Piety and Politics in America


AP Photo

Evangelist Billy Graham, second from right, kneels in prayer on the White House Lawn July 14,1950 with three friends, asking divine aid for President Truman in his handling of the Korean crisis. Graham had just finished a meeting with the President. With him are, left to right, Jerry Beavan, Clifford Barrows and Grady Wilson.

This book review appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

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One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America
By Kevin M. Kruse
384 pp. Basic Books $29.99
The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition
By Amy Kittelstrom
448 pp. Penguin Press $32.95

When I speak on college campuses and tell students that the United States Constitution makes no mention of God, at least half of the audience members invariably shake their heads in disbelief. It usually turns out that the students have confused the Constitution either with the Declaration of Independence, which, of course, does refer to a Creator who has endowed all men with “certain unalienable rights,” or with the Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892 by a Christian socialist minister without any mention of a deity until Congress added “under God” in 1954 as a Cold War rebuke to the officially atheist Soviet Union.

It is not that students (including those at historically religious colleges) are antagonistic when told that ours was the first government in the world founded on the authority of “We the People” rather than of God or a king ruling by divine right. They are, however, confused. The secular side of the nation’s origins does not fit well with their experience of growing up in a time when every presidential inauguration includes as many representatives of the clergy as it takes to demonstrate that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion and presidents end important speeches with “God bless America”—a piety derived from a song written by Irving Berlin in 1918 and having as much to do with the Constitution as Berlin’s later hit “White Christmas.” Civil libertarians, of whatever religious or nonreligious persuasion, and outspoken atheists who dare to question these practices are often described as “militant.”

How, when, and why did it become controversial for politicians to pay even passing homage to the noble truth that the Founders had the temerity, at a time when nearly all Americans were Christian, to establish a national government whose founding legal document is entirely secular?

In One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, offers the latest of many scholarly attempts to address this question. The subtitle precisely sums up Kruse’s thesis—that the image of America as a “Christian nation,” as distinct from a country with a Christian majority—is relatively recent. He traces what he sees as a 20th-century cultural shift to wealthy businessmen who, beginning with their hatred of the New Deal and reaching the zenith of their influence during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (with bells and whistles added by Richard M. Nixon a decade later), used religion as a cover for their desire to take down liberalism.

As a political liberal, an atheist, and the author of a book dealing with the neglected secular side of American history, I find this thesis appealing but not entirely convincing. The great virtue of this book is that its author—whose previous works include White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2007)—takes public prayer and other displays of religiosity seriously. Eugene V. Rostow could not have been more wrong in 1962 when, as dean of the Yale Law School, he delivered a widely publicized lecture describing such practices as essentially harmless “ceremonial deism.” These are theist, not deist practices. They possess real power to permanently affect the way citizens think about their government, as demonstrated by students who are surprised when told that the Pledge is not one of the nation’s founding documents.

The difficulty with Kruse’s argument that “corporate America invented Christian America” is that he skips over the profound tension between Enlightenment secularism and religiosity that has existed since the founding of the republic. In 1787, the omission of God from the Constitution was the subject of bitter debates at state ratifying conventions—though the Enlightenment rationalists won. Such longstanding ambivalence about the role of religion in government has nothing to do with either the hatred of tycoons for the New Deal or the later Cold War campaign against the “godless” Soviets, pushed by many centrists as well as right-wing business and religious institutions.

In some respects, it is a wise decision for an author to set definite limits to a potentially limitless historical inquiry. What the Founders actually did when they wrote the Constitution is more important than what any of them thought, in their heart of hearts, about religion. And as Kruse rightly observes, the scholarly consensus—that the founders did intend to separate church and state at the national level—has “done little to shift popular opinion.”

Whether scholarship can or should be expected to shift popular opinion is a separate question, but Kruse’s heavy emphasis on the role of big money in bankrolling the Christianization of American public life is even more unlikely to accomplish that end. Kruse is too meticulous and honest a historian to withhold facts that undercut his own thesis—and the fact is that however persistently religious conservatives tried to pit God against the New Deal, it proved impossible to convince a majority of Americans that Jesus would have hated Social Security, rural electrification, and unions.

The author presents fascinating, vividly drawn portraits of many players in this drama (some remembered today, others not). A Congregationalist minister, James W. Fifield Jr., took over the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles in 1935 and turned it, by 1942, into one of the nation’s first megachurches. Members included a roster of millionaire businessmen (when a million meant som ething), as well as entertainment celebrities like Cecil B. DeMille. In a stellar example of the law of unintended consequences, DeMille set the stage for the numerous “Ten Commandments” cases of recent years. In collaboration with the Fraternal Order of Eagles, DeMille distributed thousands of Commandments monuments around the country in preparation for the 1956 release of the biblical epic starring Charlton Heston. Many of these promotional gimmicks wound up in public spaces, giving rise to civil liberties challenges (with mixed judicial results) decades later.

