The Invention of a Corporate Christian America

According to author Kevin Kruse, the idea that America is a “Christian nation” was invented only recently, forged by an alliance between industrialists and conservative clergy who preached the connection between Christianity and capitalism.

In One Nation Under God, the Princeton history professor issues a twofold corrective: first, to the popular notion that the United States has always understood itself as a Christian nation; and second, to the conventional theory that the religious revival of the 1950s was born of anti-communist panic.

Kruse recently spoke with The Cubit, RD’s religion and science portal, about the myth of the “Christian nation,” the marriage of Christianity and capitalism, and the failure that preceded it.

The Cubit reached out to Kruse to discuss the origin, and recent resurgence, of the ideological links between capitalism, Christianity, and American public religion.

Where do you locate the roots of America’s “Christian nation” ideology?

It’s true that many Americans thought of their country as a “nation of Christians” from the start, but that was decidedly different from establishing a formal and official “Christian nation.”

Though the Declaration of Independence refers to rights coming from the Creator, the Constitution only invokes God in its dating “in the year of our Lord.” The other references all keep the state out of religion: no religious tests for office holders, no established national religion, no interference from Congress with individual religious exercise.

More explicitly, the Founders made their feelings clear in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli—begun by Washington, signed by Adams, passed unanimously by a Senate half-full of signers of the Constitution—that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Over the nineteenth century, especially during the crisis of the Civil War, there were many Americans who insisted we should be (or already were) an officially Christian nation. So the idea of it began then, though the implementation of it wasn’t successful until the 1950s.

During the postwar religious revival, countless slogans and ceremonies that we now take for granted—the National Day of Prayer, the National Prayer Breakfast, the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the formal motto “In God We Trust”—were established in quick order.

Because all this happened in the 1950s, many assumed (at the time and since) that these revolutionary changes in American political culture came about because of the Cold War. But what I discovered in researching and writing this book is that the architects of these changes saw them as a challenge not to the Soviet regime in Moscow, but to the New Deal administration in Washington, DC. In the 1930s and 1940s, they popularized a new language of “freedom under God” (as opposed to what they saw as “slavery under the welfare state”), which finally took hold nationally in the 1950s.

You track the emergence in the 1940s and 1950s of “Christian libertarianism,” a blend of conservative religion, economics, and politics. How did this Christian libertarianism reconceive of the relationship between Christianity and capitalism?  

Capitalism and Christianity had been mixed by Americans before the New Deal, to be sure. (In the 1920s, the ad man Bruce Barton wrote a best-seller called The Man Nobody Knows that repackaged Jesus Christ as the most successful executive of all time.) These previous fusions of faith and free enterprise had always stressed their common social characteristics, but starting in the 1930s Christianity and capitalism were fused in a more political context.

With the New Deal state now looming large over business, the architects of this new Christian libertarianism placed Christianity and capitalism in joint opposition. Both systems reflected a belief in the primacy of the individual: in Christianity, the saintly went to Heaven and the sinners to Hell; in capitalism, the worthy succeeded and the inept went broke. Any system of government that meddled with this divinely inspired order, they argued, was nothing less than “pagan statism.”

Supported with ample funding from leaders of major corporations (Sun Oil, DuPont, GM, Chrysler, etc.) and leading business lobbies (US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, etc.), these Christian libertarian groups popularized this new language of “freedom under God” on a variety of fronts—in magazines, over the radio, in contests where ministers gave sermons on their themes, etc.

Tell me more about this alliance between business leaders and Christian groups. Why did American industrialists need religion on their side?

During the Depression, business leaders were on the defensive. The public blamed them for the Great Crash and the New Deal had constructed a new regulatory state and empowered labor unions, two developments that corporate America readily resented.

Business leaders quickly resolved to win back the public and devoted millions of dollars to a massive campaign of public relations, redirecting traditional business lobbies like the National Association of Manufacturers to the cause and creating brand new ones like the American Liberty League.

