Evangelicals and the Business of One Nation Under God

The following is Darren Grem's review of Kevin Kruse's best-selling new book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.  You can find Mike Graziano's earlier review of Kruse's work here.  Darren E. Grem is Assistant Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.  His first book, Corporate Revivals: Big Business and the Shaping of the Evangelical Right, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.  

Darren Grem

 “A nation with the soul of a church.”  We all know the quip.  G.K. Chesterton, right?  He was wrestling with the question “What is America?”  Here’s what else he had to say, from his 1922 book What I Saw in America:

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.  That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence. . . . It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice and that governments exist   to given them their justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.  It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from which these equal rights are derived.

Chesterton’s reading of religious meaning into a foundational document like the Declaration of Independence is the kind of striving that Kevin M. Kruse’s One Nation Under God historicizes.  According to Kruse, this narrative—that America is a “God blessed” or even “Christian” nation bestowing equal rights and religious freedom on its citizens and others—is of recent vintage, and corporate Americans played a key role in popularizing it after World War II.  I won’t rehash Mike Graziano's fine review for this site.  But I would like to consider where Kruse’s book fits into the series of recent books that consider the role of businessmen and corporate America in constructing religious categories and narratives in modern American history.  Then, I will suggest how Kruse’s book also reaffirms some problems and shortcomings in the present historiography and where we might go next in writing the corporation into our understanding of the modern religious past.

 A number of scholars have noted the involvement of corporate interests in underwriting postwar organizations or individuals who trumpeted the notion of a “Christian America.”  Kim Phillips-Fein did so intermittently in Invisible Hands, primarily by mentioning the economic philosophies at the heart of tacitly religious organizations like Spiritual Mobilization or the Christian Freedom Foundation, among others.  Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart did not focus on the idea of “Christian America” specifically, but it certainly detailed how a corporation could affirm narratives of a God-blessed past to reaffirm expectations for a God-blessed neoliberal future.  Similarly, the businessmen in Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt who underwrote—in part—the “grassroots” activism of the earliest evangelical right in southern California held to a sense of American exceptionalism, which reaffirmed both their laudations of disestablishment and deregulation.  Other scholars have been more thorough in detailing how narratives of “Christian” national genesis and religious nationalism intersected with business interests at mid-century.  For instance, Jonathan Herzog’s book on the “spiritual-industrial” complex revealed the corporate fingerprints of many business leaders, as did certain parts of Wendy Wall’s book on the businessmen and special interests behind “the politics of consensus” in the immediate postwar era.  There are not many businessmen in Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America, but the consensus motif is there, historicized and shown to be a product of multiple, often competing, special interests and civic groups.  All of these books delve into “religious nationalism” in some form or fashion, and several provide mini-business histories of corporate America’s interest in creating a “Christian America,” or “Judeo-Christian America,” or a sense of “Christian Americanism” where citizenship accorded with—to paraphrase William Lee Miller—a very sincere belief in a very vague faith.  Or, to riff from Chesterton, that the nation’s government and body politic had a soul of a church.   

Kruse is closest to Herzog and Wall’s books in providing a top-down or middle-down story of postwar Christian Americanism.  Kruse differs from Herzog and Wall in that he downplays the importance of the warfare state or Cold War in forming what he calls a “religious nationalism” of “Christian America.”  I was curious about Kruse’s meaning of “religious nationalism,” and I combed the book to see if he ever refers to this idea and practice as “civil religion,” which I do not believe he does.  Instead, he uses the terms “public religion” or “public religious expression” as synonyms for “religious nationalism” and “Christian Americanism” in One Nation Under God, especially in the second half where the political debates over issues of church and state take precedence.   I can’t honestly articulate what Kruse sees as the difference between “public religion” and “religious nationalism” or how either are not “civil religion,” but Kruse seems to be saying that the former is a category of religious experience that is not or can’t be captured by the older—some may say worn out or problematic—term “civil religion.” 

In any case, he is certainly saying that our sense of the nation having a church-like “soul” (meaning that its government is somehow founded on “Christian” sensibilities and values) is a new thing.  Kruse only intermittently takes us backwards in time to before the 1930s to support his assertion that “America’s religious identity has its roots not in the foreign policy panic of the 1950s but rather in the domestic politics of the 1930s and 1940s.” (xiv)  I am not a nineteenth century historian, and I will leave it to my colleagues in that field to confirm or critique Kruse’s argument on this point.  But my sense is that a Christian religious nationalism, if not quite articulated as an origins myth, appeared in World War I, during the missionary campaigns of American imperialism, in the competing regional “civil religions” of the postbellum era, and in a variety of other venues and places during the Gilded Age.  Thus, it seems less right to say that corporate Americans “invented” Christian America in the 1930s and 1940s and more right to say they invented a certain vision of “Christian America” attentive to the context of the late interwar and early postwar period. 

