NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross

How ‘One Nation’ Didn’t Become ‘Under God’ Until The ’50s Religious Revival

The words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase “In God we trust” on the back of a dollar bill haven’t been there as long as most Americans might think. Those references were inserted in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, the same decade that the National Prayer Breakfast was launched, according to writer Kevin Kruse. His new book is One Nation Under God.

In the original Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy made no mention of God, Kruse says. Bellamy was Christian socialist, a Baptist who believed in the separation of church and state.

“As this new religious revival is sweeping the country and taking on new political tones, the phrase ‘one nation under God’ seizes the national imagination,” Kruse tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “It starts with a proposal by the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic lay organization, to add the phrase ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance. Their initial campaign doesn’t go anywhere but once Eisenhower’s own pastor endorses it … it catches fire.”

Kruse’s book investigates how the idea of America as a Christian nation was promoted in the 1930s and ’40s when industrialists and business lobbies, chafing against the government regulations of the New Deal, recruited and funded conservative clergy to preach faith, freedom and free enterprise. He says this conflation of Christianity and capitalism moved to center stage in the ’50s under Eisenhower’s watch.

“According to the conventional narrative, the Soviet Union discovered the bomb and the United States rediscovered God,” Kruse says. “In order to push back against the atheistic communism of the Soviet Union, Americans re-embraced a religious identity. That plays a small role here, but … there’s actually a longer arc. That Cold War consensus actually helps to paper over a couple decades of internal political struggles in the United States. If you look at the architects of this language … the state power that they’re worried most about is not the Soviet regime in Moscow, but rather the New Deal and Fair Deal administrations in Washington, D.C.”