But Americans dismissed their naked paeans to capitalism as just business looking out for its own self-interest. (Democratic leader Jim Farley famously joked that they ought to call the American Liberty League “the American Cellophane League” because it was a DuPont product that you could see right through.)

Realizing that the direct approach hadn’t worked, these business leaders decided to outsource the work. In their private correspondence, they noted that polls proved ministers were the most trusted men in America and so they decided to recruit clergymen to make the case for them.

Were you surprised that such a recent form of public religiosity could write itself into the very identity of our nation?

I may be cynical, but I wasn’t surprised that politicians would rush to embrace these changes. As The Christian Century noted when the addition of “under God” to the pledge was proposed, “This is the sort of proposal against which no member of Congress would think of opposing, any more than against a resolution approving of motherhood.”

But I was surprised that the civil liberties organizations that we might today assume would have made some sort of objection really didn’t do much. The ACLU, for instance, was largely focused on the anticommunist movement of McCarthyism and paid little attention to issues of church-state separation. (Indeed, I discovered that the ACLU didn’t even learn about the proposal to change the national motto to “In God We Trust” until after the bill passed the House.)

Is Christian libertarianism still a meaningful force in U.S. politics?

In 2014, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Hobby Lobby decision, ruling that a corporation could be exempt from the contraception mandates of the Affordable Care Act. And more recently, in Indiana, we’ve seen arguments advanced that businesses should be allowed to refuse to provide service to same-sex weddings due to the religious beliefs of the owners.

So we’re currently witnessing a resurgence of that ideology in American law with the idea that corporations not only are capable of having religious beliefs, but that such beliefs make these businesses exempt from the laws of the regulatory state.

Image credit: “The Senior Partner” by Nathan Greene

14 Comments

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Ah, the Treaty of Tripoli. The very first and best arrow against the Christian nation crowd…

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    This book explains a lot. It’s the American way. Christianity sold their soul to the party of the rich. Christian vanity became wedded with Republican greed. For Christianity everything political displays their disconnect from God. For the rich, everything works. They have gone from the captains of industry making about 30 times as much as the average worker, to about 500 times as much on the average, and climbing. No matter what happens, and no matter what disasters they cause, the rich always come out richer. The pyramid is negative. Millions lost billions.

  • speebek@yahoo.com' Me10 says:

    The presence of Christian ritual/service in public facilities (church services in the Capitol), the Christian character of several movements in US history (abolitionists, Progressives, for starters), and the increasing secularist rulings of the courts that had a great deal to do with the response of Christians in the 1950’s all seem to be ignored in this discussion of the book.

    Wonder why?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Because we want to create a better world for future generations, and Christianity has been trying to create a global disaster so that Jesus will come. We are at odds. Both sides believe in what they are doing, and they couldn’t be more different.

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    I will be keeping an eye out for this book, which also has a review in the current Book Forum (no online access for non-subscribers, though). Also of interest is an older history book, Selling God, by R. Laurence Moore. Jeff Sharlet’s The Family also covers some of this ground, specifically Abraham Vereide and the founding of the Prayer Breakfast that has become a political tradition. It would seem clear to me that in a “free marketplace of religion” (disestablishment) that churches could take multiple routes to fund themselves – mass marketing or targeted marketing of the wealthy, or some combination. It shouldn’t be so surprising if the attempt to woo captains of industry results in a theology that is highly favorable to captains of industry.
    Me10, I don’t think that this is meant to be a general history of religion in America. I am merely a reader, not an academic. One of the often recommended “standard” general histories is that by Edwin Gausted and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    NPR Fresh Air did an interview with Kevin Kruse about this book, and you can listen to the story online.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    We were not settled for religious freedom. the first settlers here made theocracies out of 9 colonies and the first thing they did was take away freedom of religion.

