Christian America is an invention: Big business, right-wing politics and the religious lie that still divides us

Kevin M. Kruse in Salon:

Huckabee_bush_roveThe idea of “one nation under God” is a modern one — and does not date back to the Founding Fathers.

When he ran for the White House, Texas governor George W. Bush took a similarly soft approach, though one that came from the right. A born-again Christian, he shared Bill Clinton’s ability to discuss his faith openly. When Republican primary candidates were asked to name their favorite philosopher in a 1999 debate, for instance, Bush immediately named Christ, “because He changed my heart.” Despite the centrality of faith in his own life, Bush assured voters that he would not implement the rigid agenda of the religious right. Borrowing a phrase from author Marvin Olasky, Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative” and said he would take a lighter approach to social issues including abortion and gay rights than culture warriors such as Pat Buchanan. But many on the right took issue with the phrase. For some, the “compassionate” qualifier implicitly condemned mainstream conservatism as heartless; for others, the phrase seemed an empty marketing gimmick. (As Republican speechwriter David Frum put it, “Love conservatism but hate arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism—great ideological taste, now with less controversy.”) But the candidate backed his words with deeds, distancing himself from the ideologues in his party. In a single week in October 1999, for instance, Bush criticized House Republicans for “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” and lamented that all too often “my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah.”

In concrete terms, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” constituted a promise to empower private religious and community organizations and thereby expand their role in the provision of social services. This “faith­ based initiative” became the centerpiece of his campaign. In his address to the 2000 Republican National Convention, Bush heralded the work of Christian charities and called upon the nation to do what it could to sup­port them. After his inauguration, Bush moved swiftly to make the pro­posal a reality. Indeed, the longest section of his 2001 inaugural address was an expansive reflection on the idea. “America, at its best, is compassionate,” he observed. “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws.” Bush promoted the initiative at his first Na­tional Prayer Breakfast as well. But it was ill-fated. Hamstrung by a lack of clear direction during the administration’s first months, it was quickly overshadowed by a new emphasis on national security after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

More here.