Can you name the only president baptized while living in the White House?

If you answered Dwight D. Eisenhower, ignore One Nation Under God. If like me you had no idea—and, God help me, I earn a living by teaching this sort of thing—buy a copy.

An off-handed Eisenhower comment—the country needed a “deeply felt religious faith and I don’t care what religion it is”—once symbolized for scholars the diminishment of serious theological reflection in the postwar era.

Kevin Kruse tells a different story. Eisenhower decided to be baptized in the National Presbyterian Church in a quiet ceremony on a February Sunday a few weeks after his inauguration. Eisenhower’s grandfather had, in fact, been a Mennonite minister, and his mother a Jehovah’s Witness. His parents had chosen the name Dwight in honor of the late nineteenth-century evangelical revivalist, Dwight Moody. He only joined a church after becoming president, reversing a pattern of irregular attendance at religious services during his long military career. But he became close to Billy Graham during the 1952 presidential campaign and began thinking of his presidency as propelling a national “spiritual renewal.”

Much of what we now understand as an ambient American sympathy for religious expression, Kruse demonstrates, did not originate with the American founders. Neither did it grow organically during the nineteenth century. Instead, figures such as Eisenhower, working with like-minded allies in Congress, decided to make the Fourth of July a national “day of prayer” (1953), begin an ongoing tradition of National Prayer Breakfasts attended by the President (1953), add the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954), and place the phrase “In God We Trust” on stamps (1954) and currency (1955).

Why then? The most original (and convincing) claim in One Nation Under God is that the association of patriotism with Christianity stemmed from a libertarian impulse within American business, as leading businessmen (including tire magnate Harvey Firestone, oilmen Sid Richardson and J. Howard Pew and entertainment moguls Cecil B. DeMille and Walt Disney) strategized to counter the popularity of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Their campaign for “spiritual mobilization” explicitly denounced “federal planners” and valorized the free market. Unions, especially, seemed to threaten the economic freedom and individualism at the core of the American experiment. Socialism seemed around the corner to these businessmen and the ministers (such as Graham) who joined their effort, as evidenced by “tyrannical” levels of taxation and such laws as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and even veteran’s benefits. Only “spiritual mobilization” could resist the drift toward economic centralization.

Kruse might have dwelt on the significance of this libertarian impulse. Historians of the United States once told the story of the twentieth century as a periodic wave of reforms, beginning with the Progressive Era efforts of Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and Woodrow Wilson, peaking during the crisis of the Depression with the New Deal, and continuing with Lyndon Johnson, Medicare, and the Great Society. The arc away from a seemingly simple-minded focus on the individual toward a sophisticated recognition that markets needed restraints seemed clear, as did the recognition that the American social-welfare state, belated though it was when compared to that of other industrial nations, needed further elaboration.

Now this story is less compelling. The period from the New Deal to the early 1970s did produce the modern American social-welfare state, but the political consensus such a welfare state required now seems anomalous, undergirded by low rates of immigration, high rates of taxation, and the shared experience of depression and war. And even then, as Kruse demonstrates, libertarian impulses moved just beneath the surface of American political life. Perhaps the most important Protestant ministers of the mid-twentieth century, for example, were not the leaders of the National Council of Churches but evangelicals decidedly uninterested in the Social Gospel. One spokesman for the Spiritual Mobilization effort was a young actor named Ronald Reagan, disenchanted with unions from his experience in the Screen Actors Guild and in the process of detaching himself from allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to our currency was uncontroversial. And in fact these gestures received support across the political and religious spectrum. (The Knights of Columbus, for example, were the original sponsors of the addition to the pledge.) Even organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (preoccupied with Senator Joseph McCarthy) and groups dedicated to the separation of church and state (obsessed by their campaign against any federal aid to Catholic schools) offered little protest.

Where Eisenhower disappointed the proponents of “spiritual mobilization” was not on religious issues but on broader economic questions. The 1950s marked the consolidation and expansion of Social Security and many New Deal programs, not their roll-back. Eisenhower’s own domestic agenda included the Interstate Highway Program, NASA, and other massive investments in infrastructure and research.

Disappointment with Eisenhower spurred conservatives to search for other political leaders, and they eventually found their way to Barry Goldwater—“a choice not an echo”—and then to a newly elected charismatic governor of California, Ronald Reagan. At the same time, the consensus on religion and public life collapsed, and a Supreme Court more sympathetic to the plight of minority religions (or atheism) banned prayer in the public schools, alienating conservatives who understood this as a betrayal of the consensus articulated with so little controversy just a decade before.

Kruse identifies One Nation Under God as an origins story, tracking how “liberals and conservatives [became] locked in an intractable struggle over an ostensibly simple question: Is the United States a Christian nation?”

The question is simple. Is it important? Kruse’s lucid narrative is a model of historical writing aimed at a general public. But the significance of disputes over prayer in the public schools, or even whether the United States is fundamentally a Christian nation, is not always clear. One-time ardent proponents of prayer in the public schools, after all, now can turn to the booming home-schooling market. And debates on the Christian origins of the United States inevitably have an abstract feel. To be fair, Rudy Giuliani recently accused President Obama of insufficient patriotism because Obama compared the atrocities committed by ISIS to the Crusades. (And the president did so, Kruse might immediately add, at the National Prayer Breakfast). And some Americans continue to believe that President Obama is a Muslim.

But this Fox News chatter, disturbing as it is, may distract us from analysis of more fundamental divisions. One Nation Under God details how an alliance of businessmen and ministers made the public trappings of religion more prominent in American civic life. What it does not do is explain how religious convictions—on issues ranging from abortion to immigration—shape our deepest cultural divides.

Published in the May 1, 2015 issue: 
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