One Nation Under God: A Review

In 1948 the communist government of Czechoslovakia produced a famous propaganda poster. Milan Kundera tells of its origin in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The Communist Party leader, Gottwald, stands on a Prague balcony. It is a snowy winter day. Gottwald gives a thunderclap speech that sweeps away the old burgeois order and hails the advent of the communist revolution. It is a day Czechs would remember for a generation.

Standing at Gottwald’s side in the cold is Clementis, a senior party official. “Bursting with solicitude” for his boss, Kundera writes, Clementis removes his own fur hat and places it on Gottwald’s bare head. The small act of brotherly solidarity produces a scene that goes on to grace school textbooks and hundreds of thousands of propaganda posters.

Gottwald (r), with and without Clementis

Then, in 1952, Clementis commits an ideological heresy and is hanged for treason. Government agents remove his face from the famous propaganda picture; the only thing remaining of his person, Kundera says, is the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.

We recognizes the lineaments of this story even if we know nothing of Gottwald, Czechoslovakia or its successor states (Czechia and Slovakia; they split in 1993). It is foretold by Orwell, first in Animal Farm, then in 1984.

In Animal Farm, the leading revolutionary pig Napoleon, a cutout of Stalin, forces his comrades to debase and then expunge the memory of Snowball, a stand-in for Leon Trotsky. At first Snowball is a hero who fought bravely at the animals’ battle of liberation from their human masters; but in very short order, he is discovered, through Napoleon’s revision of recent historical facts, to have been an enemy agent all along.

In 1984, Winston Smith is employed at the Ministry of Truth, where he literally does for a living what Czech officials did to Clementis after his heresy—he deliberately alters the factual record to fit the ruling party’s historical narrative. His job is to make it impossible for the masses to remember the past with any accuracy.

In America we have the smug feeling that Orwellian alterations of the historical record could never happen. The media is biased toward its paymasters, sure, but it’s impossible for us to be that deceived. Hold that thought for a moment as we discuss a deeply interesting new book.

kruseIn his revelatory One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse disquiets us with the observation that facts can be airbrushed into the historical record as well as out of it. The “facts” in this case are a handful of pious rituals trumped up between 1952 and 1972 which big business boosters and conservative politicians promoted as indelible signs of our permanently Christian political culture. It is as plain as day why this is an argument that is important for the reactionary right to win: an unbroken Christian narrative would mean “our” religion is in some sense organic—it will always be a part of us. What is far more interesting is the less-examined question why big business was (and is) so desirous of Christianized masses.

Although Kruse’s focus is on religion, he ultimately poses a question of broader political urgency: why does it seem the established powers must force their version of the country’s historical narrative on the masses? Why is the power elite tempted time after time to go back and imprint its fabrications on the past to “prove” its version has always been the case, when it plainly has not?

Americans love religion, or at least we love Christianity. Right after the truths we hold to be self-evident, we believe our nation is genetically Christian. George Washington prayed for victory. The founders wrote of a sovereign Creator. The line of faith, we say, runs unbroken all the way back to our country’s founding institutions.

Indeed  the “faith of our fathers” has become a kind of gauzy formulation of this idea. Although we officially respect the wall between church and state, many Americans believe it was put up with a wink and a nod that meant it would freely admit the passage of Christian ideas and values. As a caller on a news show once put it, “We have the separation of church and state, technically, but not really.” Don’t our very national symbols and political culture attest to the privileged, foundational status of Christianity?

Actually, no.

Without looking it up, ask yourself when a U.S. president first placed his hand on a Bible as he was sworn in. Held a prayer breakfast? Led his staff in prayer? I will not presume to put words in your mouths, but these rituals are meant to come across as things all our presidents have done, all the way back. Indeed they are so de regiuer today, it is hard to imagine any president doing without them.

But the hand-on-the-Bible ritual started with Eisenhower in 1952. While it is true that George Washington also placed his left hand on a (Masonic) Bible to take his oath, it was a personal gesture that set no precedent and gained little traction. No more than three other presidents before Eisenhower did the same. After Eisenhower took it up in 1952, though, it became a required part of the inaugural ceremony. It would be impossible today for a president to quit the Bible ritual without touching off a culture war.

Take a moment and digest this thought: if the idea that a president could skip the Bible on inauguration day gives you serious pause, your patters are at least in part caused by the belief that the ritual is sacred, and sacred because it is enduring. In fact, Kruse shows, the historical narrative behind this piece of totemism, and all the other “enduring” Christian accoutrements to our political life, has been deliberately engineered.

The spade work began, Kruse recounts, in the 1930s. Big businesses had formed “councils” to tell the attractive side of their story to an American populace newly impoverished by failed commercial speculation and thus skeptical of any fat cats’ good social intentions. Roosevelt’s New Deal had begun to reverse the tide of depression, but it also eroded public faith in big business’s core ideals—low taxes, free markets and strict property rights. America was turning pink with socialism under FDR.

In reaction, the business councils promoted less regulation, greater protection for property rights, and an abstract but potent belief in free enterprise. What they wanted and needed was a new generation of politicians that would restore the anything-goes conditions of the Roaring Twenties. And for this, they needed voters.

For the most part, the boosters of big business sputtered along without much resonance with the public, until 1940. Meeting that year in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the National Association of Manufacturers, whose leaders for years had been stung by FDR’s use of religious language to promote the New Deal, decided to try turning the tables. NAM’s president that year proposed that the best antitdote to collectivism would be a “revival of American patriotism and religious faith.” The formula worked like a charm.

One of the reasons it did was because a charismatic Christian spokesman emerged at the Waldorf-Astoria to assume a burden the industrialists had not been able to carry themselves. NAM’s biggest PR problem all along had been that it appeared too self-serving. But in 1940, the Congregationalist minister James W. Fifield gave a speech to NAM that thunderously denounced the New Deal’s creeping authoritarianism and praised the potential of the gathered titans to beat back big government and restore the uniquely American, Christian pursuit of happiness.

As the applause broke in waves over NAM’s leaders, it became crystal clear to them how their crusade would go forward. Clergymen like Fifield would teach the masses to worship the very idols capitalists cherished—the cult of hard work, the allure of consumption, respect for property, and loyalty to the established authorities. This re-baptism of Christianity as a permanent lobbyist for capital was a defining moment in U.S. history. Read Kruse, if for no other reason than to witness the fateful train of events that followed it.

One of the main accomplishments of the alliance between commercial and religious ideologues was to produce a handful of simple but highly symbolic rituals binding religion and politics at the national level. In 1954 the U.S. Congress voted to add the phrase “under God” to the “Pledge of Allegiance,” originally penned in 1892 by a Christian socialist who deliberately left God out. In 1956 Congress adopted the national motto, “In God We Trust,” which the Treasury then imprinted on all our paper money (it had only been on coins before). In 1953 President Eisenhower attended the first-ever “National Prayer Breakfast,” an annual meeting of clergymen, business elites, politicians, and, which today includes lobbyists. Every president has participated since Eisenhower. (Since the 1980s the meeting has been hosted—very genially, one gathers—by the billionaire Hilton family at their Washington hotel.)

Indeed Eisenhower set several benchmarks of public piety that caught on with such force that they have become politically indispensable for all the presidents who have followed him. Although Eisenhower apparently thought of his pious gestures as a kind of Cold War theater to fortify the American soul against the Godless communists, his choices had much deeper consequences.

Eisenhower ended up insitutonalizing a religious cult of personality in the office of the presidency. This was the second major consequence of the indidious sacralizing of American politics starting in 1952. Among Eisenhower’s actions that seemed merely politically expedient at the time but which bore cultural fruit: he asked his staffers to attend church with him; he led the nation in prayer in his inaugural speech; he was baptized while in office; and, he was the guest of honor at the first-ever National Prayer Breakfast and National Day of Prayer.

As America’s religious layman-in-chief, Eisenhower also bequeathed the nation with a fateful cultural meme tht has now replicated downward and outward to all levels of society. As president-elect in 1952 Eisenhower famously proclaimed religious faith—any kind of it—to be essential for liberal democracy. While he was explicitly making a (somewhat arcane, argumentative) claim that only a supernatural God could act as guarantor of humans’ essential worth and equality, the implicit “meaning” we have inherited from Eisenhower is that religious faith of any kind is good in and of itself; it gives privileged access to life’s most valuable truths. This is no small thing. Since imbibing these words, Americans have increasingly come to believe it not just permissable but positively good to disable their own critical, reasoning faculties when it comes to life’s most trying questions.

Eisenhower also began the mawkish consorting of presidents with oily, charismatic clergymen, an affair which transformed Billy Graham into a national phenomenon and created the institution of a religious valet to the president.

It cannot go unmentioned that the post-Eisenhower wave of calculated faith boosting reached its conspicuous peak in a swaggering prayer by Graham at the presidential inauguration of the Christian gentleman Richard Nixon in 1972. Graham had campaigned hard for Nixon, exhorting the nation to follow Jesus’s commandment to submit meekly their political masters. (I have to admit this was the most delicious part of Kruse’s book for me. I had no idea Graham was so thick with Nixon, widely and justifiably regarded as the most Machievellian, indeed wicked presidents in our history, until I read Kruse.) For his faith Graham got an extended moment in the sun, albeit on a cold, windy day. Time magazine called Graham‘s prayer his “mini-inaugural address.” It ran in part:

“Our Father and our God, we recognize on this historical occasion that we are ‘a nation under God.’ We thank thee for this torch of faith handed to us by our forefathers. May we never let it be extinguished. Thou alone has given us our prosperity, our freedom and our power. This faith in God is our heritage and our foundation!”

It seems so bland now, but there, consolidated very neatly in Graham’s prayer, were all of Wall Street’s and the White House’s fundamental talking points. Prosperity came from God, not labor. Ditto for freedom. It sprang not from the military-industrial complex, but from a divine dispensation. And most importantly, our Christian superstructure has always been with us. We have been a nation under God since our forefathers.

If you think, as I do that Graham’s prayer protests slightly too much at the idea that faith might only be a grace note to our otherwise secular politics, take a moment to roll Big Brother’s best known news bulletin over your tongue and see if it resonates: Oceana has always been at war with Eastasia.

Why the always? To return to what I earlier called Kruse’s underlying question, why do regimes with the slightest bent for authoritarianism find it necessary to airbrush the historical record with an eye to sanctifying the policy of the day? Why must they make it appear that our most recent decisions and machinations are consecrated with a long history suggesting permanence?

Kruse has written a wonderful book, and one of its virtues is that it does not go deep enough to address such questions. It stops just at the point where the curious reader may judge for herself how much gene-splicing has gone into the understanding of our Christian political culture as something “organic.”

If you wish to explore a level deeper than Kruse, you cannot miss Upton Sinclair’s little known 1917 book The Profits of Religion. With a poet’s verve and a historian’s sweeping comprehension of events, Sinclair probes the question, “What are we to say when we see asceticism preached to the poor by fat and comfortable retainers of the rich?” Almost invariably, we see the collusion between state and commerce to drum meek fatalism into the working, Christianized masses. The Bible teaches people to be slaves for Christ; governments and capitalists teach them, with uncanny success, to muffle the last part.

Can the masses’ willingness to be hearded onto the production line (or into the food court, call center, warehouse) while the presidents of investment banks recoup their billion-dollar bonuses from government handouts be explained? How does this difference in entitlement avoid leaping off the front page of each day’s newspaper as a shocking crime?

Probably a hundred writers compete to enlighten on this point. I find the strongest meat in Mikhail Bakunin’s 1871 God and the State. There, the Russian anarchist declaims that, if there is indeed anything organic in humankind’s political philosophy it is man’s unremitting will to debase himself morally, to see himself as unworthy of doing the one thing he so patently does and must do for himself: dictate moral law.

“Christianity,” Bakunin writes, “is precisely the religion par excellence, because it exhibits and manifests, to the fullest extent, the very nature and essence of every religious system, which is the impoverishment, enslavement, and annihilation of humanity for the benefit of divinity.” And once you have ceded your moral authority to God’s master class on Earth, you accept their all-too-human terms for your enslavement. This, Bakunin says–and I say with him–is why it is crucial for you to believe the airbrushing of history. To keep your chains you must believe that our politics have always been based on religion.



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