Richard Nixon’s name conjures many strong associations, but piety is not usually one of them. Yet his 1969 inauguration made Sunday worship at the National Cathedral seem subdued. To build a mood of godly anticipation in the weeks leading up to the big day, a Religious Observance Committee called for churches and synagogues around the country to hold special services and helpfully supplied a booklet of prayers, Bible verses, and inspirational quotations. At 9 am on January 20, 750 people packed into an auditorium at the State Department for a worship service that culminated in a “Call for Spiritual Renewal,” a sermon delivered by the New York megachurch pastor and guru of positive thinking Norman Vincent Peale. More clerical blessings saturated the swearing-in ceremony that followed. Billy Graham delivered the invocation, proclaiming America “a nation under God” thankful for the divine gift of “our prosperity, our freedom, and our power.” Nixon’s own address was larded with homiletic moments: He called for Americans to have “confidence in the will of God” and hoped for peace to come “with healing in its wings.” (In truth, the president’s speechwriter, William Safire, thought he was quoting Woodrow Wilson rather than the Book of Malachi.) Then the president turned over the spotlight to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for a soulful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Did this blend of religious revival and political rally reflect long-standing American traditions? Or was it a cultural invention of the Cold War era and the conservative backlash against the 1960s? In One Nation Under God, Kevin Kruse argues that it was neither. To understand the presidential pageantry of 1969—and just what Billy Graham meant when he invoked this “nation under God”—Kruse says we must turn back the clock to the 1930s.
There is no shortage of books on American versions of “civil religion,” a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined to describe the “social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject.” Rousseau invoked not a specific set of doctrines, but a general faith in God and eternal punishment and reward. A wise sovereign should banish anyone who fails to assent, “not for impiety, but as an anti-social being,” he wrote.
In 1967, the sociologist Robert Bellah wrote that in the United States, civil religion denotes “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things” that have been institutionalized in American culture since the country’s origins. It is more capacious than Christianity, yet still more concrete than “religion in general,” rooting political rights in divine decree rather than human authority. Scholars have been grappling with the contents and implications of that civil religion ever since.
Kruse is not very interested in this long-running debate about the broad sweep of American history. “Civil religion” is his subject, but oddly the term itself appears only twice in the book. Instead, he tells a story focused tightly on a campaign by a small number of businessmen and sympathetic pastors, politicians, and culture-makers who gilded their vision of laissez-faire capitalism with pseudo-Christian pieties in order to induce Americans to reject the temptations of the welfare state. Their campaign helped spawn a reformation of the country’s political rituals and gave rise to a new set of American “traditions,” which conservative elites and grassroots leaders used to push back against progressivism.
One Nation Under God is a close study of postwar political liturgy. Most of the stories that Kruse tells are broadly familiar: the addition of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954; the official adoption of the motto “In God we trust” on all American currency in the late 1950s; the Supreme Court decisions that struck down state-mandated prayer and Bible reading in public schools in the early 1960s. But Kruse combs over these events with far greater attention to detail than most other scholars have done, and even a specialist reader will learn something new. More important, he weaves together these episodes to explain how a string of simple words or rote classroom recitations—what the legal scholar Eugene Rostow once dismissed as “ceremonial deism”—can have great cultural power.