Recent surveys have indicated that many, if not most, Americans believe the founding fathers wanted this nation to be officially Christian. But a new book by Princeton historian Kevin Kruse slices and dices this notion with razor-sharp facts and anecdotes. In “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” he shows how corporations such as General Motors and Hilton Hotels partnered with clergymen and politicians to conflate patriotism and pietism. Here he tells how our nation’s Ten Commandments monuments were originally movie marketing props and how evangelist Billy Graham participated in America’s shifting mindset.
RNS: You argue that “corporate America invented Christian America”? Explain.
KK: By “Christian America,” I don’t mean the idea that this is a country in which Christians and Christianity have played a fundamentally important role. I’m talking about the belief that the state itself, politically speaking, is officially and formally a “Christian nation.” Most of the markers that Americans invoke when they argue that we are one – the words “under God” in the pledge, the national motto of “In God We Trust,” the National Prayer Breakfast, the National Day of Prayer, etc. – are creations of the modern era and, more specifically, creations of corporate America.
RNS: Creations of corporate America?
KK: Starting in the 1930s, major corporations and business lobbies marketed a new language of “freedom under God” to discredit what they denounced as the “slavery of the welfare state.” As their campaign swept the nation in the 1940s and 1950s, many Americans came to think of their country as officially “one nation under God.”
RNS: You said “America as a Christian nation” is a modern invention, but others counter that it traces back to our founding fathers. What say you?
KK: The founding fathers were religiously diverse, but on this issue they were nearly unanimous in insisting that the United States of America was not a Christian nation. The Declaration invokes the Creator, of course, but the Constitution – the basis of our government – pointedly does not. Other than dating the document “in the year of our Lord,” the only mentions of religion in the Constitution and Bill of Rights are ones that keep the state at arm’s length from the church. Even more directly, the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli – begun by Washington, signed by Adams, and passed unanimously by a Senate half-filled with signers of the Constitution – states quite clearly that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
RNS: You say that some of this notion was a response to Roosevelt’s New Deal. How so?