Corporate Nation Under God

In a recent poll, 57% of registered Republicans “support establishing Christianity as the national religion” and another 13% are not sure about it. Most such voters believe that the United States was, from its inception, a Christian nation, so formally establishing this “fact” seems a logical next step. But has the United States always been a Christian nation or was this idea manufactured and marketed by the industrial-business class? According to Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse, it’s the latter. In a recent NYT article which previews his forthcoming book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kruse genealogizes this relatively recent idea:

Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.

The two had been described as soul mates before, but in this campaign they were wedded in pointed opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal…Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology’s appeal in conferences and P.R. campaigns. Generous funding came from prominent businessmen, from household names like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag and Henry R. Luce to lesser-known leaders at U.S. Steel, General Motors and DuPont.

In a shrewd decision, these executives made clergymen their spokesmen. As Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew noted, polls proved that ministers could mold public opinion more than any other profession. And so these businessmen worked to recruit clergy through private meetings and public appeals. 

The most important clergyman for Christian libertarianism…was the Rev. Billy Graham. In his initial ministry, in the early 1950s, Mr. Graham supported corporate interests so zealously that a London paper called him “the Big Business evangelist.” The Garden of Eden, he informed revival attendees, was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” In the same spirit, he denounced all “government restrictions” in economic affairs, which he invariably attacked as “socialism.”

With Graham’s fervent support, Americans elected Dwight D. Eisenhower in a landslide and the national annointing commenced:

The first week of February 1953 set the dizzying pace: On Sunday morning, Eisenhower was baptized; that night, he broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign; on Thursday, he appeared with [a corporate funded pastor] at the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast; on Friday, he instituted the first opening prayers at a cabinet meeting.

The rest of Washington consecrated itself, too. The Pentagon, State Department and other executive agencies quickly instituted prayer services of their own. In 1954, Congress added “under God” to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. It placed a similar slogan, “In God We Trust,” on postage that year and voted the following year to add it to paper money; in 1956, it became the nation’s official motto.

During these years, Americans were told, time and time again, not just that the country should be a Christian nation, but that it always had been one. They soon came to think of the United States as “one nation under God.” They’ve believed it ever since.

Though Kruse does not mention it, the geopolitical context for this christening was the Cold War, which was ideologically framed in the United States as a righteous battle against godless Communism. Like all great and enduring myths, the origins of this one were soon shrouded by the mists of time, or selective forgetting, and the Christian nation story took on a life of its own. Despite the end of the Cold War, the campaign continued and today it appears that ~76 million Americans would like to establish Christianity as the national religion.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with one of these many millions. He had just published a book on George Washington, the purpose of which was to prove that this revered founding father had always conceived the new nation as Christian and that the Jeffersonian separation of church and state was an egregious error. When I asked how he had approached the project, he stated he had hired research assistants to selectively search Washington’s entire corpus of writings for references to “God” and/or “Providence.” He then arranged these cullings in chronological order, without regard for context and with no examination of what Washington understood by “God” or how he conceived of “Providence,” as proof that Washington had originally framed the United States as a Christian nation. Rather than question these research methods, or lack thereof, I decided on a calming glass of wine.

This, however, is the sort of thing that continues to nourish the myth. While I doubt that Kruse’s book will persuade the believers, and am sure it will be savaged by the free-market Christian patriots on Fox, I’m looking forward to its release. Though Kruse’s focus is slightly different, his book may serve as a nice companion piece to Jeremy Carrette’s classic, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (2004).


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4 thoughts on “Corporate Nation Under God

  1. Bob Wells

    I’m no historian, but that doesn’t seem to align with my understanding of history. I can easily believe that corporations solidified the idea in the 1930s but I doubt the idea was missing before then, just not as formally stated. Has there ever been any nations that weren’t aligned with a religion, if not formally then at least informally? The two go together and could easily be one of the reasons for the quick failure of Communism.

    What makes the US Constitution so unique is it specifically allowed for any religious belief and disallowed a formal state religion. But the US was still informally a Christian nation built almost entirety on the “Puritan Work Ethic” which was inextricably intertwined with capitalism.

    Long before the 1930s one of the main goals of the US government was to convert the “Indian Heathen” to Christianity. There was a pretty clear understanding back then that we were a Christian nation and they either joined or died.

