them. “I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people,” Obama insisted, “that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Religion played an even more prominent role in the race for the Republican nomination. In a November 2007 debate, CNN showed a videotaped question from a voter who held up a Christian version of the Bible and said, “How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you: Do you believe every word of this book?” The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer insisted that the candidates should have answered that it was “none of your damn business,” but instead all of them “bent a knee and tried appeasement with various interpretations of scriptural literalism.” Indeed, the Republican field seemed especially eager to outdo one another’s professions of piety. Arizona senator John McCain, who had boldly denounced Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” in his losing bid in the 2000 primaries, spent much of his second run mending fences with them. He made a major address at Falwell’s Liberty University, where he asserted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." New York City  mayor  Rudy  Giuliani, meanwhile, proudly won  Robertson's endorsement. Not to be outdone, Arkansas gov­ernor  Mike  Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, attributed his strong showing in the polls to "the same power that  helped  a little boy with  two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people."

No  Republican candidate, however, was challenged more by ques­tions of faith than Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The first Mor­mon to make a significant run for the presidency, he found his campaign struggling to overcome  distrust by evangelical voters  at the party's base. Romney staged a major speech on "Faith in America" at the presidential library  of George H. W. Bush. Though he stood by his faith and made clear that he shared common ground with more traditional Christians, Romney only used the word "Mormon" once.  Instead, the  bulk of his address focused on the proper place of faith in American politics. "Freedom requires religion," he argued, "just as religion requires freedom." He promised never to force his own values on the nation as a whole, but also said he believed that religious principles in general were essential to the continued health of the nation. The Constitution rested on a "foundation of faith," Romney said, and its framers "did not countenance the elimina­tion of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'under God,' and in God we do indeed  trust."

* * *

These invocations reveal that the rhetoric and rituals of public religion have lived on to the  present day. Indeed, if anything, such touchstones of religious nationalism have only be ­ come  more deeply lodged  in American political culture  over time, as the innovations of one generation became familiar  traditions for the next. But as these  religious notes have been drummed into  the national  conscious­ ness, almost by rote, we have forgotten their origins. More than that, we have forgotten they have origins at all.

And their origins,  it turns out, are rather surprising. The rites of our public religion originated not in a spiritual crisis, but rather in the polit­ical and economic turmoil of the Great Depression. The story of busi­ness leaders enlisting clergymen in their war against the New Deal is one that has been largely obscured  by the very ideology that resulted from it.

Previous accounts of the tangled relationship between Christianity and capitalism have noted  the “uneasy alliance” between businessmen and the religious right which helped elect Ronald Reagan and end the New Deal order, but the careers of the Christian libertarians in the 1930s and 1940s show that their alliance was present at the creation of the New Deal. Their ideology of “freedom under God” did not topple the regulatory state as they hoped, but thanks to the evangelism of conservative clergymen such as James Fifield, Abraham Vereide, and Billy Graham, it ultimately accomplished more than its corporate creators ever dreamed possible. It convinced a wide range of Americans that their country had been, and should always be, a Christian nation.

In the early 1950s, the long crusade of the Christian libertarians apparently reached its triumphant climax with the election of Dwight Eisenhower. But the new president proved to be transformative in a sense his corporate backers had not anticipated. Although he was certainly sympathetic to the secular ends they sought, Eisenhower proved to be much more interested in the spiritual language they had invented as a means of achieving those ends. Uncoupling their religious rhetoric from its roots in the fight against the New Deal, he considerably broadened its appeal, expanding its reach well beyond the initial circle of conservative Protestants to welcome Americans across the political and religious spectrum. In doing so, Eisenhower ushered in an unprecedented religious revival, one that temporarily filled the nation’s churches and synagogues but permanently altered its political culture. From then on, the federal government, which the Christian libertarians had long denounced as godless, was increasingly seen as quite godly instead. Congress cemented these changes, adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and adopting “In God We Trust” as the nation’s first official motto. Hollywood and Madison Avenue, meanwhile, helped promote this understanding of America as a religious nation and Americans as an inherently religious people.

The new rituals of public religion crafted in the Eisenhower era were seen at the time as symbolic flourishes with little substance to them. But the rites and rhetoric that Eugene Rostow dismissed as mere “ceremonial deism” in 1962 were soon revealed to have incredible political power. National controversies over school prayer—which unfolded first in the Supreme Court and then in Congress—demonstrated that the symbols and slogans  of the  Eisenhower era, instituted less than a decade  earlier, had quickly been embraced by many  Americans as ironclad  evidence of the nation's  religious roots.  As conservatives fought to restore  school prayer and to roll back other social changes  in the turbulent 1960s,  they  rallied around   phrases  like  "one  nation under   God." As a result,  the religious rhetoric that  had  recently  been  used  to unite  Americans began  to drive them further apart. At the decade's end, Richard Nixon helped complete this polarization of the nation's public religion, using it to advance divisive policies both  at home  and abroad.

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.

Excerpted from "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America" by Kevin Kruse. Published by Basic Books. Copyright 2015 by Kevin Kruse. Excerpted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Kevin M. Kruse

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