As the founder of an organization called Spiritual Mobilization, Fifield reached some 70,000 Protestant ministers with a screed in which he compared clerical and business opponents of the New Deal to Christ himself. “If, with Jesus, we believe in the sacredness of individual personalities, then our leadership responsibility is very plain,” he declared. Although religious conservatives might be accused of “selling out,” he added, “so was Jesus.”

While Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a serious believer in the Episcopal faith of his upbringing, he—like his more devout cousin, Theodore—kept a reserved distance between his private beliefs and his role as president. As governor of New York and later as president, however, FDR made masterful use of biblical language to sell his social policies. Criticizing a Republican proposal to privatize New York public utilities, Roosevelt said, “This is a history and a sermon on the subject of water power, and I preach from the Old Testament. The text is ‘Thou shalt not steal.’” His first inaugural address contained so many scriptural references that the National Bible Press issued a detailed chart linking the text with corresponding biblical quotations.

How could a bunch of right-wing ministers have ever hoped to best the master at this game? There is little in Kruse’s narrative to support the idea that religious conservatives of the 1930s begat the Cold War union of religion and political conservatism during the 1950s—much less the right-wing alliance involving conservatives of different faiths that has existed since cultural issues such as abortion came to the fore in the 1970s.

Many of the same actors, like Fifield, were still around in the 1950s, but the movement to define America as a Christian nation received greater impetus with the rise of Billy Graham, who emerged in his early thirties as the most charismatic evangelist in American history and someone before whom one president after another felt obliged to genuflect (metaphorically, given Graham’s Protestantism), until Parkinson’s disease led to his de facto retirement from public life in 2005.

Harry S. Truman, bless him, was the last president to treat Graham as a religious salesman rather than as someone with special spiritual authority. After a meeting at the White House in 1950—which ended with Graham kneeling on the White House lawn to pose for photographers—Truman described the evangelist as someone who was only interested in “getting his name in the paper” and told his staff that Graham “would never be welcome at the White House again as long as he was president.” A year later, Graham launched vigorous attacks on social spending to aid the poor at home and the Marshall Plan abroad.

Unlike Truman, Eisenhower raised no objections to Graham or to public religious ceremonies. In 1953, he presided over the first National Prayer Breakfast—one of those relatively recent institutions that have now taken on the mantle of tradition—and a year later, famously approved Congress’s addition of “under God” to the schoolchildren’s pledge. Eisenhower himself was hardly the model of a devout Christian soldier. He did not even belong to a church when he was nominated for the presidency and eventually became the first president to be baptized in office. He chose the Presbyterian Church, he said, because his wife Mamie was a Presbyterian.

Moreover, Eisenhower’s receptivity to expanded religious symbolism in public life did not imply approval of the secular aim of the religious and economic conservatives—repeal of the New Deal. As is well known (and Kruse acknowledges this), Eisenhower expanded benefits under the New Deal’s signature legislation, Social Security. He also boosted federal spending for education and championed the largest public works program ever undertaken in this country—the interstate highway system. Indeed, the enthusiasm of many business leaders for Eisenhower’s government spending programs, which meant profits for all, was an important factor impeding attempts to confer a religious imprimatur on right-wing politics at that time.

In a brief epilogue, Kruse refers to the strained alliance between establishment Republican businessmen and the religious right, which elected Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush and, finally, George W. Bush. While acknowledging that the right-wing religious conservatives of the 1950s did not undo the New Deal, he asserts that they did succeed in convincing “a wide range of Americans that their country had been, and should always be, a Christian nation.”


There is little in Kruse’s analysis about the equally strong historical relationship between liberal religion and liberal politics. That is the subject explored by Amy Kittelstrom in The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition. Kittelstrom, associate professor of history at Sonoma State University, has chosen seven 19th-century figures to develop the argument. A long list of historians and political observers have made this point—either implicitly or explicitly—beginning with Mercy Otis Warren’s neglected 1788 Observations on the New Constitution. In recent years, popular works such as God’s Politics (2005) by the evangelical minister Jim Wallis have argued for the reclamation of the banner of religion from the fundamentalist right. (Wallis’s Jesus loves Social Security and anti-poverty programs.)

For much of American history, it was possible to be a religious conservative and an economic populist (as William Jennings Bryan was), or a liberal in matters of religion but not in economics or politics. Only in recent decades, as Kittelstrom notes, has the word “‘godless’ got hitched to the word ‘liberal.’”

Perhaps the desire to explore new territory on well-trod ground is responsible for Kittelstrom’s truly odd selection of people she deems liberals. Her list begins with John Adams, who was indeed an Enlightenment rationalist and a liberal in religious matters but who was not a political liberal in his own time or by most modern definitions. No one who has read the correspondence between Adams and Thomas Jefferson can doubt that they agreed completely on the necessity of separating church and state. One of the greatest disappointments of Adams’s old age was his inability to persuade Massachusetts legislators, in writing a new state constitution in 1820, to remove civil restrictions on all religions, including Judaism. (Although the federal constitution prohibited any religious test for public office, it took decades for some states to follow suit.) But Adams was the president who, among other acts generally considered illiberal, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.

