Piety and Prosperity in Christian America – By Matthew Avery Sutton

Matthew Avery Sutton 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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Every month, hundreds of thousands of Americans read Christianity Today (CT), the magazine of record for conservative Protestants. They might, however, be surprised at its origins. Most readers know only the account Billy Graham laid out in his 1997 autobiography, Just as I Am. A forward-looking group of fundamentalists in the 1950s, Graham explained, sought to distance themselves from the cantankerous and anti-intellectual nature of interwar fundamentalism. They wanted to have a more positive impact by engaging with society rather than segregating themselves from it. Publishing a new magazine, Graham decided, could help them reach this goal. And so Christianity Today was born. The evangelist trusted that the periodical would represent the birth of a new, culturally-engaged, intellectually vibrant religious movement.

Few of those familiar with the CT origins story are aware of the role financiers played in making Graham’s vision for an evangelical publication a reality. To underwrite the new publication, Graham looked to businessmen allies. From John Wanamaker to Henry Crowell to Lyman Stewart, evangelicals had long had close ties to business leaders. All these titans of industry shared a deep faith in both Christianity and the free market, and they used their wealth to promote various evangelical projects and leaders they believed in.

Things were no different after the war. Business leaders like R.G. LeTourneau and Herbert Taylor offered substantial support to evangelicals. But the most prominent Christian financier of the mid-twentieth century was J. Howard Pew. The oil baron sought to recruit an army of religious leaders who would preach his anti-statist, free market philosophy. In the 1930s and 1940s Pew had worked with theologically liberal but politically conservative ministers including James Fifield, Jr. and Norman Vincent Peale. But in the 1950s he turned to the new evangelicals. Graham, and Graham’s new magazine, offered exactly what Pew was looking for. The tycoon was not seeking an intellectually respectable orthodoxy but a prophylactic against creeping statism in religious guise. For too long, he counseled fellow businessmen, ministers had neglected their own calling to transform society. Instead they lobbied Washington to do their job for them. The social gospel orientation of too many religious leaders, he asserted, would invariably lead the nation to communism. CT had one overriding purpose worthy of Pew’s money. He felt confident it could drive ministers and religious leaders to the political right and persuade their congregations to move with them.

Christianity Today delivered exactly what Pew had hoped. Its board of editors promoted a political conservatism that exalted individual faith, free markets, and anti-statism, and they did it from Washington, D.C. “The editors,” Carl Henry explained in the inaugural issue, “daily look down Pennsylvania Avenue and glimpse the White House, Blair House, and other strategic centers of national life. Thus, Christianity Today is a symbol of the place of the evangelical witness in the life of a republic.” Although Henry was wary of making the magazine a partisan vehicle, he made its core philosophy clear. “The magazine is committed to neither party, but it is committed to specific principles.” He identified those principles as limited government, the free enterprise system, and church-state separation (a euphemism for keeping Catholics as weak and segregated as possible).

These are the kinds of stories Kevin Kruse examines in his book One Nation Under God. He argues that the popular perception of the U.S. as a “Christian” nation is both more recent and more partisan a development than most people realize. The Americans who popularized the idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation, he explains, were describing a Christianity that they believed could not be separated from the particular individual rights and freedoms that New Deal statism supposedly threatened.

One Nation Under God argues that if we want to find the origins of Christian America, we need look no further than the angry corporate leaders of the 1930s and 1940s. Hampered by the New Deal, they sought not just political arguments with which to attack FDR, but religious arguments as well. They claimed that religious freedom required political freedom, and that political freedom necessitated economic freedom. None of these freedoms, they warned, could not be found in countries boasting a strong state. Therefore, Americans had an obligation to roll back Roosevelt’s reforms and to unburden the marketplace so that freedom could thrive once again. Only the rejection of New Deal liberalism could save religion in the United States and make it “Christian” once more.

In Dwight Eisenhower these anti-New Dealers found a champion who promised to make Christianity central to American identity. “During the Eisenhower era,” Kruse explains, “Americans were told, time and time again, that the nation not only should be a Christian nation but also that it had always been one. They soon came to believe that the United States of America was ‘one nation under God.’ And they’ve believed it ever since.” Only when Americans prayed more, went to church more, added “In God We Trust” to their paper money and “Under God” to their pledge did substantial numbers of Americans conceive of the United States as a “Christian” nation.

Kruse has done us a great service in recovering this story and in so doing bridging two important bodies of scholarly literature. In recent years, excellent historians such as Darren Dochuk and Daniel K. Williams have unearthed the origins of the Religious Right, revealing how and why religious conservatives became political conservatives and Republican partisans. Jennifer Burns and Kim Phillips-Fein have traced the rise of a new business and economic conservatism that arose in reaction to New Deal liberalism. Kruse builds on all of this literature by narrating how religious conservatives and advocates of economic freedom united to build a powerful movement that eventually evolved in ways that its architects could never have envisioned.

Kruse has crafted a tight argument and marshaled a mountain of evidence to support it. His writing is sharp and clear, and his telling eye for detail makes this an engaging story. Simply put, One Nation Under God is an excellent book. Kruse has done in this book exactly what he set out to do. Nevertheless, the stories he tells and the conclusions he arrives at raise many as many new questions as they answer. These questions suggest avenues of research I hope future scholars will pursue as they engage with Kruse’s arguments.

