According to author Kevin Kruse, the idea that America is a “Christian nation” was invented only recently, forged by an alliance between industrialists and conservative clergy who preached the connection between Christianity and capitalism.
In One Nation Under God, the Princeton history professor issues a twofold corrective: first, to the popular notion that the United States has always understood itself as a Christian nation; and second, to the conventional theory that the religious revival of the 1950s was born of anti-communist panic.
Kruse recently spoke with The Cubit, RD’s religion and science portal, about the myth of the “Christian nation,” the marriage of Christianity and capitalism, and the failure that preceded it.
The Cubit reached out to Kruse to discuss the origin, and recent resurgence, of the ideological links between capitalism, Christianity, and American public religion.
Where do you locate the roots of America’s “Christian nation” ideology?
It’s true that many Americans thought of their country as a “nation of Christians” from the start, but that was decidedly different from establishing a formal and official “Christian nation.”
Though the Declaration of Independence refers to rights coming from the Creator, the Constitution only invokes God in its dating “in the year of our Lord.” The other references all keep the state out of religion: no religious tests for office holders, no established national religion, no interference from Congress with individual religious exercise.
More explicitly, the Founders made their feelings clear in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli—begun by Washington, signed by Adams, passed unanimously by a Senate half-full of signers of the Constitution—that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Over the nineteenth century, especially during the crisis of the Civil War, there were many Americans who insisted we should be (or already were) an officially Christian nation. So the idea of it began then, though the implementation of it wasn’t successful until the 1950s.
During the postwar religious revival, countless slogans and ceremonies that we now take for granted—the National Day of Prayer, the National Prayer Breakfast, the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the formal motto “In God We Trust”—were established in quick order.
Because all this happened in the 1950s, many assumed (at the time and since) that these revolutionary changes in American political culture came about because of the Cold War. But what I discovered in researching and writing this book is that the architects of these changes saw them as a challenge not to the Soviet regime in Moscow, but to the New Deal administration in Washington, DC. In the 1930s and 1940s, they popularized a new language of “freedom under God” (as opposed to what they saw as “slavery under the welfare state”), which finally took hold nationally in the 1950s.
You track the emergence in the 1940s and 1950s of “Christian libertarianism,” a blend of conservative religion, economics, and politics. How did this Christian libertarianism reconceive of the relationship between Christianity and capitalism?
Capitalism and Christianity had been mixed by Americans before the New Deal, to be sure. (In the 1920s, the ad man Bruce Barton wrote a best-seller called The Man Nobody Knows that repackaged Jesus Christ as the most successful executive of all time.) These previous fusions of faith and free enterprise had always stressed their common social characteristics, but starting in the 1930s Christianity and capitalism were fused in a more political context.
With the New Deal state now looming large over business, the architects of this new Christian libertarianism placed Christianity and capitalism in joint opposition. Both systems reflected a belief in the primacy of the individual: in Christianity, the saintly went to Heaven and the sinners to Hell; in capitalism, the worthy succeeded and the inept went broke. Any system of government that meddled with this divinely inspired order, they argued, was nothing less than “pagan statism.”
Supported with ample funding from leaders of major corporations (Sun Oil, DuPont, GM, Chrysler, etc.) and leading business lobbies (US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, etc.), these Christian libertarian groups popularized this new language of “freedom under God” on a variety of fronts—in magazines, over the radio, in contests where ministers gave sermons on their themes, etc.
Tell me more about this alliance between business leaders and Christian groups. Why did American industrialists need religion on their side?
During the Depression, business leaders were on the defensive. The public blamed them for the Great Crash and the New Deal had constructed a new regulatory state and empowered labor unions, two developments that corporate America readily resented.
Business leaders quickly resolved to win back the public and devoted millions of dollars to a massive campaign of public relations, redirecting traditional business lobbies like the National Association of Manufacturers to the cause and creating brand new ones like the American Liberty League.
But Americans dismissed their naked paeans to capitalism as just business looking out for its own self-interest. (Democratic leader Jim Farley famously joked that they ought to call the American Liberty League “the American Cellophane League” because it was a DuPont product that you could see right through.)
Realizing that the direct approach hadn’t worked, these business leaders decided to outsource the work. In their private correspondence, they noted that polls proved ministers were the most trusted men in America and so they decided to recruit clergymen to make the case for them.
Were you surprised that such a recent form of public religiosity could write itself into the very identity of our nation?
I may be cynical, but I wasn’t surprised that politicians would rush to embrace these changes. As The Christian Century noted when the addition of “under God” to the pledge was proposed, “This is the sort of proposal against which no member of Congress would think of opposing, any more than against a resolution approving of motherhood.”
But I was surprised that the civil liberties organizations that we might today assume would have made some sort of objection really didn’t do much. The ACLU, for instance, was largely focused on the anticommunist movement of McCarthyism and paid little attention to issues of church-state separation. (Indeed, I discovered that the ACLU didn’t even learn about the proposal to change the national motto to “In God We Trust” until after the bill passed the House.)
Is Christian libertarianism still a meaningful force in U.S. politics?
In 2014, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Hobby Lobby decision, ruling that a corporation could be exempt from the contraception mandates of the Affordable Care Act. And more recently, in Indiana, we’ve seen arguments advanced that businesses should be allowed to refuse to provide service to same-sex weddings due to the religious beliefs of the owners.
So we’re currently witnessing a resurgence of that ideology in American law with the idea that corporations not only are capable of having religious beliefs, but that such beliefs make these businesses exempt from the laws of the regulatory state.