When read in that way, I find Kruse’s argument thought-provoking, particularly his thesis that the New Deal, not the Cold War, kick-started corporate pushes for “Christian libertarianism” (yet another concept that overlaps in Kruse’s book with “public religion” and “religious nationalism,” primarily because “freedom of religion” proved a handy slogan for corporate interests pursuing an unraveling of the New Deal regulatory state).   In the 1950s, Americans consumed the “Christian America” motif that corporate America and Hollywood prepared for them (Kruse’s understanding of Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments as “religious” business and brand is fascinating).  Then, with the pump primed in the age of Eisenhower, Americans fought over the terms and conditions of “Christian America” in the 1960s and 1970s, an irony given that religio-nationalist practices and “religious rights” language mostly came out of business meetings and the halls of power in D.C. only a few years before.  Such fights—over school prayer, over public recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, over the discourse “One Nation Under God,” over saluting the flag—defined the cultural politics of liberals and conservatives in the run-up to “rise” of the New Right, who certainly combined big money and single issue politics over school prayer or flag reverence with particular aplomb and fervor.  The result was a nation divided under God, although still defined by a politics of religious nationalism literally “incorporated” a generation before.

Historiographically speaking, when Kruse is examining how big business helped make an anti-New
James Fifield
Deal “Christian Americanism” in the 1930s and 1940s, I think he is making his most significant interjections.  He builds on the immediate postwar efforts that Kim Phillips-Fein only hinted at in a chapter in her book, and he shows a top-down story of corporate involvement that pairs nicely with the grassroots efforts in crafting a Christian vision for government in southern California that Dochuk detailed.   For readers interested in the construction of “religion,” Kruse has also provided a good example of, arguably, a composite, politicized “religion” thought up in business-backed front groups and proliferated by business-backed messengers, from upstart groups like James Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization and the Abraham Vereide’s Prayer Breakfast movement to big-name players like Billy Graham, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and others.   To be sure, this was not the only vision of “Christian America” and thus not the only form of this “new” (if we accept it as new) “religion” advanced by business interests at mid-century.  But as Kruse writes, it was a “public religion” that cut across many denominational lines and social groups and had millions of fervent disciples and adherents.  And it seemed, even more so than evangelicalism or Catholicism, to provide clear-cut narrative regarding religion and the state since, in large part, it was a religion that gave cosmic and ultimate meaning to governmental activities. 

Kruse sidesteps the question of whether the fights over “One Nation Under God” actually won much for corporate America.  The era of deregulation and wealth redistribution upwards since the 1960s is not discussed; hence, it is unclear exactly how “Christian America” propaganda overlapped with the economic agenda that Phillips-Fein, Moreton, and Dochuk detailed.  But I get the sense that Kruse is not interested in a redux of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, with Americans hookwinked into supporting economic agendas that hurt them because they so fervently believe in a religious vision of the nation that corporate titans and their political shills spoon-fed them.   Rather, it seems to conclude closer to Moreton’s assertion that libertarianism—religious and economic—are two sides of the same coin, with the former advancing the latter, especially since both have become something of political gospel in national debates over state, church, society, and enterprise.  But again, that argument is more implied in the first half of the book than explicated all the way through. 

More broadly, when considering where Kruse’s book fits in the developing historiography on business and religion in modern America, it definitely offers a challenge to historians who consider the politics of consensus as a bottom-up or corporate-less construction of the 1950s and 1960s, showing various debates over the “Christian America” that corporate American invented.  It also downplays the Cold War as the cause of “Christian America” proclamations, although Kruse does not dismiss fears of communism as important.  He simply argues that the New Deal was the primary cause of corporate pushes for a new language of religious nationalism and citizenship. 