The first set of questions has to do with money. James W. Fifield’s actions in particular raise these questions. Kruse tells us that Fifield lived well. He had a Wilshire Boulevard mansion, employed numerous servants, and decorated his house with fine furniture. Fifield sought religious legitimacy for his princely lifestyle. His actions foreshadowed the materialist theology of the Prosperity Gospel, and raise more questions about the alliance between Christianity and business. Did Fifield believe that God wanted his followers to be rich? Was material wealth a symbol of godly living? Was capitalism, therefore, the best economic system for earning God’s blessings? In an era in which Donald Trump is seeking and winning the endorsements of prosperity preachers, it may well be that relationships between corporate leaders and prosperity preachers are closer than we have realized.

The second set of questions has to do with theology. Kruse reveals how ministers from many different denominations and theological perspectives lined up with corporate leaders against the New Deal. But why? What was it about the modern capitalist economy that seemed to them biblically sanctioned? How was it that Fifield, Peale, and Graham — who each approached their Christian faith from different angles—could come together to see the economy through the same religious framework? Kruse explains that unlike business leaders, these religious leaders were not motivated by purely material self-interest. Theological scruples rather than profit margins governed their stances. “In a forceful rejection of the public service themes of the Social Gospel,” Kruse writes, “they argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual.” This was not a foregone conclusion, but a choice that invites scrutiny. Why did these ministers reject the social nature of the faith that theological liberals like Walter Rauschenbusch and churchly conservatives like William Jennings Bryan had promoted just decades earlier? How and why did they understand the state as a theological threat?

I know why Graham was afraid of the state. He subscribed to the theology of premillennialism, which maintains that humans are rapidly approaching the end times, when governments will succumb to the devil and his earthly representative, the Antichrist. To premillennialists like Graham, any consolidation of power in the state could lead to the end of Christian liberty. These convictions led Graham and hundreds of thousands of evangelicals like him to oppose the New Deal.

But Fifield and Peale were not apocalypticists. They worked together on Spiritual Mobilization, trying to explicitly link religious freedom to economic freedom. Like most theologically liberal Protestants, they focused more on building the kingdom of God on earth rather than obsessing over the coming kingdoms of the future. How did they understand the state in light of their religious commitments? What was it about their varying expressions of Christianity that made the government a threat? How were they reading their Bibles?

One possibility is that all these leaders were charlatans, selling out to the highest bidder. This cynical interpretation makes preachers and businessmen natural collaborators, since profits motivated them both. This oversimplifies the matter, however, and overlooks some obvious differences between tycoons and clerics. Theology mattered to these men and I suspect that if we could ask them, they could explain how they understood limited government as a biblical value and the state as a threat to religious freedom. They could likely find verses from the Bible to support their views, verses that are central to modern evangelical conservatives’ understanding of economics.

They may also have felt that the New Deal had usurped the traditional role of churches in distributing social aid. As Alison Collis Greene explains in her forthcoming study, No Depression in Heaven: Religion and the Great Depression in the Mississippi Delta, New Deal relief programs had the indirect effect of shifting individuals’ loyalty from their local, community churches to the federal government. Perhaps this disenchantment with government encroachment on church activities allowed Peale, Fifield, and Graham to find common ground.

A third set of questions is related to the previous issues. What religious work did the infusing of religion with anti-statism do? Why were so many Christians—both leaders and laypeople — drawn to it? As Kruse points out, Eisenhower did not deliver what his libertarian Christian businessmen had hoped. Rather than roll back the New Deal state, Eisenhower expanded it. “Unlike Christian libertarians,” Kruse writes, “who had long presented God and government as rivals, Eisenhower had managed to merge the two into a wholesome ‘government under God.’ … The state was now suffused with religion, and so it would remain.” In other words, the Fifield-Peale-Graham project of cutting the state down to size was a failure. They got a Christianized America, but not a New Deal rollback.

In adopting God talk, Ike gave American political life a more explicit religious sensibility while inadvertently decoupling religious freedom from economic “freedom.” The work that the subjects of this book had undertaken — making religious freedom inseparable from economic libertarianism — was a failure. Eisenhower linked God with a generic, less partisan American way, which is where the influence of the Cold War is most obvious. As Kruse notes, one compelling argument for adding “under God” to the pledge was the fear that without this phrase, a little “Muscovite” could repeat the pledge without any qualms. This is why Americans on the right and left were willing to go along with Eisenhower’s Christianizing.

Because this Christianizing responded to popular anxieties, Americans who wanted more of God in public life didn’t draw any distinctions along theological lines. They wanted somebody — anybody — to pray. Kruse reports that Ezra Taft Benson offered numerous prayers on behalf of the Eisenhower administration without incident. Benson’s Mormon theology differed substantially from that of Graham and many of Eisenhower’s other religious authorities, but no one seemed troubled by this. Eisenhower’s support for prayer, then, created a religion that was ecumenical by design. But if it didn’t unite participants around a creed, just what did this generic religion do? Why did Ike believe that prayer was a good practice for his cabinet meetings? How did these religious ceremonies function here? What was it accomplishing for political leaders and their followers?

One surprising thing about the wholesale adoption of God talk was its embrace, as Kruse narrates, by Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Through Brown v. Board, Warren substantially expanded the power and scope of the federal government, offending white libertarians from coast to coast. How was it that Warren, in 1954, just months before this momentous decision, endorsed a movement to claim America as a Christian nation? Obviously, the Warren example illustrates that most Americans did not link freedom under God with an anti-statist philosophy.

This irony is not lost on Kruse. The power of his book is its careful narration of how centrists redefined and co-opted the anti-statist mantra of a “Christian America.” The people most responsible for creating the symbols of Christian America in the 1950s, from Congressmen to Earl Warren to Ike, erased the memory of the libertarians who had laid the foundations for their work.

Kruse has written a wonderful book with which all Americans should grapple. As we do, I hope that we will continue to understand how religion functions in public life and what ends it serves.