The Remarkable Rise of the Religious Right



A Review of One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse: Many of the current candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination have already made pilgrimages to evangelical colleges and to conferences of fundamentalist religious groups. You don’t make it onto the list of GOP presidential possibilities unless you are able to proclaim that you would like to lead a God-loving, God-fearing nation to greatness and that your deep faith and personal piety are some of your strongest attributes. Some of the more extreme candidates profess that they would like a constitutional amendment that would proclaim that Christianity is the official state religion, this despite two hundred years of history in which there has been by law if not by fact some separation between church and state. Even Democratic candidates from the party perceived as more secular have to acknowledge their faith, put an American flag on their lapel, and end a speech with the familiar “God Bless America,” a practice that only became part of the public ritual during Ronald Reagan’s administration. One can recall that at the Democratic convention in 2004, the first-term Senator Barack Obama leaped into prominence by his proclamation that those in both the red and blue states worshipped an awesome god and the all Americans had been bequeathed by their creator the audacity of hope.

Liberals are both amused and troubled by the Christian right’s attempts to provide its own distorted vision of America’s past, insisting that the Founding Fathers, creatures of the Age of Enlightenment that exalted Reason more than Faith, were eager to place America’s laws in alignment with divine law. Though the deity is barely mentioned in America’s foundational creeds, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, today’s “strict constructions” believe that we were, have been, and must continue to be a Christian nation. The failure to uphold these beliefs will, according the Jeremiahs, leads to quick and inevitable decline.

It’s one of the great gifts of Princeton historian Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God (2013) to provide us with another forceful argument that delegitimizes the claims of the righteous politicians.  Kruse’s work focuses primarily on the post-WWII decades, on a period when religion worked its way into political life in ways both subtle and bold. Beneath the supposedly placid surface of national life in the 50s, he sees many powerful social forces roiling, few stronger than the impulse for a new awakening. He focuses on a number of pieces of legislation, significant Supreme Court cases, and on a number of prominent actors in the contest between a secular and sacred America.

The place of religion in America’s political life was an outgrowth, in part, of an ntensifying Cold War. The godless Soviet Union was the world’s other post-war superpower, and one clear way to distinguish the differences between the US and its rival was to underscore the Christian foundations of American life and the deep religious faith of the American people. The Cold War was a battle between competing economic models, but it was also an ideological struggle that had a strong religious component. To be sure, many of the nation’s clergy volunteered for or were recruited into the struggle. Church attendance and declarations of religious affiliation swelled during the 1950’s.

What Kruse adds to the explanation is the role played by America’s business leaders and captains of industry, powerful men fearful that Soviet-style socialism would infect an already unruly American labor force and curtail the profiteering possible in an open, unregulated capitalistic system. The Depression was a foretaste of a possible greater catastrophe and New Deal legislation designed to increase dependence on an ever-expanding government needed to be rolled back. The Social Gospel, invoked to reduce the hardships of life under capitalism, needed to be challenged by a different kind of scriptural reading. Thus, as the subtitle of Kruse’s history indicates, Corporate America Invented Christian America.

America’s plutocrats, not always a demonstrably religious lot, jumped in bed with the preachers and Protestant church leaders to address the alleged spiritual crisis facing American, suggesting that obedience to God’s law would ensure the survival of capitalism and the defeat of the Soviet Union. Spiritual Mobilization movements spread through the years after the end of WWII and evangelical ministers like Billy Graham rose to prominence and commanded considerable influence in conservative America political circles. Graham is the best known of these clergymen given both his ability to fill football stadiums for religious revivals in the 50s and for his life-long intimacy with Republican presidents, especially Richard Nixon. From Kruse’s perspective, Graham and his evangelical brethren provide the religious cover for the animus against working people and later against student anti-war protesters. It was a particular brand of Christianity that Graham preached, one that placed emphasis on those passages in the scriptures that stressed obedience to authority, belief in God’s abiding providence in times of social turmoil, and a soft nostalgia for the more stable days of the past. On more than friendly terms with bankers, corporate boards and Hollywood story tellers (like Disney and DeMille), Graham provide the piety that was easily fused with patriotism and profit.

The emergence of the National Prayer Breakfast, initiated during Eisenhower’s administration and brought to a kind of perfection in the Nixon and Reagan presidencies is also a telling indicator of the push to sacralize American political life. Meant as displays of national unity, they were often read by outsiders as exercises in endorsing an exclusionary brand of Christianity: white, male and rich. Kruse finds it relevant that the public relations managers – Haldeman for Nixon, Mike Deaver for Reagan – both came to political life from big advertising agencies like J. Walter Thompson, which provided creativity and cash to the spiritual mobilization movements. Kruse restrains his desire to call out hypocrisy. Nevertheless, there’s the suggestion that events like the National Prayer Breakfasts were a part of the cynical symbol-making strategies used by not too pious Presidents who saw the need to give the public a bit of “the religion thing.” The public could be easily led to believe that a divorced ex-actor who rarely went to church was a deeply religious man.

Kruse provides a sharp accounting of the ways in which “In God We Trust” appeared on our currency and “Under God” got inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance. Both of these manifestations of “ceremonial deism” came about in the 1950s during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, who given his late 19th century religious upbringing in rural Kansas, was sympathetic to religious nationalism. In his farewell address, Eisenhower warned us about the rise of the “military-industrial complex.” He would not have thought to warn us about the emerging “religious-political complex.” He was an enthusiastic general in the vigilant army battling spiritual malaise.

Easy passage of the legislation on additions to the currency and the pledge emboldened evangelicals to seek ratification of legislations promoting school prayer, displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouse, and criminalizing the desecration of the American flag.  This was not to be the case. All of these causes have been used to great advantage by voter-seeking conservative politicians, but once in office, they have not been able to move the bill. Although the American public had come to accept the interaction between religion and politics, it was not ready to complete shelve the First Amendment. On issues like school prayer, it was often religious leaders who lead the opposition. They worried not only about the different faith traditions in an American classroom but also about the superficiality and the ineffectiveness of a routinized school exercise. Fundamentalists were able to win a few skirmishes and were left to whine that there was a perpetual War Against Christmas.

At a time when more and more Americans are “unchurched” or identify themselves as atheists or secularists, the evangelicals seem to have become more robust in their energies, more passionate in their convictions. While the Epilogue to Kruse’s history takes us into the 21st century presidents, Bush 43 and Obama, he makes no predictions for the future. But aware of how successful the evangelicals have been in making more permeable the wall of separation between church and state, it’s safe to say that he would not expect a sudden disappearance.

Even though it’s very likely that a Democrat will prevail in the 2016 election, it’s hard to imagine that the Christian right will wither. And while it’s hard to imagine a victory by Mike Huckabee, it’s even harder to imagine a victory by any professed atheist.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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