Christian America Is an Invention

Another thing that came out of the 1950s

Another thing that came out of the 1950s

Here’s a little reminder from One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse. Kruse has a lot to say in his book but the bottom line, as this excerpt presents, is that the United States was not founded on Christian values and the religious movement was created by commercialism and business during the 1950s. We should credit the United States Chamber of Commerce more for the inclusion of any mention of God in our rituals or on our currency than any mythological adherence to ancient rituals and fictional writings.

Bottom Line: the fundamental tenants of right-wing fundamentalists are fictions … lies, even.

You can read a longer excerpt at Salon.

Christian America is an invention: Big business, right-wing politics and the religious lie that still divides us

The idea of “one nation under God” is a modern one — and does not date back to the Founding Fathers

These invocations reveal that the rhetoric and rituals of public religion have lived on to the present day. Indeed, if anything, such touchstones of religious nationalism have only be ­ come more deeply lodged in American political culture over time, as the innovations of one generation became familiar traditions for the next. But as these religious notes have been drummed into the national conscious­ ness, almost by rote, we have forgotten their origins. More than that, we have forgotten they have origins at all.

JesusAnd their origins, it turns out, are rather surprising. The rites of our public religion originated not in a spiritual crisis, but rather in the polit­ical and economic turmoil of the Great Depression. The story of busi­ness leaders enlisting clergymen in their war against the New Deal is one that has been largely obscured by the very ideology that resulted from it.

Previous accounts of the tangled relationship between Christianity and capitalism have noted the “uneasy alliance” between businessmen and the religious right which helped elect Ronald Reagan and end the New Deal order, but the careers of the Christian libertarians in the 1930s and 1940s show that their alliance was present at the creation of the New Deal. Their ideology of “freedom under God” did not topple the regulatory state as they hoped, but thanks to the evangelism of conservative clergymen such as James Fifield, Abraham Vereide, and Billy Graham, it ultimately accomplished more than its corporate creators ever dreamed possible. It convinced a wide range of Americans that their country had been, and should always be, a Christian nation.

In the early 1950s, the long crusade of the Christian libertarians apparently reached its triumphant climax with the election of Dwight Eisenhower. But the new president proved to be transformative in a sense his corporate backers had not anticipated. Although he was certainly sympathetic to the secular ends they sought, Eisenhower proved to be much more interested in the spiritual language they had invented as a means of achieving those ends. Uncoupling their religious rhetoric from its roots in the fight against the New Deal, he considerably broadened its appeal, expanding its reach well beyond the initial circle of conservative Protestants to welcome Americans across the political and religious spectrum. In doing so, Eisenhower ushered in an unprecedented religious revival, one that temporarily filled the nation’s churches and synagogues but permanently altered its political culture. From then on, the federal government, which the Christian libertarians had long denounced as godless, was increasingly seen as quite godly instead. Congress cemented these changes, adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and adopting “In God We Trust” as the nation’s first official motto. Hollywood and Madison Avenue, meanwhile, helped promote this understanding of America as a religious nation and Americans as an inherently religious people.

JesusThe new rituals of public religion crafted in the Eisenhower era were seen at the time as symbolic flourishes with little substance to them. But the rites and rhetoric that Eugene Rostow dismissed as mere “ceremonial deism” in 1962 were soon revealed to have incredible political power. National controversies over school prayer—which unfolded first in the Supreme Court and then in Congress—demonstrated that the symbols and slogans of the Eisenhower era, instituted less than a decade earlier, had quickly been embraced by many Americans as ironclad evidence of the nation’s religious roots. As conservatives fought to restore school prayer and to roll back other social changes in the turbulent 1960s, they rallied around phrases like ”one nation under God.” As a result, the religious rhetoric that had recently been used to unite Americans began to drive them further apart. At the decade’s end, Richard Nixon helped complete this polarization of the nation’s public religion, using it to advance divisive policies both at home and abroad.

This history reminds us that our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era. The ceremonies and symbols that breathe life into the belief that we are “one nation under God” were not, as many Americans believe, created alongside the nation itself. Their parentage stems not from the founding fathers but from an era much closer to our own, the era of our own fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grand­mothers.This fact need not diminish their importance; fresh traditions can be more powerful than older ones adhered to out of habit. Neverthe­less, we do violence to our past if we treat certain phrases — ”one nation under God,””In God We Trust” — as sacred texts handed down to us from the nation’s founding. Instead, we are better served if we understand these utterances for what they are: political slogans that speak not to the origins of our nation but to a specific point in its not-so-distant past. If they are to mean anything to us now, we should understand what they meant then.

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