New Heaven, New Earth

The dirty secret of all American religion is its novelty. The sanctums of American faith resemble less a solemn pantheon of immutable divinity than a cluttered tinkerer’s workshop, with spare parts from one tradition carelessly soldered onto another, hastily scrawled blueprints on the whiteboard, and false starts and failed prototypes strewn throughout the works.

By itself, the improvisational nature of American belief is not so surprising—the country was, after all, founded by religious exiles hoping to start the entire Christian experiment afresh in what they took to be virgin territory. What is surpassingly odd, though, is the compulsion on the part of New World believers to have not the last but the first word on matters of true biblical observance—to baptize their invented traditions in the image of the apostolic primitive church, and to inscribe the rites of mass evangelical salvation in the earliest passages of the New Testament gospel. It’s a bit like imagining Nicki Minaj as Hildegard of Bingen, or Tom Clancy’s novels as the source material for The Iliad.

But while American Protestantism’s desperate grasping after authentic tradition may be an awkward spectacle, it’s also an indispensable adaptive mechanism for what has become its native habitat—the capitalist marketplace. Throughout its volatile past, American religion has smartly reconfigured itself in tandem with the convulsions of our market society—so much so that, as Kevin Kruse observes in his engaging history of modern religious nationalism, One Nation Under God, our crowning Protestant myth of a spiritualized American founding is an all but wholly owned subsidiary of a brave new evangelical-corporate establishment.

How this market miracle came to pass is itself a fascinating tale of ardent spiritual ideologues seizing the main chance in an anxious new Cold War civitas. Evangelical conservatives and right-wing business leaders had been among the most impassioned foes of New Deal liberalism, but during the 1930s and ’40s they were largely isolated voices in the wilderness, with the charisma of Franklin D. Roosevelt and (especially) the nationalist crucible of World War II keeping complaints about the spiritual costs of creeping welfare-state idolatry confined largely to the woollier margins of the American Right.

The Cold War chastened the American polity’s New Deal enthusiasms, and as a new moment of conservative realignment took shape, a brash cohort of spiritual entrepreneurs stepped forward to exploit it. James W. Fifield, a celebrated Congregationalist preacher from one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest churches, cannily deployed the rhetoric and symbolism of American civil religion to bring believing Americans into line with a small-government libertarian gospel. In 1935, Fifield founded his lobbying-cum-religious-educational coalition Spiritual Mobilization, a fire-breathing rebuke to the New Deal and its alleged spirit of “pagan stateism.” Decrying the false idols of liberal progress, Fifield preached that “the way out for America is not ahead but back. How far back? Back as far as the old Gospel which exalted individuals, which placed responsibility for thought on individuals, and which insisted that individuals should be free spirits under God.”

Fifield’s forward-into-the-past broadsides went largely unheeded in the Roosevelt years. But in the 1950s, as America experienced a culture-wide explosion of conventional Protestant piety, Fifield and his group became prominent political players. Deftly exploiting the potent postwar appeal of American spiritual exceptionalism, Fifield and Spiritual Mobilization founded the Committee to Proclaim Liberty, which gathered together an A-list of corporate sponsors to promote religiously themed Fourth of July Freedom Under God events and to distribute pinched versions of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, designed to trumpet the group’s imaginary rendering of the document’s spiritual message. Selecting only the preamble meant that event organizers could harp on the Declaration’s sole mention of “the Creator”; more important, it also allowed event organizers to disregard the Declaration proper’s litany of calls for more-robust government, such as its demands for protection from military invasion and complaints about King George’s dissolution of colonial parliaments. The result, as Kruse observes, was to “reframe the Declaration as a purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government.”

Spiritual Mobilization’s clip-job caught on like wildfire. The Sunday preceding the 1951 celebration of the Fourth of July (dubbed “Independence Sunday”) drew sermons from tens of thousands of clergymen on the subject of “Freedom Under God”—and, true to form, these jeremiads hammered away at the enervating spiritual legacy of the welfare state. Here, for example, is one peroration delivered by a Congregationalist from Fifield’s home state of Illinois: “People have been encouraged to believe that a benevolent government exists for the sole purpose of ministering to the selfish interest of the individual. We have achieved the four freedoms: Freedom to ask; freedom to receive; freedom to be a leech; and freedom to loaf.”

Much the same outlook infused the labors of Abraham Vereide, a Methodist minister in Seattle who responded to the New Deal’s alleged antibusiness animus, and his home city’s general strike of 1935, by organizing a nationwide network of breakfast prayer meetings for business leaders. Like Fifield, Vereide endorsed an unvarnished business libertarianism as the purest reflection of the nation’s spiritual ideals. “Economic reconstruction must begin with an individual recovery from within,” he had preached in the throes of the Depression. America’s business leaders should thus rally to “revive the spiritual life in commerce, to aid the churches and to get back to a real American home life.”

