Don’t blame the book, blame the reviewer.
Kevin M. Kruse has a new book called One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015). It’s a scholarly and well-researched work, on a significant topic. Kruse’s argument is that much of what we think of today as the fundamental institutions and ideologies of Christian America actually date to the 1950s. In that era, he stresses the corporate alliance with evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, but also James Fifield’s Spiritual Motivation Group, and Abraham Vereide’s prayer breakfast meetings. It was in 1954 that the Pledge of Allegiance was amended to include the words “Under God.” Written by a Socialist, the original pledge was duly Godless. In 1956, “In God We Trust” became the nation’s official motto. As Kruse has written, “the founding fathers didn’t create the ceremonies and slogans that come to mind when we consider whether this is a Christian nation. Our grandfathers did.”
All well and good, and convincing. Some reviews, though, have gone much further than the book’s own argument, arguing in effect that any sense of the idea of “Christian America” is itself a product of the Truman/Eisenhower era, and that – in the words of a review in Bookforum – Christian nationalism is “a recent corporate contrivance.”
That review, by Chris Lehmann (in Bookforum April-May 2015: 40-41), begins with the stark declaration that “The dirty secret of all American religion is its novelty.” “Our crowning Protestant myth of a spiritualized American founding is an all but wholly owned subsidiary of a brave new evangelical corporate establishment.” It was a “market miracle…. A fascinating tale of ardent spiritual ideologues seizing the main chance in an anxious new Cold War civitas.” And so on, read it for yourself. And expect that in coming years, every assertion of a special religious role for the US will be greeted with the dismissive charge that this stuff was all invented under Eisenhower.
But here’s the problem. If you say that the particular forms of “Christian nationalism” date from the 1950s, fine – as Kruse says, the “ceremonies and slogans.” But to say, as Lehmann suggests, that the underlying ideology was novel in that era is absurd. To appreciate that, think about the inconceivably vast literature over the previous two hundred years about God’s special plans for America; about the religious destinies of the new nation; about the competing theories of divine support in the Civil War; and so many other themes of election and divine providence. Did they never exist? And the thousands of books and articles about US religious and political ideologies since the Founding, and the vigorous traditions of Christian nationalism evident through those years?
I don’t want to labor the point, but here is Melville in 1850, from White Jacket:
Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and besides our first birth-right – embracing one continent of earth – God has given us for a future inheritance the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience, our wisdom.
And somehow, this was not American Christian Nationalism? Really?
Or look at all the words of preachers and pastors of all denominations during the First World War, all the language of Crusade and Holy War. And that wasn’t Christian Nationalism either?
I wish Kevin Kruse great success with his scholarship. To the critics and commentators who will manipulate his arguments to build their own secularist myth of American history, I say Libera Nos Domine. Good Lord, deliver us.