Book Review: One Nation Under God

This weekend I finished Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Being a student of faith and eventually wanting to become a student of business, this book had particular importance to me. Kruse presents a lengthy, detailed history of about 100 or so years of American political, religious, and business life in his work, spanning from about 1920 to 2009. He is a compelling writer, giving enough details about a person or situation to provide the audience a clear image of the subject.

This work proved especially meaningful for me as a millennial. I knew the very recent history of the religious right in the 1980’s, 90’s and 2000’s, but the stirring political and commercial commentary from the post depression era through Nixon was all new material for me, so I found it particularly engaging. Without further ado, let’s talk about the work.

Author

Kevin M. Kruse is a history professor at Princeton University, holding a Bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina, and a Master’s and PhD from Cornell University. As a historian, he focuses on urban/suburban America in the 20th century and the creation of modern conservatism. This emphasis of study shines through in his work. Kruse brings a unique perspective to the book, and while he gives great overarching accounts of the history he tells, the audience can definitely perceive which subjects Kruse has researched in depth, and which subjects the author has a working knowledge of, but is not as passionate about.

Premises

A great amount of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and the religious right consistently make the claim that America was a Christian Nation from the beginning. Many believe this claim and cite short ceremonial references to the divine in our founding documents as evidence. Rejecting this claim, Kruse chronicles the corporate campaigns of the post World War II era and follows the story through 2009 to demonstrate how the thought of a Christian Nation was actually a marketing ploy that morphed into a political and religious movement. As America was recovering from the Great Depression and World War II, popular opinion was in favor of FDR’s New Deal programs that, though they echoed socialist sentiment, saved the US from one of the darkest moments in it’s history. Churches as a whole were in favor of the programs, and many believed that providing work for the poor and a social safety net for the old were in fact the “Christian” thing to do. Kruse tells the story of how the pastor of a wealthy church in Los Angeles and capitalist business leaders weakened by the “socialism” of the New Deal discovered Christian Libertarianism concurrently. The business leaders, after facing the challenge of the depression, the New Deal, and war finally found a moral champion in this strand of Christian belief. This type of faith didn’t focus on the difficult and costly admonitions of the Christian religion that demand followers to “sell all they have and give to the poor”, but rather celebrates the freedom of the free market to operate under it’s God-ordained rights. Large corporations then realized that they could regain public trust and a since of morality by appealing to American’s faith (or at least the idea of American faith). The ministers and corporations worked together to form groups, publications, and radio programs that would sell the free market as a wholly Christian and moral, American ideal. Going into great detail, the author then explores how corporate sponsored faith and patriotism celebrations, faith figures like Billy Graham, and political figures like Dwight Eisenhower brought the faith and business conversations into the political sphere. Of particular interest is the section of the book detailing how public policy resulted from this shift: Adopting “In God we Trust” to our national discourse, adding “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, supreme court decisions on prayer and Bible reading in school, and their subsequent backlash. It’s fascinating to learn the history of these advents in our country, and learn how the original pledge was written by a Christian socialist, or how the ruling banning public, teacher led, Christian prayer in school was actually made by a Baptist Deacon and Sunday School Teacher. The book then has a fascinating chapter on the Nixon administration and faith, as well as faith and patriotism in the Vietnam war era. The book closes by examining faith in politics in the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s. Like most histories, the most valuable section of the book is the final few pages, where Kruse gives his personal commentary on the issues, as well as a justification for why to study the subject.

Weaknesses

As a historian of the conservative movement, the book focuses quite a bit on how the Republican presidents of the 20th century furthered Christian nationalism. Kruse skips almost entire presidencies in the telling of the story though when a Democrat is in office. For example, the author spends a large amount of time detailing the exact process of how constitutional amendments to allow public Christian prayer and Bible reading from teachers in public schools failed, but mentions President Kennedy about 3 or 4 times in the text, quoting him just once. This could have been a fascinating time to explore the implications of how having a devout Catholic President changed the conversation on faith after a publicly religious but nominally Presbyterian President, but Kruse passes on the opportunity. This weakness appears again during the time period that should have been devoted to Jimmy Carter. Carter was a Southern Baptist with a faith based in social justice. This was a wild departure from the free market faith of Nixon and Raegan, but Carter barely gets one mention in the text.

I also feel that the book was misstitled. Though part one of the text does examine the relationship between corporate promotion and the concept of a Christian America, parts two and three are really much more about how the political figures re-wrote Christian nationalism into our policy and history, with a few connecting points to corporate America. This is fine, and still makes for an interesting, engaging, and important read, but the book should have perhaps been titled One Nation Under God: How Christian America was invented by Corporate and Political America

Finally, the book could have spent a bit more time analyzing how the other important issues of the 20th century played into Christian nationalism. For example, there is a stunning and frightening connection between faith leaders and racism in the 1960s. Christian language also greatly affected the women’s movements of the midcentury. Many evangelical denominations became markedly more conservative in the second half of the 20th century, and a bit of analysis on how the national politics and the theology of the evangelicals affect one another would have been welcome in the conversation.

Strengths

Though I’ve been focussing on what the author leaves out, he really does include a vast breadth of information from a number of angles, and his passion for the subject shines through easily. The author does a good job of analyzing the faithfulness and motives of politicians and leaders, drawing from primary sources and other sources such as biographies to paint an accurate picture.

This author does not shield the reader from the uglier, political tactics people have employed. To him it seems that America is a great nation, in spite of (and sometimes because of) our deep faults. I’m thankful for honest talk.

The book also is a good length. Had the author included everything I mentioned above, the book would certainly be almost double the length, making it too long to conceivably read in your spare time.

So should you read it?

In a word, yes. This is an excellent survey of history that treats no one as infallible, but rather examines the sources of what happened in American life in the 20th Century to make us into the highly divided, passionate nation we our today. If you are a Christian like me, prepare to wince when you read the extensive expositions of Billy Graham’s political involvement and the striking passages about how easily pastors were manipulated. If you are a Republican, prepare for a brutal look inside the politicking of faith. If you are a Democrat, prepare to walk away from this book needing to do a bit more research on how your own party has manipulated religion, because unfortunately this book won’t cover it. Regardless, every American interested in the intersection of faith, politics, history, and business should read this book.

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