Kevin Kruse is Catholic. You should know that before you label him an anti-Christianity bigot. The reality is, he’s not against Christianity at all, he’s just trying to show you that this broadly accepted idea that the U.S.A. is a Christian nation is a concoction of mid-20th century business and political interests.
Kruse will discuss this idea on Thursday, April 9, at 6 p.m. at Labyrinth Books where he will hold a talk and signing of his latest book, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” (Basic Books). Visit www.labyrinthbooks.com.
A professor of history and a member of the executive committee of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Kruse was born near Kansas City and grew up in Nashville after his father, an accountant, was transferred. Kruse says his father was always supportive and proud of his son’s interest in American history, but “he was aware that the business gene had not landed on me,” he says (although Kruse’s brother is a banker).
In 1994 Kruse earned his bachelor’s in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He earned his doctorate in 2000 from Cornell, then took his position at Princeton. Ever engrossed in the stories of American history, Kruse took an interest in the presence of religion in America around the beginning of the century. And though the focus of his latest book begins about 80 years ago, he has during his tenure witnessed a prime example of how religious language latches onto American culture and stays there — the seventh-inning stretch.
Remember when going to a baseball game meant singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (and only “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) in the middle of the seventh? If you do, you saw a game before the end of the 2001 season. Since 9/11 you are now treated to “God Bless America,” complete with a “please rise and remove your caps.” A gesture at Yankee Stadium, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, kicked off a new tradition across the Major Leagues that isn’t going away.
“Once a tradition gets started, you can’t undo it,” Kruse says. “It becomes sanctified.”
It’s a concept called “ceremonial deism,” the idea that invoking God’s good grace and name is generally received as nice and inoffensive — and it’s typically seen as ornamental. It’s vague and embracing, and no one really has a problem with. Except that there is a problem with it. Once it’s in place, trying to get rid of it becomes political suicide because people (read: customers and constituents) don’t see it as ornamental, Kruse says. Any attempt to remove it is seen as an attack on God and religion.
How does this factor into business? Well, back in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt set up the social-centered policies called the New Deal. Corporations, unsurprisingly, hated it. New Deal programs like Social Security and the rising power of unions put big dents in corporate profits, Kruse says. So corporations put together their own plan to sell capitalism as the true American Way.
“The problem was, people didn’t buy it,” Kruse says. “They saw it as propaganda.”
So with their sincere efforts (and huge PR budgets) failing, major corporations looked for a new way to sell the gospel of capitalism. They found it in clergy. Ministers, these companies learned, were the most trusted group of people in America, Kruse says. So they took their agenda straight to sympathetic ministers — namely the Rev. James Fifeld, minister of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, and, for a time, the leader of Moral Re-Armament in the U.S.
Fifeld, says Kruse, had a congregation of millionaires who embraced capitalism and Christianity with equal zeal. Both, after all, share a major precept — that the rewards are only for those who do their best to earn it. Good behavior means heaven; good business means wealth.
As luck would have it, the United States had a godless enemy after World War II, the avowedly atheistic Soviet Union. With the seeds of capitalist utopia planted by the most trusted group in America, U.S. leaders sought to distance the country from the U.S.S.R. in every way possible — capitalism over communism, God over godlessness.
By the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower, this concept of capitalism’s rightness had gained a lot of traction, Kruse says. And Eisenhower proved to be the game changer. Under Eisenhower’s watch, phrases like “One nation, under God” and “In God We Trust” (our national motto since the 1950s) took hold.
If you remember attempts to remove “under God” from the Pledge of allegiance, you remember witnessing the backlash ceremonial deism generates when you try to say it’s ornamental.
The interesting thing is that Eisenhower, though he is the one who put God at the fore of American politics and instituted prayer in the White House, among other generally accepted practices today, took great pains to be inclusive of all faiths, Kruse says. He was talking about God, not Christianity. And everyone, even the decidedly anti-conservative ACLU, was all right with it.
As with most things, rationality eventually gave way to partisanship. Eisenhower’s critics accused him of having “very strong faith in a very vague religion,” Kruse says. And as the freedom to talk about God in schools filtered down into the schools themselves, local districts opted for the Bible over the ecumenical vagaries posited by the Eisenhower White House.
By the 1970s, President Richard Nixon began cozying up to religious leaders and religion, and the White House became more closely linked. Then came President Jimmy Carter, a staunch liberal who was born again. But in 1976, Kruse says, no one really knew what that term meant — except for evangelicals, who were suddenly thrust into a position of political influence and who quickly abandoned Carter.
Ronald Reagan, of course, identified with the disaffected evangelicals, thus sealing the marriage between anti-union conservatives, who favored keeping hands off corporate America, and Christians, who once Reagan won the White House had an entire major party looking to work with them on national policy and economic decisions.
And if you want another example of ceremonial deism, Reagan ended his inaugural speech with the phrase “God bless America.” No president before him had ever said that, and every president since has, Kruse says.
Since the 1980s the unified Christian and conservative movements have helped foster the idea that America is and always was a Christian nation, despite that the Founding Fathers explicitly spelled out that it is not (and if you doubt that, read the Treaty of Tripoli of 1796, which explicitly states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”)
This fiction created by anti-FDR corporations, Kruse says, has influenced business and political policies since the 1950s and shows no signs of going away any time soon. “Congress will never do anything about it. The courts won’t do anything about it either,” he says.
Things would change if people in general got past the idea that America was intended to be a Christian nation, Kruse says, but he admits that as an historian, “my specialty is hindsight, so that’s pure speculation.”
In the mean time, he will continue to deal with those he angers with his attempts to show real history in the face of what has turned out to actually be incredibly good corporate PR. “I got an E-mail just the other day [regarding] my anti-Christian bigotry,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll have to show this to my priest.’”