Dwight Eisenhower, Billy Graham, and the Shaping of America’s Religious Mindset

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Kevin Kruse shows the surprising origins of “In God We Trust” and other mainstays of public piety.

Kevin Kruse’s Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America is an engaging and important book with a somewhat misleading central argument.

 

Kruse explains how many things Americans take for granted came to be: the presence of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the adoption of “In God We Trust” as a national motto, the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “may God bless America.” Although “In God We Trust” has a longer history, many elements of American civil religion have their roots not in the American founding but in the more recent past.

Nor did expressions of public piety bubble up from the pews. Instead, a coalition of politically conservative business leaders forged ties with likeminded ministers, evangelists, and politicians to fight against New Deal liberalism, Communism, and immorality. Kruse describes their agenda as “Christan libertarianism.” Many individuals played leading roles in this cause: the Congregationalist minister James Fifield, Goodwill Industries founder Abraham Vereide, philanthropist J. Howard Pew, Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney. But the two foremost heroes (or villains, depending on your perspective) were Dwight Eisenhower and Billy Graham.

Eisenhower’s Crusade

What Under God’s book jacket describes as an “unholy alliance” succeeded, but only in part. This coalition of sometimes strange bedfellows helped elect Eisenhower (and later Richard Nixon and Reagan), but the genial man from the Abilene clapboard house ultimately had no interest in dismantling the New Deal. According to Eisenhower, those who attempted to scrap Social Security, unemployment insurance, and labor laws were “stupid.” (Contemporary Republicans might be wise to take note).

Eisenhower did, however, preside over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. He prayed at his own inaugural, was baptized shortly after taking office, opened cabinet meetings with a time of usually silent prayer, and attended a National Prayer Breakfast organized by Abraham Vereide and Senator Frank Carlson (a Republican from Kansas).

With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Very few Americans opposed such steps. Civil liberties groups were far more worried about the actions of Joseph McCarthy. Many Jews felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity. Most Americans did not think the government’s general promotion of religion conflicted with the separation of church and state.

Soon, however, this “crusade” (a term Eisenhower had used for his presidential campaign) almost inevitably overreached. A constitutional amendment to declare that the United States “devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations” went down to defeat. And by the early 1960s, the prior consensus about public religion was crumbling. Although many public school districts had long organized prayer and Bible reading, the introduction of such practices in new places led to lawsuits, and the Supreme Court struck them down as unconstitutional.

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SOURCE: John G. Turner
Christianity Today