The tireless Vereide instituted a similar series of congressional prayer breakfasts in the 1940s, and presided over a more formal alliance between the nation’s political and business establishments with the founding of the National Council of Christian Leadership in 1945. Vereide, meanwhile, continued scaling the heights of Washington power, getting newly appointed Supreme Court justices to participate in dubiously constitutional “consecration” ceremonies and instituting the presidential National Prayer Breakfast in 1953.

Charlton Heston as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, 1956.
Charlton Heston as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, 1956. Paramount Pictures

Figures such as Vereide and Fifield would have become little more than curious (if well-funded) footnotes to modern religious history without a charismatic voice to take their message into the believing American mainstream. As things turned out, their prophetic business missions were blessed with not just one but two such voices—those of Billy Graham and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Graham, of course, had burst onto the national religious scene with a phenomenal eight-week revival campaign in Los Angeles in 1949—a millennially minded Protestant call to mass repentance that fortuitously began just two days after the Soviet Union announced that it had the atomic bomb. Graham seized on the urgent new mood to launch a series of business prayer meetings modeled on Vereide’s convocations. After a successful Fort Worth revival, Graham joined forces with oil tycoon Sid Richardson, who financed a series of Graham-produced evangelical films for mass distribution (including a thinly veiled Richardson tribute called Oiltown, U.S.A.). As Graham attracted a long list of other business and political luminaries, he preached urgent millennial warnings about the state of American enterprise cribbed chapter and verse from the gospels of Brothers Fifield and Vereide. At one 1951 revival stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, Graham darkly summoned a battery of “dangers that face capitalistic America”—and just as Fifield had some twenty years earlier, Graham urged his listeners to revive “the rugged individualism that Christ brought” to his following. Hailing Richardson by name, Graham praised the efficacy of a corporate-promulgated gospel: “Whether the story of Christ is told in a huge stadium, across the desk of some powerful leader, or shared with a golfing companion, it satisfies a common hunger.”

Certainly, no leader was more powerful (and few golfers more avid) than Eisenhower, the first Republican president in a generation, elected with the strong backing of groups such as Spiritual Mobilization and the all but official endorsement of Billy Graham. Though Eisenhower now seems a bland consensus figure, in religious matters he staked out the same arch-individualist frontier that the new evangelical elite of the 1950s was mining. He candidly characterized his 1952 campaign for the presidency as a “crusade,” and in 1949, he collaborated with the nation’s previous Republican president, Herbet Hoover, to produce a Fifieldesque “Credo of the American Way of Life,” commissioned by the business-libertarian Freedoms Foundation and widely distributed on placards and in the pages of Reader’s Digest. The document stressed such novel civic protections as “the right to freedom from ‘arbitrary’ government regulation and control”; in a graphic depiction of the scheme, the entire credo was laid on a foundation of “Fundamental Belief in God.” During his 1952 campaign, he went so far as to commission a (never-completed) three-dimensional replica of the credo in Washington, and to have the Boy Scouts distribute posters of it in conjunction with the Freedoms Foundation in the run-up to the election.

Even though he’d been raised in a family of fundamentalists, Eisenhower was theologically more moderate than figures such as Vereide, Fifield, and Graham, but he adopted a view of the centrality of faith to national life entirely compatible with their ambitious religious-nationalist agenda. And unlike other Republican chief executives, his piety was more than a matter of voter-pleasing lip service—he was the first (and is still the only) president to be baptized while in office, and he introduced opening prayers at White House cabinet meetings.

But as Kruse rightly notes, Eisenhower’s eagerness to conduct the ’50s evangelical revival into the portals of Washington power was at odds with the antigovernment message of Christian libertarianism. Eisenhower signed measures into law adding the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency. All these efforts won enthusiastic backing from conservative evangelicals, but they also presented a strange new twist for the foes of “pagan stateism.” By transforming “the vague religion of the 1940s and early 1950s” into “a concrete fixture in the federal government,” Eisenhower ensured that “religion would no longer be used to tear down the central state but instead prop it up. Piety and patriotism became one and the same, love of God and love of country conflated to the core.”

