“One Nation under God”

UnderGod01  It has been a decade since the Ninth Circuit Court sought to ban the use of the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, sparking a brief but violent firefight in the culture wars that mark American politics today. Though prominent Democrats as well as Republicans denounced the decision–soon nullified by the Supreme Court’s intervention on technical grounds–many wondered if it was a sign that American Christendom was reaching the end of its history.

In a fascinating new book, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse explores the origins of the famous phrase contained within the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as other religiously charged phrases and ceremonies at the heart of modern American politics. One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015) is a provocative account of religious rhetoric in American political life. Kruse argues that the Pledge’s famous “under God” clause represents an invented tradition, and one of very recent provenance during the aftermath of the Second World War.

As a study of what Kruse calls “religious nationalism,” the book is of great interest to any one trying to make sense of the role played by Christianity in the modern state. For this reason, I found it to be a fascinating parallel to my book The Making of Holy Russia: The Orthodox Church and Russian Nationalism before the Revolution.  There I argued that the religious nationalism of many modern Russians–most recently Vladimir Putin himself– was in fact a rather new historical phenomenon. But whereas I located it in the missionary activities of Christian leaders, Kruse in the case of America sees big business and political conservatives as the source.  In any event, the role of religion in modern political life–Russian as well as American–can not be ignored.

The conviction that America is fundamentally a Christian nation whose identity rests on the twin pillars of religious freedom and political liberty has long characterized political rhetoric, becoming in recent decades more and more a monopoly of the right. Kruse reveals that expressions of it such as “one nation under God” and “in God we trust” are indeed recent, at least in official usage. A large part of his narrative documents the formal approval of these phrases by Congress during the 1950s, a time when America was struggling to define herself in opposition to the Soviet Union. America was defined in that heady context as not atheistic, and as a result political leaders on both sides of the aisle were compelled to emphasize her religious heritage. 

The history of the Pledge is particularly interesting within this narrative. Readers learn how the original form of the Pledge–predating the Cold War–lacked the “under God” clause and how it was drafted by a self-proclaimed Christian socialist and nephew of the famous radical Edward Bellamy, who attacked nineteenth-century American capitalism in the famous utopian novel Looking Backward. This is deeply ironic for Kruse, as the Pledge would ultimately come to be used as a weapon in the hands of big business and the political right.

What is perhaps most interesting in this book is the debate about American Christendom that surrounds it. Not only does the author engage the question of the origins and character of America’s “religious nationalism,” he is shaped and perhaps even reacting to it himself. My guess is that he does not regard it very favorably. But like it or not, he does reveal that the end of American Christendom is still a long way off.

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