One nation under God: was the rise of the religious right a reaction to the new deal?

Author:Jones, Sarah E.
Position:Book review

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse. Basic Books 352 pp.

For advocates of the separation of church and state, it's a truth universally acknowledged that the concept of "Judeo-Christian America" is a myth, and a relatively recent one at that. In his latest book, Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse reveals the economic and political roots of its origin story.

Previous entries in this field, including Peter Manseau's One Nation, Under Gods (see the April issue of Church & State) and Matthew Stewart's Nature's God examine America's history of religious and intellectual diversity. Kruse takes a slightly different tack. He assumes the reader already understands that the Religious Right's vision of a monolithically Christian America is false and focuses his time instead on examining the political motivations of that myth's earliest creators.

It begins, as most political stories do, with money. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal promised to lift working Americans out of the grips of the Great Depression. Roosevelt's progressive policies endeared him to many in the working class, but lots of profit-minded business leaders identified the New Deal as an imminent threat to their economic interests. That put them at odds not only with the president and with workers but with Christian ministers, many of whom largely supported the humanitarian mission of FDR's reforms.

Disgruntled businessmen identified a solution that established the framework for what we now call the Religious Right: Recruit ministers, and their flocks will follow. Early in the first chapter, Kruse quotes a speech by H.W. Prentis, then the president of the National Association of Manufacturers: "Economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism. The only antidote is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith."

Prentis and his peers in the business community quickly found allies in the church. Congregationalist minister James W. Fitfield Jr., fond of liberal theology and libertarian politics, emerged as their most diligent and effective clergy partner.

Fitfield's tactics should be familiar to any dedicated observer of the contemporary Religious Right. Via his Los Angeles church, he built alliances with prominent Hollywood figures and businessmen. In 1935, he founded Spiritual Mobilization, advertised as a means to encourage "ministers of all denominations in America to check the...

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