This rather inadvertent devil’s bargain would supply the template for the long train of evangelical culture-war battlefronts that came in Eisenhower’s wake. In 1955, Cecil B. DeMille—an enthusiastic parishioner in Fifield’s Beverly Hills congregation and a financial backer of Spiritual Mobilization—spearheaded a marketing campaign for his biblical epic The Ten Commandments that sought to publicize the alleged spiritual roots of the American republic by mounting replicas of the Mosaic Decalogue in courthouses and fraternal lodges throughout the country. Here was yet another telling chapter in the saga of the jury-rigged ideal of the Christian Nation: The public displays of the Ten Commandments that now fuel bitter court fights and evangelical protests all stem from a phony tradition ginned up by a Hollywood director eager to have his swords-and-sandals opus enrolled into the American civil-religious canon. Meanwhile, the overheated anti-Communist alarms raised by an evangelical Australian émigré doctor named Fred Schwarz foreshadowed today’s weary annual ritual of the Fox News–branded “war on Christmas.” The Allen-Bradley Company, a Milwaukee-based electronics firm, released a pamphlet featuring Schwarz’s sensational testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and touted it with an attention-grabbing newspaper ad campaign. Under a headline blaring “WILL YOU BE FREE TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS IN THE FUTURE?” the company advised, “NOT UNLESS: You and other free Americans begin to understand and appreciate the benefits provided by God under the American free enterprise system.” Taking his own cues from the God-sanctioned free-enterprise system, Schwarz released a book-length version of his testimony in 1960 entitled You Can Trust the Communists (…to Do Exactly as They Say), clocking sales of more than a million copies in short order.

The legal system also supplied potent material for the brewing evangelical Kulturkampf. The Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, which found public-school prayer to be in violation of the First Amendment, drew the first major round of evangelical pushback targeting the high court; as they embraced a new politics of cultural grievance, evangelicals would find common cause with hidebound segregationists and John Birchers in deriding the Warren Court as a bastion of secular-liberal social engineering.

Kruse’s account of the ’60s prayer battles is, like the rest of One Nation Under God, briskly narrated and richly detailed—but this chronicle, which takes up much of the last half of the book, doesn’t clearly extend Kruse’s principal argument about the corporate choreographing of the evangelical romance with the nation-state. It’s true that the school-prayer controversy was a key node of organizing and fund-raising for conservative Protestant activists, but mainline denominational groups supported the ruling, as did denominations such as the Baptists, who had a long history of contesting state-established religion in America. To be sure, evangelical business leaders were eager fund-raising recruits to the anti-Engel crusade, and generously subsidized a failed constitutional amendment to reinstate prayer in the schools, but the ranks of Protestant faith were far too divided on the issue for it to translate into a significant addition to the mythology of the Christian nation—which is no doubt a major reason that the issue has dropped off the national radar today.

It’s also more than a little puzzling that Kruse elects to end his narrative with the supremely cynical efforts of the Nixon administration to manipulate the symbols of Christian nationalism into its own petty image. Nixon apparatchiks worked assiduously to punish detractors and reward allies with invitations to the administration’s own worship services. (If one needs a fresh dose of outrage over the atrophied state of American thinking on matters of church-state separation, the spectacle of H. R. Haldeman fretting over power-seating plans at his boss’s sequestered communions with God does the trick nicely.) And Nixon defenders, led by the indefatigably sycophantic Graham, mustered a telegenic but also deeply divisive “Honor America Day” on July 4, 1970, in a very distant echo of the “Fourth of July Under God” celebrations of James Fifield and company. Kruse gives the impression that the image of Christian America had run aground on the politics of youth protest at the end of the ’60s—but, of course, the evangelical exponents of Christian nationalism were about to enter an unparalleled era of cultural influence and political power, with corporate conservatism very much a key enabler of a newly roused Christian Right.

In the epilogue, Kruse notes the huge waves of evangelical activism that stirred to life in the Carter years and proceeded to claim pride of place in the Reagan coalition of the 1980s. But here his analysis is synoptic and perfunctory, and he says very little about how this latest, ultramodern incarnation of the old-time religion took concrete institutional shape beyond the labors of high-profile leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It’s true that the details of that story are beyond the reach of Kruse’s narrative—but that’s very different from treating it as another chapter of our religious history entirely. The business-evangelical alliance that figures such as Graham, Fifield, and Vereide presided over sixty-odd years ago hasn’t ceded any ground to the secular state since the end of the Nixon years. Indeed, just as the American state became sacralized as a result of Eisenhower’s campaign of civic Christianization, so has the culture of the marketplace become sanctified in our own free-ranging age of the capitalist spirit, which has taken in everything from Walmart to Oprah Winfrey to the high-tech cult of the singularity. But that, as they say, is a sermon for another occasion.

Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum and The Baffler. His book on American religion and the culture of money will be published by Melville House next year.