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Christian Nationalism Isn’t Recent Phenomenon

Kevin M. Kruse has a new book called “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.”

It’s a scholarly and well-researched work on a significant topic, but its assertions have been misinterpreted by several reviewers. Don’t blame the book, blame the reviewer.

Kruse, a Princeton University history professor, argues that much of what we think of today as the fundamental institutions and ideologies of Christian America actually date to the 1950s.

In that era, he stresses the corporate alliance with evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, but also James Fifield’s Spiritual Motivation Group and Abraham Vereide’s prayer breakfast meetings.

It was in 1954 that the Pledge of Allegiance was amended to include the words “Under God.” Written by a socialist, the original pledge was duly godless. In 1956, “In God We Trust” became the nation’s official motto.

As Kruse has written, “the founding fathers didn’t create the ceremonies and slogans that come to mind when we consider whether this is a Christian nation. Our grandfathers did.”

All well and good, and convincing. Some reviews, though, have gone much further than the book’s own argument, arguing, in effect, that any sense of the idea of “Christian America” is itself a product of the Truman/Eisenhower era, and that – in the words of a review in Bookforum’s April-May 2015 publication – Christian nationalism is “a recent corporate contrivance.”

That review by Chris Lehmann begins with the stark declaration that “the dirty secret of all American religion is its novelty.”

Lehmann continues, “Our crowning Protestant myth of a spiritualized American founding is an all but wholly owned subsidiary of a brave new evangelical corporate establishment.”

It was a “market miracle … A fascinating tale of ardent spiritual ideologues seizing the main chance in an anxious new Cold War ‘civitas’.” And so on.

I expect that in coming years, every assertion of a special religious role for the U.S. will be greeted with the dismissive charge that this stuff was all invented under Eisenhower.

But here’s the problem. If you say that the particular forms of “Christian nationalism” date from the 1950s, fine – as Kruse says, the “ceremonies and slogans.”

But to say, as Lehmann suggests, that the underlying ideology was novel in that era is absurd.

To appreciate that, think about the inconceivably vast literature over the previous 200 years about God’s special plans for America, about the religious destinies of the new nation, about the competing theories of divine support in the Civil War, and so many other themes of election and divine providence. Did they never exist?

And the thousands of books and articles about U.S. religious and political ideologies since the founding, and the vigorous traditions of Christian nationalism evident through those years?

I don’t want to belabor the point, but here is Herman Melville in his 1850 book “White-Jacket”: “Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.

“Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and besides our first birth-right – embracing one continent of earth – God has given us for a future inheritance the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted,” Melville continued.

He added, “God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience, our wisdom.”

And somehow, this was not American Christian nationalism? Really?

Or look at all the words of preachers and pastors of all denominations during the First World War, all the language of Crusade and Holy War. And that wasn’t Christian nationalism either?

I wish Kevin Kruse great success with his scholarship. To the critics and commentators who will manipulate his arguments to build their own secularist myth of American history, I say “Libera Nos Domine” (Good Lord, deliver us).

Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of numerous books, including “The Great and Holy War: How WWI Became a Religious Crusade.” A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly, and is used with permission.