Kevin Kruse Responds to the Forum

Kevin M. Kruse in the One Nation Under God Forum

Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Basic Books, 2015, 384pp., $29.99
Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Basic Books, 2015, 384pp., $29.99
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I am deeply grateful to these four scholars for taking the time to provide such thoughtful and generous reviews of One Nation Under God. While I’d love to dwell on their kind praise, it’s their constructive criticism that deserves attention here. In the space I have, I’d like to address their comments on the book’s handling of America as a “Christian nation,” as well as the production and reception of that key idea.

As Jeania Ree Moore notes, the unsubtle subtitle given to the book — “How Corporate America Invented Christian America” — has led some reviewers to conclude that I am maintaining that the concept of the United States as a “Christian nation” was created out of whole cloth in the mid-twentieth century. The fault for this misconception lies wholly with the author, though this interpretation was certainly not my intent. I am, of course, fully aware of how the rhetoric of Christian nationhood infused political and popular discourse from the early nineteenth century on. But, to answer an important question posed by Diane Winston, even though the mid-twentieth-century developments chronicled in the book built upon those earlier traditions, that era’s manifestation of “Christian America” was “substantially different” from all that came before it. It was one thing for Americans to think of themselves as “a nation of Christians” or even a nation in which Christian ideas and identities shaped legislation or regulated social customs. But the postwar era witnessed a new movement that succeeded in designating the political structures of the American state — formally and officially — as fundamentally religious. And unlike the many waves of religious revival that had surged and retreated in earlier eras, the post-World War II revival made a permanent mark on our political culture.

Importantly, rewriting old texts and adding new inscriptions stamped this modern movement with the appearance of antiquity, and concealed these novel developments under a patina of timelessness. When Americans today debate whether or not theirs is a “Christian nation” they invariably point to changes made in this moment. The evidence is substantial: whether it be formal mottos like “One Nation under God” or “In God We Trust,” official observances like the National Day of Prayer, and ceremonial institutions like the National Prayer Breakfast. The rhetoric and rituals of religious nationalism crafted in this postwar era built on earlier traditions, to be sure, but in the end they far surpassed what came before in both degree and depth.

Accordingly, One Nation Under God focuses on the production of such modern markers of religious nationalism. But as Matthew Avery Sutton notes, much of that story still needs to be told. Of the promising avenues of research he’s proposed here, the most pressing is the open question of why such a diverse set of clergymen came to embrace a common political cause. As a political historian by training, I believe scholars of religion need to take the lead. That said, I can offer some thoughts on Sutton’s suggested answers. As much as I value Alison Collis Greene’s insights about how the government’s intrusion on Southern minister’s control of social aid stirred resentment, that dynamic may not explain the actions of the ministers under consideration here. James W. Fifield, Jr., seemed generally unconcerned with the poor, while Abraham Vereide left a leadership position at Goodwill Industries after concluding that “promiscuous charity” — delivered by public or private sources — damaged the moral fiber of recipients. Moreover, when Congress later debated a constitutional amendment to enshrine school prayer, politically liberal ministers recoiled on these exact grounds of government intrusion in the religious sphere, while their conservative counterparts dismissed such concerns. The most charitable answer might be the simplest: whatever their confessional differences, these clergymen all ministered to millionaires. Witnessing the New Deal state through the unsympathetic eyes of their congregations, they adopted similar attitudes.

As such questions linger about the production of this religious nationalism, Richard J. Callahan notes correctly that even more remain about its reception. While the book does offer some thoughts on the reasons ordinary Americans embraced the new politics of piety and patriotism (especially in the later chapters on the controversy over the school prayer decisions and the mobilization of Nixon’s Silent Majority) I agree that more can be done to explain why ordinary Americans embraced it. Callahan rightly notes that this need is acute in the case of working-class and middle-class Americans, who had little reason to champion a corporate product. This raises a perennial question about modern conservatism: why have large numbers of poor Americans embraced a movement that seems more attuned to the needs of the wealthy? On this conundrum, excellent new books by Heath Carter, Christopher Cantwell, and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf point the way, though more can be done, especially in the postwar period. In a similar vein, Jeania Ree Moore identifies the question of how the Civil Rights movement repurposed the concept of a Christian America. Though Martin Luther King, Jr., and his allies never invoked the touchstones of the pledge or national motto as much as conservative social activists later would, they nevertheless tapped into the underlying fusion of faith and freedom to advance their cause. In his major addresses, King regularly exploited the rhetoric of America’s civil religion, insisting that if the country were truly “one nation under God” then the principles of Christian fellowship and brotherhood had to be extended across the color line.

As the reviewers note, One Nation Under God builds upon the incredible work of many other scholars in the fields of political, religious, and business history. Just as my work sought to answer some lingering questions I encountered in their works, I trust that other scholars will try to answer the new questions this book raises for them. I look forward to seeing the answers their work will provide and, of course, the new questions their own work will raise. It’s been my privilege these past several years to take part in an exciting scholarly conversation about the relationship between religion and politics in American history. I’m delighted to know I’ve been able to contribute some small part to it, and I eagerly look forward to learning more.