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As Kruse argues, the belief that America is fundamentally and formally a Christian nation originated in the 1930s when businessmen enlisted religious activists in their fight against FDR's New Deal. Corporations from General Motors to Hilton Hotels bankrolled conservative clergymen, encouraging them to attack the New Deal as a program of "pagan statism" that perverted the central principle of Christianity: the sanctity and salvation of the individual. Their campaign for "freedom under God" culminated in the election of their close ally Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
But this apparent triumph had an ironic twist. In Eisenhower's hands, a religious movement born in opposition to the government was transformed into one that fused faith and the federal government as never before. During the 1950s, Eisenhower revolutionized the role of religion in American political culture, inventing new traditions from inaugural prayers to the National Prayer Breakfast. Meanwhile, Congress added the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and made "In God We Trust" the country's first official motto. With private groups joining in, church membership soared to an all-time high of 69%. For the first time, Americans began to think of their country as an officially Christian nation.
During this moment, virtually all Americans--across the religious and political spectrum--believed that their country was "one nation under God." But as Americans moved from broad generalities to the details of issues such as school prayer, cracks began to appear. Religious leaders rejected this "lowest common denomination" public religion, leaving conservative political activists to champion it alone. In Richard Nixon's hands, a politics that conflated piety and patriotism became sole property of the right.
Provocative and authoritative, One Nation Under God reveals how the unholy alliance of money, religion, and politics created a false origin story that continues to define and divide American politics to this day.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-02-09
- Reviewer: Staff
Princeton historian Kruse (White Flight) wonders “why so many contemporary Americans came to believe that has always been and always should be a Christian nation” and finds answers among a group of 1930s anti–New Deal industrialists intent on promoting “Christian libertarianism”—a philosophy that preached the salvation of the individual through free enterprise. These businessmen, alongside clergy such as Billy Graham, saw an Eisenhower presidency as an opportunity to “inspire the American people to a more spiritual way of life.” Yet the Eisenhower Administration produced little more than ceremonial deism. Kruse argues that superficial displays—such as adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance—may have created the religious tradition we see today, but more significant attempts to bridge the gap between church and state were blocked by the Supreme Court. The movement may even have died were it not for Nixon, who cynically evoked nostalgia for 1950s-era stability to win the presidency and helped transform the Silent Majority into the Moral Majority. Kruse sidesteps the question of whether America actually had a religious founding, describing instead how 20th-century politicians exploited this idea, but by doing so, he misses a critical opportunity to separate history from myth and chicanery. B&w photos. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writers House. (Apr.)