Americans have been arguing about the role of religion in government since the earliest days of the republic. In 1789, soon after taking office, President George Washington declared a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer.” God had bestowed a republican government on the United States, said Washington, and the nation ought to express its gratitude. Just 12 years later, President Thomas Jefferson abruptly canceled the ritual. The First Amendment, explained Jefferson, erected a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Jefferson’s wall could have used a better contractor. Today, there is hardly an aspect of American political life untouched by religion. God seems to be everywhere. The nation’s official motto is “In God We Trust.” The phrase is printed on the nation’s money, affixed behind the Speaker’s dais in the House of Representatives, and engraved over the entrance to the Senate. The Pledge of Allegiance declares a nation “under God,” and—sorry, Jefferson—the National Day of Prayer is back (the first Thursday in May); there is even a National Prayer Breakfast (the first Thursday in February). When they address the nation, U.S. presidents almost always conclude with a request that “God bless America.”
All this religiosity isn’t exactly ecumenical: a majority of Americans consider the United States a “Christian nation.” In his fine new book, Kevin Kruse declares that, whatever the public may think today, the founders had no intention of establishing a religious (much less a Christian) republic. For the most part, they agreed with Jefferson and believed in separating church and state.
What, then, explains the religiosity of American politics? Kruse traces its origins back to the 1930s. Conservative business leaders had trouble gaining traction against the New Deal and eventually discovered that moral claims generated more popular enthusiasm than calling for free markets. The business leaders funded a national movement led by religious figures such as James Fifield, Jr., a Congregational minister who preached that the New Deal, with its emphasis on collective responsibility, had introduced a “pagan statism.” Together, these men of the world and men of the cloth engineered a spiritual revival designed to shake Americans free from creeping collectivism.
Whatever the American public may think today, the founders had no intention of establishing a religious (much less a Christian) republic.
This pro-business, anticommunist, politicized Christianity seemed to find its political champion when Dwight Eisenhower won the presidency in 1952. But Eisenhower recast the movement (Kruse implies he hijacked it) as a more ecumenical, all-American consensus that would unite the nation in the Cold War struggle against the godless Soviet Union. Eisenhower set the agenda, and Congress—Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals—eagerly followed. Many of the most familiar manifestations of religion in government—the legislatively mandated allusions to God in the country’s official motto, on its money, and in its Pledge of Allegiance—emerged during the Eisenhower era.