An eager reader sends me this Fresh Air interview with Kevin Kruse, author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Kruse says making “In God We Trust” the national motto wasn’t a 1950s response to Soviet Communism; it was really a 1930s millionaires’ offensive against American labor unions and the New Deal:
The New Deal had passed a large number of measures that were regulating business in some ways for the first time, and it [had] empowered labor unions and given them a voice in the affairs of business. Corporate leaders resented both of these moves and so they launched a massive campaign of public relations designed to sell the values of free enterprise. The problem was that their naked appeals to the merits of capitalism were largely dismissed by the public….
So when they realized that making this direct case for free enterprise was ineffective, they decided to find another way to do it. They decided to outsource the job. As they noted in their private correspondence, ministers were the most trusted men in America at the time, so who better to make the case to the American people than ministers? [Kevin Kruse, interview, “How ‘One Nation’ Didn’t Become ‘Under God’ Until the ’50s Religious Revival,” Fresh Air, 2015.03.30]
And what did those ministers preach?
They use these ministers to make the case that Christianity and capitalism were soul mates. This case had been made before, but in the context of the New Deal it takes on a sharp new political meaning. Essentially they argue that Christianity and capitalism are both systems in which individuals rise and fall according to their own merits. So in Christianity, if you’re good you go to heaven, if you’re bad you go to hell. In capitalism if you’re good you make a profit and you succeed, if you’re bad you fail.
The New Deal, they argue, violates this natural order. In fact, they argue that the New Deal and the regulatory state violate the Ten Commandments. It makes a false idol of the federal government and encourages Americans to worship it rather than the Almighty. It encourages Americans to covet what the wealthy have; it encourages them to steal from the wealthy in the forms of taxation; and, most importantly, it bears false witness against the wealthy by telling lies about them. So they argue that the New Deal is not a manifestation of God’s will, but rather, a form of pagan stateism and is inherently sinful [Kruse, 2015.03.30].
To be fair, Franklin Delano Roosevelt deserves a share of the blame for this twisted church-state mingling:
[Religion News Service]: You say that some of this notion was a response to Roosevelt’s New Deal. How so?
[Kevin Kruse]: Roosevelt himself deserves some of the credit, as he regularly invoked religion in his speeches for the New Deal. His first inaugural address was so laden with Scripture that the National Bible Press put out a chart linking his text to the “Corresponding Biblical Quotations.” The business interests he denounced as “the moneychangers” decided to beat him at his own game, using religious rhetoric to repackage their worldly agenda in heavenly terms. As both sides of the debate blended religion and politics, ideas of piety and patriotism became closely intertwined for all [Jonathan Merritt, “‘Christian America’: Corporate Invention or Founding Fathers’ Vision?” Religion News Service, 2015.04.03].
While we usually associate this capitalist-Christian hybrid a beast serving conservative masters, preacher to L.A. millionaires James Fifield had to take a very liberal theological approach to build and unleash that beast:
[Kruse]: …[Ministers like Fifield and Billy Graham are] very effective at making this argument that a state that restricts capitalism will inevitably restrict Christianity. They link economic restrictions with religious restrictions. It requires a bit of a leap of faith, but it’s one that they effectively sell. This out-of-control state is coming for them all.
[Michael Schulson]: It seems like quite a stretch to draw libertarian economic principles out of the Gospels.
[Kruse]: It is not the Bible I was taught as a child, for sure. They do this by a very selective reading. These are not fundamentalist churches by any means. In fact, theologically, they’re quite liberal. As Reverend Fifield says, reading the Bible should be like eating fish. Not all parts are of equal value. We take out the bones to eat the meat. Fifield disregards all of Christ’s warnings about the dangers of wealth. He completely disregards the injunction to look out for one another. To love your neighbor, to be your brother’s keeper. He discards all of those messages. It becomes a faith of individualism [Michael Schulson, “‘Pagan Statism’: The Frightening Corporate/Christian Alliance That Invented ‘In God We Trust’ and ‘One Nation Under God’,” Salon, 2015.04.25].
The Christian libertarians seem to conflate God with the Invisible Hand: intruding on the free market with the minimum wage and collective bargaining interferes with God’s will. Take your hands off the wheel, let God steer the economy, and everything will work out fine. Godly workers will practice the Protestant work ethic, godly employers will deliver the deserved paychecks, and God will bless all pious participants in the marketplace with prosperity.
At least that’s what the bosses in the 1930s wanted us to believe.
* * *
p.s.: South Dakota’s secularist-excluding motto “Under God the People Rule” did not come from anti-New Dealers. Congregationalist pastor Joseph Ward, founder of Yankton College, proposed this “splendid Puritan motto” at the September 1885 Constitutional Convention in Sioux Falls. Ward died in 1889, a month and a week after South Dakota gained statehood, from blood poisoning caused by a carbuncle on his neck, the deadly effect of which, in the words of biographer George Harrison Durand in 1913, “had undoubtedly been hastened by the great and incessant labors of those last years, and especially by the burden of care and anxiety he had borne.”