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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.


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.