From “Under God” to “Religious Freedom”: Our Reckless Culture Wars

American Christianity has a shameful track record of organizing and defending its own interests under banners of patriotism and slapdash theology. In the 1940’s and 50’s it was “Spiritual Mobilization,” a movement of conservative capitalists and corporate leaders pitting Christian rhetoric and celebrity preachers against the threat of communism and the social programs of the New Deal. This was a fully political movement, though the participation of pastors (like young superstar Billy Graham) baptized the effort in Christian language and spiritual urgency. These men basically invented a new gospel and placed it in the mouth of Jesus, a gospel of rugged individualism and the freedom to amass wealth and influence unhindered.

When the Eisenhower administration bought into Spiritual Mobilization and embraced its “back to God” agenda, the movement grew from a far-right campaign into a national craze. This is when and how “Christian America” was born, argues Kevin M. Kruse in his well-researched book One Nation Under God. This is the (historically recent) origin of American cultural memes like “In God We Trust” and “Judeo-Christian values.” In a way, Eisenhower derailed the efforts of the capitalist and evangelical leaders of Mobilization by transforming their political platform into a mainstream American fad. By the time Ike left office, our currency bore the “In God We Trust” slogan and the phrase “under God” had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance. A new and pervasive sense of patriotic identity and pride invigorated religious Americans of all stripes (sorry atheists).   

In hindsight, however, that mid-20th century “under God” movement was a rather reckless and vapid exercise. James Fifield, Graham, and the Spiritual Mobilizers garbled the Christian gospel into something unrecognizable in the name of political expedience, and Eisenhower hardly did better by amplifying patriotic God-talk and draining it of any real substance. Either way, the innovations and proclamations of that era did future generations of religious Americans no favors. In fact, they laid the foundation for the “culture wars” of our own day.

How “In God We Trust” Led To The Fight For “Religious Freedom”

As raucous and spirited as Eisenhower’s national revival had been for a seeming majority of Americans, it gave way almost immediately to a series of unhappy legal battles in the 1960’s and 70’s. The issue, unavoidable in hindsight, was how far the government could go in recognizing and celebrating the Christian aspects of American heritage without crossing constitutional boundaries regarding the establishment of religion. What started as a series of benign gestures of generic religiosity soon gave way to courtroom showdowns over things like school prayer and public Bible reading. It sounds nice and harmless enough to gather all God-fearing Americans together under some slogan, but eventually the complex realities of religious diversity become painfully clear.

Prayer and Bible reading left public schools out of legal necessity as a function of true religious liberty, a sobering reality check in the wake of Eisenhower’s happy but generic God crusade. As a result, however, the specious narrative of the government “kicking God out of our schools” was written in ink and the combative mood of conservative Christianity has only intensified since. The latest chapter in that self-victimizing narrative sees Christians on the far right contesting for “religious liberty,” which apparently consists of little more than their own inherited privilege and their imagined right to see their moral proclivities enforced at state and national levels. 

For all of its deep flaws, at least the Spiritual Mobilization movement paid lip service to the religious freedom of all Americans. Today’s “religious freedom” movement seeks its own welfare by actively promoting the marginalization of others. The sin of the earlier movement was inventing and peddling a false Christian unity which ignored diversity and excluded outsiders by negligence. Today’s culture warriors can no longer ignore their diverse neighbors, and so must name and target them explicitly. Tolerance is withheld and service is denied, and all in the name of a “Christian America” that was manufactured and marketed mere decades earlier. 

Like Spiritual Mobilization before it, “religious freedom” is a reactionary political movement that appropriates and melds Christian and patriotic rhetoric to establish and protect its own concerns and privileges. Neither movement bears any resemblance to the religious traditions they exploit, and both actually defuse and pervert the teachings of Jesus and the values of the church. Mobilization transformed the message of Jesus into a credo for the self-made businessman, and “religious freedom” sees the realities of diversity as a threat to God’s “design” for American society. Both seek to wield the Bible and the name of Jesus as instruments of personal advancement and domination. There is nothing authentically spiritual or Christian about either one.