It is a widely held notion that the United States is and always has been a Christian country. Most Americans assume we have been a deeply religious nation since the days of the Founding Fathers. But in his new book, Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse argues that is not the case.
In One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kruse says that the notion of a Christian America is mainly an invention of the modern era. Kruse traces the birth of this idea to the 1930s, when corporate businessmen enlisted conservative clergymen to help fight President Roosevelt’s New Deal. They encouraged Christians of all denominations to view FDR’s expansive policies as a desecration of the holiness and salvation of the individual, Kruse writes. Their campaign for “freedom under God” ultimately resulted in the election of their ally Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.
Under Eisenhower’s presidency, the anti-government religious movement ironically became intertwined with the federal administration, notably with the introduction of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and the adoption of the country’s first official motto, “In God We Trust,” in 1956, Kruse points out. With church membership soaring to record levels, Americans began to think of themselves as an officially Christian nation for the first time, he says.
Kruse suggests that knowing the actual origins of a “Christian America” is important for our understanding of today’s politics. “We do violence to our past if we treat [these] phrases … as sacred texts handed down to us from the nation’s founding,” Kruse writes. “If they are to mean anything to us now, we should understand what they meant then.”