First let it be said that Kevin Kruse has done a masterful job with One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, of researching and detailing those events which began and accelerated the process of both bringing Christianity more fully into American life while simultaneously politicizing it toward the Republican side of the ledger. We get reminded of well-known names, such as Billy Graham and Herbert Hoover and even Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as learning of lesser known yet equally critical personalities, such as James W. Fifield and Abraham Vereide. These were all reactionary players in a game designed to reinforce the corporate view of American Free Enterprise and opposing the New Deal and supposed “creeping socialism” of FDR. We learn of movements spawned from these men: “Spiritual Mobilization” in particular, publications and radio and later television ads and programs, along with massive events and rallies, all aimed both at emphasizing the importance of religious belief but also associating it with a certain political attitude with the loaded working phrase, “Freedom Under God.” Kruse traces the threads of this well-woven web from pre-World-War-II through the 2008 presidential election and does so with raw facts which should terrify anyone who values the concept of separation of State and Church.
Through the entire book, Kruse writes one of the most infuriating volumes it has ever been my combined pleasure and torture to have to read. He documents instances where politicians blithely draw distinctions with few if any differences between State / Church separation and government / religion separation, as a means to inveigle the latter into the former. The eagerness with which some Congresspeople strove to become more fully involved with Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization movement and propagating their materials to their constituents is related as well, in occasionally exasperating detail. It was ultimately these and related efforts which inserted “Under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance (though with considerable support from the Knights of Columbus) and then: “In God We Trust” on coin and paper money, issues which are being fought to this day in the courts. This was also the time when “ceremonial deism” entered the political and legal lexicons, as a means of allaying fears about breaching the State / Church wall when it was already suffering a potential death of a thousand cuts.
A great deal of the prologue this book describes of the 40s through the 70s culminates with the presidency of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Being the actor he was, Reagan was likely well acquainted with an old saw from another of his ilk:
Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
-- George Burns
Reagan pressed his acting chops into service throughout his presidency, but nowhere with quite the impact as with his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. It was there that, giving the appearance of departing from his prepared remarks, Reagan asserted that “only a divine providence could have created the United States,” then asked for a moment of silent prayer before concluding his address with a coda which has since become near-mandatory for any politician seeking higher office: “God bless America!” With that and with his very purposeful association with the Religious Right, Reagan tapped the Zeitgeist of the nation and virtually insured his election. If One Nation has a critical climax, that is it.
The final point Kruse makes is perhaps the most important: that the nation’s presumption of being a Christian nation from its inception is a false memory, which was conceived in the last century and borne of those who would manipulate the body politic into a specific belief, less to benefit them than those pulling the strings. “One Nation, Under God” and “In God We Trust” and the other religious usages foisted on the American public were calculated to their desired ends. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is what we as atheists are up against. This is the social inertia we are tasked with overcoming and countering, if we are to return the US to its secular foundations.
It is no small challenge and one which many of us have already joined. Let’s keep going.