The words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase “In God we trust” on the back of a dollar bill haven’t been there as long as most Americans might think. Those references were inserted in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, the same decade that the National Prayer Breakfast was launched, according to writer Kevin Kruse. His new book is One Nation Under God.
In the original Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy made no mention of God, Kruse says. Bellamy was Christian socialist, a Baptist who believed in the separation of church and state.
“As this new religious revival is sweeping the country and taking on new political tones, the phrase ‘one nation under God’ seizes the national imagination,” Kruse tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “It starts with a proposal by the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic lay organization, to add the phrase ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance. Their initial campaign doesn’t go anywhere but once Eisenhower’s own pastor endorses it … it catches fire.”
Kruse’s book investigates how the idea of America as a Christian nation was promoted in the 1930s and ’40s when industrialists and business lobbies, chafing against the government regulations of the New Deal, recruited and funded conservative clergy to preach faith, freedom and free enterprise. He says this conflation of Christianity and capitalism moved to center stage in the ’50s under Eisenhower’s watch.
“According to the conventional narrative, the Soviet Union discovered the bomb and the United States rediscovered God,” Kruse says. “In order to push back against the atheistic communism of the Soviet Union, Americans re-embraced a religious identity. That plays a small role here, but … there’s actually a longer arc. That Cold War consensus actually helps to paper over a couple decades of internal political struggles in the United States. If you look at the architects of this language … the state power that they’re worried most about is not the Soviet regime in Moscow, but rather the New Deal and Fair Deal administrations in Washington, D.C.”
On how corporations hired ministers to spread “free enterprise”
The New Deal had passed a large number of measures that were regulating business in some ways for the first time, and it [had] empowered labor unions and given them a voice in the affairs of business. Corporate leaders resented both of these moves and so they launched a massive campaign of public relations designed to sell the values of free enterprise. The problem was that their naked appeals to the merits of capitalism were largely dismissed by the public.
The most famous of these organizations was called The American Liberty League and it was heavily financed by leaders at DuPont, General Motors and other corporations. The problem was that it seemed like very obvious corporate propaganda. As Jim Farley, the head of the Democratic Party at the time, said: “They ought to call it The American Cellophane League, because No. 1: It’s a DuPont product, and No. 2: You can see right through it.”
So when they realized that making this direct case for free enterprise was ineffective, they decided to find another way to do it. They decided to outsource the job. As they noted in their private correspondence, ministers were the most trusted men in America at the time, so who better to make the case to the American people than ministers?
On the message the ministers conveyed
They use these ministers to make the case that Christianity and capitalism were soul mates. This case had been made before, but in the context of the New Deal it takes on a sharp new political meaning. Essentially they argue that Christianity and capitalism are both systems in which individuals rise and fall according to their own merits. So in Christianity, if you’re good you go to heaven, if you’re bad you go to hell. In capitalism if you’re good you make a profit and you succeed, if you’re bad you fail.
The New Deal, they argue, violates this natural order. In fact, they argue that the New Deal and the regulatory state violate the Ten Commandments. It makes a false idol of the federal government and encourages Americans to worship it rather than the Almighty. It encourages Americans to covet what the wealthy have; it encourages them to steal from the wealthy in the forms of taxation; and, most importantly, it bears false witness against the wealthy by telling lies about them. So they argue that the New Deal is not a manifestation of God’s will, but rather, a form of pagan stateism and is inherently sinful.
On the Rev. James Fifield
He takes over the pastorate at the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, an elite church, literally ministering to millionaires in his pews. It’s got some of the town’s most wealthy citizens — the mayor attends service there, [Hollywood filmmaker] Cecil B. DeMille. He tells these millionaires what they want to hear, which is that their worldly success is a sign of heavenly blessing. He has a very loose approach to the Bible. He says that reading the Bible should be like eating fish: We take out the bones to enjoy the meat; all parts are not of equal value. Accordingly, he disregarded Christ’s many injunctions about the dangers of wealth, and instead preached a philosophy that wedded capitalism to Christianity.
On Fifield’s “spiritual mobilization”
“Spiritual mobilization” is his effort to recruit other ministers to the cause. So he is serving, in many ways, as a frontman for a number of corporate leaders. His main sponsors are Sun Oil President J. Howard Pew, Alfred Sloan of General Motors, the heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, they all heavily fund this organization. But what Fifield sets out to do is recruit other ministers to his cause. Within the span of just a decade’s time, he has about 17,000 so-called minister representatives who belong to the organization who are literally preaching sermons on its Christian libertarian message to their congregations, who are competing in sermon contest[s] for cash prizes and they’re doing all they can in their local communities to spread this message that the New Deal is essentially evil, it’s a manifestation of creeping socialism that is rotting away the country from within. Instead they need to rally around business leaders and make common cause with them to defend what they call “the American way of life.”
On Fifield’s contribution to the alliance between business and Christian leaders
He helps refine the message considerably. He comes up with the phrase that reduces this Christian libertarian ideology down to a catchy slogan and that slogan is “Freedom Under God,” as opposed to the slavery of the state. He popularizes this using the generous funding of his corporate backers … through a weekly radio program that soon appears on over 800 stations nationwide, through monthly magazines that popularizes the writings of libertarian and conservative authors and most importantly, I think, through a massive Fourth of July ceremony in 1951, a ceremony organized by Cecil B. DeMille, featuring James Stewart as the master of ceremonies, and carried live coast-to-coast over national radio. In that ceremony, as in the magazine and the weekly radio show, he promotes this message that freedom under God is an essential value; that Americans need to cast off the slavery of the state and instead embrace a rugged individualism.
On “In God we trust” appearing on coins and stamps
So the phrase “In God we trust” comes from an often forgotten stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner. It goes: “Then conquer we must when our cause it is just, and this be our motto — ‘In God is our trust.’ ” That stanza was largely forgotten until the Civil War when that phrase “In God we trust” is plucked out of that line and placed on coins. And it is done so at the urging of religious leaders who believe the Civil War has come as a result of America’s original sin, of not officially being founded as a Christian nation. And they ask the secretary of Treasury to correct that and he does so by placing it on coins.
The phrase appears on coins intermittently over the next 50 or 60 years. Theodore Roosevelt tries to have it removed — he believes it’s close to sacrilege — but the public outcry prevents him from doing so. During this moment of the Eisenhower years, the phrase flourishes and it does so first when it’s placed on a stamp in 1954. Then [in] 1955, Congress decides to add it to not just coins but to paper money. And in 1956, they move to make it the country’s first official national motto.
On the use of “God bless America” in presidential speeches
President Reagan is the innovator when it comes to the use of “God bless America.” A study by communication scholars David Domke and Kevin Coe shows previously only one president had used that phrase to close a speech out and it’s an inauspicious occasion — it’s President Nixon in 1973 trying to talk his way out of the Watergate scandal. But Reagan quickly makes it a fixture of all of his speeches, so much so that we can’t imagine a president ending a speech without some variation of “God bless America.”