What I’m Reading, February 5, 2018

By Penny Smith

Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

Education and factory work have always been connected in the American story. In the first textile mills in New England, women often designated someone to read to them as they worked. Samuel Slater, founder of the first Rhode Island mills, was a leader in the Sunday School movement, which included in its curriculum not just Bible lessons but spelling classes.

Most Americans seem to strive consistently for self-improvement – hence all those motivational speakers, inspirational how-to books, and personal trainers.

In the early part of the twentieth-century, many industrialists sponsored schools connected with their factories. They didn’t do it out of liberal, bleeding heart, good intentions, but because they wanted to mold their employees into the kind of worker they needed – punctual, consistent, focused, and literate. Often ill-disguised Americanization programs, adult classes emphasized patriotism, cultural chauvinism, and the English language. (We often forget that non-English speaking immigrants populated many of our early industries – sound familiar?)

Most American history students remember looking at a few pages in a text about the settlement house movement, about Hull House in Chicago and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. Jane Addams was a name one could later use in Trivial Pursuits. Local western Carolinians are probably familiar with a rural variation of the settlement movement, which sent eastern idealists into the hills setting up schools. However, most history texts skip over what was a fascinating story of acculturation: early adult night classes sponsored by factory owners.

Quickly other groups moved into the educational arena to help titans like Henry Ford. The YWCA and public libraries set up schooling options. Chambers of Commerce supported such endeavors. The aggressive assimilation fostered in these settings sometimes culminated in a graduation festivity with melting pot floats and lots of American flags. Go back and look at the Asheville papers from the 1920s and you’ll find a number of local adult opportunities here, many sponsored by employers looking for docile, thankful workers and ending in a formal festival.

Although not all businesses punished workers for failing to take advantage of such schools, some did. Americanization became a prerequisite for employment. It was all a wonderful mashing together of Capitalism, Christianity, and Country. (For a fictional variation on this theme, reread Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.)

Kruse’s premise is that there was a conscious religious revival along those lines after World War II. It combined the energies of Capitalists, Christians and Conservatives and was directed toward unification, toward making us “One Nation Under God,” in whom we placed our “Trust.” Our motto did not drop from the heavens into the laps of the Founding Fathers nor did it show up in our Constitution. Rather, it was crafted over time by a group of men convinced that the way to make America whole was to drench it with God-fearing patriotism.

The addition of “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, itself only adopted in 1942 during the war, was a 1950s Eisenhower Administration addition. We added the “In God We Trust” in 1956, replacing our previous unofficial motto E Pluribus Unum.” Our faith in the heavens showed up on United States currency in 1957. One reason for proclaiming our godliness was to distinguish us from the godless communists; the Cold War, after all, dominated the news. Another reason was to reinforce a particular brand of nationalism, a manly free enterprise set of values.

Businessmen, Chambers of Commerce, and politicians got behind the movement. Billy Graham became the embodiment of it, moving from crusade to crusade across our “amber fields of grain” and “purple mountains majesties.”

In tracing the movement’s post-war history, Kruse argues for an unofficial formal beginning when Eisenhower and his running mate, Richard Nixon, signed on to the National Prayer Breakfast movement. It seems everyone was beating a path to public kneeling back then. Nixon and Graham became good friends, with Graham actively campaigning for him in 1968 (“[T]here is no American I admire more than Richard Nixon,” Graham at the Portland, Oregon Crusade, 1968. – not exactly an endorsement of Mr. Graham’s ability to read character.)

There was a severe bump in the roads with Watergate, but Ronald Reagan regains the high ground for God, Country and Capitalism in 1980. With him were the preachers who had helped put God on our money. (We might really want to consider whether that’s a place God wants to be.)

One of the entertaining things about reading this book is that it overlaps with my awareness, admittedly minor at the time, of events. I can remember God Assemblies in school. I can remember daily Bible verses. I can remember never thinking that any of that behavior was unusual or suspect, certainly not thinking what the King James Bible might mean to someone who was not a Protestant. I can remember the protests when the Supreme Court struck down prayer in school, when God semi-officially became a conservative Republican. I was in Orlando, Florida, when a Billy Graham came to town, setting off a public enthusiasm that was probably only matched by Great Awakening revivals so much earlier or the arrival of a circus in mid-twentieth-century rural America.

We were daily dosed with Americanism back then, in school and in the media. Magazine advertisements touted religious campaigns; television, then only a couple of channels, carried crusades live. But the one big thing I have to pick with the author is that it has been ever so in our history. I can buy this was a revival, a reviving of past spirits. It was not, in any sense, a departure. The wall of separation our Founders tried to put between church and state has never been very high or sturdy. Unfortunately, events have shown that the sort of Americanism Kruse describes all too often turns toxic, then deadly. Can you give me an “Amen?”

1 Comment on What I’m Reading, February 5, 2018

  1. Jean Forrister // February 6, 2018 at 9:03 am //

    Very interesting. When I taught at Broward Community College in the early 60’s, a full blown (and successful) rebellion against the conservative administration crystallized around booking the propagandist choir Up With People.

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