Title: One Nation Under God
Rating: 2 Stars
This is a bit of a harsh rating. It’s probably pretty close to a 3, but I really do try to avoid 3’s so that when I come back and look, this tells me which way I was leaning.
I had two basic issues. First of all was the style. I found the writing style to be tedious. I do try to have some forgiveness for historians and their writing style, but in especially the first part of this work, it read pretty dry. How religion first started injecting itself into our political fabric is an interesting story and could have been told in a more compelling manner. Interestingly enough, the second half of the book, which talked more about the reaction to the religious movement, was more engaging. Perhaps the author found that subject matter more compelling?
The second issue was the subtitle of the book, “How Corporate America Invented Christian America”. That’s a pretty bold tagline and, if truth be told, was one of the reasons that I bought it.
I did not find compelling evidence backing the assertion behind the subtitle. Without doubt, corporate leaders had common cause with certain religious leaders and certainly the corporate leaders provided funds to help. However, I really didn’t see a lot of evidence of craven behavior. It seemed more as if like-minded people from both business and religion got together with their shared beliefs and tried to proselytize these beliefs to the nation via speech and legislation. I don’t really see anything sinister in that.
Having said that, as with most histories, I did glean a bunch of interesting information from it.
Some of this I knew, but I didn’t completely understand how recently the In God We Trust was mandated to be placed on money and the phrase Under God was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. Both of these were enacted during the first years of Ike’s term as President in the pretty early 50’s.
It’s interesting to me that almost immediately people began, based upon these facts, stating that Americans were always a devote Christian people. I can sure say from my childhood I definitely believed that. However, church attendance, until the 40’s and 50’s, was actually pretty stagnant. It was really in the 50’s that things like church attendance really started to skyrocket.
Before then, business leaders were in a quandary. The New Deal, universally despised by them, was itself based upon an activist, progressive Christianity (Social Gospel). They hated the laws but really had no ethical / moral ground to refute them. The rise of Libertarian religious leaders closed that gap. By proclaiming a religion that equated freedom under God with capitalism, that gave business the moral cover to advance a counter agenda to the New Deal.
Famous corporate leaders were in the vanguard of this movement, including names that still ring today: J.C. Penney, Harvey Firestone, E F Hutton, James Kraft (of Kraft Foods).
The 50’s, with the threat from the Godless communists, placed even higher priority on making sure that America stood on the side of God. Religious based laws were passed with large majorities since to vote otherwise implied that the politician was a fellow traveler.
Religious legislation hit its limit when it came to school prayer. The Supreme Court (in Engel) ruled that institutional led prayer was not allowed in public schools. This promptly became a lightning rod issue and immediately attempts were made to pass a constitutional amendment allowing prayer.
I found it interesting that many religious groups were against the amendment. Non Protestant religions were worried that their children would be forced to say prayers that were not aligned with their religion. Even the mainstream Protestant religions were suspicious because the the prayer itself would have to become so watered down to be not offensive that the concept of prayer itself would lose meaning, which could actually weaken religion.
Whatever common political cause between the parties that there might have been in the beginning, it quickly began to unravel. Billy Graham initially refused to endorse any presidential candidates but by the time Nixon was around, he all but anointed him. Phrases like One Nation Under God became words that the conservative movement used to promote their own very specific agenda. By the time Reagan was elected in 1980, religious figures were claiming credit for his election. Obviously, that split still divides us today.
One final note that happened in my lifetime of which I had no idea. Reagan was the first president to regularly close his speeches with God Bless America. I believe he originally did it in his 1980 speech accepting the presidential nomination. I just assumed that that phrase had been used by presidents since, I don’t know, at least the turn of the century. It’s such a stock, taken for granted phrase that is used ubiquitously by all presidents and politicians, regardless of party affiliation.
In fact, before Reagan, God was used sparingly in presidential speeches. Now, nearly 90 percent of presidential speeches contain at least one reference to God.
Knowing that, are we now a more moral nation now that our leaders feel obligated to speak such stock phrases? Or, since these phrases are used so commonly on so many different occasions, have they lost their power?