    Jefferson mentioned god in the declaration, but it was ‘nature’s god’. the deist god NOT the christian god. Jefferson was thought to be a deist or atheist who was fascinated with the study of religion, but never adopted one of his own.

    not only was there no prayer during the constitutional convention but there was no attempt to bring Christianity into the constitution. there was talk around specific language for article 6 (no religious test) but we ended up with neutral language.

    the first amendment was specifically written to exclude the theocracies in the colonies and only apply to the federal. But that was reversed with the 14th amendment and a court decision in 1947.

    In spite of all these facts, the christians still managed to instill themselves in the drivers seat of america through their most lethal weapon, fear and guilt.

  • wesseldawn@gmail.com' Duck says:

    http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/tripoli.htm
    Not surprising that politics was behind the perversion of the constitution and what’s now needed is a return to the original ideas.

  • wesseldawn@gmail.com' Duck says:

    According to Christians, it’s the secularists that are creating global disaster and it wasn’t the Christians that set off the first nuclear bombs. Whatever happens we had better hurry up because according to many scientists, we only have about 200 years left.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Christianity should start to fade before, at least conservative political Christianity. Then we can start solving things. 200 years should be plenty of time. Global warming might wipe out coastlines and make half of the world’s population move, it might even set the stage for a large number of people to be killed one way or another, but we should easily be able to live through that and continue the species on earth. The only thing that could destroy us that fast would be a total thermonuclear exchange, tens of thousands of bombs like we used to have primed with the Russians, and the nuclear winter that would follow. Smaller nuclear wars can’t wipe us out, and that is all we can currently see on the horizon. Yes, in 200 years we will still be here and living our lives, at least most of us.

  • indrag13@yahoo.com' indrag13 says:

    In God we Trust, all others pay cash!

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    From Wikipedia article on Reagan’s Interior Secretary James G. Watt, famously wanting to de-authorize national parks and discourage or refuse private land donations for parks and conservation.
    “Watt periodically mentioned his Dispensationalist Christian
    faith when discussing his method of environmental management. Speaking
    before Congress, he once said, “I do not know how many future
    generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.””
    To me, this sounds like “use it all up because the Rapture is coming soon”, given his general anti-environmental policy stance.

  • conradg@gmail.com' conradg says:

    Truman gave the order to drop the nukes on Japan. Truman was a Christian.

  • hclh@hisholychurch.org' HCLH says:

    As a minister I totally agree that the United States was never a “Christian Nation”. But what I find really upsetting is that people don’t know what words really mean. Or that over time we change the meanings of words. The word “god” for instance, in the Hebrew comes from the root “EL” the “e” being the aleph, in pictographic Hebrew this letter appeared as a ox head with horns and represented power, mighty, premiere, first. The “l” being the lamed, again in pictograph this letter appeared as a shepherd’s staff and represented authority. The idea conveyed by these two letters was “a mighty one of authority, a judge, a law giver”. Do Americans put their trust in mighty ones of authority, judges and law makers? Of course they do. So Americans, like all people put their faith (fidelity), homage and allegiance (worship) in gods or mighty ones of authority, judges and law makers they trust and elect.

    Religion literally means to “re-bind”. To the ancients we were bound to our natural families. We supported and helped our natural family members in their time of need. This idea of love for our family was to carry over to our neighbors, near and far, so that a community or nation of people would share that same empathy for their neighbors as they do for their own family, which then “rebinds” the people of a community or nation and holds the nation together in tough times. Religion is really how a community, or nation of people take care of the needy of their society. The method by which a people care for the elderly, the infirm, the orphan, the weak, the sick, the injured, etc. is the “religion” for that nation of people. All nations have a religion, because all nations provide some type of aid and assistance to the needy of its society, nations even provide foreign aid, but today people think that the word religion means what someone thinks about some unseen deity.

    The citizens of the United States do put their trust in gods and they practice a national religion in the government programs like Social Security, Obamacare, disability, unemployment insurance, etc. But they would never know that because they do not know what words truly mean, because mighty ones of authority have been changing the meanings of words in order to maintain their control over the people they “lord” over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *