With help from pastors like Abraham Vereide, 1930s business opposition to the New Deal blossomed into 1950s Christian nationalism
America was founded in 1776, but it was only in 1953, with the inauguration of Dwight David Eisenhower as the 34th president, that it became a Christian nation. Such is Kevin M. Kruse’s thesis and, after reading “One Nation Under God,” it makes perfect sense.
For almost a generation, historians have turned to the so-called religious right to explain contemporary rhetoric about Christian America. Mr. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton, looks beyond recent debates and even the Reagan-era efforts of social conservatives such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to return the country to its more devout roots. He locates the first overt assertions of Christian nationalism in the now faded but once vigorous network of postwar Protestants, both in the mainline denominations and in the emerging born-again organizations.
Hardly any of the names in Mr. Kruse’s narrative will be familiar, even to ardent churchgoers. Among them are James W. Fifield, a Los Angeles Congregationalist minister who in 1935 started Spiritual Mobilization. This organization opposed the New Deal as a perversion of Christianity and proposed instead free enterprise as most compatible with the Bible’s emphasis on personal initiative and responsibility. Another important figure in the promotion of what Mr. Kruse calls “Christian libertarianism” was Abraham Vereide. He was a Methodist pastor in Seattle who organized prayer meetings for politicians, which over the decades blossomed into the National Prayer Breakfasts at which presidents now feel compelled to speak (if not always pray). Vereide received support for his meetings from Sen. Frank Carlson, a Kansas Republican and Baptist layman, who convinced Conrad Hilton to host the first presidential one, in January 1953, at his Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. With help from pastors like Fifield and Vereide, 1930s business opposition to the New Deal blossomed into 1950s Christian nationalism.
In 1954, Ralph Flanders, a Vermont Republican senator from a Congregationalist background, revived the 19th-century campaign for a constitutional amendment to recognize “the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Saviour and Ruler of nations.” It failed again. But House Democrat Louis C. Rabaut, a Roman Catholic from Detroit, was more successful with a bill to include “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Ten years later, Long Island Republican Rep. Frank Becker, a Roman Catholic, introduced a constitutional amendment that would make organized prayer and Bible reading in public schools legal and in doing so rebuke the Supreme Court justices who had declared such piety unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale in 1962. His effort was unsuccessful, but that did not stop Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, the Republican minority leader with ties to the Reformed Church of America, from sponsoring another amendment designed to create space for prayer in public institutions. It also failed—51 to 33. While Mr. Kruse isn’t wholly successful in using these congressional efforts as a bridge from Christian libertarianism to 1950s civil religion, his narrative does persuasively document the Christian aspects of postwar American exceptionalism.
Billy Graham, unsurprisingly, plays a key role in the “invention” of Christian America. The man whom George H.W. Bush dubbed “America’s pastor” was happy and active to bless the overt Christianity of the presidencies of Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. Before his inauguration, Eisenhower confided to Graham his belief that he had been “elected . . . to help lead this country spiritually.” With advice from the evangelical preacher, Eisenhower used his inauguration to provide such leadership. The day began with a service at the National Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower himself prayed after taking his oath for “Almighty God” to make “full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng.” In his inaugural address, he insisted that Americans “who are free must proclaim anew our faith.” Less than two weeks later, Eisenhower became the first president to be baptized while in office, and four days after that he was the guest of honor at the first National Prayer Breakfast.
Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, intensified such religious patriotism in 1969 at his own inauguration. A Religious Observance Committee coordinated worship services across the nation to set a spiritual tone for the transfer of power. On the day itself, the White House had a service that included clergy from five different faiths, and the swearing-in ceremonies had five additional clergymen participating, including Billy Graham, who reasserted the slogans of Eisenhower’s America: “We recognize on this historic occasion that we are ‘a nation under God.’ ” Nixon himself in his address urged that “to a crisis of the spirit” the nation needed “an answer of the spirit.” He soon participated in his first National Prayer Breakfast, but he did Eisenhower one better, sponsoring regular Sunday-morning worship services at the White House. Nixon’s piety, of course, looked hollow—if not cynical—once Watergate scandalized the nation and confirmed what critics had suspected. But Christian nationalism was so firm that it was easy for politicians and preachers associated with the religious right to resurrect it to fight moral permissiveness at home and godless Communism abroad.
“One Nation Under God” is an important and convincing reminder that the roots of Christian America were cultivated well before the era of the religious right. What it fails to do is to supply much evidence of the subtitle’s claim that “Corporate America Invented Christian America.” Mr. Kruse amply demonstrates that pastors, politicians and the American people were remarkably effective on their own as inventors of Christian America. In fact, the religious nationalism of the 1950s has “become so deeply lodged in American political culture” that every president since Nixon has invoked pious patriotism to secure either God’s blessing or popular support (or both).
Mr. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author of “From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicalism and the Betrayal of American Conservatism.”