For many years, I have been irritated by Americans describing the United States as a “Christian” nation. In more recent times, that designation, which a slim majority of citizens has always believed to be true and accurate, has caused increasing friction with religious and non-religious minorities, such as Muslims (not to mention the Anti-Semitism that has pervaded our society since the beginning).
Those who cling most tenaciously to the Christian nation ideal often credit the Founding Fathers with establishing this bastion of Christianity. Having recently read H.W. Brands excellent biography of Ben Franklin (The First American, Anchor Books, 2000), I can state categorically that the man who published Poor Richard’s Almanac never subscribed to the kind of thinking that echoes today among the “God, guns, and guts” crowd.
Over the years, I wondered how Christianity became so thoroughly welded to American nationalism, how God got on our money and into the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, thanks to Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse and his op-ed piece published in the Sunday New York Times (3/15/15), I have a much better understanding. Kruse’s article (drawing on his most recent book: One Nation Under God) argues that “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.”
According to Kruse, American business leaders mounted an all-out offensive to win back the hearts and minds of consumers. They took the fight to the courts, statehouses, and even the streets, but they really struck pay dirt when they mounted a PR campaign led by willing ministers of the cloth (the Christian cloth, mind you.) Kruse credits three clergyman in particular–Rev. James Fifield, Rev. Abraham Vereide, and ultimately Rev. Billy Graham– with linking arms with big business–men like J.C. Penney and Harvey Firestone–to convince good Christians that Roosevelt and his cronies were infecting the nation with “creeping socialism.” According to Kruse, Fifield told believers to ignore New Testament warnings about the “corrupting nature of wealth. Instead, he paired Christianity and capitalism against the New Deal’s ‘pagan statism.'”
Fifield, Kruse tells us, grafted capitalism to Christianity with the words “freedom under God.” Rev. Vereide gave us what we know today as national prayer breakfasts where the wealthy and powerful vie to see and be seen, convinced the House and Senate to hold prayer meetings “in order that we might be a God-directed and God-controlled nation,” and began bestowing a Christian blessing on Supreme Court justices. Apparently some justices were more than up for it. Kruse quotes Justice Tom C. Clark as saying, “No country or civilization can last unless it is founded on Christian values.” Graham recruited members of Congress to usher at his evangelistic meetings, held religious services on the Capitol steps and eventually proclaimed: “If I would run for president of the United States today on a platform calling people back to God, back to Christ, back to the Bible, I’d be elected.” So much for religious pluralism in the United States.
Kruse tells us Dwight Eisenhower took Graham’s advice and got elected President. It was during his time in office that Congress added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to stamps and paper money. In 1956, “In God We Trust” was adopted as the official motto of the United States, rendering this secular state, founded by men who were, for the most part, Deists, at best, a Christian nation, all because American capitalists wanted to spruce up their image after ravaging the nation’s economy with speculation that led to the Great Crash and subsequent Great Depression. I suspect the businessmen feel pretty good about the return they got from their investment in Christianity. I’m not sure the rest of the nation, especially those who do not embrace Christianity, would say the same. But at least now, thanks to Prof. Kruse, I understand how we got this way.