A Christian nation

A March 15th NYT piece by Kevin M. Kruse, “A Christian Nation? Since When?” begins:

America may be a nation of believers, but when it comes to this country’s identity as a “Christian nation,” our beliefs are all over the map.

Just a few weeks ago, Public Policy Polling reported that 57 percent of Republicans favored officially making the United States a Christian nation. But in 2007, a survey by the First Amendment Center showed that 55 percent of Americans believed it already was one.

The confusion is understandable. For all our talk about separation of church and state, religious language has been written into our political culture in countless ways. It is inscribed in our pledge of patriotism, marked on our money, carved into the walls of our courts and our Capitol. Perhaps because it is everywhere, we assume it has been from the beginning.

But the founding fathers didn’t create the ceremonies and slogans that come to mind when we consider whether this is a Christian nation. Our grandfathers did.

I’ll continue Kruse’s story in a moment. But first, some notes of what counts as Christianity, and who counts as Christian. A lot depends on who you’re talking to. Those who identify themselves as (Christian) evangelicals or (Christian) fundamentalists — people I’ll call fundavangelists — tend to take a very narrow view of the matter: for them, Christians are, first of all, Protestants (no Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians), and then committed to a special relationship between themselves and Christ (which excludes mainline Christians, like most Lutherans and Episcopalians; and also members of churches that the fundavangelists view as “cults”, like the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and many more).

When you find someone complaining about the “war on Christianity”, you’re almost surely looking at a fundavangelist perceiving attacks on fundavangelists (more on which in a future posting).

We are, in fact, knee-deep in fundavangelists in the United States: 20 to 25 percent or more in the country as a whole, much more in the South and Southwest than elsewhere, and much more in rural rather than urban areas. A Pew Foundation survey finds 26.3% of U.S. adults belong to evangelical Protestant churches, only 18.1% to mainline Protestant churches, and 23/9% to Catholic churches.

Now, back to Kruse’s story:

Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.

It’s a fascinating story, intertwining evangelical Christian figures with those of big business. United, for example, in the phenomenon of “prayer breakfasts”, including the annual Congressional Prayer Breakfast, and “prayer meetings” at numerous firms.

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