Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: "One Nation Under God"

Good afternoon, my friends.  It was so good to see you in Nashville.  I was reminded of how much I have missed your company. We need to find a way to get together again soon.  There were many conversations we did not get to finish.   ( I was also reminded of the things I remember fondly about my time at JCM and, well, those I do not.  The reunion was a microcosm of my experience in Jackson. But that is a different email.) 

We had a brief conversation on Friday evening before dinner about the relatively new book One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse.  I recalled a pretty good review of it by John Fea in Christ & Culture (linked here and attached above).  I have not yet read the book.  So, my comments are tentative.  But if Fea has summarized at all accurately, I suspect that I am in agreement with the general thesis, namely that the modern notion of America as a “Christian Nation” is a fairly recent creation of post-New Deal political conservatives and evangelical leaders working in tandem to save the US from the twin evils of socialism and religious liberalism.  This was no conspiracy of a secret cabal; it was done publicly and overtly in the light of day by trusted leaders.  We saw a clear resurgence of this religious nationalism around the bicentennial, prompting responses by historian Robert Handy A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities and evangelical scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden in A Search for Christian America.  The rise to prominence of the religious right saw new expressions of this idea in the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and again recently in the debates over same-sex marriage and Obamacare. Ironically, Kruse’s argument seems to parallel the one made by Matt Hedstrom in The Rise of Liberal Religion, which traces the ascendancy of “mainline” Protestantism through a systematic and effective use of the print culture. (This is one of those rare books that will actually change the way I teach.  It is a very good book.) 

Fea points out, rightly I think, that Kruse is in danger of overplaying his hand. The Age of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Graham was not the first time that we have heard such rhetoric.   Sixteenth-century Puritans, early nineteenth-century Methodist revivalists, antebellum abolitionists, and Gilded Age progressives all waved some version of the “Christian America” flag.  And although the Constitution was a decidedly secular document, the vast majority of citizens then and now have strongly affirmed their Christian identity.   Kruse, however, seems to think that something is different in this rendition of the "We are a City on a Hill” sermon,  newly framed as it is by a particular political and economic vision.  From my reading of other literature on the topic, I think that he is probably right. But then, maybe that merely reflects my own discomfort with the current rhetoric of American exceptionalism and evangelical politics.  I keep hearing the voice of the prophet Amos, “Woe to those who are ease in Zion!”



  1. My take is that both sides--the secular one and the Christian one--probably stretch their evidence to support their case. Though most of the early framers were Christians, they produced early documents (Declaration; Constitution) that were not specifically Christian, though they retained considerable Christian values.

  2. This is a well-written, entertaining book with a faulty thesis. The introduction of the book states “this book argues, the postwar revolution in America’s religious identity had its roots not in the foreign policy panic of the 1950s but rather in the domestic politics of the 1930s and early 1940s.”

    As much as the author demonstrates the second part of his thesis, he is simply wrong about the first part. In the last 70 years, the United States has witnessed a series of religious revivals that have shaped the religious identities of large groups of American peoples. Each of these periods of religious revival were associated with a foreign policy crisis and its apocalyptic interpretation. The fifties saw a countrywide renewal of religious (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) vigor – the main subject of this book – that was informed by, if not defined by, the great fear of “godless” communism and atomic annihilation. The late sixties and seventies saw the Jesus People movement which was fueled by endtime expectation that the Six Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973) prompted. Even the emergence of a vocal, sometimes radical, religious right in the 1980s paralleled the upswing of Cold War rhetoric and posturing in the early Reagan years.

    The premise of this book is an “either-or.” It should have been a “both-and.” As true as the author’s arguments about the role of domestic influences on religious vitality in the American 1950s might be, he underestimates – perhaps dismisses – the role that the fear of the foreign and the destruction that it represented in post-Depression, post-World War II American religion.

  3. Much of this started with the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. The religious fervor led neatly to social reforms such as temperance tied into "good Christianity" in the mid-late nineteenth century. This conveniently tied in with American imperialism, spread globally in the name of "converting the heathen." Like most history, I agree this did not happen by some cabal/conspiracy. People who fervently thought they were right forged the national mindset, in the manner of the guy at Arroyo Seco who hollered "Eureka! I received a revelation on Jesus name baptism!" No doubt Depression-era anxieties played into anti-New Dealers tying capitalism to "good Christianity." But hey, Cold War anxieties furthered it along also.

    I noticed this book and would like to read it, though I don't know when I'll have time. I cannot at this time comment intelligently on how well the author argues his thesis. It does seem to me that an analysis of this process, contextualizing its origins in the SGA and then examining the decades since is fine enough. Arguing for an exact origin point-in-time seems superfluous. IMO, this process solidified during the Cold War years, first made a national impact with the Goldwater conservatives in 1964, and took root and spread nationally during the Reagan years. Where ever on the political spectrum you fall, it's a fact that the United States has taken a hard right turn since 1980.

  4. Oh. I do think Kruse's White Flight a very good social and cultural history.

  5. Tim: Thanks for the tip on Kruse's "White Flight." I will add this one to my list.