Kittelstrom’s next “liberal” strikes me as an even more peculiar choice than Adams. The first of two women on the list (the other is Jane Addams, the founding spirit of the settlement house movement) is Mary Moody Emerson, of whom the world would know nothing had she not been Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt. Miss (as she would have been identified then) Emerson, who published occasional essays about religion with the gender-concealing initials M.M., occupied no public role—in keeping with the idea of a woman’s place that constrained women of her generation, even in intellectual families.

All of Kittelstrom’s liberals (with the exception of Thomas Davidson, a Scottish intellectual who immigrated to the United States after the Civil War) are directly descended from or linked to the New England Puritans, who morphed first into Congregationalists, then into Unitarians, and later in the 19th century into deists or unconventional theists whose beliefs could not be pinned down. William James, another of Kittelstrom’s choices and an intellectual of the first generation exposed to both Darwin and Freud, was extremely cagey about revealing his real religious beliefs. In the far-ranging and still influential lectures that he gave in 1901 and 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James displayed an extraordinary capacity to produce quotations that could be used to support just about any religious position.

With the exception of Jane Addams, Kittelstrom ignores religious liberals who not only fell outside mainstream Protestantism but who were also genuine social activists. Lucretia Mott, the devout Quaker who was often pilloried as an atheist for daring to raise her woman’s voice in public, was an outspoken suffragist and abolitionist who, unlike M.M. Emerson, did not hide behind initials in an attempt to avoid social censure. Quakerism was arguably the most liberal, in a social and theological sense, form of American Christianity from the colonial era through the Civil War, and it is difficult to understand why Kittelstrom limits her religious liberals to one type of Protestant.

There are no Catholics or Jews in her book. This is understandable in the case of Catholics, given the conservatism of the 19th-century American church hierarchy, but why give relatively short shrift to Felix Adler, the Jewish founder of the Ethical Culture movement, in favor of William Mackintire Salter, a member of Ethical Culture and another WASP (married to Mary Gibbens, the sister of William James’s wife, Alice)?

Kittlestrom speaks repeatedly of an “American Reformation.” But there was more than one American reformation—just as there were many Protestant reformations in Europe. The Second Great Awakening, with its literal interpretation of the Bible and emphasis on “born-again” experiences, was taking place during the same period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as the transformation of Puritan-descended New England Congregationalism into more liberal, Enlightenment-infused Unitarianism.

These movements presaged a permanent split in American Protestantism, played out repeatedly from the early 19th century to our own time through culture wars, beginning in the 1820s with religious conservatives’ attempt to stop federally mandated Sunday postal service (unsuccessful until the development of the telegraph made Sunday mail economically obsolete) and continuing through battles over slavery, evolution, the status of women, birth control, abortion, and gay rights.

Kruse, as a historian of the 20th century, naturally pays more attention to Catholics and Jews than Kittelstrom does, but he does not adequately deal with the rise of conservative Catholic power in the 1950s as an important force in the drive for public acceptance of religious symbolism in government. The theological split that once defined American Protestantism has now become a split in which religiously conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Jews have come together (an alliance that would have been unthinkable in the 1950s) on the right-wing side of cultural issues. At the same time, theologically liberal Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, along with secularists, have become allies on the other side of the culture wars.

By the Eisenhower era, despite developments like the addition of God to the Pledge, there were already signs of an emerging secular and religious liberal movement against assaults on the separation of church and state. In 1948, in McCollum v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck down an Illinois state law allowing “released time” for religious education in public schools. Justice Hugo Black, speaking for the 8–1 majority, declared, “Separation is a requirement to abstain from fusing functions of Government and of religious sects, not merely to treat them all equally.”

Throughout the 1950s, new challenges were making their way through the lower courts. The 1962 case Engel v. Vitale, in which the high court struck down a New York State school prayer, was followed by Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, which ended laws—long supported by the combined power of the Catholic Church and highly conservative Protestants—restricting access of married couples to contraceptives. Both the Engel and Griswold decisions enraged religious conservatives in a fashion that prefigured the stronger, lasting reaction to Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Another way of looking at the 1950s is that the successful attempt to infuse government with new religious symbolism was a response to a growing secularization in many areas of American cultural life that was disturbing to the devout, even though not yet widely recognized by the general public.

I was in fourth grade when “under God” was added to the Pledge, and since my classmates and I had learned to recite the old-fashioned, godless profession of fealty, our teacher had to explain the change. She said we should be grateful because children in the Soviet Union could be killed for saying the word “God” in public. I went home and asked my parents whether this was true. They were far from liberals and, like a majority of their adult generation, had voted for both Roosevelt and Eisenhower.

My father laughed and said, “Well, I don’t think your teacher has been to Russia, so I’m not sure she knows.” But—to give Kruse’s argument its due—my dad was raised at a time when “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” was considered patriotic enough. 


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