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Our fathers, who wert in boardrooms

Uploaded: Apr 2, 2015

Was the concept of the United States as a fundamentally Christian nation sold to us by the folks who brought us Better Things for Better Living? A forthcoming book by Princeton historian Kevin Kruse examines that question, and may shed light on the current over-the-top emotionality around the ACA and other reform legislation.

"One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America" details the very conscious campaign by the economic titans of the Depression era to associate free-market capitalism with Christian values, and discredit the New Deal as pagan-state socialism. The Evangelical wing of the GOP can trace its roots to that crusade.

FDR's New Deal of the 1930s was government's first comprehensive foray into the safety net business. In the span of a few years, Social Security, the minimum wage, child labor and overtime rules, and labor's right to organize (to say nothing of Glass-Steagall) caused a sea-change in the American economic environment.

By contrast, ObamaCare represents a relatively minor ripple in one important stream of commerce. Given the virulence of the right-side reaction against it, and if history really does repeat ? then where were all these righteous ideologues back in the Depression era? Very active in seeking to restore the status quo ante, as it turns out.

Big Business of the time (oil, chemicals, cars, etc.) was a close-knit club, exceptionally unhappy with the new political order of the day. The tycoons' traditional influence in Washington, and across the land, had been battered by the failed social contract of the Depression. So they fought back.

Their first counterattack on the New Dealers was direct, heavy and ham-handed. DuPont and GM (closely related at the time) underwrote the American Liberty League, which espoused a return to free-markets, but without benefit of clergy. Opponents cleverly labelled it "the cellophane league," exposing both its origins and self-interested transparency.

Seeking a more credible platform, the titans recognized that the Protestant ministry comprised the most trusted men in America. Among them, they located a particular free-market apostle named James Fifield, who tended a fortunate flock in LA. He eagerly espoused a gospel that wed individual self-reliance and economic meritocracy with Christian principles. He built on a foundation of the Protestant work ethic, and with ample funding from the likes of the National Association of Manufacturers, the campaign quickly went early-day viral ? spread by radio, writings and the revival tent.

Of course, there is much in the Bible that would argue in favor of a safety net. 'My Brother's keeper' lessons, the Beatitudes, rich men and camels, and even Christ's hostility toward the money-changers suggest a deep concern for the planet's fellow travelers that would lead to community assistance duties, pursued in some organized way. Kruse indicates that Fifield considered that not all biblical verses were created equal ? he used a fish metaphor ? you eat the meat, and discard the bones. Aparently those were bones -- when my copy of the Kruse book arrives, I'll be particularly interested in how the Movement squares such Christian dogma with the baser instincts and tactics of the commercial world's Gordon Geckos.

The capitalist crusade gained further momentum during the Eisenhower years, although it did not lead to any success in challenging wildly popular programs like Social Security assistance. Ike apparently viewed this renewal of religious life as a Good Thing in its own right, and much less as a policy directive. So the national prayer breakfast became a spiritual staple that continues to this day, but the New Deal was left largely intact.

Interestingly, the Pledge of Allegiance was amended in 1954 to add the words "Under God" for the first time, and paper money has carried the phrase "In God We Trust" only since 1957. That motto derives from a later verse in the Star-Spangled banner, however, and the 'trust' language has appeared on some coinage since the Civil War era (another period of waxing religious intensity, rallying 'round the Union cause.

Billy Graham ascended into the upper echelons of religious leaders during this period, as well. A fabulous orator, he was also assisted in his rise by the lucre of one Sid Richardson, one of the richest oilmen in Texas. Every President since Truman has sought his counsel, for reasons of both the spirit and the secular.

If Kruse is correct in his thesis that biblical teachings have been conflated with unfettered economic pursuits at the level of religious belief, then that continuing phenomenon would go partway to explaining the unprecedented zeal with which the incumbent President's policies have been attacked. Students of conflict resolution will tell you that there are many kinds of disagreements, and the tactics employed to resolve them vary with the type. The single most difficult conflict to resolve is a Values conflict (think: abortion, for an example).

Values go to the core of the holder's being, and they allow very little leeway in the matter of compromise. They also trigger passions, especially when they believe themselves under attack. Thus, you could argue (and I will) that an 'Onward! Christian Soldiers' mentality has animated the representatives of Religious Right in its outrage against the ACA. That opposition to what was, after all, a Heritage Foundation alternative to single-payor HillaryCare, has gone way beyond rational policy discourse, and it seems to be founded deep in the souls of the faithful. It would explain a lot of the emotion and intractability of the Right.

I'll even go so far as to wonder if an associated kind of tribal identity might also account for attempts to marginalize Mr. Obama, as 'different' from 'us' (looking at You, Rudy ? and at every birther who still suspects that the Prez faces east at prayer time). It may be a stretch, and is certainly one among other factors, but it would have some explanatory power.

To contemplate that such politics have origins as much in the Boardroom as the Bible is a mind-boggler. I look forward to the book, and I'll wager that it will provoke a reaction.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by American, a resident of Danville,
on Apr 2, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Coincidence you did a "hit piece" on Christianity during Holy Week? Diversity to liberals never includes those whose Christian religion is important to them. How long has the US Supreme started sessions with prayer? Separation of church & state does not mean favoring non-believers over Christians.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 2, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Am: From my standpoint, the timing of this blog coincides with publicity regarding the publication of the book. As to the publisher's motives, you'll have to ask someone else. I also think the term "hit piece" confirms the emotionality referred-to in the text, more than it relates to anything contained in the blog.

Would you care to elaborate?

Posted by Marisol, a resident of Dublin,
on Apr 3, 2015 at 9:15 am

I would not compare Obamacare to the New Deal. Obamacare transforms the entire US health system into a giant HMO, where private insurers will now be a party to every medical decision, striving to "cut costs" (and thereby increase profits) by reducing the amount of real care that is delivered. Obamacare is a right-wing policy.

Posted by Jeff, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Apr 3, 2015 at 1:28 pm

My god dude, this column reads like a Thomas Nast cartoon. Nuance. Learn it.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of another community,
on Apr 4, 2015 at 8:36 am

@ Marisol: to me, the safety-net aspect of the ACA is in the subsidies. As you say, though, it has driven a whole bunch of new business to the insurers. Perhaps certain commenters haven't leapt to the attack because the subsidy projections over the next ten years have fallen dramatically with a leveling of HC expenditures in general?

@ Jeff: if I could be as effective in some blogs as a Nast cartoon in its day, that would be a feature. I view and intend This Edition as mostly a description of an interesting historical phenomenon, about which I'd always wondered. Where Were the opponents of the New Deal after It passed? Turns out they were busy.

Posted by Blitzcraig, a resident of another community,
on Apr 9, 2015 at 5:40 pm

Meanwhile... Tom's dream of an accord with the Iran is falling apart. Boy, I tell ya, that Kerry sure knows how to deal, doesn't he?

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 9, 2015 at 11:55 pm

Not certain where you get your news, blitz, but all I've seen is a bunch of completely predictable posturing by leaders of the involved countries, playing to their respective domestic constituencies. Netanyahu continues to be chapped by the fact that he's not calling the shots, but that should surprise no one, either.

A final deal may/may not be realized, but I would not put great stock in the current maneuverings. We'll all know by July 1. Fortunately Secretary Kerry knows he's playing the long game, and has better diplomatic instincts than do many of those who put too much stock in breathless interim news stories, and can't resist premature critique.

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