One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (A Review)

A book review for One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse.

One Nation Under God

As a conservative Christian with slightly left-of-center economic views, and as someone who grew up with an American education but outside America, the close relationship between American evangelicalism and conservative politics was always a bit of a mystery to me.

Some of it made sense, like the alignment of evangelicals with the Republican party on social issues like abortion. But what surprised me was the close adherence of many evangelicals to conservative economic philosophy. In particular, I was surprised by how suspicious many of my friends were to any kind of welfare policy and by how hesitant many were to acknowledge that inequality was a problem.

If you are one of these friends, please don’t take me the wrong way. Your views are absolutely legitimate and I share many of them—many welfare policies are indeed poorly thought out and the Bible does not teach that inequality is a sin per se.

Yet, what struck me is how common it was for evangelical Christians to hew right on economic issues when (in my opinion) a plain reading of the Bible would not seem to produce that. Consider Acts 4:32 or Leviticus 19:9-10:

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” Acts 4:32

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to the edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10

Do these sound like passages that when read plainly would lead one to envision our modern capitalist system? Lest I start sounding like an economic heretic, let me state for the record that I believe our modern free enterprise system is, on the whole, a major force for good and I still teach that to my students (please don’t fire me). Neither am I claiming that one cannot build a case for capitalism from the Bible.

But what I am saying is that I don’t think capitalism jumps off the pages of the Bible. If anything, the concerns of socialism seem to stand out more. This led me to wonder how it is that so many Bible believing Christians came to adopt right-leaning economic views as their own. I wondered what theologians of the past thought about economic issues and whether there was a point in time when things changed. Thus began my quest to find out more about the history of economic thought within Christianity.

One Nation Under God

Enter my first foray into this topic, Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Dr. Kruse’s thesis is that today’s blend of Christianity and conservative politics had its roots in corporate America’s response to the New Deal in the 1930s.

As argued by Kruse, corporate America in the mid to late 1930s was desperately seeking a way to rehabilitate its image. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, corporations had lost the respect of the public and their interests were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They tried to appeal to Americans’ self interest, but any such attempts were deftly countered by Roosevelt who was adept at wielding religious language to shame his opponents.

Sensing that they were losing the battle, American industrialists recognized that they would have to recruit the moral authority of the clergy to their cause. H.W. Prentice, president of the Armstrong Cork Company, warned his fellow industrialists, “Economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism. The only antidote is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith.” Alfred Haake, consultant to General Motors and one-time chair of the Rutgers economics department, argued, “The religious leaders must be helped to discover that their callings are threatened,” by realizing that the collectivism of the New Deal, “with the glorification of the state, is really a denial of God.”

The rest of the book tells the story of how this movement succeeded in creating a new spiritual revival, one that emphasized free enterprise as much as religiosity. A critic at the time wrote, “These groups do as much proselytizing for Adam Smith and the National Association of Manufacturers as they do for Christianity.”

The movement culminated in the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the presidency, a man who very much saw his election as a spiritual mandate. “I think one of the reasons I was elected was to help lead this country spiritually. We need a spiritual renewal,” he confided to Billy Graham on election night.

Eisenhower made good on his mandate. It was during his administration that the phrase “One nation under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance and that “In God We Trust” was added to the currency. Church membership soared from 57 percent to a peak of 69 percent during his tenure. There really seemed to be a great reawakening of religious fervor in the 1950s.

Some Harsh Lessons

This book contains a number of important lessons for Christians today. First, it confirms that there is truth to the notion that America is (or at least was at one time) a solidly Christian nation. But it also reminds us that the public displays of religiosity we take for granted, like “One nation under God”, “In God We Trust”, and the National Prayer Breakfast, are recent inventions dating back to the 50s. The children of the Founding Fathers were not reciting “One nation under God” in school.