That said, I found it somewhat unfortunate that One Nation Under God also re-affirms one of the reigning facets of the “new” business history, namely that the “religious” and “political” turn in business history routinely presents a kind of uncontested history of white America.  Kruse’s excellent first book, White Flight, was about white politics in an age of civil rights.  Similarly, One Nation Under God is about white politics in an age of New Deal normalization and Cold War anxiety—and an age of civil rights.  The “public religion” that Kruse describes, almost from beginning to end, is a religion made by whites, ostensibly for affirmation by whites.  But the politics of church and state were not indistinct from conflicts over race, structural racism, segregation, privacy rights and private spaces, from schools to businesses.  Here, however, they oddly are.  Most of the critics of the “Christian America” motif come from liberal white Protestants, certain Jews and Catholics, or freer-thinking white Americans.  But the foremost and most strident critics of the “One Nation Under God” motif were the millions of African-Americans, Japanese Americans, and Latinos who did not see a nation under God, religious freedom, and equality.  Their story, and how it fits into the business history of American postwar religion, remains untold in this book, as it does in the broader historiography on how corporate America shaped the contours of American religion and vice-versa.   (I could write more about how a “Christian America” origins story is largely a patriarchal endeavor as well, or primarily about state sanction for gendered orders, manly militarism, breadwinner politics, and NIMBY forms of masculine defense, especially when considering school prayers, public military rituals, and pedagogy.  But that might be best left to Seth Dowland’s forthcoming book.) 

Kruse’s book can and should stand as both inspiration and a turning point, as an excellent place to begin thinking about our historiographic pursuits, especially the strain of historical writing that writes the output of business-religious interactions as basically about white politics, and postwar religious history as about explaining insurgent militarism, neoliberalism, and conservatism.   Kruse is correct to imply that big business helped to make the very categories of “public religion” (or one category of “public religion”) in modern American history.  Our task as historians moving forward, I think, is to understand how business might have helped to make the many counter-narratives to the one that Kruse and other historians have aptly and skillfully uncovered so far. 

The first place to start will be with a study that traces out the influence of corporate executives and corporate power in the shaping of religious liberalism and the religious meaning of, say, continuing postwar New Dealism.  The “liberal” turn in recent religious historiography has yet to make much room for business power, and it will need to do so to avoid a rash characterization of liberalism—religious and/or political—as somehow outside the corporate regime and corporate negotiations and accommodations.  Plenty of liberals appear as corporate spokespersons or supporters of “Christian America” in Kruse’s book.  That story of liberal wrangling (negotiation? affirmation? acculturation? resignation? resistance?) regarding corporate power and financial support is as important as any stories of leftist, civil rights, or radical activism inspired by religious aspirations or constructions.  Race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender (save for in Moreton’s book) also remain understudied in the new business histories of religion, as do others other than Protestants.  Local negotiations and conflicts between business and religious individuals or groups also seem particularly sparse.  We have a good sense of how corporate Americans (often national figures or transnational) make “Christian America” (a nationalist project).  But if all politics is local, then it is reasonable to assume that business is local as well, and the production of religion at the local level via business, whether large or small.   Given that the federal state seems notably secularized, despite all the rhetoric of “God Bless America” or “One Nation Under God,” it would be instructive for scholars to consider how business and religious interests formed mini-establishments or local havens or corporate-religious dominance or division.  “God Bless Mississippi” or “God Bless Utah,” perhaps?  “One Siler City Under God,” to cite Chad Seales’s recent consideration of “public religion” and secular/business/liberal modes and discourses in a southern town?  Moving outward, it is instructive to remember that Moreton argued for a global framework to understand an activist, “religious” company like Wal-Mart.  The transnational endeavors of conservative evangelicals surely had business help and should be investigated.  A similar “global” framework might help to elucidate other business-religious ventures in the modern era as well. 

When drawn together, business history and religious history should produce a kaleidoscope of narratives that should push us to consider what it means to be “religious” in a corporate age.  “One Nation Under God” was one of many narratives that business helped to construct or undercut, and hardly an uncomplicated one.  A better sense of the actual and uneven influence of business in modern American religious constructions and narratives (in public and private spaces, in national, transnational and local arenas) is the next step in writing histories of a nation that, to revise Chesterton, strove to believe it could fashion some sort of soul onto its institutions and communities, arguably through a wide array of corporate means and private sectors.    


Elesha at: March 23, 2015 at 11:24 AM said...

Thanks, Darren! I'm wondering how/if the heavily bankrolled liberal Protestants of the first half of the 20th century fit into this picture. The ones I researched weren't Christian nationalists, exactly, but they were (initially) gung-ho about the "Christian [20th] century" and about WWI. It just seems that, say, John D. Rockefeller should somehow be relevant to any discussion about big business powerfully shaping American religion and politics.

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