Under God — since When?

Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America has received considerable attention since its release earlier this year. Deservedly so.

I recently reviewed the book for Christianity Today and agree with some of the cautionary notes our Philip Jenkins sounded several months back. Philip suggests that reviewers’ excessively exuberant praise for Kruse’s contention that many of our expressions of civil religion are of relatively recent vintage betray an ignorance of the longer story of Christianity’s intersection with American nationalism and with its governments. I would add that Kruse himself should have placed history within that longer chronology. Indeed, to the extent that expressions of Christian nationalism and civil religion captured the imaginations of many Americans during the early Cold War-era testifies to the deep roots of such ideas.

My conclusion: Kruse is right to suggest that the still-popular-among-evangelicals idea of a “Christian founding” is more myth than history. Even so, this myth is of a much longer vintage [than he indicates]. Indeed, from the earliest days of the American republic, concerned Protestants sought to preserve it from irreligion (as in the French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson’s alleged atheism) and religious pluralism (in the form of 19th-century Catholics and Mormons).

Most 19th-century and early-20th-century Americans would have affirmed that the United States was a “Christian nation,” even if they would have disagreed bitterly about the meaning of that phrase. Nor were public displays of generic (or even Christian) religiosity new, though they took on new forms during the Eisenhower administration. Moreover, the general alliance of Protestant revivalism and big business dates back at least to the era of Dwight L. Moody.

As I wrote, these observations do not detract from the depth of Kruse’s research and the eloquence of his writing. I learned a great deal about what Kruse labels “Christian libertarianism,” a loose movement of businessmen and politicians formed in the 1930s and 1940s to combat both the New Deal and the threat of communism.

Of course, just because something has a long pedigree does not mean it’s a good idea (or should be constitutional), just as innovations are not necessarily bad (or unconstitutional). It’s interesting, though, how much stock both defenders and critics of the many intersections of religion and civic society place on tradition and history.

Are prayers opening Congress constitutional because they date to 1789 (and back to the Continental Congress? It’s hard to imagine how only five members of the Supreme Court could affirm the right of Greece, NY, to have its town meetings open with prayer when the House and the Senate do the same. I’m hoping that every day those chaplains find some way to reference the biblical teaching that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

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