Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse traces the history of business, politicians and Christian nationalists working to weave their beliefs into the fabric of American life – some based on sincere belief and others in the quest for fame and profit.
Princeton University history professor and acclaimed author Kevin M. Kruse provides a vivid report on Christian nationalism in the United States that may shock and upset some readers. Kruse explores the lies and manipulations of some powerful figures in America’s business, political and religious leadership who pushed for a nationalist form of Christianity for their own gain in profit and power. Krause argues that, if not for the Supreme Court and the resistance of ordinary pastors, priests and rabbis, the United States might now resemble a Christian theocracy.
Big business, some Christian evangelical groups and the Republican Party joined forces in the 1930s to undermine President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Six decades later, their fervent efforts keep the United States divided.
The founding fathers separated church and state and made freedom of religion a bedrock American principle.
During the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he sought to establish a social safety net, but his opponents in big business framed their opposition as a matter of individual freedom (on their side) versus collectivism (the New Deal). They equated individuality with Jesus Christ and collectivism with Karl Marx.
The CEOs of GM, GE, Standard Oil and Sears recruited members of the clergy, advertising executives and Hollywood celebrities. Fringe Christian leaders exploited religion, politics and national origin for fame and profit.
By 1947, some 10,000 ministers had joined the “Spiritual Mobilization” movement. Leaders organized nationwide Independence Sunday services on July 1, 1951. Speakers vilified liberals, the welfare state and big government.
Billy Graham, a rising star among evangelical preachers, referred to his mission as a “crusade.” Abraham Veriede, a powerful Washington, DC minister, helped set up prayer breakfasts for nationally important business and political leaders, and worked to bring his priorities to bear in the Senate and the selection of Supreme Court justices.
Billy Graham held his first crusade in South Carolina in 1949 – with the enthusiastic support of arch-conservative Senator Strom Thurmond – and attracted millions of people.
Always persuasive, Graham brought Congress around to his way of thinking. Congressional concerns compelled President Harry Truman to create a national prayer day.
The Christian right and its corporate backers convinced World War II hero General Dwight David Eisenhower to run for office and provided him with cash and endorsements. In 1953, he succumbed to pressure and underwent baptism at a Washington, DC, Presbyterian church. Church memberships grew by tens of millions during the eight years of his presidency.
Religious organizations redoubled their efforts to align the United States with fundamental Christianity. Graham presided over National Prayer Breakfasts – paid for by big business – and attended by Eisenhower, his cabinet and members of Congress.
Within Eisenhower’s first 100 days, the government issued postage stamps that bore the words “In God We Trust” for the first time. New American coins and paper money featured these words, linking God and commerce.In 1956, Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States.
Religionists campaigned for a Constitutional amendment proclaiming America subject to the laws of Jesus Christ. In 1954, senators introduced motions and bills calling for that amendment. Their efforts failed.
Religion in Public Schools
The Gideons, a Christian organization, sought to put Bibles in millions of hotel rooms and into the hands of every student from the fifth to the twelfth grade. Catholic and Jewish leaders resisted; some states allowed it, and others did not. By 1954, most public school kids praised God each morning as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Parents and religious leaders protested in the name of separation of church and state. These arguments grew divisive in many cases, raising fears among minorities of a backlash.
When these cases came to court, most lower court judges sided with those who wanted religious references, slogans and prayers in public schools. In 1962, the Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings in a near-unanimous decision, saying that keeping God out of matters of state was the bedrock of US religious freedom.
Politicians, clergymen and the public lambasted the Supreme Court, but America’s first Catholic president – John F. Kennedy – urged Americans to support the Court. Religionists warned that their opponents would remove God from public life and even popular songs.
Fringe Religious Leaders
Nearly every state governor joined religious leaders in questioning the Supreme Court’s ruling on separation of church and state. Fully 70% of Americans supported prayer in schools and millions wrote letters to Congress. Efforts arose to sidestep the Supreme Court by amending the Constitution to include school prayers. Activists framed the argument so that voters had to choose between being for God or being seen as atheists.
Objections from Jewish and Christian clergy gave politicians cover to speak against the divisive forces pushing for the amendment. The amendment failed, as did another in 1966.
Nixon and Reagan
Nixon, who was not religious, publicly demonstrated piety and faith to fan religious nationalism. With Graham, he preached for a religious revival and welcomed corporate leaders – who supported him politically and financially – to prayer breakfasts.
Religious nationalists vested in Ronald Reagan, who sought the votes of the Christian right. Reagan backed school prayer and warned against abortion and other signs of a Godless nation. These same struggles continue in a nation still divided.
The way readers receive Kruse’s history will depend greatly on what they see as the role of religion in American life. Those committed to separation of church and state will find Kruse’s detailed, scholarly history sobering, especially in light of America’s current dwindling middle ground in its political and religious discourse. Those who would like to see religion play a greater role in civic life will also appreciate his painstaking history. They may well be dismayed by some of the machinations that brought their cause this far – even while hoping to see its reach expand.
Kruse reveals the root of today’s divisions, offers proof for his contention that they emanate from those who seek to make a profit from people’s beliefs, and urges religious Americans to be cautious of politicians and businesses that seek to exploit their sincere faith.
Kevin M. Kruse also wrote White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. With Julian E. Zelizer, he wrote Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past; and Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.