Book cover

As someone who has a doctorate in American history, it always makes me nervous to hear people declaim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. It is all I can do to hold my tongue when folks say that the Constitution guarantees the separation of Church and state, and when they start talking about a Constitutional amendment requiring prayer in the public schools–as long as I’m a professor, students will be praying in school!–well then, Katie bar the door! The first assertion is an oversimplified story about Pilgrims, Puritans and the Mayflower Compact, written in 1620. The second statement is flat out wrong, and the third one, well whatareyagonnado?

If Americans are befuddled about American history, they are downright illiterate about the development of religion in America. Unofficial surveys of my students show that more than half of them believe that students can’t pray in school, about that many believe there is a Christian God, and almost none of them had any type of religious training when they were growing up! I find this troublesome, as I firmly believe that you cannot teach history well without teaching about religion, and religion cannot be taught well without teaching about history. Things don’t just spring up like topsy; they have a context, and not recognizing that can cause no end of trouble. There is not one world or national problem that does not in some way have religious undertones at its core. Moreover, since the middle of the twentieth century, American politicians have made religion an ever more essential part of their modus operandi.

How did this all start and why has it been successful?

Kruse posits that religion in America as we know it today is an invention of devotees of capitalism, businessmen, marketers and conservative clergy who were anxious to dismantle the New Deal and the Fair Deal and build a bulwark against communism and socialism.  These groups found the perfect leader for their crusade: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

While Kruse does not go into detail about Eisenhower’s religious upbringing, we do learn that he was a man of deep faith and a firm believer in an almighty being. Ike also seemed convinced that his ascension to the presidency was part of some divine plan in which he had been chosen to lead America back to its Christian roots. Before his inauguration, he was baptized into the Presbyterian faith, the faith of his wife. He led the crowd who witnessed his inauguration in prayer and stocked his administration with corporate leaders to assist in spreading the gospel of capitalism. Cabinet meetings began with prayer, and Eisenhower regularly peppered his speeches with scripture, some of which was suggested to him by his friend, the evangelist Billy Graham.

Various organizations also sprang up to help lead Americans back to God. One of the most prominent was the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) which claimed to represent more than ten million Americans across almost three dozen Protestant denominations. The NAE wrote the Statement of Seven Divine Freedoms, based on the Twenty-third Psalm. The organization described it as “a simple basic scriptural statement of the Spiritual sources of Freedom,” some of which included freedom from fear, freedom from sin and freedom to live abundantly. Eisenhower was an enthusiastic guest at the ceremony at which the freedoms were presented.

In One Nation Under God, Kruse also gives us a fine history of how the Pledge of Allegiance and the nation’s money were modified to reflect the new religiosity of America, and with barely a whimper from civil libertarians. Moreover, the section of the book entitled Conflict is a great introduction to how the public schools became the battleground in the movement to place Christianity at the very center of the government.

One Nation Under God advances an interesting premise: that the movement to re-christianize America was not so much a response to outside forces, communism among them, but from the enemies within–the creeping liberalism and socialism brought about by the New Deal.