  2. Cris Post author

    While I have yet to read Kruse’s book because it has not been released, I would be surprised if he did not begin with an overview of the ways in which the early or pre-New Deal United States was and was not “Christian,” how Christianity has manifest over time in the United States, and its role in government before the New Deal. This is essential preface to his argument.

    My guess is that he is taking aim at a specific form and manifestation of Christianity in the United States, and is careful to delineate that form. Even in his NYT article, he is careful to note, in the beginning, that while there have always been lots of Christians in the US and variable forms of Christianity over its history, this is not the same as saying (as many now do) that the United States is “a Christian nation.”

  3. David

    Have Kruse or others noted that the most recent resurgence of Christian nationalism correlates to the rise of Islamic nationalism? It seems to me the rest of the world is caught between warring factions of the Abrahamic cults. Christian nationalists are thriving in rural parts of the United States and elsewhere, and as a group they are well armed, wealthy, and very dangerous. How long will it be, I wonder, before the seething fear and loathing of this diversely paranoid and medieval-minded group motivates it to take a clue from Islamic State? After all, there is a history of white supremacist Christian nationalism, civil war, slavery, extra-judicial hangings, dispossession, forced migration, organized murder, rape, torture, and brutal civil violence right here in the United States.

    I live in the South of the U.S., and there is a vocal minority of individuals here—politicians, pastors, business owners, laborers, students, old-school white supremacists, “Rebels,” those who benefitted from centuries of slave labor, and rural gun buffs (with many who belong to more than one of these categories), who are still loyal to the idea of the Confederacy. They declare their commitments with bumper stickers, Confederate flags, holstered sidearms (open carry, they call it), websites, letters to the editor, and church billboards. Some of these people believe that a primarily white, exclusively Christian, and “traditional” society is their God-given birthright. Many white Southern Baptists, in particular, have embraced this idea since the Civil War. You can even buy a rubber bracelet inscribed with Deo Vindice (the motto of the former Confederated States of America, typically glossed as “God will prove us right” or “with God we will prevail”). It’s not just a bunch of heavy-bearded rednecks, either. There are hipster white supremacists.

    I’m confident that most Millennial Southerners are not racist, are open-minded, believe in Democracy and are relatively ‘liberal’ in their political and social perspectives, but I am far from certain that most Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (my own demographic) can be described thusly. My experience with rural adult Southerners is limited, and I spend most of the time with academics in a tiny “blue bubble,” so my impressions are no-doubt skewed. However, what I have observed jives with Kruse’s thesis. Thank you for sharing the article, Cris. I look forward to checking out the book.

  4. CKRuch

    When I first saw this story, I wasn’t surprised but very disturbed. As a confessional Lutheran, I was raised to believe there are no Christian nations or systems, that God works through all nations. There is in our doctrines a separation of church and state referred to as the Two Kingdoms which, simply put, operates on the principle that governments are instituted by God with a different purpose from the church. Governments, Christian and non-Christian, carry the same mandate to foster peace and respect for the law, to punish criminal conduct and reward good conduct, protect the weak from the strong and the poor from predation by the rich.

    The church does not assume this role on Earth. It is concerned with the Gospel, salvation, the gifts of God in the means of Grace – Word and Sacrament. It administers these and seeks to make disciples of all people. The government does not assume this role on Earth.

    The government does not tell us what to say, how to worship, what is right or wrong. It doesn’t concern itself with Scripture or the life of the church. The church does not tell people what politics to believe in or practice, it does not direct votes in a free society. Christians are obligated to live peacefully and respectfully under the governments they are given, Christian or not.

    Any coincidence in nations or peoples demonstrating laws that seem in accordance with Scripture is the coincidence of God’s design. We have, as His creatures, the law designed into us, “written on our hearts” is the common expression. Our founding fathers have not only this but the traditions and education of the church in their backgrounds. How could they not write some of that in to the nation;s founding? But as they were products of Enlightenment rationalism, had deist and Unitarian tendencies, there was little that was deliberately Christian going on.

    Personally, I find it offensive to say “In God We Trust” or “under God” because this is an anonymous god given shape in the mind of the person saying the words, not the revealed Trinity, not the true God of Scripture. To invoke God in any likeness of mind and give it meaning requires a unity of belief which cannot be created by the state. All it says is that each of us believes that this nation is under “my god”. To me, the Christians that want this to be a Christian nation not only disrespect their neighbors, the Constitution (the government), but also their own faith and church.

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