BOOK REVIEW: One Nation Under God

by Kevin M. Kruse

I read a fair bit of non-fiction, mostly history and religious studies, from time to time. Don’t get me wrong; what I am really looking for is to understand what makes people tick, what makes them do what they do.

I find it endlessly fascinating to examine the actions and lives of people with whom I simply cannot identify. And I find it interesting to try to understand why they believe some of things I don’t believe, or that I cannot believe.

One NationKevin M. Kruse published this book in 2015, American version here, and the Subtitle states ‘How Corporate America Invented Christian America.’ Kruse is a Professor of History at Princeton University.

The book outlines the intermingling, bedfellows if you will, of Conservative right-wing business interests and non-denominational congregational religious in the United States. The information is presented historically, with references and abundant research, but also interpretation and conclusions of the author and his implied premise that Business and Religion had/have a common goal: the destruction of the welfare state.

The description of prominent characters of my childhood I find interesting; what did I know of Eisenhower other than the personage of a conquering general, the slogan “I Like Ike,” and the fact that his Vice-President was the only subsequent president of the United States to be impeached while in office (well, they didn’t quite do that: he resigned first).

Certainly I grew up vaguely aware that United States had phrases on their money I found curious, ‘In God We Trust,’ curious because I guess I didn’t know why they put that on their money, and aware that Americans embarrassingly stood each morning to pledge their allegiance to the country, or the flag or something, while ostentatiously placing their hand over their heart.

It was only later in life that I recognized just how much of a theocracy our neighbors to the south were, or were becoming.

Visiting the Alamo one year, I saw a world map identifying revolutions around the world by year of initiation, and realized that the USA was really one of the first countries to successfully revolt against tyranny and to create a democracy, a rare thing in this world. But at about the same time, I read the Constitution and some history of its founders, and saw that this religiosity of the country was not really the founders’ plan.

Indeed, from a Canadian point of view, there was an awful lot of contradiction in the United States. They seemed to wear their faith on their sleeve, while we seemed to hide it as a private concern. While ours were Protestant and Catholic, with Protestant and Catholic schools imbedded in the laws of our origins, it was always confusing to me figuring out what the Americans were: they seemed to me to be largely neither — or simply a whole bunch of different Protestants with a multiplicity of different names. But you couldn’t find them in their laws. I was aware there was no preferred religion, nor was there supposed to be.

Having read their constitution, I came to realize that the public display of religion in the USA was more apparent than the reference to God in their founding documents. When did that happen?

Kruse argues that it started with Ike, though not perhaps because of Ike. My impression from this book is that in the first part of the last century, two soon-to-be-powerful groups, capitalists and clergy, had a common goal. Dissimilar on their faces, their common purpose was to dismantle the New Deal. The former for financial reward, and the latter for dominion, sovereignty, hegemony.

For the conservative right, the reasons seem obvious. The American Dream, that anybody, if they work hard enough, can make it as big as ‘Daddy’ Warbucks. The American Dream is to be on that other side of the gap, in the 0.1% that owns so much more than all the ones below them. The contrapositive is of course, that if you are down and out, you didn’t work hard enough, you must not have worked hard enough. The industrial heroes of America must eschew the social welfare net. To do that, one must decimate big government (as Ted Cruz says, ‘government is the problem’).

For the congregationalist religious, on the other hand, they need to be needed, to be wanted, and big government, social welfare nets, new deals and the like, removed that need. Why not join hands and seek a common goal with the enemy of my enemy?

Kruse describes some of the major players on the conservative business and political side of the coin, such as Eisenhower, and more importantly the people who can and want to afford the big bucks to get him elected, such as members of the National Association of Manufacturers. Once Eisenhower caught the bug, though, Ike did plenty to draw the USA into ‘One Nation Under God.’

For the congregationalists, it meant huge successes, such as Billy Graham, and James Fifield Jr., the ‘Apostle to Millionaires.’ They revered individual effort, and decried socialism under the guise of “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” not even a Robin Hood government. Further, establishing a causal link between Christian ideals, with its reliance on God, (instead of the state) and subsequent success in business, implied that being part of a church was a key to the American Dream.

The state, especially in the form of FDR’s New Deal, diminished individual effort and frustrated parish growth. Who needs God when you have the state; how can you keep your hard-won wealth when you have the state?

Kruse outlines the initiation and growth of opening prayers in every branch of government, of huge elitist events like the National Prayer Breakfast, and the phrases encouraging everyone to do things ‘Under God,’ to be ‘free spirits under God.’ Business, right wing conservatives and prelates were all teaching that ‘the New Deal undermined the spirit of Christianity and demanded a response form Christ’s representatives on earth.’ Big business, conservative right-wing politicians, those people of the 1% and the clergy all were poised to gain from revival and adulation of ‘fervent [belief] in a very vague religion.’

It is of interest, and perhaps to his credit, that Eisenhower didn’t really care which of the many denominations one belonged to — he only chose one after he was elected — simply that one believes, one have a ‘deeply felt religious faith.’ This lead him to proclaim that the ‘three great faiths’ were really ‘saying the same thing.’

And so religion, and the religious, grew, with church membership rising to 69% by the end of the fifties.

Many people contributed to the addition of the words ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance, starting perhaps with the Knights of Columbus, but a bill in Congress to add the words was proposed as a barrier to communism, tying religion to individual freedom, as atheism tied to communism was already a common belief.

Kruse argues that it was a sermon by Rev. George M. Docherty, of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which closed the deal, when he asserted that it must be ‘Under God’ in order to include the Jewish and Muslim faiths, but that the honest atheist was left out, because an ‘atheist American is a contradiction in terms.’ Eisenhower agreed with the ‘under God’ proposal, and that was that.

The book is laden with historical facts illustrating America’s endorsement of the two word pillars, ‘Under God’ and ‘In God We Trust,’ showing them gradually imbedded in the culture. Although the book does not reach as far as the last four decades, it is not hard to see the connection, especially this presidential electoral cycle, of religion with politics — especially right wing politics — and big business. It is a symbiotic relationship that has less use of facts, keeps the rich rich, and leaves the little people behind (with only themselves to blame, they should have worked harder).

For understanding these ‘strange bedfellows,’ admittedly ones we have long been used to now, of Religion and the American Dream, or for understanding how God got into American political life after such irreligious beginnings (after all, the USA started off as a haven for the religiously persecuted), this book is fascinating.

And I have only barely touched the surface.

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