The Corporate Christian Conspiracy?

A historian tries to blame "Christian libertarians" for the idea that America is a Christian nation.


One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse, Basic Books, 352 pages, $29.99

One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, by Peter Manseau, Little, Brown and Co., 469 pages, $28

In his much-lauded new book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse promises to tell us the real reason so many people think America is a "Christian nation." As telegraphed by his bolder-than-the-evidence subtitle, Kruse believes that modern American Christian religiosity was not grown organically from native soil but planted in our minds with malice aforethought by corporations in the 1950s. Their secret purpose: to crush the New Deal.

Many historians—particularly Jonathan Herzog, in his 2011 book The Spiritual-Industrial Complex—have made a thorough case that the religious fervor of the '50s was rooted in Cold War anxieties. These fears were certainly shaped and guided by state, corporate, and other interests, as Herzog stresses, but such efforts could not have been effective had they not resonated with the broader population, making '50s religiosity more a diffuse public reaction than a deliberately conceived plot. Kruse acknowledges that theory, but insists that it pays insufficient attention to some religious-ideological interest groups funded by the pre–Cold War rich who were motivated more to oppose the New Deal than to contain the Soviet threat.

America's intelligentsia are perpetually attracted to theories in which beliefs they disapprove of and/or are perplexed by do not arise from independent agency but are imposed on an easily duped populace. (See, for example, the conspiracies pinning the Tea Party movement on a plutocratic propaganda machine that hypnotized dumb Americans into acting against their own interests.) Kruse tosses in another popular, if more obscure, trend in ideological historiography by inaccurately conflating libertarianism with the more well-known conservative movement. Indeed, one of the main villains in Kruse's version of 20th century America is that curious breed he calls the "Christian libertarian."

Here's Kruse's brief: After World War II, the Christian libertarians rebranded their free market, anti–New Deal ideas as a form of religiously rooted Americanism. The players included Spiritual Mobilization (a genuinely libertarian advocacy group that aimed its efforts mostly at Protestant clergy), the Rev. Billy Graham, and the National Council for Christian Leadership, a prayer group movement aimed at prominent politicians and captains of industry.

These little-understood clandestine forces, Kruse argues, laid the groundwork for the Eisenhower administration's efforts to append "under God" to the pledge of allegiance and "In God We Trust" to stamps and paper currency. (The latter phrase had already been on coins since 1864, a thesis-damaging point that Kruse notes then promptly ignores.) He also credits the free market evangelists with helping inspire Eisenhower-era prayer meetings in executive branch gatherings from the cabinet to the Pentagon.

How did this scheme operate, specifically? Via pamphlets, radio programs, and national rallies. Pastors giving freedom-oriented talks on the Fourth of July. Newspaper and magazine ads depicting "the American Way of Life" as a monument with "Political and Economic Rights" on top and "Fundamental Belief in God" at the base. And via constant, massively successful speaking tours, particularly those by Billy Graham.

That all happened, but it hardly proves that the Eisenhower administration, prompted by corporate paymasters and inspired by libertarians, "invented" and imposed the idea of an unbreakable link between American politics and the Christian religion. Kruse himself reminds us that the New Deal's architect, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "shrewdly drew on spiritual themes and imagery throughout his career," noting that "his first inaugural address was so laden with references to scripture that the National Bible Press published an extensive chart linking his text with the 'Corresponding Biblical Quotation.'" Roosevelt also deliberately tried to revive the "language of the so-called Social Gospel to justify the creation of the modern welfare state." It stretches logic to blame the postwar right for "inventing" America as a Christian nation.

The book is filled with such self-refuting details. Billy Graham is shown drawing half a million people over a few weeks in Portland, Oregon, and then turning around and doing the same in Atlanta, which suggests a mass popular movement rather than the top-down creation of wealthy propagandists. Kruse tells us that executives used religiously themed advertising as "a tool to improve the public image of their companies"; why, exactly, would that work if they were imposing their Christianity?

Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark said in 1950 that "no country or civilization can last unless it is founded on Christian values." Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking at a National Prayer Breakfast in 1954, stated bluntly that "we are a Christian nation." In 1947, when President Harry Truman was trying to get the Vatican to join the Cold War, he wrote: "Your Holiness, this is a Christian nation." Truman also made religion the linchpin of his 1948 State of the Union address.

Can Kruse really believe that all these members of the political establishment were going boldly where the American people had not yet trodden? The movements Kruse accuses of warping minds were, both by his own evidence and by historical evidence outside his narrow scope, fulfilling pre-existing desires. That is what truly successful propaganda efforts tend to do—what they have to do.

