Asking “why so many contemporary Americans came to believe that this country has been and always should be a Christian nation,” One Nation Under God, reperiodizes and refocuses one of the most vexing debates in and about American history (p. xiii). Through a carefully researched and engaging account, Kevin Kruse shows that the notion of “Christian America” was very much a modern construction and the product of midcentury politics. In Kruse’s telling, during the 1930s a group of corporate leaders joined with conservative clergymen to use religious principles to discredit the New Deal and promote the more narrow cause of “Christian libertarianism” (p. xiv). This campaign created the foundation for the flourishing of religious nationalism or what legal scholar Eugene Rostow dubbed “ceremonial deism” following World War II (p. xv). Kruse offers an important new reading of President Eisenhower that shows how religion was central both to him and to the goals and agenda of his administration, especially the effort to promote national unity. In the span of a few years, the administration either introduced or supported a National Day of Prayer; a National Prayer Breakfast; an explicit reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance; and the replacement of “E Pluribus Unum” with “In God We Trust” as the nation’s official motto and its inclusion on stamps, coins, and paper currency. These actions literally and figuratively circulated notions of God into many of the basic transactions and daily life of America and helped to naturalize the bond between religion and politics.
These public and political invocations of faith received widespread support. However, when the campaign spread to bringing prayer into public schools, it provoked intense controversy and became part of a protracted debate that extended throughout the 1960s. This battle, which reached the Supreme Court and was the subject of a proposed Constitutional amendment, has often been overshadowed by some of [End Page 284] the other dramatic events of that momentous decade. Kruse exposes how the school-prayer controversy became a moment “of national reflection” about the “proper relationship between patriotism and piety, religion and politics, church and state” (p. 206). These sections illustrate Kruse’s remarkable ability to pluck out evocative and vivid details from the archives, which turns the discussions of judicial deliberations and arcane congressional hearings into page-turning reading. Despite this detailed account, Kruse does not really explain the position on school prayer held by the corporate leaders alluded to in the book’s subtitle who are so central to the early chapters.
On the whole, the corporate leaders recede from focus in the second half of the book. In the final chapter, Kruse shows how Richard Nixon and Billy Graham embraced the dual ideas of patriotism and piety to advance more divisive politics. Yet, Kruse could have more thoroughly demonstrated the involvement of corporate leaders in this effort. This influence seemed especially important since the business conservative movement itself gathered force in the early 1970s. In addition, Kruse provides only passing references to the civil rights movement and does not address the role of the movement in both contributing and appropriating the sacrilization of public life. This omission is surprising given Kruse’s masterful examination of race and civil rights in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005). It suggests that the subtitle of the book might have circumscribed Kruse’s ability to fully examine some of the work’s larger implications about the rise of Christian nationalism and religion in politics in the 1960s and beyond.
Ultimately, One Nation Under God highlights the significance of interrogating and historicizing the words that are insinuated in American public life. Kruse reminds us that simple and seemingly innocuous phrases like “In God We Trust” often have much more complex meanings and histories. After reading the book, you will never look at a dollar bill the same again, which is the ultimate sign of a provocative and important work of historical scholarship. [End Page 285]
LILY GEISMER teaches political and urban...