One Nation Under God: Religious Nationalism Aborning
April 20, 2015
I am currently reading an interesting and generally excellent book entitled, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton University. As the title makes clear, Kruse is interested in tracing how “corporate America” in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, and especially during Eisenhower’s presidency, helped convince people that the United States was and always had been a “Christian nation.” And it is quite an interesting story of how this happened. But even more interesting is why it happened, i.e., what corporate America and what is now labeled “the religious Right” were after, what they wanted to achieve.
Now, Kruse traces this movement to conservative opposition to the New Deal, which the conservatives saw as “socialist” and as aiming at a comprehensively regulatory government. Kruse labels these conservatives “Christian libertarians” because of their emphasis on protecting individual rights in the face of the New Deal’s embrace of a comprehensively regulatory state. But this label is misleading, as Kruse himself senses when he writes:
“But this apparent triumph of the Christian libertarians would involve a significant transformation of their argument. After Eisenhower, religion would no longer be used to tear down the central state but instead to prop it up. Piety and patriotism became one and the same, love of God and love of country conflated to the core.” [p. 72]
In fact, what Kruse presents as “a significant transformation” of the Christian libertarians’ argument was no such thing and it wasn’t because these conservatives, if that is what they were and are, were never libertarians. And they were not because they always espoused, even when they were opposing the New Deal, “religious nationalism,” which Kruse labels their agenda later in the book. [p. 140] Kruse fails to see this because of the context in which these christianizers arose, viz., in the context of attacking the New Deal and doing so, allegedly, in the name of limited government and individual rights. But they were not – and are not even today – proponents of limited government. They were rather proponents of divinely inspired government, which for many of them means a “Christianized government.” And once the government is “Christianized” or “divinely inspired” then there will be no need for limits on its powers because these powers would be used in the service of the “divine law” or something like that.
Libertarians, strictly speaking, distrust government and they distrust it in general, that is, regardless of its “form,” whether that form be democratic, aristocratic, monarchic, theological, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. Hence, they are in favor of limiting any government’s powers either by way of individual rights or by way of decentralization and dispersion of government power. Those Kruse labels “Christian libertarians” were not libertarian; they were as he notes in passing, religious nationalists. Their nation should be, say, Christian or perhaps as Eisenhower said, famously, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” [p. 67] That is, it is not the government that governs least that is best, as a libertarian would assert, but rather that government is best which is “government under God,” which is what this movement was labeled. And of course once a government is “under God,” then there is, as noted, no reason to limit or disperse its powers. In fact, it is then that that government should become pervasively powerful in order to create and maintain a religiously national way of life. As some of these christianizers argued, while church and state might be separate – that is, there would be no established church – government and God should be as one, with the government doing “God’s work” across the nation.
An aspect of this that is interesting to me is the fact that the argument between “the christianizers” and the proponents of the New Deal was not an argument about nationalism or about the worth of a pervasively powerful national government. Both sides of this debate embraced such a government, if for different reasons, say, for secular or for religious reasons. And as a result of this, the views of the New Dealers and of the “christianizers” are indistinguishable when it comes to foreign policy, where both advocate for a pervasively and immensely powerful “national security state.” Whereas one side sees such a state as “realistic,” as serving to “democratize” the world in the face of a totalitarian threat never seen before, the other side sees such a state as “doing the Lord’s work” by fighting an officially atheistic ideology which sees religion as “the opiate of the masses.”
But, the bottom line is that there are only nationalists competing for power in the United States. There are no libertarians, at least none who play significant roles in our political drama. And it might be added that given the religious character of the American people, it is less than surprising that the “secular nationalists” often find themselves on the short end. But then it is worth wondering whether they do or should care. After all, even when they lose, the result is more nationalism. And what’s the big deal if this nationalism is “founded in a deeply-felt religious faith?” What could go wrong?