America Under God

one_nation_under_god_phow_corporate_america_invented_christian_americapI’m reading the new book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The title is provocative but it’s a very well researched historical exploration of America’s religious self-identity. Author Kevin Kruse proposes that contemporary pundits longing for the golden days of “Christian America” have less in common with the founding fathers than with the postwar “Under God” movement of the 1940s and 50s. The book’s central narrative, reconstructed compellingly using quotes from the preachers and politicians involved, begins with America’s recovery efforts after the Depression and World War II.

The “Under God” campaign began, Kruse argues, as a coordinated response of capitalist leaders and clergy against Roosevelt’s New Deal entitlements. The chief insinuation of the book is that opportunistic industrialists appealed to generic “Judeo-Christian values” (ironically, a rhetorical category introduced a generation earlier by socially liberal Christian activists) to baptize their businesses and profits, and that conservative pastors were all too happy to play along in exchange for exposure and influence.

This movement, called “spiritual mobility” or “Christian Libertarianism,” picked up such political momentum that it swept Washington after the election of Dwight Eisenhower. There followed a long series of vague but impassioned religious proclamations by both Congress and the White House – often on live TV with an audience of millions. The president talked about God in his public addresses and preachers talked politics from their pulpits. The era saw the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, the inclusion of the motto “In God We Trust” on American currency, and a stream of prayer breakfasts that has yet to subside.

The thesis of the book is fascinating, but the real value of this work for me is the insight it provides into the thinking and rhetoric of the preachers and politicians involved. For example, I did not know that Billy Graham, the great evangelist, first came to national attention by preaching against labor unions and touting the dangers of godless communism. (In fairness, I understand he later expressed regret over those early messages.) More than anything else, though, I am both fascinated and horrified by the way these crusaders interacted with the Bible.

One of many public presidential proclamations described in the book struck me as particularly instructive. In 1953 the National Association of Evangelicals drew up a “Declaration of Freedom” which cleverly outlined seven “divine freedoms” extracted from the famous 23rd Psalm. It looked like this:

Freedom from Want: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Freedom from Hunger: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

Freedom from Thirst: “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

Freedom from Sin: “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

Freedom from Fear: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

Freedom from Enemies: “Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of my enemies.”

Freedom to Live Abundantly: “Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

The Declaration of Freedom was signed by President Eisenhower at the 1953 Independence Day Celebration. The genius of the pronouncement was the way it simultaneously scored partisan political points AND recast America’s capitalist ambitions in explicit theistic language. On one level it was a conservative, clergy-endorsed trump card to Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” from a decade earlier (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear). At the same time, it reappropriated the beloved shepherd’s poem as a manifesto for the American dream.

In Psalm 23, the lyricist (traditionally David) celebrates God as a divine shepherd who cares for him, protects him, and meets all of his needs. The shepherd’s sheep does not want, does not hunger, cannot come to harm, and overflows with good things. With minimal rhetorical sleight of hand, the NAE turned those personal, spiritual gifts into America’s birthright, her divinely guaranteed “freedoms” which were to be procured and defended at all cost.  A short leap from personal salvation to prosperity and conquest.

It is one thing to catalog our national blessings and attribute them to divine providence. It is quite another to “name and claim” those blessings as special privileges to be fought for. Does a God-given right to “freedom from want” justify exploitative industry and the reckless accumulation of wealth? Does “freedom from enemies” mean that our military campaigns are blessed by God?  What does it mean for the federal government to enforce our right to “freedom from sin?” The implications are sinister.

I’ll admit there’s something quaint about the memory of these quasi-religious proclamations and their endorsements from beloved celebrities like Jimmy Stewart and Walt Disney. But at the heart of the “Christian America” movement was a flagrant and dangerous misuse of scripture and ideological “values” which run counter to the core of the real Christian gospel. And, most alarmingly, this type of rhetoric is not relegated to some charming black-and-white era of the past. It is alive and raging in our own time.