We were never a nation with an official established church, Christian or otherwise. But there is plenty of reason to see the U.S. as culturally, dominantly, Christian. At America's founding, a majority of states allowed only professed Christians to hold office. When Thomas Jefferson donated his books to Congress, an enormous culture war erupted because the collection contained tomes that questioned or denied Christianity. President Abraham Lincoln was declaring national days of prayer in the middle of the 19th century. When President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 tried to take "in God we trust" off our coins, public opposition bowled him over. The popular turn-of-the-20th-century public figure William Jennings Bryan—who Kruse identifies only as a "great evangelist for old time religions and plain folk politics"—won the Democratic Party's presidential nomination three times, a fact Kruse does not see fit to mention.

Somehow, in a book purporting to tell the secret history of a fabricated national Christian identity, it never occurs to Kruse to ask why people who are trying to convince Americans of certain things—like the superiority of free enterprise or the evil of Communism—might rely on Christian arguments and iconography. An obvious answer to the unasked question: because Americans were to a very large degree apt to find such arguments resonant and convincing.

Another new book with a confusingly similar title undercuts Kruse's thesis even more. One Nation, Under Gods, by the memoirist, novelist, and historian Peter Manseau, is a curious and rewarding series of acutely observed and felt character studies from American history, glamorizing figures on the religious periphery. Manseau writes detailed chapters about more than a dozen fascinating figures whose wide-ranging spirituality he sees shaping the American experience in often unseen but always powerful ways.

Manseau's subjects range from Mustafa Zemmouri, a Muslim forced to convert to Christianity who came to the Americas as a 16th century Spanish colonizer and ended up a legendary healer with the Zuni Indians, to Handsome Lake, an Iroquois prophet who may have had a second-hand influence on Mormonism founder Joseph Smith. There's Jacob Lumbrozo, an early Jew in the Maryland colony who ran afoul of its so-called "Act of Toleration" for questioning Jesus' divinity, and also John Starr Cooke, whose 20th century metaphysical peregrinations through the mystic east and beyond were a subterranean precursor to burgeoning hippiedom.

Manseau sympathizes with these colorful and brave figures from America's spiritual margins, and he appreciates how those margins, in often unacknowledged ways, shaped American religion and culture. But his stories make obvious that the mainstream against which many of these characters chafed was undeniably Christian. As he writes, "religious skepticism in the colonial era was taboo even among professional radicals."

So much for Kevin Kruse's revisionist scoop that groups whose politics he abhors somehow "created" the notion of a Christian America in the 1950s.

As for the specter of "Christian libertarianism," in Kruse's hands the phrase is confusing at best, plain mistaken at worst. One Nation Under God begins with an accurate enough examination of Spiritual Mobilization, a radically free market and anti–New Deal group from Southern California most active in the 1940s and '50s, but fails utterly to connect the organization to the postwar trends Kruse so loathes.

Spiritual Mobilization was in essence a libertarian group disguised as a Christian one. It was run in its 1950s heyday by an atheist (and later acid-drenched mystic) lawyer named James Ingebretsen to push libertarianism using language and symbols he thought would resonate. American Christians, the organization suggested, should ask the following libertarian-flavored questions of government actions: "Does…the program, platform, or act encourage the Christian principle of love or the collectivist principle of compulsion? If it proposes to take the property or income of some for the specific benefit or use of others, does it violate the Commandment: 'Thou shalt not steal'? Is it necessary to use the compulsion of political means in this instance or could the ends be accomplished by Christian co-operation and non-political voluntary associations?"

Getting prayer into the White House or schools was no part of Spiritual Mobilization's mission, nor did it attempt to introduce Christian language into national ritual. Ingebretsen's crew were advocates of untrammeled liberty and free markets. Even Kruse has to admit that the real-world effects he tries to attribute to Spiritual Mobilization as a "corporate America"–backed pressure group had nothing to do with what the organization was trying to achieve.

In conflating "Christian libertarianism" with a larger conservative movement toward greater public religiosity, Kruse elides one of the most important differences between libertarianism and its right-wing cousin: their attitudes about the Cold War. As Kruse notes, Billy Graham, one of the real linchpins of the story he's telling, "closely followed the Republican script" on Korea and plumped for the full unleashing of American military might on that hapless nation. Spiritual Mobilization, on the other hand, was running in its journal Faith and Freedom lines like, "If we had agreed to a cease-fire…or had pulled out of Korea altogether (even better), we would have saved thousands of American and Korean lives."

Kruse's book does offer a well-detailed political narrative about how we ended up with the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance and the phrase "In God we trust" on our paper money and stamps. It also thoroughly relates the cultural, political, and judicial battles over prayer and the Bible in school (battles lost badly by the Christian conservatives whose influence he stresses). But Kruse should have considered ending his narrative on page 72, when he admits that the fresh and exotic "Christian libertarian" story he began in chapter one with Spiritual Mobilization more or less ended in the early Eisenhower years, when "religion would no longer be used to tear down the central state, but instead to prop it up."