More importantly, this book reminds us not to rest easy just because our politicians are paying lip service to God. In reading this book, the thing that struck me most was the shallowness of the faith of many of the key players. Eisenhower, for all his public religiosity, did not seem to care much about its theological content. He is quoted as saying, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. [Emphasis mine]”

Similarly, James W. Fifield Jr., one of the key players in the movement to link capitalism with Christianity, would hardly be recognized as an evangelical today. Called the “Apostle to Millionaires” and counting among his congregation such luminaries as director Cecil B. DeMille and mining magnate Harvey Seeley Mudd, Fifield lived in a mansion with three floors, stained glass windows, a swimming pool, and employed the services of a butler, chauffeur, cook, and household staff. More importantly, Fifield did not believe in the authority of scripture. Here’s a passage from the book:

Fifield was one of the most theologically liberal and at the same time politically conservative ministers of his era. He had no patience for fundamentalists who insisted upon a literal reading of scripture. “The men who chronicled and canonized the Bible were subject to human error and limitation,” he believed, and therefore the text needed to be sifted and interpreted. Reading the holy book should be “like eating fish—we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value.”

Another figure that stands out is Norman Vincent Peale, who was popular with the Nixon administration. Norman Vincent Peale was a Methodist minister most known for promoting the philosophy of “positive thinking”, the idea that you can use the power of your mind to actualize blessings for your life. Condemned by Tim Challies as a false teacher, Norman Vincent Peale could be called a precursor to prosperity and “name-it, claim-it” preachers like Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen. Yet, he was influential among the American political class.

Finally, no discussion of prominent religious figures would be complete without mention of Billy Graham. Billy Graham was active throughout the timeframe of this book, from a young minister leading evangelistic crusades (and promoting free enterprise) in the 40s to a confidante of presidents Eisenhower and Nixon in the 60s and 70s. While few would consider Billy Graham anything other than a faithful minister, the book does raise some questions about his judgment in who to partner with. Moreover, he seemed perhaps too easily impressed by the spectacle and pageantry of power. Here’s another passage from the book:

“Sure, we used the prayer breakfasts and church services and all that for political ends,” Nixon aide Charles Colson later admitted. “One of my jobs in the White House was to romance religious leaders. We would bring them into the White House and they would be dazzled by the aura of the Oval Office, and I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups we worked with.”

This passage struck me because I remembered Ed Stetzer bringing up the same quote in an interview with Carey Nieuwhof. Except there he added this damning line: “Few were more easily impressed than religious leaders. The very people who should have been the most immune to the worldly pomp seemed the most vulnerable.”

What legacy?

One Nation Under God traces Christianity’s marriage with conservative politics to corporate America’s response to the New Deal. These anti-New Dealers were more successful than they could have imagined in reviving America’s awareness of its spiritual foundations. In fact, they were probably more successful in their spiritual agenda than they were in their economic one, as Eisenhower did not actually do much to reduce the government’s role in the economy.

And yet the spiritual revival under Eisenhower had shallow roots. It was rooted more in a vague sense of patriotism and spirituality than in any biblical understanding of God and government. Unsurprisingly, the religiosity did not produce lasting fruit in the population.

And I think we’re seeing the consequence of that. One of the most frequent criticisms of Christianity I encounter is that Christians are hypocrites who do not live up to Jesus’s teachings, especially in regards to caring for the poor. While I would disagree with that generalization and ask the critics to look into the personal lives of true, committed Christians, I do think they have a point when it comes to the broader veneer of cultural Christianity, which was so prominently on display from the 50s to the 70s, and is still on display to a lesser extent today.

Reading this book has helped me put this criticism into its proper historical context. Rather than becoming defensive, Christians should seek to understand the effect that a fruitless cultural Christianity has had on popular perceptions of the faith. We should also be prepared to reinvestigate our cultural assumptions and to defend our beliefs (theological, political, or otherwise) from scripture. This would include our views on economics, whether left or right leaning. Finally, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to despair that society is losing its outward trappings of faith. It’s not clear to me that a shallow, theologically empty public faith is any better. Our hope should be in Christ, not government or society.

It took me about 11 hours to read this book. I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about America’s unique brand of religion and politics.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.