- - Tuesday, June 23, 2015



By Kevin M. Kruse

Basic Books, $29.99, 352 pages

It was the first day of school in September of 1954 and something had changed. As a 10-year-old student at Washington’s John Eaton Elementary School, I was about to join my classmates in the morning Pledge of Allegiance when our fifth grade teacher, Miss Parsons, announced that two new words had been added to the pledge. Henceforward, the America referred to in the pledge would be one nation “under God.” Most of us — probably including Miss Parsons — had assumed that that was what our country always had been.

And we were right. From prayers of thanksgiving to freedom of worship, the American experience is rooted in faith and a sense of divine providence that is even older than our nation itself. What the Book of Matthew described as “a city that is set on a hill” inspired the pilgrim father John Winthrop to declare that, “the eyes of all people are upon us.” Three hundred-and-fifty years afterwards, it would define Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a special place with a special mission. But more of that later.

The spiritual link was spelled out explicitly in the Declaration of Independence. The colonists, the signers declared, were endowed “by their Creator [note the uppercase “C”] with certain unalienable rights.” It was to assert those God-given rights that we broke away from the British crown. Lest there be any doubt, in 1782 the Continental Congress “approved and recommended” a two-volume edition of the Bible published by a Philadelphia printer named Robert Aitken. When, “four score and seven years” after the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln brilliantly encapsulated the driving purpose behind a tragic, bloody civil war in his Gettysburg Address, it was that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Which it did.

Somehow or other, Princeton history Professor Kevin M. Kruse is oblivious to all this, or is simply in denial of the historical record. In “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” he engages in a lengthy, peevish attempt to rewrite history and ignore our country’s deep religious roots in favor of a 20th century conspiracy theory involving big business, big religion and — the phrase is of his own invention — “Christian libertarianism” — a “new conflation of faith, freedom and free enterprise” masterminded and manipulated by our capitalist exploiters. Actually, faith, freedom and free enterprise were the three prime motivators that brought millions of poor, persecuted but aspiring immigrants to these shores, where so many of them prospered long before the introduction of the centralized welfare state.

“During the Eisenhower era,” Mr. Kruse complains, “Americans were told, time and time again, that the nation not only should be a Christian nation but also that it had always been one. They soon came to believe that the United States of America was ‘One nation under God.’ And they’ve believed it ever since.” A close look at this key sentence exposes a major contradiction. Use of the phrase “under God” is equated with declaring America a “Christian nation,” as if the God in question was exclusively the Christian God of the New Testament which, of course, no one in authority claimed Him (or Her) to be.

Having set up this Straw God and then trying to morph what was a period of spiritual renewal and increased church attendance in the Eisenhower years into something new and different from previous religious revivals, Mr. Kruse marshals minor facts and major factoids — many of them accurate in themselves but not supportive of his major thesis — to posit a creation myth of his own, a mid-20th century corporate American “invention” of Christian America. He writes well and has an interesting story to tell, but it all falls apart at the bottom line.

The truth is a lot simpler. While Thomas Jefferson — who was not a part of the Constitutional Convention — would afterwards unilaterally declare what Mr. Kruse describes as “a wall of separation between church and state,” the Constitution itself is much more precise and limited. The First Amendment merely states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The key word here is “establishment.” The Constitution was drawn up in the context of our recent separation from Great Britain where the Anglican Church was the government-controlled and tax-funded “established” religion, the one-and-only, officially-sanctioned national church — complete with bishops appointed by the King — even though growing numbers of English, Scots, Welsh and Irish subjects belonged to other sects.

The writers of the Constitution were declaring a clean break with a monarchical system where the head of state was also the head of a national church. In the United States there would be no single “established” church, and no government-appointed and government-salaried clergy. Banning public prayer — much less banning references to God’s mercy or God’s protection of America and her people — had nothing to do with it, much as some modern enemies of religious faith might wish it.

As he did with so many things, my old boss Ronald Reagan saw it all very clearly. In his 1989 farewell address to the nation, he explained that, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … That’s how I saw it and see it still … “

In short, one nation under God.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to President Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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